People Who Shouldn’t Have Married

SOLO 30 | Getting Married

As you know, more and more people are delaying marriage or not getting married at all. In the previous hundred plus years, however, nearly everyone got married, but was that always the best choice? In this episode, writer and high school teacher Mary Dahm returns to join Peter McGraw for a fun conversation that looks at some people in history who shouldn’t have gotten married. That is, if they were alive today, they would likely be solo. Peter and Mary end the episode by discussing some fun quotes about marriage.

Listen to Episode #34 here


People Who Shouldn’t Have Married

As you know, more and more people are delaying marriage or not getting married at all. In the previous 100-plus years however, nearly everyone married, but was that always the best choice? Mary Dahm returns for a fun conversation that looks at some people in history who shouldn’t have married. You’ll recognize most names, but at least one will be new. We end this episode by discussing some fun quotes about marriage also. By now, you know my normal request to rate and review and tell your friends and family. I’m also hosting some live Zoom events in the coming weeks and months. If you want to find out about them, sign up on the Solo podcast page on PeterMcGraw.org. I hope you enjoy it. Let’s get started.

My guest is Mary Dahm. Mary is a writer, English teacher and a previous guest from Episode 19 Write Your Way Out. Welcome back, Mary.

Thank you.

This episode came from the idea that we had. We were discussing how many female writers’ potential careers were cut short by marriage. It came up with this loose idea about people who should not have married. People who are married but should not have done so.

Not all female writers. You’ll be surprised by some of the people, mostly the first one.

The idea was that there was a time where women, when they got married, they had to take care of a home and raised children. They had to give up any aspirations they had. That’s where this gut got started. It morphed into this idea that as I like to say, I’m not anti-marriage. I think it’s overprescribed that when most people do it, there has to be a subset of people who probably shouldn’t be doing it. I thought it would be fun to try to highlight some of those people through history who may have been better off remaining solo.

It’s subjective. These are my opinions. If it’s a person in history, all you have to go off of is their writings, their letters and the evidence you have from their lives based on other people.

Did you do some research on this?

One of the people is from one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. I know it well. I didn’t have to do much research. I went back to sections of the book that I had already taken notes on and then I did. They’re all people I already knew and I did some additional research.

The premise is these are people throughout history who may have been better off remaining solo.

I would say another interesting way to put it as if they were alive, when being solo was more acceptable, that perhaps they would be solo. They would not marry, but at their time, they didn’t have the choice not to marry.

For example, podcasts didn’t exist in the 18th century.

These are the 19th and 20th centuries.

Podcasts didn’t exist in the 19th century, but if they did, there wouldn’t be one called Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to A Remarkable Life.

I would say that the 19th-century version of podcasts was lecture circuits. Public intellectuals would go around. They would do these rail tours around the country. There was such a thing as public speech and people listening to that. That’s how people got new, progressive, and interesting ideas, as the anti-slavery movement emerged out of a lot of those lectures by Emerson. People had access to new and interesting ideas that are spread by podcasts. I wouldn’t say it was the medium. It was the fact that marriage was such a part of society. It wasn’t an alternate path.

There was no one on the lecture circuit talking about this.

Although I would say slavery was a bigger problem. That’s good that they were talking about that instead.

I’m glad that one got tackled so that we could open up some time for this one. I have a loose list. You have a real list.

I have a real list. You have a shit list.

I wrote down a few ideas.

For context, I have a Word document that is color-coded and about 2,000 words long and Pete has a yellow legal pad with a doctor’s handwriting that I can’t read.

Why don’t you start with your number one person?

I hope I don’t go on for too long. I’m very interested in this. For a little context, this is from a book called Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. The premise of this book is more about mental illness than it is about marriage. It’s the idea that Abraham Lincoln was not the president he was, despite his depression. He was the president he was because of his depression. He was able to see things in a certain way and truly see accurately how bad the Civil War would be when other people were optimistic. Abraham Lincoln, there’s a reason we remember him the way that we do. He stood outside of his time almost. He was such a free thinker. He almost seemed immune to the norms of the period that he lived in.

The premise of this book, not having read it, but knowing what I know about depression, one of the things about depression is that depressed people are often much more realistic in their thinking. They don’t have the natural optimism bias that a lot of people have.

