Really want to have a partner

I have taken a fair amount of abuse lately–abuse of the raised eyebrow kind–for a story I tell about the early courtship days with Bette. The story as I tell it, and I tell it as I remember it, has a crisis in it; a point where my way of thinking requires me to go one way or the other. People who don’t know me say things like, “Surely you didn’t!” when I get to that part of the story. People who do know me say, “Well…sure. Of course you did.”

Here is a paragraph of back-story. During the time that Marilyn and I were married, just short of a quarter of a century, I became a fan of a certain kind of marriage. Sometimes I call it a Courtship Marriage. [1] During that time I learned a lot about what a marriage could be. Those years with Marilyn just blew the lid off the concept and I had a lot of years of living with her to formulate the experience into certain regularities. Just observations about why it worked and what it would take to keep it working.

Marilyn died in 2003 after several years of a danse macabre with cancer and I had to learn to cope with grief, first, then loneliness. Then I had to build a life for myself that I liked and was proud of. After I got those done–they are never “done” actually, but you know what I mean, I’m sure–I began to look around for a partner. “Partner” turns out to be the crucial term because it presupposes the task in which we would exercise that partnership.

“Romance” isn’t that task. It feels like it at the time, but it isn’t. So I got online and dated quite a few women. Following, by the way, the sage advice of my elder son, who said that if I didn’t, I would just use my dating to find a replacement for Marilyn. He said that dating actual women while maintaining a secret “ideal” wouldn’t be fair to my dates and would systematically distort my own search.

And then I found Bette. I liked her right away and I enjoyed our times together, but I was still looking for a partner and there is no way I could ask Bette if she would be my partner without telling her what sort of project I had in mind. And I felt some urgency about it, because I was falling for her fast and I began to worry that if I had to choose between the relationship as it then was and finding a partner for the marriage I wanted, I would make a bad choice. I knew at the time, for instance, that the English infatuated was based on the Latin fatuuus, which means “foolish.”

That brings me to the crisis I mentioned in starting. In the worst scenario, I would just do the things I thought Bette would respond to most positively and then ask her to marry me and then after we were married, start to bring out these really important things that I had never mentioned to her during our courtship. She would have married a man to made a commitment to her, but with serious–but always tacit–reservations. In the next to worst scenario, I would tell her candidly that I was committed to a certain kind of marriage. It was a kind that required the attention and the honest effort of both partners, so I could not in good conscience continue to court her without asking her whether she wanted to be in such a relationship. At that point, in this next to worst scenario, she would say that she really didn’t find that kind of marriage attractive [2] and that we would have to stop seeing each other.

I could have “resolved” this dilemma in several dishonest ways. I could have said that I really didn’t want the Courtship Marriage. It was just nostalgia about my marriage to Marilyn and it would pass away. Or I could have said that the model really didn’t, however much I once thought it did, require the full-time active participation of both partners, so Bette’s lack of initial enthusiasm wasn’t a real obstacle.

Possibly, I should pause here to say that she was, in fact, really intrigued by the idea and said she would really like to be part of a marriage like that. So the crisis passed nicely.

But the place in the story where the eyebrows go up is the place where I have to decide in good conscience that I have to tell Bette that, however much I am attracted to her, I have a prior commitment. I am not just looking for a woman I like who also likes me. I am looking for a partner who will join me in making this thing–this kind of marriage–work year after year. It is hard, I want to tell you, to sit down with a woman you are besotted with and say, “This has been really wonderful, but there is something I need to tell you before we go any further.”

I think most of the criticism comes from romantics who think that if I liked her and she liked me, that was really all that mattered. They think, upon hearing the story, that it is not really right to court a woman by specifying your own heart’s desire about the relationship you would like to have. It feels to them like asking the woman you are courting to sign a contract. It feels deeply unromantic.

Another kind of criticism comes, I think, from the idea that the kind of marriage Bette and I have should be the product of out living together and figuring it out together. Confessing my “prior commitment” to Bette is good, but it is not as good as not having a prior commitment. What I thought at the time was that the way Bette and I worked out our unique plan for making this kind of marriage work would provide for all the individuality our marriage would require of us. And so far–fifteen years into it–it has.

There are, of course, challenges yet to meet. There is the “in sickness or in health” challenge. Can I continue to “court” a woman who is seriously ill; can I continue to “court” when I am seriously ill? We’ll see. I have hope. There is the “for richer, for poorer” challenge. Can we joyfully spend money together and joyfully endure hard times together. I have hope. We’ll see.

But the conversations I began with never seem to get that far and Bette and I leave the conversation with disappointed romantics behind us. Oh well. The courtship-style marriage we have really does take a lot of tending and we are fortunate that it is work we like to do together. That’s actually the only way it can be done.

[1] The basic idea of it is that you don’t stop courting your wife just because you have married her. There are complications, of course, but that is the premise.

[2] Or impossible or requiring the sacrifice of things she was no longer willing to sacrifice, or some such.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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