Paul [to the woman he’s having an affair with]: Don’t be naive. Everything is a negotiation, Harriet. Everything. [Women today] want me to be the wife. They want me to be the support system. Well, I can’t do that. Harriet, I just wasn’t told that’s the way it was supposed to be.
-Wendy Wasserstein, Isn’t It Romantic, Act 1 Scene 7
Harriet [an adult, to her childhood friend]: Life is a negotiation.
Janie: I don’t believe I have to believe that.
Harriet: Janie, it’s too painful not to grow up.
Janie: That’s not the way I want to grow up.
-Wendy Wasserstein, Isn’t It Romantic, Act 2 Scene 5
Lately, I’ve found myself thinking back to the adults I grew up watching, and wondering if the strains and divorces I saw came from the marriages’ place in American history. Perhaps the idea of an American marriage, of who does what and who’s valued for it, was sexist. When feminism introduced the radical idea that women are people, the old system broke. When I suggested this to a friend in my generation, he observed that he and his wife were struggling with something similar. They want an equal marriage, they want to both work, both raise their kids, but paternity and maternity leave laws make that hard, and most careers don’t seem set up for part-time work. My friends want an equal love. In our country and our culture, they’re not sure what that looks like.
It’s easy to hate Paul in Isn’t It Romantic, though it’s also clear Paul thinks that he’s just doing what people do. He has a wife–of course. He has a much younger mistress, an employee from his firm–in his worldview, why wouldn’t he? In life, he thinks, one person does the doing, and another does the supporting. A moment is either about me and my needs, or about you and yours. That’s how life works, and that’s why “everything is a negotiation”: we all want the support, the importance, the moment, and we’re convincing someone else to give it to us.
As other characters repeat variations of Paul’s thought, I started worrying that, in a way, he might be right. Sometimes I need silence and you need song. Someone has to wash the dishes, someone has to cook the food. The ideal, of course, is to share, but that’s not always simple. I think trying to calculate half of a task leads down a rabbit hole. When I was younger, for instance, my brother and I were supposed to split folding laundry. I folded slower–and goofed around, I would think–so I wanted to “split” it by both working until it was done. He wanted to make two piles, and each do one. Besides, what’s hard for me might be easy for you. If we try to do some calculations, do we calculate by effort? By time? What if someone’s sick? One woman I know, who was married in the ‘80s when Isn’t It Romantic was published, once told me that couples usually compete about who had a worse day, who has a worse sore throat. Whoever wins gets to be taken care of, and the other person has to do the caring. “Everything is a negotiation.”
I want an equal love. I don’t like Paul. I don’t think Paul likes Paul, not really, but he’s convinced that this is the way the “real world” works, and hoping for anything else is naive. But maybe, with his logic (or his history), he’s slipped up. Maybe there’s a way out of the knot he’s tying. Sure, we have different wants, different needs. A negotiation means I get as much as I can of what I want while giving up as little as I must. A negotiation has a “yours” and a “mine.” If we can love what’s other, if love can give me the joy of your music, and give you the peace of my silence, can’t our relationships–our friendships–heck, our communities–have more “ours”? Can’t we slip past Paul and his arguments and walk off, valuing all the ways that we take care of one another?
That’s how I want to grow up.