Showdown at the OK Marriage

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He stood at the moment in which we all have at some point, to our regret, shared: the instant when our goals, hopes, and dreams collide with reality. Standing in his foyer, Elliott Smalling listened to the sounds of his wife having energetic sex in the master bedroom a floor above him and realized that his marriage had just committed suicide.

Elliott recalled what she had last told him: "There's nothing wrong with us. I just need a little me time."

It brought to his mind the ongoing debate that he, as an advertising copywriter, had with himself many times about the nature of words. He trusted the words of his wife because he wanted to believe that there was a path past a bump in the road to the good life he had always envisioned. But in the back of his mind he had known that much like sex can be disconnected from love, words can be detached from meaning, allowing two people to say different things with the same words.

Elliott considered it most damaging that her lies had been designed to keep him in the dark so that he could be her unwitting support system, like an ant infected with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the fungus that takes over the brain of the insect and compels it to climb as high as it can so the parasite can release its spores, killing the ant in the process. He recalled the insight of Tom Wolfe:

Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, "man reasoning," but Homo loquax, "man talking"! Speech gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon! It gave the human beast the powers of reason, complex memory, and long-term planning, eventually in the form of print and engineering plans.

It reminded him of what Hamlet said when interrogated by Polonius about what he was reading: "words, words, words." They could mean something, or simply be a means to an end, conning someone into going along with a plan to their detriment. Well, thought Elliott, that had clearly happened. He was the beta man paying for the house in which his wife railed an alpha stud; as the old saying goes, "alpha fucks, beta bucks." Karl Marx would say that time is money, and this meant that she was stealing from him the one non-renewable resource in his life, his time.

Unlike most men in men's fiction, who raged and drank and beat people up, or women in women's fiction, who cried and blamed themselves and ventured on introspective journeys to find out where they had gone wrong, he simply felt loss. Something which could have been good was now ruined forever. Even if he took her back, he could not forget, and could never trust her words again, nor really esteem her as he had. She had revealed something ugly in herself that she had, out of selfishness, chosen to give the upper hand.

He sagged for a minute against the railing of the stairs; all of the energy and light had left him and he felt hollow. He felt like his workday had extended itself. He now had to handle this mess and avoid damage to his constituents, the three children they shared, since having grown up in the midst of the Boomer divorce epidemic, he knew that divorce shattered children as well as families, generally leading to drug and alcohol problems among other self-destructive behaviors well into adult life.

When a sweaty Marina Smalling opened the master bedroom door to acquire refreshing soft drinks for herself and her lover, she found her husband in full business attire, standing in front of a white board.

"What the fuck?" she said, then caught herself. "Elliott, it's not what it looks like! It's --"

Her husband held out a hand. "Send the meat puppet home, and we'll talk." Her lover, whom Elliott recognized as one of the more outspoken volunteers from the nature center where she had been spending a lot of her free time over the past two years, departed hastily with a furtive glance over his shoulder.

Elliott pointed to the white board, which read:

L = P2 / R

"In this case, L is likelihood of someone taking a particular action, R is risk, and P is payoff. Payoff is squared -- that's your power law -- but divided by risk. When risk is too high, unless the payoff is astronomical, humans avoid acting. But if the payoff is huge and risk low, we take action. This tells me that you consider the loss of your marriage to be either a low risk or a mild loss."

Elliott took a deep breath. "I consider that to be mostly the result of divorce laws in our state," he said. "If we divorce, you get the kids, alimony, child support, and half of everything that I have, including my business. This gives you incentive to cheat, basically, which I hoped was counter-balanced by your desire to remain with me and have a happy life together to the end of time. Mathematically, that tells us that you are no longer looking forward to that prospect and either want a way out, or want me to take on a lesser role, like cuckold."

"Either way," he said, "it means something to me, as a man and a human being, which is that you are no longer looking forward to my company. If I die tomorrow, you will not really have lost out, will you? Same if I were to just pack up and leave. Sure, you'd miss me when the lawn needed mowing, the bills paid, the kids entertained, or the back door oiled, but other than these humdrum everyday activities that any man can do, you would be fine on your own."

"Elliott, I --" Marina began.

"Take a word of advice: don't. Whatever you are going to say right now, statistically speaking, will most likely be a lie." He pointed to the whiteboard. "You can see here the four possible use cases that face us now. Attendez, s'il vous plaît."

  1. Breach: you cheat, I stay, and I will feel wronged and retaliate.
  2. Reconciliation: you stop cheating, I stay, and there will be a goodwill gap here because trust is lost.
  3. Dissolution: you cheat, I leave, and the kids are harmed the most but there is no dishonesty.
  4. Merger: you cheat, I cheat, and we give the kids a normal home but no longer rely on trust.

"Now, as you know," said Elliott, "I have tried to avoid bringing my work mentality into our house. I really dislike the people who treat their wives and children like coworkers or contractors. It has that creepy Brave New World and Star Trek feel to it, a kind of bourgeois convenience that fuses technological consumerism with a Soviet-style functionalism. I guess that's the zeitgeist of how the postwar world turned out. But you are going to have to choose one of these paths."

