The Domesticity Wars

Ed's note: Some say domestic bliss is not just a mythology, it's an American pathology having nothing to do with sustaining real love. Others counter that it's not domesticity that's hard to work out. It's our desires.  Here two writers wrestle with the issue from opposite sides of the ring.

The Tyranny of Domesticity
Lakshmi Chaudhry

In a TV commercial, a man spends hours cooking the perfect meal for his wife. He sautes the fish, grills the vegetables, and selects the perfect wine in preparation for the much-vaunted candle-lit dinner. And as the wife walks in the door, the camera captures the look of joy on her face.

This is America's vision of domestic bliss. In this day and age, love is ... slaving over a hot stove, getting a home mortgage, buying her a new car, or taking a suitably exotic vacation. Whether it is ads, TV sitcoms or newspaper columns nattering about broken dishwashers and snoring spouses, the message remains the same: Love is domesticity.

This is the central myth that permeates the discourse of modern love in our culture. And it defines the emotional Holy Grail that all of us are expected to aspire for.

In a piece titled "Against Love" published in the New York Times Magazine this month, Laura Lipnis argues eloquently against this mythology of "domestic love," which she compares to a prison sentence. Love in marriage, she says, consists of obeying "mutually imposed commands and strictures extending into the most minute areas of household affairs, social life, finances, speech, hygiene ... and so on." Both husband and wife are expected to sacrifice critical parts of their selves to meet a series of thou-shalt-nots in the name of love. And all this in service to what Lipnis considers an impossible goal, which is loving one person for an entire lifetime. She argues romantic love is by nature temporary as sexual passion inevitably wanes in the face of everyday life. We can sustain it in marriage only at the expense of our individuality.

But here's the problem with Lipnis' logic. In insisting that the only "real" love is the temporary romantic kind, she dooms all couples to a love-less fate. In this version, we can either flit from one person to another or condemn ourselves to dutiful drudgery. And worse, she conflates love with domesticity, reinforcing the cultural sleight of hand that dooms most relationships to unhappiness. Domesticity is the socially sanctioned expression of love, but it actually has little to do with love itself.

This is the first important discovery that confronts most couples when they get partnered or married. Domesticity is in fact the antithesis of love. Love, by its very definition, is the expansion of self to include another. Domesticity, on the other hand, demands we shrink our selves to meet its requirements. It slowly but surely kills love in a relationship by transforming desire into duty. In love, we give freely and without expectation. But domesticity requires us to give in and give up to meet the requirements of our assigned marital roles.

In some ways, the modern American version of domesticity makes marriage more of a prison than the traditional model that is still in place in many non-Western cultures. In the United States, the union of love and marriage results in Domesticity Plus. We are expected not just to perform our marital duties but to do it with pleasure. Love has become a requirement for a "good" spouse. Eastern cultures on the other hand treat love as far too elusive and unreliable an emotion on which to base institutions that require long-term commitment. This includes not just marriage but also parenting. Parents are not required to love their children, nor children their parents, but they are expected to fulfill their familial responsibilities. This does not mean husbands and wives or parents and children do not love each other in, say, India, but that love is something that simply happens. It is not expected, demanded or required. Social norms such as the arranged marriage are based on a pragmatic and perhaps callous view of human relationships that is inevitable in less affluent societies where family is a necessary condition for survival. This incentive is less compelling in a culture where individuals can thrive alone. Self-fulfillment has instead become the primary motivation for coupling in so-called "modern" societies. And in this sense, the prevailing model of marital bliss is worse than merely inadequate. It asks a person to follow a laundry list of directives at the expense of their personal happiness. And the current divorce rate reflects this reality.

In an American marriage, not only are you expected to perform the usual marital duties of providing sex, sustenance, child care, etc. Now you have to be loving and be loved. The American model of marriage, Domesticity Plus, as I call it, is oxymoronic in that it makes love a requirement, transforming not just how you act or feel but also who you are. In her 1997 book Marriage Shock, Dalma Heyn describes the painful transformation of single women into wives. The book documents the experiences of intelligent, independent, sexual women who suddenly feel compelled to erase huge parts of their identity to meet social expectations. And the primary directive of this new role of Wife is the sacrifice of personal needs and desires, which are now deemed "selfish." The women describe the psychological pressure to be a certain type of person: generous, unselfish, kind, amiable, sympathetic and so on. In other words, be yourself but on Prozac. The ideal marriage is also defined by a paranoid aversion to negative emotions. These are treated as symptoms of marital malaise, which must be treated immediately before they develop into a life-threatening condition. Feel irritated, angry, distant, or bored? Communicate; run off to the Bahamas; find a common hobby; bring out the Kama Sutra.

