• Peter Alson

Long marriage, short life

Updated: Dec 28, 2020


Alice and I saw the movie 45 Years the other night. This isn’t going to be a review of the movie but there may be spoilers, so if you’re planning to see it, be advised.

In an age of comic book blockbusters, it’s rare to find a movie targeted to adults, so we definitely had the movie on our short list. As it turned out, a friend of Eden’s was having a birthday sleepover, meaning that for the one night she’d be gone, we’d be empty nesters with no responsibilities or obligations. Our wild and crazy plan: dinner and a movie.

In retrospect, I can say to other marrieds reading this that if you’re planning a date night, 45 Years is probably not the best choice. Essentially, it’s about an old married couple, Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary (they had planned to celebrate their 40th but it was postponed when he needed bypass surgery). The week before the celebration, Tom Courtenay receives a letter informing him that the body of his former love, who had fallen to her death while hiking the Swiss alps with him over five decades ago, has been discovered at the bottom of a ravine, frozen. In the wake of this discovery, the marriage begins to unravel.

Sound romantic? Light and uplifting?

For me, the overriding message was that in the end our spouses remain unknowable to us, and love, in its existence, its fragility, its compromises and its rationalizations, is never what we think it is.

As if to prove how close these ideas hit to home, and how unsettling they can be for a couple to think about, Alice and I began what seemed like a reasonable discussion of the movie as we left the theater, then drifted into weirdness and pointless disagreement during dinner, outright hostility on the walk home, ugly shouting and screaming in our dimly illumined living room, and finally angry silence and crossed-arm sleep later in bed. The substance of the fight scarcely matters. What underlay it was the sense of being misunderstood; feelings of entrapment; the idea that our life’s adventure had somehow been stolen from us; and in our case, with our one-night preview of the empty nest, the fear that without the distraction and unifying concerns of parenthood, we’d be left with nothing but those feelings.

The morning light can often seem harsh, but for us it softened things. A smile with a hint of regret helped, as did apologies for things said in the heat of the moment. We reminded ourselves of what we actually liked about each other and what we loved. I remembered a relationship I had that actually did end over a movie–Tom Jones–not because of any issues that the movie brought up directly but because I loved it, she hated it, and that alone constituted irreconcilable differences.

Alice and I would never have that happen. If anything, we would be more likely to to sink under the  weight of too much agreement. Though we often see and understand things in our own peculiar ways, we also share a general world view that is simpatico, values that align, principles that we hold to be important and self-evident. Even in our understanding of the dark side of marriage, we are two peas in a pod. We are not afraid of looking at what we have critically, of looking over the edge of the cliff, of confronting what it would mean to fall or fail. I remember one married friend who told me that she had such doubts about the institution, about the very idea of being with someone, that she had to make the choice to stay with him every single day.

“You look at Jim every morning and consciously make a decision about whether or not you want to be with him?”

“Every day,” she said.

“That sounds exhausting.”

“In a way it is. But it’s also affirming. It keeps me in touch with what’s alive with us.”

It’s been years since I saw that friend. I have no idea if she and Jim are still married. But if they are, they’ll be coming up on their 35th wedding anniversary. I don’t know if either of them has any frozen exes waiting to be discovered in the Swiss Alps. But I hope they’re still married, still deciding to be married every day. Frozen exes or not, it’s probably a good idea to consciously reaffirm your choices, if not every day, at least now and then, else they sneak up on you 35 or 45 years later and bite you squarely on the ass.

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