There’s a term for that. It’s called Depressive Realism. Shenk’s basic argument is an optimist is a good leader in times of peace. A pessimist is a good leader in times of crisis.

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I’ve heard about this with Churchill.

Churchill was bipolar.

These leaders who have some issues with mental illness sometimes can thrive in times of chaos. That’s the premise of the book.

This marriage thing is a relatively small part of it, but it stood out to me. To talk about this, we have to talk about Lincoln’s time. Talking about the fact that Lincoln was such a depressive, this was in sharp contrast to the idealized sentimental, sappy as fuck, version of marriage at the time. People would do things if their spouse died, they would put a lock of hair in a locket and wear it forever because they knew that they would be with them in the afterlife forever. Before that, through all of history, people had a much more practical view of marriage.

Marriage was initially amongst hunter-gatherer groups. It was a way to divide labor and help people live more cooperatively and expand families so that you had in-laws. It was good to have a lot of bigger families because society was based on sharing. Later, it was a way to consolidate money and power, especially for the rich. There was this huge shift that is still influencing the way we view marriage nowadays. That happened in the late 1700s and then in the Victorian era especially, which was the 1830s through the end of the 19th century. That’s when this shift happened where people began to marry for love more at higher rates and that people viewed their partner not to serve a practical purpose, but that they were emotional, spiritual and financial partners.

The idea of the soulmate emerged right directly during the time of Abraham Lincoln’s coming of age. You can imagine this extremely negative, gloomy and pessimistic person. Abraham Lincoln’s generation, they were coming of age during the 1830s and that was right when this change started. Lincoln’s contemporaries described him as gloomy, extremely pessimistic as a young man. He had a suicidal crisis. Somebody like that, this idea of marriage as being this idealized, spiritually fulfilling transcendent state as someone who’s a depressive realist, that didn’t sit with him.

I want to make sure I understand this. It sounds like what you’re saying is that prior to this time, marriage was this utilitarian function. You need it in terms of survival. It had to do with families uniting in some way.

This specific function it served varied widely throughout history, but all of them were utilitarian. With hunter-gatherers, it was labor purposes. Later, it was to consolidate wealth. It was always some practical function.

Around this time, you started to have this idea of marrying for love, soulmate and that there’s this fulfilling element to marriage beyond the practical. It’s not that the practical elements went away, but moving to people under one roof saves money, for example.

There wasn’t even that expectation before that somebody would marry for love. For most of history, it was common to have mistresses and to have affairs. That wasn’t taboo because there was not this expectation that you had to get everything, especially all of your sexual needs met from a marriage. Victorian time, that was not acceptable.

I sense where you’re going with this is Abe Lincoln, famously married, as all presidents have been.

If we ever have a solo president, probably not, but we don’t have to get into that.

It’s a good question. I don’t know. There’s some chance that will happen. There’s a movie called The American President and it is a solo president and he’s a widow. An only acceptable solo is a man who is widowed. Lincoln got married.

He got married after some amount of drama. He courted Mary Todd. A courtship at that time, I would compare it to maybe moving in with someone with the expectation that you would get married. There was such expectation behind it. He courted her. He eventually broke off the courtship that caused a lot of rumination and stress for him. Eventually, they were reunited at a gathering of friends and they became engaged. This is something that interests me. The person who engineered it, it wasn’t organic, they happened to meet. You would think that maybe a mutual friend or a family member brought them back together. In fact, it was Lincoln’s medical doctor who had been treating him for depression with leeching and all the horrible treatments they had at the time that don’t work. He arranged the reunion because he was following the prominent physician view at the time that marriage is a prescription for Hypochondriasis, which is what he called Lincoln’s condition. Marriage is a healthy state of life and it’s a medical prescription used to cure anything like, “You’re struggling? Get married. You’ll feel better.”

It’s not a reach to know that Lincoln didn’t want to get married. In the historical record, he told her friend, “Marrying her would kill me.” I thought that you would appreciate some of his reasoning. This was something he told a close friend in a letter. This is related to the fact that if you have a serious depressive episode of mental illness episode, you worry that you won’t be able to trust yourself anymore, trust your decision making. He prided himself on his wits and his decision-making and he wanted to have that strength. He worried that another person in the picture would create difficulty. He said in that ability, his decision making, “I once prided myself as the only, or at least the chief gem of my character. That gem I lost to the depression. How and when, you too will know. I have not yet regained it. Until I do, I cannot trust myself in any matter of much importance.” This is a man trying to come back.

