My husband is really into geometry, and once he’s mastered a complicated proof he likes to go through it with me in exacting detail. If he sees my eyes wandering, he commands me to pay attention. In general, the kinds of conversations he enjoys are the ones in which he expounds his latest cognitive treasure, be it scientific, historical, or some fine point about how to interpret an obscure ancient text.
I, on the other hand, gravitate toward paradoxes, and enjoy conversations in which I am the one who sets the terms of the problem and I am the one who gets to push all the simplest answers aside. Recently, I tried to spark a debate: Why isn’t it permissible to walk up to strangers and ask them philosophical questions? As I probed for the deeper meaning behind this prohibition, my husband was frustrated by my ignoring the obvious: “Literally no one but you wants to do that!”
Occasionally, the point he wants to explicate magically lines up with the one I want resolved, but much of the time there is a decidedly unmagical lack of complementarity between his love of clarity and my love of confusion. Of course, we compromise: by taking turns, and by putting up with the fact that one of us is, to some degree, dragging the other along for the ride. But we can also tell that we are compromising, and that makes each of us feel sad, and somewhat alone.
Conversation is only one example of the various arenas in which we routinely fail to connect; broadly, he’s considerate and unromantic, whereas I’m romantic and inconsiderate. Marriage is hard, even when no crises loom, and even when things basically work. What makes it hard are not only the various problems that arise but the lingering absence that is felt most strongly when they don’t. The very closeness of marriage makes every bit of distance palpable. Something is wrong, all the time.
Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” from 1973, is the greatest artistic exploration of the vicissitudes of marital loneliness. It consists of six roughly hour-long episodes, in which a married couple—Johan and Marianne—try and mostly fail to connect to each other. Marianne is a lawyer, and early in the series we see her counselling an older woman who is seeking a divorce after more than twenty years of marriage.
The client admits that her husband is a good man and a good father: “We’ve never quarrelled.” Neither has been unfaithful toward the other. “Won’t you be lonely?” Marianne asks. “I guess,” the woman answers. “But it’s even lonelier living in a loveless marriage.” The client goes on to describe the strange sensory effects of her loneliness. “I have a mental picture of myself that doesn’t correspond to reality,” she says.
“My senses—sight, hearing, touch—are starting to fail me. This table, for instance: I can see it and touch it, but the sensation is deadened and dry. . . . It’s the same with everything. Music, scents, faces, voices—everything seems puny, gray, and undignified.” Marianne listens in horror: the woman represents the ghost of her own future.
It is a profound insight on Bergman’s part to notice that loneliness involves a detachment not only from other people but from reality in general. As a child, I had trouble forming friendships, and turned instead to fantasy. I could imagine myself into the books I read and, by embellishing the characters, supply myself with precisely the sorts of friends that I’d always longed for.
If you have engaged in this kind of fantasizing, you know that the thrill of creativity eventually collapses into a feeling of emptiness. This is the moment when loneliness hits. You’ve prepared yourself an elaborate psychological meal, and you realize, belatedly, that it can never sate your real hunger.
One is often loneliest in the presence of others because their indifference throws the futility of one’s efforts at self-sustenance into relief. (If you spend a party reading in a corner, you come to see, no matter how good the book, that you are not fooling anyone.) In a marriage, this loneliness manifests in the various ways that couples give each other space, demarcating spheres in which each person is allowed to operate independently.
If I allow my husband to hold forth and he allows me to go paradox-mongering—if we humor each other—the very frictionlessness of the ensuing thoughts infuses them with unreality. “My husband and I cancel each other out,” Marianne’s client says. She means, I think, that we sap the reality from one another’s lives by way of our lack of interest, our noninvolvement, our failure to provide the constraining traction that is needed for even the most basic sensory experiences to feel real.
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