Pierre, Who Says Every Marriage Is Doomed to Fail

Pierre, Who Says Every Marriage Is Doomed to Fail

I was really looking forward to getting married.

Until I spoke to the author Pierre van der Merwe.

Pierre is the author of five books on love and relationships including Love Is an Illusion, Marriage: Death of Self, and What's the Point: Scenes from a Marriage. A tall man with wispy hair and round glasses, Pierre has a way of talking that crushes all the dreams in your soul. When I met him on an unseasonably warm February day in Manhattan, he had just gotten off the phone with his wife, and had a scowl on his face. He ordered a whiskey on the rocks. It was 11am.

JOEY

You believe that most if not all couples are mismatched, doomed to failure?

PIERRE

Fundamentally, yes. A huge number. It's frightening going to weddings.

JOEY

Why?

PIERRE

Weddings, if they were accurate, would be more like funerals than celebrations. People should wear black, including the bride. Every time two people come together in love it’s like a death of something and we should treat it as such. Not with joy and dancing but with mourning. People should actually cry at weddings. And not happy tears.

JOEY

What is it the death of?

PIERRE

People bring such hope and expectation into a marriage. People believe that their spouse will completely understand them, completely get them, that living together will be, on the whole, a worthwhile endeavor. But it often turns out to be the opposite. It's often, if not a complete nightmare, a mind-numbing mediocrity that sucks the life out of you over the long-term until you are a shell of yourself and everything you dreamed marriage would be is dead.

JOEY

In your book you say that people very often marry the wrong person, even though most people are free to marry whomever they like. 

PIERRE

We marry the wrong people because we don't really understand ourselves. I mean, sometimes I ask single people, Do you think you're easy to live with? And the ones who say, Yeah, yeah, I'm pretty easy to live with, it's just a matter of finding the right person, massive alarm bells ring in my mind. Mainly because I lived with that person I was asking for a few years out of college and he was an absolute slob. He never cleaned and would have these emotional breakdowns each time his mother called. He was a terrible roommate. This is a person who believes he is easy to live with if he would just find the right partner. You can imagine what he'd bring to a marriage.

JOEY

What exactly happens when two people get married that makes life so difficult?

PIERRE

We don't really know what we're getting into until we're actually married. It's only in marriage that all the ways we are hard to live with are truly revealed. All of our neuroses, flaws, imperfections, all the tiny little things that vaguely remind us of our childhoods, and trigger inappropriate behavior towards those we live with, that's what gets revealed by the marriage itself.

Like, for instance, say that one spouse likes staying up late and the other likes to go to bed early. Well, it's really tough to go to sleep when that spouse is in the bedroom reading something on her phone and laughing loudly. I mean, really loudly. And when she shouts that you're just like her father when you ask her to turn the light off and keep it down, and you say, You're just like my mother, and go out to sleep on the couch, those things are challenging.

JOEY

What if people live together before marriage?

PIERRE

It's not the same. People hold back. It's a kind of testing ground, that period you're living together. When you get married it's permission to let your crazy self out. To bring up issues from your childhood like the fact that your mother never loved you enough and you're afraid of being abandoned and that's why you want a GPS tracking device attached to her leg.

JOEY

What can people do to make their marriage work? Or should people not get married at all? I mean, I'm engaged. Was that a mistake?

PIERRE

In a marriage you will need to be incredibly forgiving for the weird behavior that's going to start coming out. I mean, I didn't know she was into S&M before. Your partner will fail to understand you, and why you don't want a hood over your head and your housekeeper to watch you have sex, even though that was in the job description when you hired him.

If you're understood in maybe, I don't know, forty percent of your soul by your partner, that's fantastic. Don't expect that it's going to be one hundred percent. No, no, no. It's never going to be one hundred.

Of course, it will be lonely. Of course you will cry in the bathtub every night. Especially when she leaves for a week without telling you but decides to come back. The point is, if we can have a completely mediocre marriage, that's actually a really wonderful thing.

JOEY

Inspiring.

PIERRE

You will often be in despair. You will wake up some mornings and look over at your spouse and think, This was the worst decision of my life. Maybe I should poison her and make it look like an accident so I can get the insurance money. I wonder what poison I can use that doesn't leave a trace.

That's all fine. That's not a sign your marriage has gone wrong.

JOEY

It's normal to want to kill your spouse and think of ways to do it?

PIERRE

Completely normal. If you're not arguing about the man she was flirting with at the party last night, you're arguing about finances, childcare, where you'll spend the holidays. I mean, we've always spent Christmas with either of our families, we alternate each year, but now she wants to go to Spain by herself with her friend Jordi. It doesn't make any sense.

Expectations will have to die to make marriage work.

JOEY

That's pretty dark.

PIERRE

It's very dark. But in love, darkness is a real friend of relationships. Optimism has no place in marriage.

JOEY

You're not an optimistic person?

PIERRE

That's the only thing that has saved me. A certain amount of sober melancholy is a real benefit going into marriage. We are trying to find our best friend, our ideal sexual partner, our co-household manager, perhaps our co-parent. And we're expecting that all this will miraculously go well together. A melancholy mindset will keep your expectations in check.

JOEY

Any more advice?

PIERRE

Don't idealize your spouse. Everyone is human. Do your best to analyze the relationship. Don't just go on gut. Would you land a plane by gut feeling? Or get surgery by a doctor based on his intuition? Use the rational part of your brain. That way you'll be able to find the money she's been hiding in the Swiss bank accounts all the while claiming to be penniless but still buying really nice lunches. It's infuriating, especially when you take a packed lunch every day to stay on budget.

JOEY

What's your wife say about all this?

PIERRE

Look, she's very funny. She's a pessimistic realist. On our tenth wedding anniversary, she dressed in black. We wrote out suicide letters. She pretended to slit her wrists. There was lots of fake blood. She's very funny about the whole thing, marriage.

The neighbors called the police. They saw us through the window. We spent the night at the police station explaining all this. For the thousandth time, we were not doing a double suicide. We were only killing ourselves metaphorically because that's what marriage is, death of self.

JOEY

Have you learned anything in marriage?

PIERRE

Yes. I had absolutely no idea about how to love before. Now I know what love means. It means never receiving an apology. She just doesn't apologize. Apologies are weakness, she says. Her family never apologized for anything.

I hadn't had many relationships. And I literally used to think that the only problem, the only difficulty of love, was finding this person called the right person. And once I'd found that person we would understand each other, we wouldn't have any arguments. And I think we had a succession of crises and moments of fear, where we really thought we had married the wrong person.

JOEY

Wow, this has been informative. I had this romantic view of marriage where it would actually be something very worthwhile, something that would be, yes, difficult at times, like any relationship, but overall that it would be wonderful to be with someone you love deeply.

PIERRE

It's so common to have that feeling. It's very understandable. I hope I've enlightened you. I hope that you understand now. I have to call my wife now. She's asking what I want for dinner tonight even though it's early afternoon and I don't know what I want for dinner and she's going to demand an answer and I'm going to give her three options and she won't like any of them and I'll say you decide and she'll scream and say that she always decides and I'll throw my cell phone into the East River and I'll walk home and she'll be waiting for me hiding behind the door and will come out with a kitchen knife and I'll say, Put the knife down, and she'll say, Make me, and I'll try to make her and she might stab me but it's fine this is marriage and it's not perfect and we're not perfect and she'll put the knife down and we'll order Thai take out food even though it's only 4pm and watch some television. I mean, it's our typical Tuesday evening. But this is what you have to look forward to. Congratulations, by the way, on your engagement. I hope your marriage is completely mediocre.

JOEY

Thanks. So kind of you to say.