How to Make Marriage More Than an Arrangement of Loveless, Sexless, Domestic Drudgery
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It's been a tough time for marriage. Not just because of the sensational infidelity practiced by reality TV dad Jon Gosselin and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. Marriage also was spectacularly mangled by the two superstars who just died, Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett.
Here's a fact, though, about wedlock. It was designed way back when life expectancy was a couple of decades. Now the average is about four times that. So instead of sneering at those who famously fail at marriage, maybe the signals are saying the institution has reached a tipping point.
A pair of New York Times writers will have none of that. Their "Marriage Stands Up for Itself" argues that the marriage bond is, in fact, "far stronger in 21st-century America than many may assume." Marriage rates are high, divorce is on the decline.
Infidelity? Just a "flu virus" according to the Times writers, who cheerfully explain that marriages weaken at times, yet develop immunity from long exposure. "Surveys find the majority of people who discover a cheating spouse remain married to that person for years afterward."
The same piece reports that, although about half of marriages end in divorce, that number reflects the lifetime divorce rate of people married in the 1970s; whereas, the divorce rate of couples married more recently is lower, especially among college-educated people (the divorce rates of those with only a high school education are higher).
One study that looked at college-educated men found that 23 per cent of those married in the 1970s were divorced after 10 years, compared to only 16 per cent of those married in the 1990s.
Why? "Today women are contributing more financially to relationships than earlier generations, and men are contributing more to the domestic duties. Compared with earlier generations, men and women today are more likely to marry someone like themselves, with a similar educational background," experts say. "The relationship is less about dividing economic and domestic duties and more about shared interests and mutual happiness.”
What a turn-off! is the way Sandra Tsing Loh reads such analysis. The kind of modern marriage mapped by the Times might lead to more couples staying together, but they're killing love and eros, she writes in the Atlantic.
Loh is about to divorce after 20 years of marriage. She has tired of her too-prevalent Companionate Marriage, "in which husband and wife each have a career, and they co-parent and co-housekeep according to gender-free norms they negotiate." Which equates to love-less, sexless, domestic drudgery.
Together for the kids
"I can work at a career and child care and joint homeownership and even platonic male-female friendship," Loh writes. "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."
Loh says people stay married because it's a kind of unattainable ideal -- like being an anorexic Amazonian model with big boobs. "Along with fancy schools, tae kwan do lessons, and home-cooked organic food, the two-parent marriage is another impressive—and rare—attainment to bestow on our fragile, gifted children."
She references Helen Fisher, an anthropologist with a cult following, who has long argued that serial monogamy (in stretches of four years) is what humans are programmed for in terms of evolutionary biology: we get a surge of dopamine which encourages us to mate with one person, then oxytocin which encourages us to stay with them long enough to raise the infant until it can survive without two parents. Then both chemicals cease, and we go elsewhere for our next hits.
A 'French arrangement'
Loh says domestic stability can be achieved through a split-the-mortgage, co-parenting arrangement. "But 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."
Or she suggests raising infants in either women-only arrangements, or allowing men like her husband (responsible, detail-oriented) to raise the kids while she goes off to work and other conquests. But in any event, undertaking a kind of radical revisioning of this new, failed invention called Companionate Marriage.
Cristina Nehring, author of the polemic Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, agrees with the radical part. As Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke writes of Nehring's book, "we have domesticated love past all recognition, turning what is rightly leonine, destructive, and majestic into a yawning, chubby house cat."
At the core is the "age-old dilemma of how we resolve our desire for security with our need for passion," which Nehring answers with a call to abandon what is secure and cozy and routine, and become brave and bold. She sees love as a heroic and crazy act that can only exist without domesticity. She says distance is a form of eros, that to become too companionate is to kill the erotic.
Think less, love more
Amidst all this theorizing about how to achieve bliss in our out of marriage arrives Ross Douthat, who urges us to just stop thinking so much about it.
"Our hyper-educated, socially-liberal elite is considerably more romantically conservative than its blasé attitude toward pornography or premarital sex would lead you to expect," he writes in an op-ed for the New York Times.
Too much navel gazing, not enough risk taking. Thank goodness, says Douthat, plenty of people don't yet dive into love and marriage that way. Only "Americans with graduate degrees," pretty much.
"The difficult scramble up the meritocratic ladder tends to discourage wild passions and death-defying flings. For bright young overachievers, there's often a definite tameness to the way that collegiate 'safe sex' segues into the upwardly-mobile security of 'companionate marriages' — or, if you're feeling more cynical, 'consumption partnerships.'
"The rest of the country...marries impulsively, divorces frequently, and bears a rising percentage of its children outside marriage.
"The high-wire love lives of a Jon Gosselin or a Mark Sanford -- or a Spears, or even a Lindsay Lohan -- are remarkably true to the America that watches their shows, buys their CDs, and votes them into office. It's the highly-educated, highly risk-averse milieu lamented by Nehring and Tsing Loh that's a world unto itself."
In other words, it's all too possible to get ahead without feeling alive.
A lot of progressive, middle-class, educated North Americans have strategized themselves out of crazy good love.
They'll never know the kind of marriage that begins with this proposal: What the hell, let's go for it!