That mainstream American culture is something of a train wreck is hardly news at this point, and that regard there’s a certain wisdom to the approach, “Let the dead bury their dead,” rather than having the brashness to be the one shouting, “Oh, hey, look! A body!” Still, occasionally one runs across things which are at the same time so sad and so indicative of our cultural ills one feels the need to comment. Such a case, to my mind at least, was this article from the most recent Atlantic Monthly suggesting that for the modern Homo suburbanicus middleclassus marriage is a failed idea which should be pretty much abandoned. Or as the cheery sub-headline succinctly put it: “The author is ending her marriage. Isn’t it time you did the same?”
The author is a 47 year old woman, a successful performance artist married to a musician, who after twenty years of marriage and two children find herself in the aftermath of an extramarital affair deciding that she really doesn’t feel like doing the work to rebuilt a relationship with her husband.
Which is not to say I’m against work. Indeed, what also came out that afternoon were the many tasks I—like so many other working/co-parenting/married mothers—have been doing for so many years and tearfully declared I would continue doing. I can pick up our girls from school every day; I can feed them dinner and kiss their noses and tell them stories; I can take them to their doctor and dentist appointments; I can earn my half—sometimes more—of the money; I can pay the bills; I can refinance the house at the best possible interest rate; I can drive my husband to the airport; in his absence, I can sort his mail; I can be home to let the plumber in on Thursday between nine and three, and I can wait for the cable guy; I can make dinner conversation with any family member; I can ask friendly questions about anybody’s day; I can administer hugs as needed to children, adults, dogs, cats; I can empty the litter box; I can stir wet food into dry.
Which is to say I can work at a career and child care and joint homeownership and even platonic male-female friendship. However, in this cluttered forest of my 40s, what I cannot authentically reconjure is the ancient dream of brides, even with the Oprah fluffery of weekly “date nights,” when gauzy candlelight obscures the messy house, child talk is nixed and silky lingerie donned, so the two of you can look into each other’s eyes and feel that “spark” again. Do you see? Given my staggering working mother’s to-do list, I cannot take on yet another arduous home- and self-improvement project, that of rekindling our romance. Sobered by this failure as a mother—which is to say, my failure as a wife—I’ve since begun a journey of reading, thinking, and listening to what’s going on in other 21st-century American families. And along the way, I’ve begun to wonder, what with all the abject and swallowed misery: Why do we still insist on marriage? Sure, it made sense to agrarian families before 1900, when to farm the land, one needed two spouses, grandparents, and a raft of children. But now that we have white-collar work and washing machines, and our life expectancy has shot from 47 to 77, isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?
Armed with her experience and the knowledge gained from a passel of books seeking to analyze the ills and possibilities of modern marriage, the author goes out for a “girls night” at the house of one of her friends, and discovers that her own thinking has touched off similar thoughts among her married friends:
But it is now our second Girls’ Night dinner since my horrifying announcement, and Rachel has eschewed Ian’s customary wine-club Bordeaux and is mixing some alarmingly strong martinis.
Leaning forward heavily across the bar, she swirls her glass and huskily drops the bomb: “I have to tell you—since we talked, I too have started thinking divorce.” “No!” we girls exclaim. With a stab of nausea, I suddenly feel as though now that I’ve touched my pool of friends with my black pen, a cloud of ink is enveloping them.
“You can’t!” Renata cries. “Ian—he’s the perfect father! The perfect husband! Look at this … kitchen!”
It’s true: the kitchen is a prime example of Ian’s contribution to their union. He based the design of the remodel on an old farmhouse kitchen they saw during their trip to Tuscany, and of course—carpentry being another of his hobbies—he did all the details himself, including building the shelves. One of the room’s marvels is how ingeniously and snugly all the specialty kitchenware is housed—the hanging copper pots, the garlic press, the mandolin, the lemon zester, the French press coffeemaker …
“Ian won’t have sex with me,” Rachel says flatly. “He has not touched my body in two years. He says it’s because I’ve gained weight.” Again, we stoutly protest, but she goes on. “And he thinks I’m a bad mother—he says I’m sloppy and inattentive.”
The list of violations unfurls. Last week, Rachel mistakenly gave the wrong medication to the dog, a mistake Ian would never make. She also forgot to deglaze the saucepan and missed the window to book the family’s Seattle flights on Expedia, whose chiming bargains Ian meticulously tracks.
Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars.
After spending a while diagnosing the problems with this friend’s relationship, another speaks up:
“You know, it’s funny,” says Ellen, after a moment of gloom. (Passing note: Ellen has been married for 18 years, and she also, famously, never has sex. There were the hot 20s with Ron and the making-the-babies 30s, and in the 40s there is … nothing. Ellen had originally picked Ron because she was tired of all the bad boys, and Ron was settle-down husband material. What she didn’t know was that after the age of 38, thanks to Mr. Very Settled-Down, she was never going to have regular sex with a man again.)
“When marriage was invented,” Ellen continues, “it was considered to be a kind of trade union for a woman, her protection against the sexually wandering male. But what’s happened to the sexually wandering male?”
In our parents’ era, the guy hit 45, got the toupee, drove the red Porsche, and left his family for the young, hot secretary. We are unable to imagine any of the husbands driving anything with fewer than five seat belts.