Around what stage in his career and his life was this? Was this early on?

I believe he had two major depressive episodes. One where he was suicidal in the early 1830s, in 1832 or 1834. He was in his twenties. He was starting to work in the local state legislature, not yet involved in national politics. That happened in the 1840s. My favorite part of this whole book is his description of this wedding. When Lincoln was dressing for his wedding, a boy who was a guest asked him, “Where are you going?” He’s wearing all his black and white formal wear. Lincoln answered, “To hell, I suppose.” I didn’t know you when I read it, but when I reread it, I said, “That sounds like Pete.”

At that moment, he’s admitting that he’s not a good candidate to marry in general or marry Mary Todd.

You might argue. What are the chances he marries another person with mental illness? She was likely bipolar. Those symptoms don’t come up until a little later. At the time he married her, she was a lovely woman and he liked her. Everyone liked her. There wasn’t something egregiously wrong with her. She was a good match. He didn’t like the idea.

In part, because he felt having his individual perspective was valuable for him. He didn’t want it crowded out.

He was someone who valued rationality to the extreme. He’s still known for this measured decision-making of going through every option and thinking reasonably at a time when a lot of people were passionate about causes. He was a thoughtful thinker. He felt deep emotions because of his illness, but he was always reticent. In his letters to his wife, he never expressed much affection for her.

The upside of him marrying, in general, is that it allowed him to become president. I don’t know that much about Lincoln. I had read a biography about him many years ago that I thought was quite good. One of the things that are striking about him is he unretired from politics to run for president. You can imagine the counterfactual, the what-if world. What if Abe Lincoln hadn’t run for president? What would have happened to this country during that critical time? People agree he’s one of the great presidents given what he did.

The idea that he needed to get married in his life to be able to become president. Also, he did love his children, even though he lost two of them and that was hard. It’s not so much that he should not have gotten married. I would say if he were alive, perhaps he would be solo.

His personality is not well-suited for marriage. That’s a great one.

A quick plug, if any of this interested you, Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk is the name. I love this book.

Can I ask you about one that I have that I’ve been thinking about?

Is it Don Draper?

I have this idea of fiction. Let’s digress for a moment because probably it doesn’t count to have a fictional character come up in this, except that it’s telling when there’s a fictional character who shouldn’t have gotten married. I don’t think it’s Don Draper. I feel it’s almost every single character in Mad Men. Think through the list. All the major characters have profound problems with their marriages.

I’m trying to think of one who doesn’t. Pete and Trudy end up happy in the end.

He had to move out at one point because he was having an extramarital affair and she caught him there. He also never embraced moving out into the suburbs. He wanted to remain in New York City and he resented that.

I don’t know if we should go too much in Mad Men. If people haven’t seen it, it’s probably not the most interesting example.

The point is the lead character, Don Draper, has married multiple times and it ends in tears every time.

Don especially is known as this womanizer. He’s constantly at the office. He can’t stop trying to escape from his life and having all these affairs. He’s completely the archetype of the stoic, silent type, but the emotionally unavailable father. What interests me with that is that a person like that, whether or not they want to have kids, they probably should not have kids. They’re not suited to being a parent. He had to have a wife. He had to have kids for a similar reason to Lincoln. To work in advertising, you have to look like a family man. You have to subscribe to certain values. You can go to the golf course and chat about wives and do the thing. There’s a lot of careers like this. This is interesting. One pressure to get married can come from your career path and the culture of that world.

Even though it doesn’t have much to do with your ability to be good at your job. It’s socialization. Let’s move past fictional characters. I was going to ask about Ernest Hemingway. He’s one of the great American writers. He certainly fits the solo persona in terms of lived a remarkable life. He created more than he consumed. He went on these adventures. He had this vigorous physical life. He wasn’t what you would normally think of as the weak writer, someone who wrote strong, but their personal life was weak and frail. This is a man who hunted and boxed. He was a hard drinker and could mix it up with the locals and so on. He had been married four times. To me, he seems like a good candidate for someone who shouldn’t have married by virtue of getting divorced the number of times he did. That’s a good piece of evidence. What do you think of that?