The punishing regimen of domesticity, Heyn argues, results in the "subtle, progressive dimunition of the presence of pleasure." There is plenty of research to indicate that married women are not very happy. More married women suffer from loneliness, insomnia, depression and various other ailments than single women. Encouraged to define love as their life goal, women who do find Mr. Right pay a high price for their success. Our culture does a far better job of acknowledging the pressures on men. As countless fast food and beer commercials will testify, domesticity is not much fun for husbands either. They are suddenly turned into children who require permission to watch a football game or just step out of the house. Mating in America requires an pathological form of "togetherness." Relationship experts constantly harp on the importance of spending "quality" time together. Couples are made to feel guilty about any time -- outside of work and the occasional stag night out -- they spend seeking individual pleasure. The need for an independent life is interpreted as a sign of trouble ahead. Husband and wife are expected to live fused together in the social bubble of the nuclear family, safely isolated from other intruding emotional connections.

All this frantic activity aimed at preserving marital bliss fails to acknowledge the central truth about love: it either is or isn't. And no amount of "work" is going to make you love someone or make them love you. John Bayley, when asked recently about the secret of his happy marriage to author Iris Murdoch said, "Never try to work on a marriage. That way madness lies, not to mention certain divorce. " Perhaps not divorce, but certainly disenchantment. Marriage counseling is in many ways the graveyard of love. Many American couples go to counseling when they give up on the fumbling, erratic and intuitive ways of love and decide to rely instead on the sound principles of relationship management to save the marriage. They get the referee in to hash out an elaborate set of bureaucratic policies and procedures to live by. It can produce more amicable living arrangements, but often at the expense of intimacy. Counseling may save the marriage but it will not resuscitate love. The aim of couple therapy is to preserve the relationship, not the elusive core that sustains attachment. Nor is it interested the individual happiness of its participants, except when it serves the larger goal. In fact, "the marriage" becomes an entity in itself; a voracious household god that requires we sacrifice ourselves to ensure its survival.

French social critic Denis de Rougemont argued the impossibility of uniting marriage with love decades ago in his book Love in the Western World. De Rougemont would agree with Lipnis that the idea that we must love each other passionately all our lives is simply outrageous. He declared the idea of romantic love was the greatest curse on western civilization that would doom the institution of marriage -- one he dearly cherished as a good old conservative. But unlike Lipnis, de Rougement believed that love in marriage was entirely possible. The problem, he wrote, is that we in the West recognize the existence of only one type of love, the variety based on absence. Love is experienced solely as trying to attain or maintain the object of our affections. In order to feel love, we must either be separated or face the threat of loss -- something that marriage kills quite effectively since it requires the pledge to remain constant and very present. It makes sense then that since we do not know how to "love the one we're with," we slide into domesticity as an easy substitute. Duty may be less pleasant than desire, but it is not as erratic or complicated in the long run. And perhaps we call it love to hide our uncertainties both about ourselves and one another.

It is true that none of us really knows what love based on presence (rather than absence) feels like. Love based on presence is far more elusive than romantic love -- especially since there is little sexual passion to signal its presence. And how do we know if we love someone? In the end, it is a matter of interpretation based on how we feel and who we are at that point in time. It changes back and forth if we stay with someone long enough, and sometimes the feeling never returns. Whatever the nature of this love, it is clear that domesticity does little to serve its cause.

Domesticity Plus model has its consolations. It offers us or, more importantly, our children stability in an uncertain world. But it is a Faustian bargain that, as Heyn argues, we fulfill at the expense of our authentic selves. Our most intimate relationships are touted as spaces where we thrive and flourish, but instead we disappear into the anonymity of socially prescribed roles. Domesticity Plus sacrifices the "I" to maintain the "we." In the end, there is no self left to be happy or fulfilled. This is not to say that battling domesticity is a guarantee of ever-lasting happiness. Despite choosing the perils of intimacy, we might just wake up one day no longer in love. But as a revered Indian poet once said, there are infinite woes in this world other than love. And pleasures too.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is an editor at She recently celebrated her fifth wedding anniversary.
Domesticity and the Hard Work of Love
Vivian Dent

Poor domesticity. Its reputation seems doomed to veer madly between dewy idealization and sophisticated disdain. It's an odd fate for such a -- well, ordinary -- arrangement.

You'd think that by now we'd have figured something out. But eons of coupling haven't guaranteed us domestic bliss or anything remotely like it, as the naysayers observe so very clearly. Yet despite the widespread fallout from failed relationships, most people find that replacing deep attachments with romantic flings is an idea that works better in theory than in practice. Most of us keep trying to connect and stay connected.

