24 Mar Love & Marriage & Liz Taylor

The late Liz Taylor — may she rest in peace — has been called a “compulsive bride,” and it seems she was nearly as famous for her many marriages (8) as for her many movies. I admit that, as a much younger man, I was inclined to judge her harshly — she and others who had married so many times but never seemed to learn from their mistakes. I never imagined that one day I myself would have two ruined marriages behind me. Life will play tricks on you like that, which is why, thanks to humbling from hard experience, oldsters are usually much more expansive, and much more forgiving, than youngsters.

In answer to the critics of her life style, Liz said, “I marry the men I love.” That’s what we should celebrate now that she has died: this woman believed that love could last. And so, when she fell in love (and for her, it was always a fall), she did what most of us have been taught to do: she married.

Not long after I embarked upon my second marriage, I was standing at a urinal in a department store bathroom, where I saw these words scrawled on the tiled wall: “I love you, Mary Lou.” It surprised me, this simple, penciled declaration, so different from the usual men’s room offerings. More surprising still was a second statement, printed in another hand (blue ink), directly below the first: “Then marry her, you fool.” Yes, I thought, marry her. And automatically I heard a childhood ditty singing through my head, “First comes love, then comes marriage….” That the bathroom wall advisor would call his advisee a fool suggested that this was a chance not to be missed, that indeed it might be the chance of a lifetime because love — true love — is a rare thing. No doubt most of us believe that romantic love is true enough if it leads to marriage. But what do we believe if that marriage leads to divorce? Do we assume that our love, as hot as it may have burned, was ultimately false?

I asked myself these questions when I embarked upon my third marriage seven years ago. A two-time loser, I was terrified of failing again. Whenever I told people that I had been married and divorced twice, I’d see surprise in their faces, then dismay, and then suspicion. One sociologist puts it this way: “We have here an analogy with recidivism in criminal behavior — the notion that certain individuals for whatever reason are ‘prone’ to divorce, and that any divorce statistics will be inflated by such ‘multiple offenders’….” In other words, like Liz, I was a high-risk partner and not to be trusted.

This wasn’t by choice, mind you. With my first wife, I had tried ten hard years before giving up. During my ill-advised and very short second attempt, my then-wife gave up almost before we’d gotten started. What made these failures all the more painful was that my parents believed in one marriage for life and so did I. But the marriages of my parents’ generation, as far as I could tell, left a lot to be desired. Gender roles were very restrictive and too often it seemed that couples put staying together above everything else — a situation that created a lot of unhappy families. Liz rejected these restrictions and, for that, she was ridiculed and lampooned. But, really, who had it right?

My generation vowed to be better at marriage than our parents had (oh, presumptuous youth!). We’d have more equality, more understanding, more good sex. But divorce statistics suggest that our search for the perfect marriage may be too Quixotic. We may be asking too much of an old institution that, originally, had nothing to do with love — marriage was all about protecting property and furthering tribal harmony and, until recently (start with Jane Austen), couples didn’t question it. Our efforts to build something new from something so very old may be like trying to make a jetliner out of a bi-plane.

Still, it’s not like we have anything better to secure our romantic attachments. We want those attachments to last. Which is why some of us won’t give up. Liz was one of those. We call them “hopeless romantics,” though a more accurate term would be “hopeful romantics.” I am most happily married now (going on 8 years) and consider myself lucky. I don’t mean the kind of dumb luck that comes of winning a jackpot from a slot machine. I mean lucky insofar as I’ve persevered, sustained my hope, and, at last, found great reward in romance. Elizabeth Taylor, bless her, was striving for the same happiness. That she never found it but never gave up says almost everything we need to know about love and marriage.