Reflections on Unhappy Marriages


Reflections on unhappy Marriages

from the Pennsylvania Magazine, June, 1775

THOUGH ’tis confessed on all hands that the weal or woe of life depends on no one circumstance so critical as Matrimony; yet how few seem to be influenced by this universal acknowledgement, or act with a caution becoming the danger!

Those that are undone this way, are the young, the rash and amorous, whose hearts are ever glowing with desire, whose eyes are ever roaming after beauty; these doat on the first amiable image that chance throws in their way, and when the flame is once kindled, would risk eternity itself to appease it. — But, still like their first parents, they no sooner taste the tempting fruit, but their eyes are open’d; the folly of their intemperance becomes visible; shame succeeds first, and then repentance; but sorrow for themselves soon returns to anger with the innocent cause of their unhappiness. Hence flow bitter reproaches, and keen invectives, which end in mutual hatred and contempt. Love abhors clamour and soon flies away, and happiness finds no entrance when love is gone. Thus for a few hours of dalliance, I will not call it affection, the repose of all their future days are sacrificed; and those who but just before seem’d to live only for each other, now would almost cease to live, that the separation might be eternal.

But hold, says the man of phlegm and oeconomy, all are not of this hasty turn — I allow it — there are persons in the world who are young without passions, and in health without appetite: these hunt out a wife as they go to Smithfield for a horse; and inter-marry fortunes, not minds, or even bodies: In this case the Bridegroom has no joy but in taking possession of the portion, and the bride dreams of little beside new cloths, visits and congratulations. Thus, as their expectations of pleasure are not very great, neither is the disappointment very grievous; they just keep each other in countenance, live decently, and are exactly as fond the twentieth year of matrimony as the first. — But I would not advise any one to call this state of insipidity happiness, because it would argue him both ignorant of its nature, and incapable of enjoying it. — Mere absence of pain will undoubtedly constitute ease; and, without ease, there can be no happiness: Ease, however, is but the medium, through which happiness is tasted, and but passively receives what the last actually bestows; if therefore the rash who marry inconsiderately, perish in the storms raised by their own passions, these slumber away their days in a sluggish calm, and rather dream they live, than experience it by a series of actual sensible enjoyments.

As matrimonial happiness is neither the result of insipidity, or illgrounded passion, surely those, who make their court to age, ugliness, and all that’s detestable both in mind and body, cannot hope to find it, tho’ qualified with all the riches that avarice covets, or Plutus could bestow. Matches of this kind are downright prostitution, however softened by the letter of the law; and he or she who receives the golden equivalent of youth and beauty, so wretchedly bestowed, can never enjoy what they so dearly purchased. The shocking incumbrance would render the sumptuous banquet tasteless, and the magnificent bed lothsome; rest would disdain the one, and appetite sicken at the other; uneasiness wait upon both; even gratitude itself would almost cease to be obliging, and good-manners grow such a burden, that the best bred or best-natured people breathing, would be often tempted to throw it down.

But say we should not wonder that those who either marry gold without love, or love without gold, should be miserable; I can’t forbear being astonished, if such whose fortunes are affluent, whose desires were mutual, who equally languished for the happy moment before it came, and seemed for a while to be equally transported when it had taken place: If even these should, in the end, prove as unhappy as either of the others! And yet how often is this the melancholy circumstance! As extasy abates, coolness succeeds, which often makes way for indifference, and that for neglect: Sure of each other by the nuptial band, they no longer take any pains to be mutually agreeable; careless if they displease, and yet angry if reproached; with so little relish for each other’s company that anybody’s else is welcome, and more entertaining. Their union thus broke, they pursue separate pleasures; never meet but to wrangle, or part but to find comfort in other society. After this the descent is easy to utter aversion, which having wearied itself out with heart-burnings, clamours, and affronts, subsides into a perfect insensibility; when fresh objects of love step in to their relief on either side, and mutual infidelity makes way for mutual complaisance, that each may be the better able to deceive the other.

I shall conclude with the sentiments of an American savage on this subject, who being advised by one of our countrymen to marry according to the ceremonies of the church, as being the ordinance of an infinitely wise and good God, briskly replied, “That either the Christians’ God was not so good and wise as he was represented, or he never meddled with the marriages of his people; since not one in a hundred of them had anything to do either with happiness or common sense. Hence, continued he, as soon as ever you meet you long to part; and, not having this relief in your power, by way of revenge, double each other’s misery. Whereas in ours, which have no other ceremony than mutual affection, and last no longer than they bestow mutual pleasures, we make it our business to oblige the heart we are afraid to lose; and being at liberty to separate, seldom or never feel the inclination. But if any should be found so wretched among us, as to hate where the only commerce ought to be love, we instantly dissolve the band: God made us all in pairs; each has his mate somewhere or other; and ’tis our duty to find each other out, since no creature was ever intended to be miserable.”