Sex & Relationships

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. 

But as a firm believer that institutions should exist for people, and not people for institutions, I have to ask the broader question: If marriage, at least marriage as we know it (as Tsing Loh describes it, as work: "....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..."), is disintegrating because people find it oppressive, soul-sucking, passionless, and boring, then so what?   

I'm serious here, though when I say this, I tend to get reactions from "you're kidding, right?" to icy rejection.  Life is already a series of soul-sucking enterprises, as Tsing Loh describes.  No wonder, when faced with the responsibility to work at their marriage, people blow it off and run off to Argentina for some sexy fun time with someone who doesn't feel like work at all.  Even if they're Republican governors. 

Is it possible that Tsing Loh upset so many people with this essay not because she's wrong, but because she's right?  As much as it pains the Protestant work ethic inside of us to admit it, maybe we should be allowed to have parts of our life that aren't about work all the time. We allow a small amount of time for people to really enjoy their love lives, to not work at love at all, before they're expected to settle down and start developing stress lines.  The difference between liberal and conservative communities is how much time we'll give you -- obviously, conservatives would like to minimize the happy fun time by restricting birth control and abortion so that you have to settle down into your soul-sucking marriage as soon as possible, and liberals extend the freedom to grow up a little and find someone that's a better fit.   

But in both cases, actually asking whether or not we should call the whole thing off is completely out of the question.  But that's the question we should be asking.  Marriage is failing people as an institution, and it's time to stop trying minor modifications on the side, such as expanding the right to all people or making it easier to divorce, and consider broader changes.  We could start by untying all the benefits that lure people into marriage and expanding them to all people -- health insurance, hospital visitation rights, tax breaks -- so that married people don't get special status over the unmarried.  If the married and unmarried are equal, more people will feel free to experiment with lifestyle choices that allow them to meet responsibilities without forsaking their own right to pursue happiness.  And maybe, as an added bonus, we can get away from demanding that politicians present idealized marriages to get our votes, and then punish them when they're not better at living up to the ideal than the rest of us.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.