IN THE MIDST of market collapse and holiday preparations, our household found a small domestic space for champagne, roses and merengue music.

A decade ago, a loudmouthed radical with a black leather jacket married a blond beauty with an infectious sense of fun. Today, two discreetly graying parents -- the sober-sided selves we have become -- celebrate the choice those innocents made. My wife and I, who are still, to ourselves at least, ex-hippies wondering what to do when we grow up, have now been married for 10 years.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the median duration of an American marriage is now seven years. We are 50 percent above average.

It is success of a kind, but it doesn't feel like success. There is no finish line, and all around us, other racers are dropping out in exhaustion, boredom or disgust. I understand their weariness. Modern marriage is a kind of marathon through empty streets -- and each pair of racers must drag a dead horse along. The horse is the weight of tradition -- the centuries of ossified superstition surrounding marriage.

One of the happiest couples I know didn't even marry until they got to the point we've reached -- 10 years together, two children born. Then they called their friends together for a surprise wedding. I understand their leeriness of the institution.

The moment we got married, relatives, friends, even the people we worked with began to treat us differently. At the gross level, the IRS began threatening to put me in jail because my wife had kept her maiden name and they could not find our estimated-tax payments. Other couples began planning how many children we would have, and single friends punished us for the sins of their own parents.

But most frighteningly, we changed to each other. We were no longer carefree lovers, but the repositories of a lifetime's worth of fears, assumptions and expectations. Our internal models of marriage had been built of many things -- our family lives, films and books and TV shows, feminist rhetoric and male fantasy. Our models weren't compatible with each other -- and they weren't even consistent in themselves.

The examples were subtle, but strange. I remember in our first year together noticing that I had begun to expect my wife to know where I had put my car keys, as if her failure to keep track of them somehow signaled a failure to care about me. As a bachelor, I had been proud of doing my laundry myself -- no helpless '50s-style nebbish I. Why then, after a few words recited by a priest, did doing my own wash become a symbol, not of success as an independent man, but of failure as a husband? Why did my wife's friends begin to bother me? How did my wife's mother become a mother-in-law? How did I get trapped in some kind of domestic farce, reciting lines I didn't write?

The past decade has been spent sorting out those myths and assumptions, one by one, trying to separate the useful from the poisonous, to find the biker and the beauty underneath the layers of myth. It has been sometimes tedious, sometimes frightening, and always rewarding. And it is still going on.

Not long ago, married couples expected society's gratitude. They were the nation's sturdy sexual burghers, rewarded with tax breaks and social deference. There is an attempt underway to revive those days by law. The so-called "pro-family" movement is not really designed to help families at all, but to punish those who diverge from the Dick-and-Jane American "norm." But it won't work. The social fabric has been resewn into a colorful sexual quilt, one that includes lifetime singles, the divorced, "serial monogamists," and gay and lesbian couples. It is a richer and more vital patchwork than the one I grew up in, where the choices were sexual conformity or tight-lipped silence.

But marriage may be getting a new lease on life. People are marrying older and divorcing less. I'm not sure it's an entirely hopeful sign. Younger heterosexual couples seem to think of marriage as a refuge from AIDS. This could become another dead horse they'll have to carry; and even the protection it appears to offer may be an illusion. Unhappy, fearful marriages don't shelter anyone.

The most persuasive reason to marry has been -- and I think remains -- to have and nurture children. Though it may be unfashionable to say so, a stable marriage is by far the best environment in which to raise a child, and children surely need the few legal rights the institution gives them. I don't understand how single parents survive -- though it is undeniable that many do, and that their children flourish.

In a world of Hugh Hefner and Shere Hite, Divorce magazine and "self-fulfillment," why stay married? All human loves, in the end, are folly. The person I love must become, with the battering of time, a stranger I must meet anew. And death -- the metaphorical death of divorce, or the real death that tears even the most devoted apart -- is waiting at the race's end.

Perhaps the only real payoff is the growth that comes from sheer persistence at any mighty labor -- from knowing that the battle can't be won, and still refusing to despair. If so, that will be enough.

Ten years into the race, we are sometimes winded, but we are not turning back.

Garrett Epps, the author of "The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington," writes a column for the North Carolina Independent.