The Amateur Marriage

Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage is a novel depicting two mismatched spouses that continually fight for six decades. They each fail to form their own individual sense of identify. They also do not form a social sense of identity as a couple within a larger community. They each fight for superiority in the marriage as their identity. This paper will examine this long-term conflict, related to each spouse’s quest for individual identity. Several elements form the identity of an individual.

Some are biological, stemming from ancestry in nationality, ethnic, and genetic backgrounds; and, from basic human needs of food, shelter, love, and recognition (Richland College, 2007). Other elements are social, including what groups a person joins or tries to join, religious background and conversions to other religions, political leanings, and careers and occupations. One also sees oneself in one way, while others see them in another, making up two identities that usually do not fully match.

Further, an individual is a son/daughter, spouse/partner, parent, or other relative or friend of someone else, and these are identities as well. One interesting and very strong identity is the one arising from being in conflict with another person or group. Such a person may be, for example, anti child-abuse, anti war-with-Iraq; or against all that his neighbor who has insulted him stands for. The Father of Psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, taught that all identity is biologically developed, completed by the end of adolescence (Richland College, 2007).
His student Erik Erickson broke away from Freud, believing that identity forms via social interactions as well as biological maturity throughout the lifep, not ending in adolescence (ibid. ). Identity is an ongoing process. Erikson devised “Eight Stages of Man. ” These include Trust (infant), Autonomy (toddler), Initiative (child), Identity (adolescent), Intimacy (young adult), Generativity (middle age), and Integrity (older age). Erickson believed that social environment combines with biology (aging) to give people sets of crises to resolve at each stage.
Resolving them creates maturity, because one must resolve the crises of one level before going on to the next, or become stuck at the lower level, never to mature and always having the same type of problems, as the main couple in Tyler’s novel do. The couple Pauline and Michael Anton meets in pre-WWII Baltimore. Pauline jumps from a streetcar to join a patriotic parade and suffers a head gash, so she flings herself into Michael’s old family grocery store for help. A more reserved individual, Michael is taken aback by Pauline’s dramatic energy and falls instantly in love.
Both in their early 20’s, they marry, but they do not pass adolescence and never develop intimacy. Mike goes to war, is shot in training, and comes straight home. He and Pauline have three children and move to the suburbs. They have numerous conflicts over the years and their marriage stagnates, because they are both stuck in childhood and adolescence, fighting over everything to be known as the winner and the superior partner. Pauline always flies off the handle emotionally, while Michael silently stews over things as mundane as whether it will get cold enough to snow.
Nothing is ever solved over 60 years’ time, and the marriage and the individual Antons do not change or grow, either. They cut themselves off from the social interactions that would help them to grow. Their identity was formed by the time they married and never had a chance to develop further, because they would not allow it. They fight, each trying to win in order to be identified as the winner and the leader of the marriage. Then either would feel important, worthy, and adult. Unfortunately, it never happens. Mike is Polish Catholic, Pauline is WASP, and these disparate ethnic and religious identities are hard to meld into a marriage.
Pauline believes that two souls should combine as one. Michael feels that they should remain distinct, but walk in the same direction. The marriage cannot work, because neither will learn additional new ways of thinking. Thus, for six decades, she is flighty, he is cold, and they remain constant in this. While marriages of their friends grow and develop via individual maturity and interactions as a couple through the usual give and take with a larger community, the Anton’s marriage is stuck because of their feuding. Life passes them by, except for the problems.
The Antons and their marriage cannot grow up. The author describes the friends’ growing marriages as fruit trees: “Marriages are like fruit trees… After a time they meld, they grow together, and it doesn’t matter how crazy the mix is, peaches on an apple tree or cherries on a plum tree; still if you tried to separate them you would cause a fatal wound. ” Meanwhile, the Anton’s marriage is a “gnarled, wizened, whiskery tree you see on windbeaten cliffs where there’s not enough soil or water. ” The marriage is anorexic, starving to death.
Pauline, who once loved Mike’s reserved qualities “chafed daily at . . . his rigidity, his caution, his literal-mindedness . . . his reluctance to spend money, his suspicion of anything unfamiliar, his tendency to pass judgment . . . and his magical ability to make her seem hysterical” (p. 75). Michael’s opinion of Pauline becomes “a frantic, impossible woman, so unstable, even in good moods, with her exultant voice and glittery eyes, her dangerous excitement” (p. 167). Neither one is concerned with self-development, but only with criticizing the other.
Over the decades, they become entrenched in these mindsets and unable to develop past their mid-twenties, psychologically. The miss all of the intimacy, generativity and integrity by holding onto adolescence. In identity, they are only “the fighting spouses. ” When he does think about the marriage and where it is going, Mike sees that “all those young marrieds of the war years” have grown “wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever — the last couple left in the amateurs’ parade” (p.
168). He saw themselves as “more like brother and sister than husband and wife. This constant elbowing and competing, jockeying for position, glorying in I-told-you-so” (p. 168). Further, the Anton’s drug-abusing daughter Lindy sees the family as a stagnated hell, a “wretched, tangled knot, inward-turned, stunted, like a trapped fox chewing its own leg off” (p. 300). The marriage is stuck, as well as the family. In dysfunctional families, some members develop identities despite the stagnation and toxicity.
The development of such an identity, a “hardy personality”, is described by Professor Suzanne Kobasa Ouellette of City University of New York (Richland College, 2007). Hardiness and its needed control, commitment, and challenge develop through attaining the following eight skills: 1. Recognize and tolerate anxiety and act anyway. 2. Separate fantasy from reality and tackle reality. 3. Set goals and establish priorities. 4. Project into the future and understand how today’s choices affect the future. 5. Discriminate and make choices consistent with goals and values.
6. Set boundaries and limits. 7. Ask assertively for wants and desires. 8. Trust self and own perceptions. Some dysfunctional people achieve these skills through study and counseling, but the Antons do not. Even when they decide to parent their small grandson Pagan, whom they rescue from the drug culture, they cannot reconcile their entrenched differences. Pauline believes their fights can be patched up in a “firefighting” management technique. Michael sees these fights as hellfire itself. Mike and Pauline decide just to tolerate each other, until Michael leaves.
Even though it is possible to develop self-identities through conflict, Mike and Pauline are not able to do so, because they do not stop fighting in order to find social interactions as a couple (clubs, volunteer work, etc,), and counseling that would help them grow. They remain in the adolescent stage in their mid-60s. At this age and firmly entrenched in adolescence, it may or may not be too late for humans to grow further psychologically. REFERENCES Kriesberg, Lewis. , PhD. ‘ “Us” versus “Them. ” ’ 2003.
From the website of Beyond Intractability: A Free Knowledge Base on More Constructive Approaches to Destructive Conflict: http://www. beyondintractability. org/essay/identity_issues/ Retrieved Feb. 25 2007. Richland College. Dallas County Community College District. 12800 Abrams Road, Dallas, TX 75243-2199. “The Developmental Psychology of Erik Erikson. ” From the Richland College website: http://www. rlc. dcccd. edu/MATHSCI/anth/P101/DVLMENTL/ERIKSON. HTM/ Retrieved Feb 25 2007. Tyler, Anne. The Amateur Marriage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2004