Married Life Explored from Online Dating to Arsenic Use

the married lifeThe New Yorker Sunday edition recently paid tribute to “The Married Life” delving into several facets of the union of matrimony over the centuries by reprinting several articles on the subject ranging from the struggle to find a mate in modern-day China to ending a matrimony with homicide via arsenic poisoning. This was apparently common practice at one point in marital history.

The personal and very moving “A Widow’s Story” gives a poignant account of the unanticipated last week of a marriage of forty-seven years. The edition also shares the married life of a gay woman, Edith Windsor, who won a landmark United States Supreme Court case for marriage after the death of her lifelong companion.

In “Silent Partner,” tribute is paid to novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, Vera, who was Nabokov’s dutiful spouse for 52 years. A synopsis of these articles is not included here, but the series also features: “Amazing Proposal Stories,” an article on marriage therapy, and ”Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” a profile of the fascinating Gerald and Sara Murphy, longtime friends of the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald allegedly modeled characters from his 1934 novel, “Tender Is the Night” on the Murphys who were said to be “masters in the art of living.”

The Love Business

This is the story of Gong Haiyan, a female entrepreneur who founded an online dating service – “The Serious Dating Website” – in Beijing 13 years ago when there were few such services. Gong herself, at age 27, was looking for a mate and found the existing dating services were unreliable and even counterfeit. (For example, they advertised men who had never registered with the service as “available.”) Gong had no background in technology or computer science when she began her enterprise. Today in China, internet dating is an industry worth billions with more than 50 dating sites and Gong Haiyan is at the top of it all. (She had $77 million in shares when her company recently went public.)

Gong now has more than 60 million registered users on her site which she claims has a very clear goal: to get members married. In a country which has historically relied almost solely on matchmaking to pair future mates, Gong, now 40, is affectionately called “China’s No.1 Matchmaker,” although she stresses her business is all about freedom of choice.

She acknowledges the pressure to marry is immense for both men and women in a country where the culture revolves around family and offspring. The new freedoms have not made choosing a mate less complicated. On holidays single men and women are interrogated relentlessly about marriage prospects. In America, slightly more than 50 percent of adults marry, according to U.S. Census data, while ninety eight percent of the female population in China eventually marries—one of the highest marriage rates in the world. Gong frames the search for love as “a matter of fortitude.”

The one-child policy in China has heightened the competition for a mate. In the 1980s it is believed many couples aborted female fetuses to wait for a boy. By 2020, China is expected to have 24 million men of marrying age unable to find a spouse – ‘bare branches” on the family tree. Meanwhile, women who have not married by age 30 are warned they will be “leftover” women. Many of these Chinese women are graduate students who often downplay their educational achievements in order not to intimidate their dates, Gong reveals.

Gong believes that her mission is to give women like her (she married in her thirties) options that never existed before. She says women do not have to get married to get clothes on their backs and food to eat. They can have a good life, an independent life. Above all, they can be picky about choosing a mate.

Murder by Poison

In the early 19th century the common resort of women who wished to kill their husbands was arsenic poisoning. In fact, in 1851 the House of Lords in Britain unsuccessfully tried to pass a law forbidding women to buy arsenic. A medical examiner couldn’t tell whether poison was involved in a death because the symptoms mimicked other common diseases of the time and post-mortem examinations (autopsies) were rare. One could administer the poison gradually or in one dose. It typically took hours to die—plenty of time for a disgruntled spouse to get away from the murder scene.

Arsenic becomes poisonous when it is converted into “white arsenic,” but even that is benign in low doses. Doctors prescribed it for asthma, typhus, malaria, worms, menstrual cramps and other disorders.

Historians give two major reasons for the popularity of arsenic—its availability (one-third of all criminal cases in the early to mid-19th century involved the substance) and the rise in the sale of newspapers which reported at length on poisoning cases and may have inspired a few poisonings. The newspaper articles sometimes provided detailed instructions on how various poisonings were accomplished.

In the mid-1830’s, a reliable chemical test for arsenic was developed. Arsenic was now traceable in the body. The enactment of divorce laws also made poisoning your mate less tempting and arsenic poisoning fell from fashion as a form of domestic homicide.

A Widow’s Story

In this moving piece, acclaimed writer Joyce Carol Oates describes how her apparently healthy 77-year-old husband, Ray, suddenly became ill and was admitted to Princeton Medical Center where the Ontario Review editor was initially diagnosed with pneumonia. Oates is at first relieved because she considers this as something commonplace and treatable and is certain that the hospital will only keep her husband overnight. A day later she is told he has an e.coli bacterial infection in his left lung. Six days later a secondary infection “of mysterious origin” is found in his right lung.

