I’m drinking to celebrate the fact that, as of today, I’ve been to more weddings than funerals this year. I’ve grieved that several of my loved ones passed beyond the reach of man, although at least I hadn’t loaned any of them books. On the other hand, more than twice as many friends promised to love and honor each other forever, and they celebrated by accepting ugly wall clocks and pretentious 1-cup coffee makers.

It’s a happy situation. I’m therefore drinking vodka, which is nasty, rather than tequila, which is loathsome.

As I listened to the vows in today’s ceremony, I thought about my own wedding vows. If I wrote my marriage vows today, they’d be vastly different from the ones I wrote for my actual wedding. In addition to love, honor, and cherish, I might include vows like:

  • I promise to do whatever it takes to keep you warm, even if it means adopting more cats to pile on the bed.
  • I promise to pay attention to things you like so I can buy them for you later.
  • I promise to pay attention when you tell me I’m acting crazy.
  • I promise never to cook Garlic Orange Chicken Stir Fry again.
  • I promise not to make fun of your addiction to making lists.

Then I realized most of that was pretty dumb and not at all what I want to say. Then I thought about what I want to say instead of that. Then I drank vodka, which kind of helped. Then I decided that I really wanted to talk about how marriage changes things. I mean, one moment you’re in love, and the next moment you’re in love and married. What the heck does that mean?

Here’s the short version. Love is a gift you give your lover. Marriage is a war you fight against yourself.

Here’s the long version. I think the “love is a gift” part is pretty understandable. It includes basic things like giving flowers and back rubs, physical intimacy, and treating your lover no less courteously than you would treat a librarian or a beloved English actor.

On another “love is a gift” level, whenever I’m out later than expected, I call my wife. She does the same for me. As I call her, my buddies may harass me by saying she “really has me on a short leash.” I explain that I’m glad she at least cares where I’m at instead of using my absence to frolic with a grunge-punk band and shoot dope under her toenails. Besides which, being so paranoid about really short leashes makes them sound like they have tiny penises.

The “marriage is a war” part is less obvious. Whenever my wife and I behave like loving, caring individuals, no war is necessary. But sometimes we act like regular people, which is to say irrational and thoughtless. When I feel my wife is acting that way, I have decisions to make and possibly a war to fight.

Here’s an example. I indicate to my wife, I think successfully, that I’m interested in a little hanky-panky later in the evening. I receive promising indications, but not a positive confirmation. We go to dinner with a friend, and my wife orders a barbeque plate of heroic proportions. I anticipate her request for a doggie bag, but it never comes. She enjoys the entire meal. Now any attempt at hanky-panky that evening would result in nothing but her shrieking like a rabbit caught in a gate.

My war against myself begins inside my head.

“Was I clear? I know I was clear. Does this mean something? Maybe she’s not too interested in me anymore. Or maybe I wasn’t clear. Did she have to order the big plate? It’s not like we were going to a French restaurant or something. We can go to this place anytime. Am I less desirable than a barbeque sandwich? I don’t know what to say to that. That can’t be right. But hell, she didn’t have to eat the whole dinner—she could have taken part of it home for tomorrow. Am I less sexy than half a barbeque sandwich? I can’t ask that! What if she says yes?”

At this point I am losing the war. I have taken something she did that annoyed me, and I’ve transformed it into a marriage-threatening cataclysm that I can’t talk to her about because I’m terrified of what we might say. Even better, as long as I don’t say anything, this will now creep around unseen in our marriage like a French Resistance fighter causing more creative and disruptive sabotage forever after.

How do I win the war? I risk everything. I open my mouth and say the stupid things I was worrying about. Even if it hurts my wife, hurts me, and hurts the guy who made the sandwich. I listen to her possibly-horrifying responses, because if our marriage survives this then at least we won’t have it under the surface tearing our marriage apart.

That’s what I mean by marriage being a war you fight against yourself. I’m not sure what that would look like in a wedding vow. Maybe something like:

  • I promise to fight for us. We’re worth risking everything for.

Now I’m going to cook dinner. We’re having soup. And vodka.

It was a beautiful water-side wedding. An hour later the groom’s father whispered to him, “Son, you’ll be fine if you just have some guts and don’t act like one of those guys with a tiny penis.”
It was a beautiful water-side wedding. An hour later the groom’s father whispered to him, “Son, you’ll be fine if you just have some guts and don’t act like one of those guys with a tiny penis.”