"I'll stop," said Marina quickly.

Elliott paused. "That was too fast," he said slowly. "This wasn't the first time, was it?"

She shook her head and the tears began.

"No tears, please," said Elliott, handing her a handkerchief. "I am going to treat you like an adult, and I assume that you made these decisions with a goal in mind, and that means that you were getting something out of it that you wanted. Surely, such momentous decisions would not merely be emotional reactions or tantrums, or some kind of self-expression, would they? You made a conscious choice. Which number?"

"It wasn't like that," said Marina. "I just got so bored. We climbed every mountain! We sailed every sea! And now, it's just daily life. You grinding away at work, me cracking the whip with the kids, us going to Costco and arguing over how much mayonnaise we can afford. It's just emptiness, stretching onward until the end of time. What is there for me? There must be more to life than family, there must be adventure... I just needed... I wanted... I don't even know."

Elliott looked her up and down. The tears seemed real, but at this point he had to remind himself to trust nothing from his wife who, for whatever reason, had become a liar, at least to him.

"It comes down to means and ends," he said finally. "Ends are goals, means are what you use to get there. Is your marriage an end in itself, or just a means toward the end of making you feel fulfilled? Marriage is a three-headed dog: legal, practical, and spiritual."

He continued. "To be married means giving up lots of things so that you can be there for your person, and together to make something that is larger than any one of us, a family, a nebula of love exploding outward to the farthest reaches of the universe. If you treat marriage as a means rather than an end in itself, the union of souls into something greater, a gestalt if you will, you kill the spiritual component and it becomes a job like anything else. My job is a means to an end, but the end is what we have... had... in our union, and with our children."

"If we divorce, my parents will kill me," said Marina, wiping tears to the sides of her eyes with the flat side of a finger. "We'll also lose half of everything, each of us, I mean. It'll devastate the kids. We'll have to move and get new friends, since we share quite a few. Option #2. That is what I want," she said, looking at him directly, but moving her hands to her sides.

Elliott looked at his wife and knew in his heart that this was not over. An invisible sigh shuddered through his body. "Okay, and what do I get out of this?"

"No divorce, and not losing half of what you own including your company," said Marina slowly and quietly. "The courts will make you sell it, you know. You've built that business up from nothing."

"Right, but what do I get for taking you back and forgiving this whole incident? You have changed the terms of our contract, and there needs to be some compensation in order to motivate me toward accepting the new raw deal."

"I'll make it up to you somehow," Marina said hurriedly. "Nightly." She smiled sweetly.

There was a long silence.

"I want a post-nup," he said firmly. "If either of us cheats in the future, they get nothing out of the relationship and child support goes into a trust. The problem with reconciliation is that by nature it is 'reconciliation at any cost,' or means-over-ends, which means that in order to keep the marriage going we sacrifice the goal of marriage so that we can have reconciliation. So I need to get something out of it, or it's one-sided."

"I won't do it," she said. "Society pities the victim, and women are seen as the eternal victims, so I'm going to win here. Take it or leave it." With that, she walked on down the hall to strip the sheets from the master bed, wash them, then brush her teeth, douche, and gargle. Just like that, it would all be fixed, she thought. She used the same tactics at work and in her volunteer life, and they would work here, too.

Elliott knew otherwise. She was treating him like someone to dominate, not someone she cared about, which meant that she would do it again. He thought of what they taught him in his political classes about objectification. If you wanted to dominate someone, you had to first think of them as less than human, like rapists with their victims, Nazis with Jews, Communists with kulaks, American Indians scalping settlers, and hippies spitting on soldiers coming back from Vietnam. She saw him as sub-human, an object to be manipulated, not a being with a soul.

Somehow, love had turned to hatred. What he had done, besides provide a comfortable home? Perhaps too comfortable, and that was why she was bored and trying to make herself relevant with activism, commerce, and promiscuity. In any case, the marriage had just died, since he had seen how she viewed him and knew that he could never love her again.

The sigh came out of him then like a ghost escaping hell, and he got in the car and went back to his office.

Like most functional males in his situation, he lost himself in his work. Some years ago he and three other writers had formed a collective-cum-consultancy which hired itself out to advertising agencies across the country who needed copy quickly, accurately, and in a form that could be used in multiple outputs -- print, web, voice-over -- as well as scripts for their commercials and salespeople. Mostly they took the existing campaign a firm had, gave it new life, and then translated it for different niches.

Nuvien (the name of his firm, a portmanteau-mashup of renew, revision, and alien) came about because Elliott observed what he called The Employee Cycle. When a project was new, it rewarded innovators, researchers, and people willing to assemble details into a complete order. As soon as it succeeded however the committee came in and adulterated it with the paradoxical objectives that occur when every person on the committee must inject some demand in order to stay "relevant." This made a muddle and drove away the competent employees, leaving companies with dying projects staffed by lazy idiots.