After Ray’s “best day” in the hospital and what the acclaimed writer describes as “an almost feeling of exhilaration,” Oates goes home early only to be summoned back to the medical center at 12:38 in the morning because her husband of 47 years is in “critical condition.”

She is told on the phone that he is “still alive,” but she does not make the drive to the hospital in time and is left to bag up her husband’s belongings and quietly leave her deceased partner’s body alone in room. She writes that she is struck by: “The vanity of our love for each other, the vanity of our lives. The vanity of believing that somehow we owned our lives.”
For anyone who has held vigil in a hospital for several days, Oates precisely captures the feelings of living through the experience. It is one where life outside the hospital goes on normally as you are entombed in a world with a very narrow focus—the recovery of your loved one. Oates describes her wait as taking place in slow-time “during which the mind floats free, like a frail balloon drifting into the sky.”

She talks frequently about a car accident she and her husband were involved in a year before Ray’s final illness when he came “close to catastrophe” but wound up unhurt. They never suspected he would live just a year beyond that incident. She regrets that no one said, “Look we might have been killed last night! I love you! I am so grateful I married you!” She talks of assuming there will be other times to say such things, other occasions. Years to say them.

And this is what you take away from her exquisitely written essay. The fragility of a union of almost 50 years. Ended in a week when one woman was least expecting to become a widow.

The Perfect Wife

This is the way writer Ariel Levy described Edith Windsor, a modern-day lesbian who won a landmark case for gay marriage against the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013. Edith and her partner, Thea Spyer, had been together more than 40 years and had legally married in Canada in 2007. When Thea died in 2009 and left her estate to Windsor, Windsor, who had nursed Spyer through nearly three decades of a chronic illness, found herself ineligible for the exemption on estate tax which applies to a surviving spouse but only in a heterosexual union.

Consequently, Windsor owed $363,053 in taxes to the federal government and $275,528 to the state of New York in estate taxes and she filed suit. When the Supreme Court ruled in that suit that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional, the court held that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages approved by the states under the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause which guarantees equal protection of the law. The definition of “marriage” was no longer restricted to heterosexual unions.

Windsor and Spyer, were actively engaged in gay rights groups throughout their relationship and gradually saw some progress and limited acceptance of marriage equality in some states. But there remained a moral disapproval of homosexuality among many in America. Windsor had to keep her sexuality under wraps when she took a job as a computer programmer for IBM where she worked for many years.

Roberta Kaplan, Windsor’s lawyer, reminisced about Windsor’s 44 years with Thea who was paralyzed for nearly 20 years of the relationship. “Who wouldn’t want a spouse like Edie Windsor?” she asked. Spyer did not live to see Windsor’s victory in the courts, but by all accounts the two had a rich life together and Thea could not have asked for a more “perfect wife.”

Silent Partner

Vera Nabokov assumed many roles in her 52 years as the wife of novelist Vladimir Nabokov. The “two selves” that comprised the Nabokovs were described in a biography about Vera Nabokov as “valves of the same heart.” It was said Vera’s roles were as Vladimir’s first reader, his agent, his typist, his dresser, his money manager, his mouthpiece, his muse, his teaching assistant, his driver, and his body guard (she allegedly carried a pistol in her purse).

She was also said to have been the person to retrieve the manuscript of Nabokov’s famous novel, “Lolita,” from being incinerated in the trash can where he had placed it. She was described as “a spouse who liberated the other spouse from life’s mundane chores.” Nabokov dedicated nearly all of his books to Vera and wrote volumes of letters to her, the mother of their only child, declaring his unending devotion to her. In 1924, he wrote, “You know we are terribly alike. You and I are so special; the miracles we know, no one knows, and no one loves the way we love.”

However, the marriage was not without its infidelities on the part of the novelist, but unlike many literary couples of the era, the Nabokovs survived these dalliances. After Vladimir died, Vera assumed the role of relentless guardian of his legacy.

Vast Experience with Marriage Issues

If you are about to enter marriage or wish to terminate a marriage and need legal assistance, we have highly experienced domestic relations attorneys. Please contact us for a free consultation by calling 1-888-774-9265, chatting with one of our 24-hour live chat representatives or sending us a website message.

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