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Friday 23 February 2018

Secrets of a modern marriage

Is modern matrimony in crisis? Em, not so much - according to some of Ireland's most popular authors

Carmel Harrington
Carmel Harrington

I reviewed Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl in these pages last year. I'd been reluctant to read it out of sheer contrariness: when books come with that much hype it is either all true or all untrue. This lived up to and exceeded expectations, so when all the push-back hit the press upon the release of the film, it was a little bit perplexing.

It seems that the film paints an even bleaker picture of marriage than the book. Since Flynn wrote the screenplay, we can't blame the adaptors. I'm wondering if the private action of reading a book versus the public aspect of watching a film has something to do with it? One's imagination does all the work reading; in the heightened atmosphere of the cinema, situations and events are bound to become, well, larger-than life. I certainly found Nick and Amy, the hipster couple at the centre of the story, to be perfect for each other, that is, equally off-kilter, equally unrealistic, equally enraged with one another and by a world that just didn't suit their wants and needs. Poor babies.

When something garners as much attention as did this film, it's easy for its ideas to become defining themes. Suddenly, marriage is a nightmare and everyone is doomed - if Twitter is anything to go by, anyway.

I spoke with three authors, whose work focuses on relationships of all sorts, but with a focus on those of the romantic stripe, and asked what their personal experience of marriage was, and if it lived up to expectations. Consider the following to be voices of reason!

MARITA CONLON-McKENNA

The Dublin native writes for both children and adults. Her first book, Under The Hawthorn Tree, is beloved the world over. Her most recent novel is The Rose Garden, published by O'Brien Press.

I got married when I was 20, back in 1977. We had a pretty small wedding of about 38 people; everyone thought we were far too young so originally we were planning on getting married in Rome. However, my dad was recovering from a stroke so instead we decided to have it in Dublin so he could walk me up the aisle.

I was a 70s bride so I guess I didn't think that much about expectations. I was young and naive and madly in love. We just wanted to live together happily ever after. I was never conscious of society putting pressure on me to behave in a certain way. We were the very first of our group of friends to get married and also the first to buy a house, and I just remember our weekends being filled with parties and friends calling in.

Being a wife is a defined role. For me it meant us being together in a partnership taking on life, and supporting each other in good times and bad. I guess that is pretty traditional and to me still is what marriage is about.

I think the public/private nature of the institution is the wonderful enigma of marriage, the puzzle as to why you are together. To outsiders it's a conundrum how you are a still together, whereas for a couple - it's just totally natural for them to be married and they cannot imagine themselves living and loving anyone else.

I think the pressures on couples nowadays are enormous compared to our times. There is the expectation that everything will be perfect: homes, careers, health and looks, finances and lifestyle. Both work horrendous hours and put in huge personal effort to achieve this. Back in the day things were a lot freer and easier so I guess when we got married we were mostly just winging it. We both knew and accepted that we weren't perfect and never expected anything to be perfect.

CLARE DOWLING

The author started out as an actress, and counts screen-writing amongst the many strings to her bow. A Special Delivery is published by Headline and is her tenth novel.

I got married in 1998. I'd never had a hankering for a big white wedding, which was just as well, as we tied the knot in a registry office in Edinburgh - one of my favourite cities. We brought along just two friends as witnesses. It was a special but laid back day, and we spent our short honeymoon in the Balmoral Hotel and felt like movie stars. Because we didn't have a traditional Irish wedding, I guess our expectations of the day were pretty low. The main concern after the ceremony was finding a decent pub for the first of many toasts.

There's definitely an expectation of equality in a marriage now when it comes to childcare, housework and paying the mortgage. Nobody gets away with slacking. The pressure has been turned up on us all to have a marriage that ticks every box. Then you wonder if maybe everybody else's marriage is brilliant and you're just a bit, well, dull.

Three years into our marriage, my husband became a stay-at-home dad while I worked full-time, so we swapped the pants around a bit. I'd like to say it was a roaring success but in reality there was a fair bit of killing. Everybody else was fine with it, but I was the one who had certain expectations of myself as a mother, and couldn't hand some responsibilities over. It didn't do a lot for us as husband and wife, or maybe we were more traditional in our outlook than we liked to admit.

Conflict within marriage is great, in that you basically have the same arguments over and over again, so that after a few years you can nearly do it by rote and it barely knocks a bother out of you. We've basically accepted that neither of us will ever change, which is either a stunning indictment of marriage, or of us. I think everybody in a long-term relationship expects to be mildly annoyed on a fairly continual basis, don't they? The trick is not to let it get to you. Or at least too much. And then it's time to open a bottle of wine.

I think society's expectations of marriage become less important to you the longer you're married. With age and experience (sometimes bitter), you don't care as much how you look to the outside world. You're just glad that you're with someone who knows you, with whom you have a shared history, and who will tolerate your many character flaws - all of which you can enjoy without being married. It's what you make of it, but it's no guarantee of anything.

CARMEL HARRINGTON

Dubbed The Queen of Emotional Writing, her latest novel is The Life You Left. She's venturing into playwriting - she may soon be known as The Queen of The Emotional Play!

I was 37 when I married Roger in 2008. I think the advantage of being a little older when we met was that we recognised quite quickly that we had something special. We were both quite united on the kind of wedding we wanted: we got married in a beautiful small church, on a hill, in Wexford, surrounded by people we loved and I won't lie, it was pretty near perfect. In that little church as we repeated our vows to each other, I'd never experienced happiness like that before.

I can remember attending a pre-marriage course that my parish priest insisted we attend. I was curious as to what pearls of wisdom this half day would bestow upon us. But curiosity was replaced by dismay pretty quickly when we realised that the bulk of the content held no relevance for most married couples today.

They lost me when they asked a couple to stand up and act out a common situation that couples face, and how they might resolve it. This 'situation' was about a wife forgetting to darn her husband's socks! I can confirm that no socks will ever be darned in this house. By me at least!

The biggest expectation that I felt society placed on us both was how quickly we would announce a pregnancy. As it happens, this was something that we both hoped and planned for ourselves, but it was interesting to me how many times people would speculate on whether a bump was about to appear or not! I feel for those couples out there who have to face that constant barrage of questions when children are not in their immediate future, for whatever reason.

I was a child of the 70s and all the picture books had Susie in the kitchen making dinner, when Ken was in the garden washing the car. We joke about this in our house because, despite ourselves, we do seem to have fallen into Susie and Ken roles. But with better haircuts! We do split the housework as we both work. It works for us. I feel that we are in it together, so to speak.

On those occasions when we disagree we always try to act like responsible grown ups, as in we both sulk for an hour or so in separate rooms, calling each other all sorts of insults in our heads. Then eventually, one of us, usually me, will approach the other and suggest that we talk it out.

One truth I've learned is not to compare ourselves to anyone else. The marriages that appear to be picture perfect are often the ones that are in the most trouble.

We also acknowledge that no marriage is perfect because, guess what, we are not perfect! It pains me to admit it, but I'm flawed (just a bit) and so is Rog.

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