“Ron only goes as far as the den,” Ellen says. “He has his Internet porn bookmarked on the computer.”
“Ian has his Cook’s Illustrated,” Rachel adds. “And his—his men’s online fennel club.”
The author sees hope in some rather bleak ideas:
So, herewith, some modest proposals. Clearly, research shows that what’s best for children is domestic stability and not having to bond with, and to be left by, ever new stepparent figures. Less important is whether or not their overworked parents are logging “date night” (or feeling the magic). So why don’t we accept marriage as a splitting-the-mortgage arrangement? As Fisher suggests, rekindling the romance is, for many of us, biologically unnatural, particularly after the kids come. (Says another friend of mine, about his wife of 23 years: “My heart doesn’t lift when she walks in the room. It sinks, slightly.”) If high-revving women are sexually frustrated, let them have some sort of French arrangement where they have two men, the postfeminist model dad building shelves, cooking bouillabaise, and ignoring them in the home, and the occasional fun-loving boyfriend the kids never see. Alternately, if both spouses find life already rather exhausting, never mind chasing around for sex. Long-married husbands and wives should pleasantly agree to be friends, to set the bedroom aglow at night by the mute opening of separate laptops and just be done with it. More than anything, aside from providing insulation from the world at large, that kind of arrangement could be the perfect way to be left alone.
As far as the children are concerned, how about the tribal approach (a natural, according to both primate and human evolution)? Let children between the ages of 1 and 5 be raised in a household of mothers and their female kin. Let the men/husbands/boyfriends come in once or twice a week to build shelves, prepare that bouillabaisse, or provide sex.
Or best of all, after the breast-feeding and toddler years are through, let those nurturing superdads be the custodial parents! Let the Type A moms obsessively work, write checks, and forget to feed the dog. Let the dads then, if they wish, kick out those sloppy working mothers and run effective households, hiring the appropriate staff, if need be. To a certain extent, men today may have more clarity about what it takes to raise children in the modern age. They don’t, for instance, have today’s working mother’s ambivalence and emotional stickiness.
In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage—or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.
I’d originally thought about quoting a little bit of the article and then writing a lot of analysis, but as I thought it over, I think that putting it out there — like a cadaver on the dissection table — with a few basic pointers may make things rather more clear.
A couple of things particularly struck me, though.
Foremost, I was utterly unsurprised when the one sex-starved woman mentioned her husband heading off into the den to watch his internet porn. It would little surprise me if the over-achieving husband has similar habits. In a world in which sex has been totally divorced from its biological meaning, why not retreat into the world of unreality? Why accept a real person with needs and moods and desires and a body which is the product of age, genetics and personal habits when carefully selected bodies can be seen doing anything one desires only a mouse click and a couple dollars away? This is the natural path down which one goes when one separates the mating urge from mating with one’s mate.
The other thing that struck me as interesting was how an excessive emphasis on equality seemed to be driving unhappiness. The author talks about “co-parenting” rather than “parenting”, and emphasizes down on the line all the tasks which she is perfectly happy to do in order to hold up her half of the household duties. Her friends over-achieving husband Ian is quick to blame his wife for not holding up her duties equally, on everything from feeding the dog to maintaining the body type he prefers. I’m not an absolutist about “traditional roles”, although Mrs. Darwin and I have always felt strongly about maintaining a single income family with a full time parent at home, but the one thing I think is probably almost never healthy is a strong emphasis on doing everything equally in a marriage rather than having some sort of roles. If you both work full time careers, and both strive to do equal amounts of housework, parenting, cooking, etc., it seems to me that comparisons will almost invariably spring up.
“I do the dishes every night, but she hasn’t swept the floor in three days.”
“I end up having to help the kids out with homework while she just takes them out to fun activities which cost lots of money.”
“I make more money, but he’s always going out to lunch as if money were no object.”
And on, and on. Perhaps I’m an unusually unpleasant person, but in a work environment I can’t help constantly measuring myself against the other people who are “doing the same thing I’m doing”. This can be pretty harmless at work so long as one keeps a lid on it. After all, it’s just work, and we get to walk away at the end of the day. But when you bring this same tendency towards competition into a marriage, I can see nothing but trouble coming of it. There it seems to me that it’s very important to have complementary but different roles — not do everything together as “co-parents”. This doesn’t have to be some kind of radical partitioning. But if one of your major goals is, “We’ll make equal money, do equal work, and have equal fun,” I think conflict will almost invariably result. Marriage is meant to be based on complementarity, not measured equality.
Finally, I’m reminded of something one of my Indian co-workers said when someone asked her how it was that she’d remained happily married for 20+ years to a man she only met ten minutes before her wedding. “You just tell yourself you don’t have any other options,” she said. “If you really believe that, it helps you avoid starting problems that will make you want out.” At this point in modern America’s divorce culture, it’s very hard to tell yourself that there are not other options, but I think that rebuilding that mentality — not just as in “I’d better put up with this, because there’s no way out” but rather “I had better make sure that I’m easy to live with, because if I cause problems there is no way out of them” — is probably the only real path back towards marital stability and sanity in the wider culture.