His firm would rush in after the collapse. Bobbing helplessly in the fast current of the market, but unable to float because of the weight of committees and incompetents, companies needed someone to toss the a life preserver, and they really did not care much what that person charged because anything under the expected profit from the contract saved their bacon. Using his research sources, Elliott would figure out the maximum he could charge and go for it, which meant that he and his partners earned five times as much as they would otherwise.

"Our job is to give people reasons to buy what they already want to buy," Elliott frequently told his staff. "Most advertising is just validation of desires with a pleasant image. So let's create that image, and see if we can have some fun doing it."

For Elliott, copywriting revolved around connecting aspirations to products. People had goals for their lives and wanted to believe that the solution was as simple as choosing a product associated with those goals. If you wanted to be a mountain bike rider, you bought the bicycle, clothing, tools, and app for your phone. A good copywriter widened that circle, showing people a desirable life full of desirable products, letting them make the leap of faith themselves.

Advertising relied on confusion of means-over-ends with ends-over-means. When you had a goal in mind, you did whatever was required to achieve it, including buying necessary products. Most people however -- he considered the bulk of his species to exist on the intersection between insane, stupid, and narcissistic -- would try to use the buying of products to signal the goal. He had done the same when his wife told him her story.

"We're just going through a rough patch, with you working so much and spending all weekend fixing up the backyard," she had cooed in his ear. "Let me find some excitement at the nature center, since there I can be someone important, helping humanity mitigate climate change like a patriotic hero, instead of just another housewife with her arms deep in the dishwater."

At age 39, with three happy kids and a spacious suburban home that looked like a pile of architectural notions from old Europe made into a handy and comfortable retreat, Elliott had seen enough of the world to be aware how much of it was illusion. His view was not so much cynicism as appreciation for the pile of words that kept the whole thing functioning. Without patriotism, religion, technology, altruistic dogma, and sexual flattery, humanity would still be in caves cracking coconuts with rocks. He had hoped his marriage was above that.

After all, he had met her in a storybook romance. In college, feeling the first taste of freedom but still dependent on the knowledge they absorbed as children, students separated into different groups.

The jocks stayed with each other, the theater kids formed a brutal clique, literature majors assembled in pretension clutches at the local Viennese style kaffeehaus, nerds herded around the television with Star Trek and Star Wars, business majors joined the Young Republicans, and everyone else felt the sting of no identity. A literature major who had been shocked and dismayed by his accidental top score in his economics class, Elliott flitted between the jocks and the nerds, socializing easily on a personal basis instead of relying on an identity.

Marina floated above all of these groups. Gracious and kind, she was technically attached to her tribe of fellow business majors but spent most of her time with the nerds and political kids. With sweeping auburn hair, bright green eyes, and a mellifluous contralto slightly husky voice, she stood a couple inches taller than most of the women in her class and spent a good deal of time on the college golf team. Elliott met her through a friend who knew her from a political group that stood against animal cruelty and wanted to raise awareness of the issue.

College life strips socializing down to its essence, the party, and streamlines that into a keg and conversation. Like college itself, this is a filtering process, separating out those who socialize effortlessly from the ones nervously gulping cold Natural Light while trying to pretend to be interested in what's going on. Elliott made his usual silent entrance so that the first anyone knew of his was the presence of his words:

"You're the only thing here that could save me from falling into alcoholism," he said off-handedly, and absent-mindedly, he hoped. He had read her as being both a serious young woman committed to her career and someone stranded and lost in a fundamental lack of faith in the goodness of the world. She socialized like she lived, talking to a few rare individuals that interested her, but showed up mostly to say she had so that she would not regret "missing out" later in life. She was bored to recklessness, but tied down by her studious career-oriented side, which told him that somewhere, she had a lot of fear for the future.

"Oh, you say that to all the pretty girls," she replied.

"Then I wouldn't say it to you!" said Elliott explosively. "You're a few steps above merely 'pretty,' and you look as bored as I do. What say we take in the night?"

She walked with him on down to the limits of campus, near the less fashionable east side of the city, where his purloined copy of a master key got them access to the observatory.

"Look at that night sky," he said. "The universe out there is so big, and that's just the visible part. We are so small, humans, just looking for a little warmth and comfort in this place too big for us to possibly understand." Based on his reading of her, this image would validate the way she saw the world and then give her a slimmer of hope for pleasure. He scooted closer to her as they sat.

"It's a big world," said Marina. "I just want to be able to survive and not grind away until I die. I hope there's something out there that's magical, like fairies or unicorns, but every time I look at economics, I see us as smart monkeys that are adapting to a material world, and everything else as fantasy."

"But fantasy is the best part," said Elliott. "To have dreams, to create worlds. You've got a fine mind, and there's more for you than simply finding a place."

"How would you know?" she asked playfully, her voice curling up to make the question seem more like a singsong admonishment.

"I sat in on one of your classes," he revealed. "I'm a words guy, really, but I like economics. Your takedown of both the gold standard and modern monetary theory in one argument was inspiring. Something about public confidence in the economy being the real value of the currency, tying it to both production and 'expectation management' through control of the media."