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On Marriage and Happiness

It is easy for a successful writer to advise that career success isn’t that important. Would a failed writer agree?

· 9 min read
On Marriage and Happiness
Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

In July, Sam Peltzman, an economist at the University of Chicago, published a study showing a strong connection between marriage and happiness. “Being married,” Peltzman wrote, “is the most important differentiator with a 30-percentage point happy-unhappy gap over the unmarried. … No subsequent population categorization [black vs. white, young vs. old, rich vs. poor, etc] will yield so large a difference in happiness across so many people.”

Many cultural commentators quickly picked up on this study and began urging Americans, especially young people, to focus more on finding a spouse than on finding a good career. In the New York Times, David Brooks wrote:

My strong advice is to obsess less about your career and to think a lot more about marriage. Please respect the truism that if you have a great career and a crappy marriage you will be unhappy, but if you have a great marriage and a crappy career you will be happy. … This is not just softhearted sentimentality I’m offering. There are mountains of evidence to show that intimate relationships, not career, are at the core of life, and those intimate relationships will have a downstream effect on everything else you do.

The reader may object that Brooks has enjoyed a hugely successful career publishing bestselling books and filing copy at some of the nation’s most prestigious publications. What would he know about the life of someone with a crappy career? Would a failed writer with a successful marriage agree with his assessment? As it turns out, yes.

Like Brooks, I was born near the end of the American Baby Boom and grew up aspiring to be a writer. Unlike Brooks, I have spent my adult life working at a series of part-time McJobs while trying, unsuccessfully on the whole, to make a living as a writer. I have made a grand total of one brilliant decision in my life: asking my wife Julie to marry me back in 1980. But you don’t need to make a lot of great decisions in life if you get the biggest of them right. Since 1980, I have written hundreds of short stories, a dozen novels, and countless personal essays that remain unpublished. Not only did the hours I put into these projects bring me no monetary rewards, they cost me quite a bit of money, as I invested in newer and more efficient computers and printers, and spent thousands of dollars on writers conferences, SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes, for the uninitiated), subscriptions to magazines I hoped to write for, books on writing and publishing, and so forth. I have put far more money into my writing “career” than I have ever gotten out of it. I used to think that at some point the ratio would begin to reverse itself and I would find myself actually earning more from my writing than I was spending on it. But I turned 65 in August and, let’s face it, that is never going to happen.

This failure used to bother me quite a lot. After all, I am a pop-fiction junkie. My literary heroes have never been the Emily Dickinsons and Emily Brontes of the world, brilliant artists whose genius was only fully appreciated after their deaths. One of my first writerly crushes was Michael Crichton. By the mid-1970s, when I discovered him, he was already a bestselling novelist and the writer/director of the hit film Westworld. He would go on to write massively successful films (Jurassic Park, Twister, etc.), create a hugely successful TV series (ER), and produce novels that not only sold well but also became hotly debated in media circles, such as Rising Sun (reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review and criticized as anti-Japanese by some pundits), Disclosure (a tale of workplace harassment in the tech industry that drew the ire of many feminists), and State of Fear (which attempted to debunk climate science and drew the wrath of environmentalists). Even 15 years after his death, his estate continues to reap tens of millions of dollars from the reboots of the Jurassic Park and Westworld franchises and from the release of previously unpublished novels. Just this month, the Atlantic ran an appreciation of ER, calling it “a TV drama that has aged surprisingly well.” There was a time when I would have given anything to be Michael Crichton.

But that was back before the internet made it possible to snoop into almost any celebrity’s personal life. Nowadays, I can go to Wikipedia and discover that Crichton’s life was punctuated by numerous failed marriages. His first marriage lasted five years. His second and third each lasted two. His fourth ended after 15 years and his fifth ended with his death three years later. Crichton was an intensely private man who loathed talking about his personal life. Nonetheless, even before the advent of the internet, it was possible to detect that his personal life wasn’t exactly happy. The most straightforward pieces of evidence came in the 1988 collection of essays called Travels, in which he wrote about his various trips to exotic locales around the globe, often with a different wife in tow each time, and of the fractures that were developing between himself and his spouse. In this book, one gets the feeling he’d have been happy to leave out entirely any discussion of the women in his life, but since they accompanied him on his journeys, it wasn’t possible to ignore them entirely (occasionally they are blamed for the vacation turning sour or dangerous, though the book has plenty of self-deprecation too).

