G.K. Chesterton on Marriage


“The Party Wall” 1906 by Gibson

“Incompatibility in Marriage”

G.K. Chesterton

from The Illustrated London News, September 19, 1908

“They break the law not because they are stronger than the law, but because the law is too strong for them.”

I have always heard from my youth that in America it is possible to get a divorce for incompatibility of temper.  In my childhood I always thought it was a joke; but I thought it even more of a joke when I discovered that it was true. If married people are to be divorced for incompatibility of temper, I cannot imagine why all married people are not divorced. Any man and any woman must have incompatible tempers; it is the definition of sex. It is the whole point of being married. Nay, it is the whole fun of being engaged. You do not fall in love with a compatible person. You do not love somebody exactly like yourself. I am prepared to bet that no two people were ever betrothed for a week without discovering that they suffered from incompatibility of temper. As long as a marriage is founded on a good solid incompatibility, that marriage has a fair chance of continuing to be a happy marriage, and even a romance. Someone said, “As long as lovers can quarrel they are still lovers.”  Whoever said it had, at least, more wisdom and knowledge of human nature than some of the legislators in America.

My eye has just fallen upon a popular newspaper in which is recorded an extraordinary and typical case. The newspaper publishes a portrait of a rich American gentleman, calling himself a Socialist poet. Some months ago, he went off from his wife with his female affinity; and some days ago, hit his female affinity in the face. The paper also produces the face of the female affinity, not, of course, with the aim of excusing the blow. His name is Ferdinand Earle. The affinity’s name is Kuttner. Into the details of this interesting story we may enter in a moment; I wish, first of all, to register the extraordinary fact that “incompatibility of temper” is really, in that remote civilisation, talked about quite seriously. Mr. Ferdinand Earle seems to have given a sort of dinner-party to celebrate his separation from his wife, at which his wife was present. I know it sounds mad, but it is not my fault. They are like that. On the extraordinary occasion, the genial fellow seems to have made an after-dinner speech in the course of which he said the following words, which I would not have missed reading for a pound—

            My first wife and I were extremely happy and our happiness was increased when we came to live at Monroe by the birth of our son. But soon something began to arise between us—call it what you will: incompatibility of temper, conflict of ideas. We did not explain, but I, who am an artist, and have the artistic temperament, sailed for Europe. On the voyage, I met a young woman, who, I found, was, like myself, a Socialist. We quickly realised that our marriage was foreordained before our births.

It is impossible to parody that passage. The only way in which one can satirise it is simply to recapitulate it. Two people, a man and a woman enter into a relation which, whatever be the right rules for regulating it, is, at any rate, a reality: a thing to which Nature attaches terrible results and responsibilities—literally a matter of life and death. They are happy together; but after a certain time a certain something seems to arise. Mr. Ferdinand Earle says that I may call it what I will; so, with his permission, I will call it ordinary bad temper, such as makes me dislike profoundly the necessity of getting out of bed or the necessity of writing this article. This mere human boredom and irritation, which ought to be taken for granted in any healthy marriage, strikes both people speechless. Neither of them explains. One of them says he is an artist and runs away. He gets on board some boat or other, on which he finds a woman who agrees with him on a point of political economy. In some extraordinary way this agreement about economics produces a highly mystical and partly Calvinistic conviction about theology. Mr. Earle and the economic lady “quickly realised” that they had been married before they were born.

Now, if we take this view of marriage and divorce as fairly typical of the tone of social philosophy, easily to be found in such English and American circles as call themselves emancipated, we can, I think, proceed to some further considerations which, with the reader’s permission, may be ranged in definite notes. There is no truth in particular to Mr. Ferdinand Earle, so far as I can see, and yet not less than three or four truths may possibly be got out of it.

First Note. Let it be remembered that this question of incompatibility of temper has nothing at all to do with the sacramental or supernatural view of marriage, in which I happen to believe. It is not a question of making marriage a contract that cannot be loosed. It is a question of making marriage much looser than any other contract is allowed to be. You cannot get rid of your business partner because you do not like the tone of his voice. You cannot break the articles of an apprentice because you do not like the shape of his nose. There must be a solid reason for the rupture even of slight agreements. If I promise to pay you £10 on the 21st of November, I cannot content myself merely with saying something, call it what you will, has gravely altered my point of view. You may make the marriage contract dissoluble at any definable moment, as after cruelties or after a certain amount of time. I may happen to hold that a wife and husband should be bound closer to each other than any two other beings. That is another matter. But this philosophy proposes that the wife of a man should be less bound to him than his executer or his articled clerk.

Second Note. One is almost tempted to think that an intellectual set means a set which has less intellect than anybody else. Artistic colonies, advanced clubs, emancipated groups are constantly separating themselves from the common life. I used to dislike them because they were too intellectual, setting intellect above happiness and manhood; but I am strongly tempted to believe that they are not only not cleverer, but are actually stupider than other people. They take refuge in these modernist cliques, just as a cripple in warlike ages might have taken refuge in a monastery. They are not seeking a world of freedom, but a world of fastidiousness; a world wherein their own special manner they can be as silly as they please. Such free-thinkers turn their back on Mrs. Grundy, not from a desire that criticism should be free, but from a desire that they should be free from criticism. These self-emancipators say that ordinary talk—the talk of a club or a campfire—is much too free and daring for them. It does not allow for their airy and delicate artistic convictions. No man in a smoking-room, no man in a boat, would be allowed to talk such nonsense as Mr. Earle talked. A man with brains says that he and a woman are in love with each other; he does not say that they are predestined to be married. A wise man marries a woman because she is pretty, or perhaps only funny or perhaps good. Only a fool marries a woman because she is a Socialist. The thoughts of ordinary men are too strong and logical for these lovers of illusion and phraseology. They break the law not because they are stronger than the law, but because the law is too strong for them.

Third Note. This free affinity business is another manifestation of a thing which has always existed—the real and genuine oppression of women. I am not one of those who think we oppress women by making them wear skirts or by not boring them with ballot-papers. But there is a way in which we are constantly cruel to women; that is, by asking so much of them, demanding a desperately high standard of self-adaptation; turning them into a sort of heroic hypocrites. It is amusing to see that in this New World, as in the Old, the woman is made to grin and bear it. She has to accommodate herself to this masculine fad, just as if it were botany or drink. She has to pretend that “free love” doesn’t matter, as she did with profligacy. The first Mrs. Earle was present at the banquet, and pretended to like it; and among all those prigs there was not one near enough to humanity to laugh or cry at the sight of her.


From The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton XXVIII The Illustrated London News 1908-1910 by Ignatius Press, 1986.

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