Well, that turned out to be an interesting thread. I experimented with a review of Against Love by Laura Kipnis by putting the polemic up against a couple pop culture expressions of the widespread American resentment of marital monogamy—the fascination with the Obama marriage and bro comedies that work with the incorrect assumption that marital drudgery is something imposed on men by the all-powerful matriarchy. The thread turned into a long digression about the concept that “marriages are hard work”, which I agreed with Kipnis is a depressing idea that, since it’s so widely believed across the country, is a major factor in why people rebel against marriage, primarily through cheating. There were many attempts to defend this concept, mostly be recontextualizing the concept of “work”, pointing out that many fun and pleasurable things take work. I poked and prodded in the comments, because I was in a mood to tip some sacred cows, but now I’m going to try to be a little more sober-minded and readdress the topic.
Yes, it’s true that all things worth doing take effort. And, like some commenters pointed out, that includes all relationships, including the one with the hairdresser. Ideally, you do cost/benefit analysis on the efforts you put out in life and make sure you’re getting more benefit than cost. And really, I don’t think even the most mischievous bomb thrower thinks that relationships are a non-stop fun train, or that your spouse or partner shouldn’t hold you when you cry after you dog gets hit by a car.
But the reality of American life is we aren’t encouraged to view marriage as we do any other relationship. With marriage, we’re told that you should live to hold the relationship together, and put endless amounts of time and effort into it, and the success of the relationship is gauged by whether you hold it together, not really whether it makes you happy. At the same time, we’re told that marriage should be all-fulfilling, that your partner should be an economic partner, a family member, a best friend, and a lover. And when that burden becomes too much, we consider ourselves inadequate, and we’re told to work harder. Subsume ourselves even more to make it work.
So yes, while it’s technically true that all relationships take effort, in common parlance, the work metaphor tends to apply to marriage, and it doesn’t when conducting a love affair or a friendship. We use the metaphors, to borrow Kipnis’s phrasing, of the factory when talking about marriage. When falling in love or being with friends, however, we use the language of pleasure and fun. No wonder people are unhappy with love.
A lot of focus was on the therapyspeak concept of “Date Night”, which draws people’s attentions precisely because it draws all these contradictions out. You can easily idealize Date Night. It’s entirely possible and theory and even in practice that Date Night is viewed as something that you do strictly because it’s fun and you deserve to have fun, because life is for the living. Date Night could be like setting aside, as many people do, Friday night poker games with friends or a weekly massage for yourself. I’d argue and did argue that’s why so many people are currently romanticizing/resenting the Obamas for having Date Nights that seem to be exactly this (though some of us express hopes that they’re as miserable and resentful as most of the country).
But in reality, Date Night is pushed not as a selfish pleasure you demand for yourself, but as something you must do for the good of the marriage. Because marriages are hard work. It’s a miserable contradiction, because Date Night sounds fun, but if you’re contextualizing it with work metaphors, it’s not so much fun. In addition, it’s undeniable that there’s so much pressure out there to work on your marriages because it’s considered an objectively horrible thing if marriages break up left and right. This is particularly the case for conservatives, who had trouble walking the path of trying to stir outrage that the Obamas use Air Force One for their dates while maintaining their commitment to encouraging people to keep on working on those marriages. Rick Santorum was particularly funny:
Here we have a president of the United States who says that marriage is cool. You have respect for your wife, and you treat her with the respect and dignity that she deserves. And she is part of this team. And it’s not just part of professional team, but it’s also part of a personal, romantic team. I think that’s all great. So I think it’s important that he keeps having his date night. [...]
I think he has to realize that flying to New York is…self-indulgent. Go down to the corner bar and have a drink, a shot and a beer. It does not matter where you go with your wife, is that it’s with your wife.
I recommend reading the whole link, because Santorum also says some ridiculous racist things that are pretty shocking, as well. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.
Why do we give a shit if relationships crack up and people have a number of partners over a lifetime? Instead of reaching for easy answers, like pointing to how loss is hard, I think this is a question worth mulling over a bit. Why is there such pressure to marry, anyway? I’d suggest it’s precisely because marriage is harder to break up than less formal arrangements not recognized by the government or dramatically celebrated in front of the community. Once you have the wedding (or even engagement), not only do you have legal obstacles, but social ones, too, as you don’t want everyone to think you can’t stick it out. But why should love be an endurance test? Why do we set goals, and distinguish “successful” relationships from others, which are deemed failures?
It’s because of stability, argues Kipnis. Marriage is valued precisely because it’s seen as a way to tame people’s passions and get them under control, which is particularly useful in a capitalist society that needs compliant workers. The Marriage Takes Work mentality also encourages people to individualize their problems, and instead of asking the hard questions—such as, “Why are we living for this institution, instead of changing institutions for us?”—they are endlessly working on themselves and their marriages. The policing function of marriage, and the financial entanglements further work to tame and control people.
It’s easy to nod along to the more sober-minded descriptions of how this works and then politely exempt yourself, so that’s why it’s necessary to shake things up on occasion and throw bombs directly at the idea that marriage should take work, or even exist at all. What we do with our realizations after we’ve asked hard questions is another story altogether, and frankly, there’s no easy solutions. But asking questions certainly helps point you in the right direction. Completely dumping the concept of monogamous relationships is probably beyond a lot of people, including myself, because there are a lot of benefits if you play your cards right. But certainly you should ask if you’re playing your cards right, or if the immense cultural pressures on marriage are depriving you of happiness. For instance, the Relationships Take Work mentality fucks people in two different directions. One, people are encouraged to stay with people who are obviously bad fits, because they think that all the problems that keep cropping up can be massaged out with more and more work. Two, we’re encouraged to negotiate on every little thing, because of both the Relationships Take Work mentality and the police state mentality. In my not-old age, I’m giving up on both of these. The first I gave up on a long time ago—if a guy doesn’t see eye to eye with me on a whole host of things that can create conflict down the road, take a check and move on. (Which I suppose makes me lucky to find someone who does see eye-to-eye, but I think that’s easier if you know what you believe and you happily state it forcefully instead of pussy-footing around on critical values, politics, and yes, taste issues.) Other stuff, though, who says you have to care? I often find it weird when people require an explanation for why I’m out and about without my consort, for instance, and I could see how that pressure might, under different circumstances, think that doing everything together is mandatory. But thanks to good, old cynicism, I see that pressure for what it is and happily will reject it.
Anyway, just some further thoughts.