I found this great. You like Hemingway because he has a white beard and likes to work out. He likes to box.

I do like Hemingway for all those reasons, less so of the hunting stuff.

You and Hemingway would get along well other than the drinking. He would make you feel like a little bitch. He would be like, “Do you want another one?” You’re like, “The last time I drank was two months ago.”

If I were with Ernest Hemingway, I would get drunk with him.

You would be drunk after the second drink and embarrass yourself. He would ask you if you want a third and he wouldn’t understand why you’re saying no. He would be on his eighth and you’d be on partway through your second and you’d be drunker.

It’s probably number three, I’m guessing. I have not been drinking, so I would be at a distinct disadvantage.

Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, said, “I don’t mind Ernest falling in love, but why does he always have to marry the girl when he does it?” It was an interesting question. He’s not living as early as Lincoln was. Hemingway lived for mostly the first half of the 20th century. It wasn’t quite the same marriage culture. It was more liberal. He wouldn’t have needed to marry all these women to be with them sexually.

He would fall in love. He’d get wrapped up into it. He’d pull the trigger and marry them rather quickly.

He was a hopeless romantic for someone interested in masculinity. The interesting thing, in the course of my research, I found out that Hemingway was a sugar baby. That’s what I like to call him because it amuses me.

These were rich ladies?

That’s a lot of his writing. I re-read The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which is a story about a guy who’s on a big game hunting expedition in Africa, gets gangrene in his leg, and is waiting to die. He reflects on his life. A big part of the reflection is he would say he married one rich bitch after the other. It’s misogynistic and blaming the women when he’s the one who married them. A lot of his writing was about sad, reflecting on the fact that his first wife was the love of his life.

This is Hemingway?

He wished that he stayed with her and he kept going from one wife to the next.

These women helped support his lifestyle, which involved travel.

Also big game hunting, watching bullfighting, doing whatever he wanted. Being able to write without worrying about making a living. This started with Hadley Richardson, his first wife. That was how this habit started. After that, his books were successful. During his lifetime, he was making money. His first wife, he had nothing. He married her and he was only able to write The Sun Also Rises, known as one of his best books because she supported him while they were living in Paris and he was able to write that book full-time. That’s why I call him a sugar baby. It amuses me.

He might not be a perfect candidate for someone who never married because one of his four wives was someone that he had this more modern romantic connection with.

He had a romantic connection with all of them.

She was special. The other one is that the marriage served this utilitarian function for him, which is often the opposite gendered one, which is in a world where she didn’t have equal opportunities, she was able to support herself in part through a marriage. He was able to support himself, at least his writing, through this marriage, one of these marriages, some of these marriages, or all of these marriages.

I honestly saw the four wives initially and the first thing I thought was, I probably shouldn’t have. Not much in common with Lincoln, but in that category, he would have been best to be solo and date these women.”

The issue is you’re right. The way to think about this is not at the time he should have been single, but if Hemingway was alive, would he be well-served remaining single?

If he were alive, he wouldn’t have gotten married four times. I can’t think of anyone who would do that or has done that.

That was one of the people I had thought of. Who else do you have?

Another one that I find interesting is likely not a name that you would know, but she was a very prominent intellectual and philosopher of Lincoln’s time period. It’s a little later. She lived from 1860 to 1935, so she did a lot of her work during the late Victorian era. Her name was Charlotte Perkins Gilman. If you ever take a Victorian literature class or anything on gender feminist studies, you’ll read her famous short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. It illustrates her whole philosophy. It’s about a Victorian woman who gets married. She’s married to a physician, notably. This Victorian physician is fucked up. They did not do anything useful. She married a physician and had a baby. It’s clear what she has in the story is postpartum depression, but they called it nervousness. They called it hysteria. Her husband is playing the traditional Victorian role of the husband where he is both her caretaker in a condescending way and her emotional partner, but he’s her doctor. He’s giving her medical advice and the advice is like, “Stay in this room. Don’t do anything. Sleep after each meal. Don’t write, paint and see anyone.”

