The last word: The case against marriage

Sandra Tsing Loh had a revelation about marriage when she tired of her own. Maybe, says The Atlantic Monthly essayist, both adults and children would be better off without the institution.

Sadly, and to my horror, I am divorcing. This was a 20-year partnership. My husband is a good man, though he did travel 20 weeks a year for work. I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued. This turn of events was a surprise. I don’t generally even enjoy men; I had an entirely manageable life and planned to go to my grave taking with me, as I do most nights to my bed, a glass of Merlot and a good book. Cataclysmically changed, I disclosed everything. We cried, we rent our hair, we bewailed the fate of our children. And yet at the end of the day—literally during a 5 o’clock counseling appointment, as the golden late-afternoon sunlight spilled over the wall of Balinese masks—when given the final choice by our longtime family therapist, I realized … no. Heart-shattering as this moment was—a gravestone sunk down on two decades of history—I would not be able to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband, which is what it would take in modern-therapy terms to knit our family’s domestic construct back together. In women’s-magazine parlance, I did not have the strength to “work on” falling in love again in my marriage. And as everyone knows, good relationships take work.

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 dentist appointments; I can earn my half—sometimes more—of the money; I can make friendly conversation with any family member; I can pay the bills, I can empty the litter box; I can refinance the house at the best possible interest rate.

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.

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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: 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?

I sense you picking up the first stone to hurl, even if you yourself may be twice or even three times divorced. Such a contradiction turns out to be uniquely American. Just because marriage didn’t work for us doesn’t mean we don’t believe in the institution. Just because we know that nearly half of U.S. marriages end in divorce doesn’t mean we aren’t confident ours is the one that will beat the odds. At least that is the attitudinal yin/yang described by Andrew J. Cherlin in his scrupulously argued book Marriage-Go-Round. Compared with our Western European counterparts, Cherlin says, Americans are far more credulous about marriage. In World Values Surveys taken at the turn of the millennium, fewer Americans (10 percent) agreed with the statement “Marriage is an outdated institution” than citizens of any other Western country surveyed. At the same time, Americans endure the highest divorce rate in the Western world.

Cherlin believes the reason for this paradox is that Americans hold two values at once: a culture of marriage and a culture of individualism. Or is it an American spirit of optimism wedded, if you will, to a Tocquevillian spirit of restlessness that inspires three out of four Americans to say they believe marriage is for life, while only one in four agreed with the notion that even if a marriage is unhappy, one should stay put for the sake of the children. If America is a “divorce culture,” it may be partly because we are a “marriage culture,” since we both divorce and marry (a projected 90 percent of us) at some of the highest rates anywhere on the globe. Hence Cherlin’s cautionary advice consists of two words—“Slow down”—his chief worry about our frenetic marriage-go-round being its negative impact on our children. In fact, while having two biological parents at home is, the statistics tell us, best for children, a single-parent household is almost as good. The harm comes, Cherlin argues, from parents continually coupling with new partners, so that the children are forced to bond, or compete for attention, with ever-new actors. Instead of preaching marriage, Cherlin says, we should preach domestic stability for children.

In today’s America, the most common type of marriage is what is called the Companionate Marriage. Unlike the Traditional Marriage, in which the man works while the woman runs the home, creating a clear and valuable division of labor, in the Companionate Marriage, husband and wife each have a career, and they co-parent and co-housekeep according to gender-free norms they negotiate. How has that worked out?

Imagine arriving with me now at a friend’s home (picture a stunning two-story Craftsman) for our new 40-something social hobby—the Girls’ Night dinner. My friend, Rachel, 49, an environmental lawyer, is married to Ian, a 48-year-old documentary-film editor (all names have been changed). They have two sons, 9 and 11, whom Ian—in every way the model dad—has whisked off this evening to junior soccer camp (or drum lessons or similar). Rachel is preparing dinner for three of us: Ellen (a writer, married with children), Renata (violinist, single, lithe, and prowling at 45), and me. Rachel is, more accurately, reheating dinner; the dish is something wonderfully complex, like a saffron-infused porcini risotto, which Ian made over the weekend and froze for us, in Tupperware neatly labeled with a Sharpie, because this is the sort of thoughtful thing that Rachel’s avid husband does.

Since her own home fires seemed to roar so warmly, I was hesitant to hit Rachel with news of my breakup, and it is true that her first reaction was a degree of horror even more pronounced than everyone else’s in our village of longtime marrieds. “But what about the children?” she wailed.

But it is now our second Girls’ Night dinner since my horrifying announcement, and Rachel is mixing some alarmingly strong martinis.

Leaning forward 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.

“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, lonely and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad, but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at 6, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.

Rachel had even asked Ian point-blank: “Do you want a divorce?” And Ian said absolutely not—they must show discipline and work at the marriage (again with the work!), since any domestic upset could negatively affect the boys.

“You know, it’s funny,” says Ellen, who has been married for 18 years, and also, famously, never has sex. “When marriage was invented, 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,” says Rachel.

Females, it is clear, are dissatisfied with marriage. A Rutgers study suggests that only 38 percent of married people in America describe themselves as happy, and divorce seems to be initiated more and more by the wives. If marriage is the Old World and what lies beyond is the New World, it’s the apparently stable men (comfortable alone in their postfeminist den with their Cook’s Illustrated and their porn) who are Old Worlders, and the Girls’ Night Out women who most embody what Tocqueville described as America’s “restless temper.”

To work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones who schedule “date night,” only to be reprimanded in the home by male kitchen shrews, and then, in the bedroom, to be ignored—it’s a bum deal. And then our women’s magazines exhort us to rekindle the romance.

So, herewith, some modest proposals. First, why don’t we accept marriage as a splitting-the-mortgage arrangement? As anthropologist Helen Fisher suggests, rekindling the romance after about four years together is, for many of us, biologically unnatural. 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 bouillabaisse, and ignoring them in the home, and the occasional fun-loving boyfriend the kids never see.

As far as the children are concerned, how about the tribal approach? 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.

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 appropriate staff, if need be.

In any case, my final piece of advice is straightforward: Avoid marriage—or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty of breaking up a long-term union in midlife.

From a longer essay that appears in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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