The following quotations are from the beginning of Phyllis Rose’s unusual and very interesting Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. Rose, who knows an amazing amount about the personal lives of famous Victorians, starts the book with general insights about relationships — not just marriage, really — and then goes on to describe the marriages (Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens and George Eliot) in a charming and continuously insightful manner.
There are things here that I don’t agree with, or that I would frame differently. In particular, it seems to me that Rose probably doesn’t have much exposure to BDSM, and especially to explicitly-negotiated power play. She says a lot of things about power in relationships, how that power functions — and how it is disguised — that seem limited to me, as someone who plays with power on purpose very frequently. Nevertheless, I’ve drawn insight from those parts too, and generally think it’s all pretty brilliant.
Pickup artists may note similarities between Rose’s ideas and pickup frame theory.
In unhappy marriages … I see two versions of reality rather than two people in conflict. I see a struggle for imaginative dominance going on. Happy marriages seem to me those in which the two partners agree on the scenario they are acting, even if … their own idea of their relationship is totally at variance with the facts. I speak with great trepidation about “facts” in such matters, but, speaking loosely, the facts in the Mills’ case — that a woman of strong and uncomplicated will dominated a guilt-ridden man — were less important than their shared imaginative view of the facts, that their marriage fitted their shared ideal of a marriage of equals. I assume, then, as little objective truth as possible about these parallel lives, for every marriage seems to me a subjectivist fiction with two points of view often deeply in conflict, sometimes fortuitously congruent. (page 7)
… like Mill, I believe marriage to be the primary political experience in which most of us engage as adults, and so I am interested in the management of power between men and women in that microcosmic relationship. Whatever the balance, every marriage is based on some understanding, articulated or not, about the relative importance, the priority of desires, between the two partners. Marriages go bad not when love fades — love can modulate into affection without driving two people apart — but when this understanding about the balance of power breaks down, when the weaker member feels exploited or the stronger feels unrewarded for his or her strength.
People who find this a chilling way to talk about one of our most treasured human bonds will object that “power struggle” is a failed circumstance into which relationships fall when love fails. (For some people it is impossible to discern the word power without adding the word struggle.) I would counter by pointing out the human tendency to invoke love at moments when we want to disguise transactions involving power. … [W]hen we resign power, or assume new power, we insist it is not happening and demand to be talked to about love. Perhaps that is what love is — a momentary or prolonged refusal to think about another person in terms of power. … [W]hat we call love may inhibit the process of power negotiation — from which inhibition comes the illusion of equality so characteristic of lovers. If the impulse to abjure measurement and negotiation comes from within, unbidden, it is one of life’s graces and blessings. But if it is culturally induced … then we may find it repugnant and call it a mask for exploitation. Surely, in regard to marriage, love has received its fair share of attention, power less than its share. … Who can resist the thought that love is the ideological bone thrown to women to distract their attention from the powerlessness of their lives? Only millions of romantics can resist it — and other millions who might see it as the bone thrown to men to distract them from the bondage of their lives. (pages 7-8)
The plots we choose to impose on our own lives are limited and limiting. And in no area are they so banal as in this of love and marriage. Nothing else being available to our imaginations, we will filter our experience through the romantic clichés with which popular culture bombards us. And because the callowness and conventionality of the plots we impose on ourselves are a betrayal of our inner richness and complexity, we feel anxious and unhappy. We may turn to therapy for help, but the plots it evokes, if done less than expertly, are also fairly limiting.
Easy stories drive out hard ones. Simple paradigms prevail over complicated ones. If, within marriage, power is the ability to impose one’s imaginative vision … then power is more easily available if one has a simple and widely accepted paradigm at hand. … [N]either side of the patriarchal paradigm seems to bring out the best in humanity. In regard to marriage, we need more and more complex plots. (page 8-9)
[Compared to the Victorians], our easy recourse to divorce seems — to adopt Robert Frost’s image — like playing tennis without the net. John Stuart Mill, who advocated divorce, nevertheless believed that re-marriage was an inefficient remedy for certain kinds of marital distress, those caused by the human tendency to grow unhappy in the course of years and to blame this unhappiness on one’s spouse. The sufferer, after the initial elation brought by change, would reach the same point eventually with a second mate, said Mill, and at what a cost of disrupted life! It has become a story familiar enough today. But the Victorians, with no easy escape from difficult domestic situations, were forced to be more inventive.
Few were more inventive than Mill’s eventual wife, Harriet Taylor, who, for twenty years, arranged to live in a virtual ménage à trois with her husband and Mill, a companion to both, lover to neither. Her inventiveness depended on a de-emphasis of sexual fulfillment which it requires effort to see as useful rather than merely pinched. But I think the effort must be made. Of the five marriages I discuss, at least two of them, and possibly a third, were sexless, and it will not do just to say “How bizarre.”
In fact, scholars in our post-liberated age who interest themselves in innovative living arrangements are beginning to discover that people a hundred years ago may have had more flexibility than we do now …. I prefer to see the sexless marriages I discuss as examples of flexibility rather than of abnormality. Some people might say they are not really marriages because they are sexless; it’s a point I’d want to argue. There must be other models of marriage — of long-term association between two people — than the very narrow one we are all familiar with. (pages 11-12)
Many cultural circumstances worked against the likelihood of sexual satisfaction in Victorian marriages. … We would seem to have a greater chance of happiness now. Theoretically, men and women can get to know each other in casual, relaxed circumstances before marrying. More young people feel free to sleep together, to live together before marriage. They do not have to wait until they are irrevocably joined to discover that they are incompatible. Nor are they so irrevocably joined. If we discover, early or late, that despite all our opportunity to test compatibility, we have married someone with whom we are not compatible, we can disconnect ourselves and try again. [In short, everything is better.] If all this does not ensure that, cumulatively, we are happier in our relationships than the Victorians were, then perhaps we expect even more of our marriages than the Victorians did — perhaps we place too much of a burden on our personal relationships, as Christopher Lasch, among others, have suggested. Or perhaps the deep tendency of human nature to unhappiness is even harder to reach by legislation and technology than one might have thought.
Neither in novels nor in biographical material can I find much evidence that people of the last century placed less emphasis on their personal relationships than we do. Romantic expectations seem to know no season, except the season of life. Of the five Victorian couples I have written about, the Mills and the Leweses, for various reasons, expected less out of marriage and found greater satisfaction in it than the others. Temperament and ideological bent seem more important in determining happiness than whether one lived in the nineteenth or twentieth century. (pages 12-14)
I am tempted to say that divorce makes marriage meaningless — which doesn’t mean I would wish for there to be less divorce, just less marriage. … I do not want to move readers either to self-blame or the blame of others. I would like them to be prompted by these stories to question how the presumption of marriage, the fiction of marriage, has affected the shape of their lives, for I believe that marriage, whether we see it as a psychological relationship or a political one, has determined the story of all of our lives more than we have generally acknowledged. (pages 18-19)