We all know the real cure for depression is to get out and do things, see people and to move. The woman in the story starts seeing these crazy shapes in the wallpaper. She keeps describing it as this lurid yellow wallpaper. First, she sees the crack slithering around and then the cracks in the wallpaper become bars. She then sees a figure, like a woman crawling around and shaking the pattern on the wallpaper. It’s a Gothic horror story of this woman that ultimately goes crazy. It’s a great story, but it mirrors her life where she got married. She had never been someone who would have wanted to have a kid, aside from the postpartum depression. Many people want to have kids and love their kids and experience that. Aside from that, she had a mother who probably was emotionally abusive, but her father left and her mother was withholding of affection. She never had any interest in kids.

She wanted to be an intellectual. She wanted to be on the lecture circuit, where you go to all these places and give speeches. She did do that later in life, but she never had much interest in kids and family life. She got married, she had a kid. She experienced a horrible postpartum depression for unrelated reasons. Later, she separated from her husband, which was rare at that time. She moved from the East Coast to Pasadena, California, where she worked as a writer. She was active in these reform groups and feminist groups. In 1894, she sent her daughter back East to live with her former husband and his second wife. She wrote in her memoir she was happy for her ex-husband. She wrote her daughter’s “Second mother was fully as good as the first, and perhaps better, in some ways.” She still saw her daughter later. She moved back there. She wasn’t a monster. She did, what would not be super uncommon for a man to do and give up custody. For a woman in the Victorian era to willingly do that was highly unusual. It shows that she never wanted to have kids in the first place.

Some of this conversation, it’s not marriage per se, but it’s also this idea of having children. What underlies this a little bit is this notion of either you’re not well-suited for it personality-wise, but then also you might not be well-suited for it lifestyle-wise.

You might not be well-suited for it because you had a fucked-up childhood and you have trauma. You can get over that and stuff, but if you have not addressed that, probably shouldn’t have kids and pass on your parents’ trauma onto them.

Certainly, that notion that you’re not good at it might be part of it too.

This is what we were talking about earlier where I said that people think like what I was talking about with the Lincoln thing where this doctor says, “Marriage is the cure. If you’re sick, if you’re not thriving, if you’re not doing well, marriage will fix it.” People think that with kids, when you’re not happy, that a child will complete you or give you a greater purpose in some way. Some people are wonderful parents and some people are not cut out for it. If I went into sales, I like to use a career comparison. I’m introverted, nervous, I don’t like talking to people and I don’t have a passion for what I’m selling, people wouldn’t say, “Keep doing it until you get good at it.” They would say, “Maybe you’re not cut out for it. Maybe you should try a different career path.” People don’t say that about kids. They say that everyone should do it.

The way I was thinking about it is that some career paths, some choices that people make or not even that they make. It’s a calling that they have. We’re talking about a little bit about writers. Some writers have a calling like they’re compelled to do this. Some careers are incredibly difficult that they take an overwhelming amount of time, energy and also a risk that children don’t lend themselves to very much. You might be able to get away with having a partner, especially a partner who’s willing to support you. The obvious thing is if you’re a woman, you’re doing more of the caregiving than your partner, which has been traditionally the case.

Even these days, when it’s more equal than it’s ever been in terms of the labor division of kids, but even when men feel it’s equal when they’ve done interviews on this, the woman says, “It’s not equal.”

There’s a lot of evidence for it. It was called the second shift that women put more effort into the shift, when you get home, whether it be making meals and all the other types of support that go on. Charlotte seems a good one.

Although, after all this drama played out, she did have a lovely marriage to her first cousin at the end of her life that she was happy about. She talked about it oddly with all that idealized Victorian language. She spent her whole life fighting for women’s rights and that women shouldn’t have to be the primary caretakers of children. I would say that this is a good example of someone who probably wouldn’t have kids.

I have a potential one. I want to get your reaction to it. That’s Mae West.

I don’t know much about her life. I was looking up quotes. We’re both interested in-jokes and a one-liner. She’s the best at the one-liner.

She is the master of the double entendre. I write about her in Shtick to Business. She was fascinating.

Did she get married?

I don’t know. I’m guessing that she did. First of all, she was super cutting edge in terms of dealing with taboos.

She was married twice.

