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For Many, Marriage Is Sexless, Boring and Oppressive: Time to Rethink the Institution?

Marriage is failing many, many people. Why do we still idealize it?

In between the political blow-ups caused by the adulteries of Senator John Ensign and Gov. Mark Sanford, darkly comic writer Sandra Tsing Loh, who has never been one to hide her personal life, wrote a sad, witty piece about the impending end of her 20-year marriage.  Why are Tsing Loh and her husband calling it quits?  Tsing Loh cheated on her husband, an event that apparently instigated their divorce.  Someone should tell former White House press secretary Dana Perino, whose recent statements about electing women to politics included her musings about why women don't stray.  We'll have to consider that hypothesis a dud, unless someone wants to challenge Tsing Loh's gender. 

Tsing Loh took the opportunity of her divorce to dump all over the very existence of marriage, and got exactly the sort of reaction you get when you tip over a sacred cow: defensive. Extremely angry and defensive.  Tsing Loh's entire body of work was practically called into question, she was called selfish (by people no doubt hoping that adequate lack of selfishness on their part would permanently shield them from the pain of falling out of love), and she was even called a drag.  "Defensive" might seem like too harsh a word, but come on, calling Tsing Loh "a drag" is classic grasping behavior.  Tsing Loh might be a lot of things, but as her long and storied career shows, "a drag" is not one of those things. 

But that's what you get for dissing marriage, even after an endless stream of prominent adulteries rocking the very unsexy world of politics, even when marriages still have a one in two chance of failing, and even in a society so shot through with divorce that the most surefire way to start a flamewar on the internet is to write a post about child support or visitation.  The more evidence shoved in our faces that marriage just doesn't work as well as we want, the more we bury our heads in the fantasy of marriage. Or, as Tsing Loh says: 

    Just because marriage didn't work for us doesn't mean we don't believe in the institution. Just because our own marital track records are mixed doesn't mean our hearts don't lift at the sight of our daughters' Tiffany-blue wedding invitations. After all, we can easily arrange to sit far from our exes, across the flower-bedecked aisle, so as not to roil the festive day. Just because we know that nearly half of U.S. marriages end in divorce -- including perhaps even those of our own parents (my dearest childhood wish was not just that my parents would divorce, but also that my raging father would burst into flames) -- doesn't mean we aren't confident ours is the one that will beat the odds. 

One gets the sense that Americans doth protest too much.  Bridal magazines and tabloids gushing about celebrity weddings burst forth from the checkout racks,  and the average cost of a wedding has soared to above $27,000, as if coating the institution with enough cash will save it.  At the exact same time as Americans gush enthusiastically about weddings, the majority of American women live without a spouse, either because they're divorced, single, separated, or living with a partner they're not married to.  The fantasy of marriage invigorates us, but the reality of it just isn't working for growing numbers of Americans. 

This gap between fantasy and reality goes a long way to explaining why conservatives claim to be fighting to protect traditional marriage, when what they mean is fighting to keep gays and lesbians out.  Protecting traditional marriage sounds good to the public, since the tatters in which  straight people have left marriage compels the public to think that marriage needs protecting.  But of course, pinning the blame on the people who didn't actually do anything to ruin marriage is just old-fashioned scape-goating -- incoherent and mean-spirited.  Like Dolly Parton said when asked if gays should be allowed to marry, gay people have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us. 

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