Saturday, 26 May 2007

Don't Try this One at Home, Kids

I'm not the first one who has said this, but it is still true: all marriages are mixed marriages.

While it is true that some marriages are more mixed than others, we all come from different countries and different cultures so to speak. Even if you marry the girl or boy next door and and you happen to be from the same ethnic background and class, educated at the same schools and raised in the same town, you are bound to find differences in your habits, lifestyles and expectations. All families are unique in their own special ways, and so are all individuals. When we're new in our relationships, we generally try to hide our weirdness, but once we are married it inevitably comes out.

I know that the term 'mixed marriage' is generally used to describe a marriage wherein the couple are of a different race, religion or nationality, but this is a relative term and a very flexible one, too. My mother was from the south and my father was from California: I would argue that theirs was a mixed marriage even though they were both more or less Caucasian. I am from the States and my husband is from Britain; again, despite the fact that our racial backgrounds are similar, ours is certainly a mixed marriage. When I was in graduate school, I knew a black American woman who was married to a man from Nigeria; never mind the fact that their racial background was roughly the same, they had one of the most mixed marriages I have ever seen, and I know they would agree. Ditto for my friend Caroline, a Japanese-American woman married to a Japanese man for over twenty-five years. There are no marriages that are not mixed; some are just higher up on the mixed scale than others.

In this day and age, when more than half of all marriages seem to end up in the gutter after less than ten years, I take my hat off to any couple who manage to stay together through the bloom of youth and past middle age. But when I meet a till- death-do-we-part couple from a very mixed marriage, I can only shake my head in awe. Like a dangerous magic trick performed by a skilled magician, the end result is there for all to see but the craft is hidden. How in the hell have they managed it?

A few years ago, our family got to know Edward and Marie, a couple in their mid seventies who had just celebrated their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary. Having noticed that Marie had a French accent, I asked her how long she had been speaking English.

"Fifty-three years," she told me.

"So you started learning English after you got married! Wow!"

"Yes, and don't think that wasn't tough! We used to have fights and I couldn't express myself. So I threw eggs at him! And he'd always duck, and I got stuck cleaning up the mess!"

When Marie and Edward got married, they did not share a language. Fifty-five years later, her English was still accented but virtually flawless, and Edward's French was good enough that he could translate into it from English. But however great an accomplishment their language learning arguably was, for me it was as nothing next to their fifty-four years of marriage. My husband and I have muddled through a couple of decades together, but the fact that Marie and Edward managed to stay married to each other so long in spite of their language differences ought to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.

"And I don't need to throw eggs at him anymore!" Marie told me proudly. "I can swear in English now!"

My friend Ivy from Hong Kong met her husband Toshio when she was twenty, and for both of them it was love at first sight. She was already divorced with a small daughter, and when she told her parents that Toshio had proposed and she had accepted, they were understandably appalled.

"Fool! You don't speak Japanese! He doesn't speak Chinese or English! This is madness!"

Back in Tokyo, Toshio's parents were even more disgusted with him. "She has a child! You cannot communicate! It will end in divorce, just wait and see!"

Thirty years later, they are still married, and you have never seen a happier couple. Toshio never managed to learn Cantonese, but Ivy's Japanese is fluent and colloquial.

Whenever I meet or hear of couples like that, I feel like warning my children: "Don't try that one at home, kids!"


Kim Ayres said...

Mine is a mixed marriage that was doomed to fail from the start. My wife is nearly 10 years older than me and had 3 children when we met.

And yet 16 and a half years later, with 2 children of our own and enough experiences in our lives to have torn apart less committed couples, we're deeper and more powerfully in love together than we've ever been.

Mary Witzl said...

Wow. You two have won the lottery, big time!
I have to say that having met Maggie, I wouldn't have thought that she was older than you. That is not to say that you look old, but rather that the two of you just look like a matched pair.

One of the happiest married couples we know are a man and woman sixteen years apart in age, she being older than he. My mother was five years older than my father, and as a child I was aware of how rare that was and rather embarrassed by it. But I am five years older than my husband, and I swear that I never planned that, it just happened.

Brian said...

Check my Six Maiden Aunts and my Marriage Sonnets , Mary , for our beginnings and growth in that strange institution -- now 56 years long. Traditionally , I am one year older than my better 9/8ths , but we haven't let that stand in our way .

Put smug grin here


eg(scotland) said...

My husband is 13 years older than me - yet I don't think I've ever noticed the difference. Somehow our ages seems to have blended together - I won't even try to explain that one! But next month we'll celebrate our 20th anniversary - don't know where the time has gone!


Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- I cannot hear that phrase 'six maiden aunts' without feeling a certain frisson, especially knowing what those aunts of your wife's were like.

My father-in-law, himself a decorated war veteran, often said that parents who raised children to adulthood and couples who managed to stay married for a few decades deserved medals as much as or more than soldiers in a war. Eighteen years ago I laughed at this, but he was dead serious. Now I am beginning to see his point.

After fifty-six years, you deserve that smug grin, and so does your wife!

EG -- 20 years! Good for you, and congratulations!

I know what you mean about ages blending. We know two couples with considerable age differences (over 15 years), and in both cases, age doesn't really seem to matter. I think some people are very age-bound, preferring their own generation's music, styles, etc., while some people are indifferent to age. You and your husband obviously fall into the latter category.