She was this highly sexualized woman. A lot of her jokes were double entendres about men and sex and so on. One of the cool things about Mae West was she has this great quote which is, “I love censorship. I’ve made a fortune because of it.” One of the things that she did was she had this sultry sexualized voice. She could say a regular run of the mill things and it sounded naughty. She found a way to avoid the censors and the FCC because she would technically not say something wrong. She has these fun quotes that suggest that she’s not the marrying type. The fact that someone married is not good evidence.

That doesn’t mean they’re the marrying type. Her first marriage, they were married in 1914.

Mae West is a maybe.

This is weird. One says she was married to one dude from 1911 and 1943. The other one says from 1914 to 1920.

We’re going to get back to Mae West though because, at the end of this, you have a few quotes about marriage that are going to be good. In some of them, she has one?

She has three. I can’t tell she’s been married once or twice. It’s giving me dates that overlap, but it’s two guys. Anyway, she was married. We don’t know how many times.

Do you have someone else on your list?


My other one is related to these people who would do these public talks traveling around. It is Oscar Wilde. He shouldn’t have gotten married because he was gay. It’s strong evidence that you probably shouldn’t have got married at that time. Let’s jump into these quotes.

There’s a lot. I don’t know how much we can do.

We can do a few and see how it plays out. One of the fun ideas about the famous quotes, it takes the temperature of that time of these people and so on. Especially because on the one hand, there is this view that marriage is a path to blissfulness. Marriage as a way to cure your challenges in life and so on. Yet, when you have individuals talking about this stuff, maybe they’re not so positive. Did you pick humorous ones?

I picked both. I picked some that directly contradict.

That ends up being the case. It’s not that marriage is good or bad. It’s good for some people, it’s bad for some people. You would expect that to be reflected in an individual’s quips about marriage.

I find this one interesting. This is George Bernard Shaw, the writer. This is going against the Victorian ideas that were popular in Lincoln’s time. “When two people are under the influence of the most violent, insane, delusive and transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain and that excited, abnormal and exhausting condition continuously until death do they part.”

First of all, that’s hilarious and well-said in the following way. Let’s use Hemingway as an example of that. It sounds like he truly fell in love with each of these women and the idea is that that love didn’t last.

It’s not crazy to fall deeply in love with four people over the course of your lifetime, but then if you expect each of them to last forever, it’s unrealistic.

I don’t know a lot about the research on love, but there are these different forms of love that have been documented and so on. This idea of romantic love, this “soulmate-esque” love that’s like butterflies in your stomach, the evidence for that is that it passes with time. Not quickly, but it does pass with time and certainly, passes before death does one part.

Although women live longer than men, so they don’t have to tolerate it as long, generally. Here’s the counter-argument. My mom was always spouting pro-marriage arguments to me and I’m always telling her that like, “If I get married, I will get divorced. I’m okay with that.”

The data suggest you have a 35% chance. Yours would be lower because you’re highly-educated.

It doesn’t mean I make good decisions.

That’s fair.

That’s one but then the argument is, “If most people are smart, not the people who get married at Disneyland. People who get buried at Disney World are the people who should never be getting married, point-blank.” They would subscribe to the idea that the most transient of passions that love can last forever. A lot of people would be more realistic and think that it changes over time. These are two different great thinkers who had that same idea. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” The great philosopher, writer, Montaigne said, “If there is such a thing as a good marriage, it is because it resembles friendship rather than love.”

When I think about my longest relationships, they were authentic. They were often based on more of a friendship model than a passion model. We got along well in the same way that I get along well with my non-romantic male friends. It’s easy for that relationship to keep going and being good because you share similar interests and you share a sense of humor. You get along. You can talk a lot right in that way. I certainly would say that for a long marriage, that notion of a strong friendship.

That was the model for a lot of history too. The Victorian era, they got idealistic, spiritual and sentimental about it, but all through the 1700s and into the early 1800s, the model was they would say, “First, you start to hold someone in esteem like you respect someone. If you deeply respect someone, love will follow.” It’s the respect first and then the love. That all comes from rationality, intellectual compatibility. A lot of people think of love as something outside of themselves, as a force hits you like a lightning bolt.

