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The Paradox of Marriage

May 24th, 2016 | by Richard Paul
The Paradox of Marriage
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The Paradox of Marriage

I was reminded of the dual nature of marriage by two films and a science article: marriage is both advantageous and problematic to the point of torture.

Scientific American’s recent issue on human evolution included an essay entitled Our Secret Evolutionary Weapon: Monogamy — Monogamous coupling might have been the best move our ancestors ever made.

The description on the cover was also insightful: (Mostly) Monogamous.

“People have affairs, get divorced and, in some cultures, marry multiple mates. In fact, polygamy appears in most of the world’s societies. Yet even where polygamy is permitted, it is the minority arrangement. Most human societies are organized around the assumption that a large fraction of the population will pair off into enduring, sexually exclusive couples.

And monogamy seems to have done our species good. “Pair bonds,” as scientists call monogamous relationships, were a crucial adaptation that arose in an archaic forebear that became central to human social systems and our evolutionary success.”

The evolutionary advantages of forming emotionally committed couples are compelling. Given that the advantages imparted by pairs serve our own self interests as well as the interests of our offspring, it’s no wonder that marriage in one form or another has long been the foundation of human life.

But that doesn’t mean marriage is easy or emotionally rewarding.  As two well-regarded films illustrate, marriages can create conditions that can only be described as tortuous for both halves of the pair.

I recently saw Certified Copy by Abbas Kiarostami, the well-known Iranian director, mostly on the strength of his other films I’ve seen.

Unlike his other movies (filmed in Iran), this 2012 film is set in Europe (Italy) and stars French actress Juliette Binoche.  The film is said to echo Roberto Rossellini’s famous depiction of a failing marriage,  Voyage to Italy (1954), and one of Kiarostami’s first features, The Report  (1977), which honestly depicts a corrosive marriage. Kiarostami has said this film was based on his own marriage, which ended in divorce.

Certified Copy and Voyage to Italy are both art films, meaning that the narrative is not a linear Hollywood-style story.  Rossellini’s marriage to the film’s star, Ingrid Bergman, was crumbling during the filming, and so once again the director’s own experience adds to the film’s emotional rawness.

Certified Copy contains an unexpected shift about halfway through that the director says is designed to reveal the dual aspects of marriage: we remain strangers to each other, much as we were in courtship, even as we come to know each other all too well.

Woody Allen expressed a different paradox in Crimes and Misdemeanors:

“You will notice that what we are aiming at when we fall in love is a very strange paradox. The paradox consists of the fact that when we fall in love we are seeking to re-find all or some of the people to whom we were attached as children. 

On the other hand, we ask our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted upon us. So that love contains within it the contradiction–the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past.”

Allen’s insight is missing in the two depictions of tortured marriages; we have no sense of the partners’ childhoods or parents, factors which clearly lay the emotional groundwork for the adult marriages that follow.

Certified Copy and Voyage to Italy have no flashbacks, and few references to the past: they are filmed in real time, so to speak, and they dwell on how people grow apart and the pain that arises from that distance. The friction seems to arise from the inability of one partner or the other to accept that this loss of intimacy and emotional gulf is “the new normal.”  Perhaps for the paradoxical reason Allen described, accepting this emotional distance is impossible for one partner, just as it is equally impossible for the other partner to bridge the gulf.

Like individuals, marriages are complex and often opaque, not just to observers but to the participants themselves. The article and the films shine some light on the innate attractions of marriage and the way this intimacy can go awry and become the wellspring of emotional loss and pain.

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