Photo by Brocken Inaglory.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

My father gave me a singular fact that shows how he felt when I was born. Our family was scattered all around town in about 20 homes. He could have called his mother and asked her to pass the news to the rest of the family, but he didn’t. Calling every home himself was far more personal. But he didn’t do that either. He drove to each home and told them face to face that his son had been born.

Sometimes the way you say something is as important as what you say. Today we can say things to thousands of people with almost no effort. Social media lets us tell our friends and their friends that we had a hard day, or we’re at lunch, or our heart’s been broken. We can share jokes, pictures, opinions, and insults. It’s fun and satisfying. But some messages are truly meaningful, maybe more meaningful to other people than to us. Hearing those messages almost by chance, through a largely frivolous medium, can hurt them in ways no one intends.

The birth or death of someone you love is probably the most meaningful event in a life. Bringing someone this kind of message deserves more intent and effort than it takes to comment on the weather. That’s why the names of the dead are withheld until the family is told. Learning about this kind of thing though a casual word, even if well-meant, is like finding out your brother is dead through a television commercial. It’s like finding out your child has been killed by seeing it on a billboard on the side of the road. It’s an effortless, throw-away message that capriciously tells someone they’ve received the only thing in life that’s irreplaceable, or that they’ve had the only irreplaceable thing in life taken away.

When I walk away and leave cheese-encrusted dishes in the sink, I know that it’s wrong. If I were a puppy, my ears would droop and I’d crawl under the couch. But since I’m not a puppy, I pretend it’s a simple oversight, and that my wife and I will forget all about it as soon as we sit down to watch TV. I pretend that all of this is true, but in fact I have done nothing less than given up the moral high ground.

By “moral high ground,” I don’t refer to big moral questions. I don’t mean whether I want to raise or lower taxes, whether or not I eat meat, or whether I advocate school prayer. (In fact, I prayed in school, but they were desperate prayers that I not get caught, so I don’t think that counts.) Instead, I mean the fragile yet devastating balance of moral superiority between two people who are intimate and feel that killing one another would be inappropriate.

Here’s an example of moral high ground. Say I’m working late, and afterwards my coworkers and I decide to get dinner. We spend an hour in a mediocre chain restaurant. I eat a Mesquite Chicken Platter with coleslaw, and I drink two beers. We hang out for another hour bitching about our customers, drinking more beer and eating stale dinner rolls. Then I drive home, walk in the door, and realize several things. I did not call my wife to assure her I hadn’t been killed in a Russian mafia carjacking. I did not stop at the cleaners or the drug store on my way home. And I did not bring her a chocolate lava cake.

I have just surrendered the moral high ground. I am wallowing through the mud of my bad behavior, enabling her to lob missiles of righteousness down upon me if she wants to.

Losing the moral high ground is easy. At least it’s easy for me, because I’m a dumbass. Taking the moral high ground is difficult because everyone starts off on top of Morality Hill. If your partner doesn’t tumble down the hill by himself, you must achieve moral superiority by kicking your partner down the hill when he isn’t looking. Once you’ve lost the high ground, it’s nearly impossible to take it back without help. And by help, I mean that your partner refrains from rolling any boulders down the hill at you while you climb up.

Now, let’s jump to the Saturday morning after my chocolate lava cake failure. I suggest that we go to the museum, since I figure my wife might like that better than watching more reruns of “The Unit.” As we drive up the tollway, physically we’re sitting together in cozy proximity. Morally, she looms above me like Zeus. She says, with perfect good will, “Hey, let’s go to the craft fair.”

I’d rather eat a scorpion than go to the craft fair, I think. But what I say is, “Sure, that sounds good.” I am so far down the side of Morality Hill that I would agree to go to a barbecued baby cookout, and I’d bring lemonade.

“Well, if you don’t want to go…” my wife says.

“I want to go!” I fling her my most sincere fake smile. Is she just messing with me?

“We’ll just stay an hour or so. They have really cute puppies.”

We don’t need a puppy! Does she want a puppy? She didn’t exactly say that… “I’d like to see the puppies,” I say. Because I’m such a moral invertebrate right now, I don’t feel I can entrench myself in a strong anti-puppy position. But I do examine the rear view mirror more than necessary and avoid further comments.

By afternoon I have trudged through the craft fair, visited the museum, and returned home puppy-less. We own some red ceramic roosters that may cause me to blind myself someday rather than look upon them, and I’m cleaning cat vomit off my pillow. I feel that my wife has allowed me to climb most of the way back up to the moral high ground, and I reek of gratitude.

The balance of moral superiority is delicate, but its power is undeniable. I’m hoping that my wife backs the car into the garage door soon. I’ve had my eye on a flat screen TV.