It starts with a thirst trap. It starts with the hot picture. This is what I found. This is about artists. Ivan Turgenev, the Russian writer. “It is not a good thing for an artist to marry. As the ancients used to say, ‘If you serve a muse, you must serve her and no one else.’ An unhappy marriage may perhaps contribute to the development of talent, but a happy one is no good at all.” You can guess what Ivan’s marriage was like.

That’s the outdated argument that artists shouldn’t be happy, that you need to be unhappy to be an artist.

I agree with that. Here’s another one from a book about advice to writers. They’re a little one-dimensional, “The best advice on writing I ever received, ‘Don’t have children,’ I gave it to myself.” That’s Richard Ford. That’s a super fun one. Did you have a Mae West one?

I have a few Mae West. These are funny. I’ve got a George Carlin one too, “I am is reportedly the shortest sentence in the English language. Could it be that ‘I do’ is the longest sentence?” That’s George Carlin.

I like that it could have been Carlin or Mae West.

It could have been either. These are all in the same vein. Mae West said, “Getting married is trading in the adoration of many for the sarcasm of one. Although that can work at both ends, then you get to direct all your sarcasm to the poor bastard that married you.”

I don’t think she meant it that way.

I know, but that’s what I think of. I was like, “I could torture him if I lived with him. I could make his life and lower his self-esteem.” She said, “Men are my hobby. If I ever got married, I’d have to give it up.” It’s my favorite. I think that Lincoln would have said this too, “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.”

I like the double entendre there. If you’re reading and if you know of other people besides your parents who should never have married, please reach out to me and let me know. I can add them to the list.

Are we going to make a long list? Are they not going to be people that anyone knows? They’re going to be actual people.

There are people like Bill Clinton. If you’re a politician, you have to do it, but he didn’t seem like the best.

I think they had a very genuine intellectual and emotional connection. It’s hard to have that much power.

It is interesting that you were saying how these earlier marriages had looser standards when it came to extramarital sex.

Did I talk about that already?

You did. That is interesting.

They weren’t intended to be based on love.

For love to work, you have to embrace this level of monogamy and this one person forever. When it was done for these utilitarian purposes, for survival, to build wealth, to these things the idea that you weren’t as committed sexually was a release valve of sorts, it sounds like.

Politically, for wealthier people, for anyone in government and politics, concubines were a big thing. Throughout history, mistresses were much more common. Once we placed all these moral values around it, which was relatively new. People like Bill Clinton will keep it buttoned up.

Also, things have changed in terms of the reporting of this. It’s not like when you think about Kennedy. He was notorious for misbehaving as president. We can end on this note because it’s an open thing, which is it’s that idea of marriage and children going together and that they’re almost one-to-one throughout history, especially pre-birth control. If you got married and you were having sex, there were kids that were coming.

I like the way you said that. It sounds like a train is coming.

A freight train of children. There are these in-between stages. Is it the person not-well suited to be a parent? What opportunities did children block for people throughout history, especially women? That’s the thing that is striking. That’s why birth control has been liberating for women because they can pursue what it is that they want to pursue when they want to pursue it. They can choose when they want to have children if they want to have children and so on. That’s the first level. The next level is whether a so-called life partner helps or hinders a person’s lifestyle. In some cases, they help because they can support an artist, the Hemingway patron-style relationship that might exist versus someone who should be out and traveling the world and they’re locked up.

It’s like Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She became the lecturer, the public intellectual she always wanted to be, but she had to get out of her marriage to do it.

She had to even forego her parenting for some of it. That’s fascinating. This was fun. I didn’t know exactly what to expect because this was loosely conceptualized. At least you did your homework when it came to this. You were a very good teacher. Mary, that’s great. For the readers, I am looking to start to build a community for Solo. Please go to the Solo page at PeterMcGraw.org. Sign up for the mailing list. I’m going to be hosting some live Zoom events where people can give some feedback about the show, suggest episodes and most importantly, start to interact with the type of person who’s being drawn to and who’s reading this.

The community idea, that’s fun. I’m excited to see what happens with that. Also, thank you for having me.

Welcome back and thanks again, Mary. Cheers.


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About Mary Dahm

SOLO 30 | Getting MarriedMary Dahm is a writer and high school English teacher. She studied English literature and history at Boston College and recently earned a Masters in Teaching from USC. She also likes to deadlift.


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