So, knowing what I know about Crichton, do I wish I could have lived a life more like his? If a fairy godmother offered me an opportunity to go back in time and reap huge professional success as a writer in exchange for a private life punctuated by one failed marriage after another, would I take her up on the offer? No chance. I still love Crichton’s work. And I am grateful for all the pleasure and excitement he brought into my life. But his failed marriages and reckless treatment of his body (he smoked several packs of cigarettes a day and died at the age of 66) suggest that he may not have been the happiest of men. And he wasn’t alone in that respect. There have always been plenty of cultural icons whose crappy/happy ratios favored professional success over personal satisfaction.

The list of pop-cultural juggernauts whose personal lives have at times resembled train wrecks include Madonna (born, like me, on August 16th, 1958), Elvis Presley (who died on the day that Madonna and I turned 19), Prince (born two months before Madonna and me), and Michael Jackson (born in the same month as Madonna and me). Those four superstars racked up seven marriages between them, which endured for a combined total of 33 years, or about five years per union, roughly the length of Crichton’s average marriage (Madonna still has a chance of finding marital bliss but the others are all dead). Since divorce usually comes at least a year after a marriage has gone rancid, we can assume that the number of years these superstars spent happily married is somewhat less than 33.

I come here not to bury these pop icons but to show them sympathy. Every one of them has enriched the world immeasurably. Many of their contributions to pop culture will likely still be relevant a hundred years from now. We should all be grateful for them. But we shouldn’t necessarily want to follow in their footsteps. Each of them seemed, at times, to prize professional success above personal success. All of the men died from what might be termed deaths of despair. Crichton appears to have destroyed his health with cigarettes. Elvis ate and medicated himself to death. Prince and Michael Jackson both died as the result of drug abuse (Prince’s death has been ruled accidental but he was battling an opioid addiction at the time).

Madonna, on the other hand, has always seemed to keep herself in great physical shape. In June of this year, she suffered a health crisis that sent her to a hospital and forced her to cancel part of a concert tour, but there’s no reason to believe it was related to any sort of self-destructive behavior. “My first thought when I woke up in the hospital,” she said in a statement released to the press, “was my children. My second thought was that I did not want to disappoint anyone who bought tickets for my tour.” That remark suggests that she may have finally figured out this whole professional-success-vs.-personal-success conundrum. If so, good for her. She came into this world on the same day that I did and, being rich and female, she ought to outlive me by at least a handful of years. If she dies before I do, it is going to make me start feeling very nervous about my own mortality.

Nobody says that professional and personal success must always be mutually exclusive. Stephen King has been as successful as any of the pop icons mentioned above and he has been married to the same woman since 1971. Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges has been married to the same woman since 1977. Christopher Walken, another Oscar winner, has been with the same woman since 1963 (they married in 1969). But I suspect that all three of those men have poured at least as much energy into their personal lives as they have into their professional ones. And I imagine that, if forced to choose, they would all rather see their professional success crater than see their marriages end. Fortunately, I don’t have to make that choice. My “professional career” was born in a crater and has never risen out of it.

Nine months after my wife and I were wed in October of 1980, Britain’s Prince (now King) Charles wed Lady Diana Spencer in a ceremony that captured the attention of nearly everyone on the planet. I remember being annoyed by all the pomp and envious that the royal couple was sure to have all sorts of advantages in both life and marriage that Julie and I would never have. I eventually learned that the marriage of Charles and Diana was nothing to envy. I have watched the amazing career of film star Tom Cruise, another late Baby Boomer like me, with awe. But the sad and sometimes spectacular implosions of his three marriages have kept me from ever wanting to trade places with him.

I can’t tell you for certain that having a crappy career and a happy marriage is better than having a successful career and a crappy marriage, because I have never had a successful career or a crappy marriage. But tonight, my wife and I will sit together at our dining-room table as we have done almost every evening for the past 43 years and share tales of how our days went as we eat dinner together. After that, we will probably sit and watch TV together for an hour or two, frequently talking over the dialogue as is our wont. If you are thinking that my life sounds a bit sad in comparison with the lives of Madonna or Michael Crichton or Lady Di or Prince, I encourage you to think again. And if you are a young person thinking of prioritizing career over marriage, I advise you to tread carefully. Even if your career gets off to a late start while you prioritize your marriage, huge professional success may still await you. It’s highly unlikely but not impossible that I may someday score a colossal professional success. But what are the chances that Tom Cruise or Madonna will ever know what it’s like to go to bed with the same person every night for 43 consecutive years?

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