It seems it's our own desires that are hard to work out. To some extent we all crave freedom, from sexual freedom to the "You're not the boss of me" ability to do whatever we want with our Saturdays, without observation or comment. And yet we also yearn for security, understanding, support and affection, for the comfort of shared memories and familiar routines. Domesticity can get the blame for our compromises.

First, we fear the intimacy that we crave: domestic battles provide a convenient way out of suffocating closeness. The late psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell also noted that we can exaggerate connection to obscure difference. He pointed out how the cry of the divorcing spouse -- "You're not the person I thought I knew!" -- reveals the wishful myth behind the familiarity that can pervade domestic life. He argued that we find it hard to bear the ineluctable separateness of a person with whom we have chosen to spend our life. It makes us too vulnerable. We've come to hope that this person will love us even through the days when we can't possibly love ourselves, when we're not fit for human consumption. Mitchell held that we embrace the illusion of knowing our partner inside and out to avoid the fear that accompanies such deep need for someone who, in profound ways, remains separate and ultimately enigmatic.

Domesticity, in its more dubious guises, provides an excellent vehicle for such denial. It's easy, in domestic arrangements, to substitute a string of shoulds and should-nots for an acknowledgement of each partner's wishes and needs. For many of us, it's harder to say, "I rely on you for this" than to insist, "This is what any decent person in your position would do."

Domestic life involves a long and not particularly sexy set of tasks. Calling when you're late, washing the dishes, doing the laundry, paying the bills -- all of these can become onerous duties. (The fact that they're virtually all part of single life as well slips right out of the picture. It's different doing things on your own schedule.)

And yet it is possible, and not that uncommon, for couples to negotiate these tasks against a backdrop of love and concern, not obligation. A balance of justice is central to any living relationship. Every couple works this balance out on its own; it's not something that any outsider can know, any system of communication can guarantee or any neat, 50-50 division of labor can accomplish.

Both consciously and unconsciously, couples come to know and appreciate each partner's limits and vulnerabilities, as well as their capacities. When things are going well, each person recognizes areas where the other won't be able to contribute as much or will need extra support, and each in turn experiences the other's care in areas where they themselves feel weak. The couple develops its own balance between giving and taking, separateness and being together, intimacy and privacy. The partners develop a shared sense of what's okay, what's up for discussion and what's out of bounds.

Through time and change, couples naturally struggle to maintain this balance. Often they stumble, and sometimes they fall. Rediscovering equilibrium when it's lost or threatened constitutes the "work" of staying together.

"Working at love" is an admittedly unappealing idea. Yet love can die of neglect, or of a too-easy familiarity that takes its gifts for granted. We all know that love often means bearing with a partner's impossible moods and annoying habits. We extend ourselves to meet them, and we're grateful that our partner does the same for us. We genuinely care when our partner has had a hard day, when they're sensitive about something, when they're exhausted, or frightened, or angry, or disappointed.

Then comes the point where stretching becomes straining, where generosity turns alternately brittle and simpering, and resentment begins to smolder behind the simplest acts of kindness and understanding. Working at love changes its emphasis and becomes a fight for ourselves. I know that when I begin to feel like a hausfrau or a martyr, I'd better switch gears. I'm sure my partner has similar inner alarms. Better even a stupid fight than bending to the point of caricature.

But what about sex? Here, domesticity has a particularly bad reputation for transforming passion into routine. Stephen Mitchell argues that sex becomes a prime casualty when we hide a relationship's risk and mystery under a veil of familiarity. Another analyst, Michael Bader, believes that deeper experience of our partner's vulnerabilities increases our sense of risk in abandoning ourselves to them as completely or in allowing ourselves to use them as freely.

Kathryn Harrison, in a 2000 Harper's article, makes an even more profound argument. Committed relationships, she claims, are not about romance -- they're about "death and . . . its partner, existential aloneness." Enduring relationships, for Harrison, flourish from precisely the grounds that we fear: the acknowledgement that we will always be two, not one. We will not stay eternally young and seductive; we cannot reinvent ourselves endlessly. In the shared knowledge of our fundamental separateness and inevitable mortality, in the certainty of transience and loss, love puts down its roots.

Somewhere in that knowledge, some couples find it possible to refuel passion, again and again. And to be loved passionately by someone who has seen you at your worst -- seen you angry, ill, whiny, vain, sobbing, stubborn, frightened, overwrought, cold, greedy, demanding, and on and on and on -- definitely feels like love. And, yes, it's worth working for.

Vivian Dent is a psychologist with a practice in San Francisco and Berkeley. She has written for the New York Times Book Review and other publications.


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