Eryl Shields said...

There are so many things that go into the 'mix' of a marriage that I often think race, class, age etc are the least of it. Shared values, ideals and intellectual capacity become so much more important if a marriage is going to last. I know a couple who on the surface seem to have absolutely nothing in common but they've been together for well over twenty years and share a vocabulary that makes their relationship sing.

Kim ~ Can't get over that Maggie is ten years older than you; what's her secret?

Carole said...

I am going on 29 years of marriage now to John. But I was married before for 6 years so I agree that it is commendable to see people together for years. I think to make a marriage truly good a person must work at it, as if creating a masterpiece. Time, patience, color, laughter, and tears. Oh...and a lot of creative storytelling.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- My mother always said that the two important qualities a prospective mate must have were kindness and resourcefulness. Although I agree that both of those are important, I also think that a shared sense of humor is essential, but perhaps your friends' vocabulary does just as well for them.

Carole -- Oh, there is a lot of creative story-telling that goes on around here, sometimes a little too creative! My husband is famous for his Jesuitical logic -- telling the truth in essence, but putting one over on me all the same. After two decades with him, I can now give back as good as I get...

Eryl Shields said...

Thinking about it their vocabulary does seem to result, often, in laughter, and emanate from a shared sense of humour.

Kanani said...

Marriage is something that's got a life of its own. There will be dry patches and there'll be great ones.

Ah well. I don't know how we all muddle through it. Either it's love or laziness, sometimes it's both.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Being able to laugh about the same things is so important that I don't see how people can get through life together if they can't do that. Especially once you've got kids and the going gets tough. Our eldest kid threw up on a car journey once, all over our new sister-in-law who she happened to be sitting next to. We all piled out of the car and I backed into an electric cattle fence. Years after the fact, we're still getting mileage out of that one, and how awful for us if we couldn't.

Kanani -- Yes, and don't forget cowardice too, and inertia. My mother once told my cousin that the hardest thing she had ever done was to stay married. I could not believe this at the time, because she had never let on that it was hard around us kids. Now I can see her point, and I'm sure my husband would agree.

We know of two or three couples who seem so effortlessly happy and who get on so well that occasionally I am tempted to shake them and ask what they have done to achieve this. But I think it's a bit like alchemy...

bonbayel said...

I'm afraid that my first mixed marriage seemed really promising at first, but too many circumstances threatened us from early on. I met Asger while I was taking a "sabatical" from graduate studies, living and studying in Copenhagen. He seemed to be everything I wanted, so we were married within 6 months and then moved back to Chapel Hill, NC, where I thought I'd be completing my degree. After 3 years, we moved back to Denmark, where the job situation was iffy for both of us, which was really what ended up destroying all the good parts. I ended up with a Danish MA, teaching on the distant Danish island Bornholm - and divorced.

But the 10 years included a lot of joy - 2 children, who probably are a little battered from their upbringing but apparently coming out right at last, and many common experiences that we will always remember. We are still in email contact about family things and others as well.

But our mix was not just nationality, it was class, family education background, expectations...

My son has experienced a disastrous culturally, racially, etc. mixed marriage himself and is now in the 5th year of a new one that is probably working better.

My daughter has left out a few of the mix parameters in her relationships, since they have all been Danes at least, but her half-American can't be hidden away.

I hope the best for both of them!

BTW, I am now completing the 7th year in my second "mixed" marriage Our mix: (he / me)
Southern / Northern
loves hot dry Southern California / loves the snow
can sit reading for hours / needs to be "doing" something all the time
quiet humor / sticks her foot in her mouth all the time...

Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Bonbayel -- I stick my foot in my mouth all the time too, but then so does my husband. We are mixed in many other ways, though. He would prefer dry Southern California weather whereas I love rain; he loves anything by Picador Press, whereas I go for the classics, etc.

Carolie said...

What a brilliant, thoughtful, insightful post, Mary! Despite your warnings, you present joy and triumph, not failures. Thank you.

I'm seven years older than Fearless Husband. Our third anniversary is in two weeks (January 15). We did correspond for eight years before meeting in person five years ago, so we've "known" one another for longer than it seems.

Our differences won't be listed here (will use my own blog, not yours!) but you are SO right that every marriage is a mixed marriage. I believe we've gotten our mix just right, and every day has been better than the last. Yes, it takes work, but we're both committed, and that helps.

His grandparents celebrated their 64th anniversary on December 26. What a great, loving example they are!

Interestingly enough, other than my husband's grandparents, the three most loving, committed long term relationships I know are all same-sex relationships.

Mary Witzl said...

The last time my husband and I were in California, we had dinner at a Thai restaurant and I could not help but notice that we were the only pair there who were male/female, and both appreciably Caucasian, despite our different nationalities. When my parents were young, it was somewhat rare to find a racially mixed couple even in California, and women who were older than their husbands generally hid the fact. I looked around that restaurant and saw a black woman with her Asian husband, a lesbian couple speaking some interesting European language, and numerous other mixtures of all different ages, races and sexual orientation. I tried to imagine how those couples would have fared in the 1950s and failed utterly.

I try to picture being married to someone for 64 years and find that pretty hard, too! Good for them, and someone really ought to give them a medal for sticking it out.