Total coincidence that while we were having some discussions about marriage, adultery, and marriage strikes here at Pandagon, Sandra Tsing Loh was publishing an article about the exact same thing, but of course with a lot more glitz, because of who she is and because she is personally getting divorced after cheating on her husband of 20 years. In her usual snazzy style, Tsing Loh paints a miserable picture of the very existence of marriage, particularly the companionate “have it all” marriages of the yuppie set, with the perfect houses, the perfect children, and the dads who make a big to-do over their fancy gourmet cooking. The tedium of domestic bliss, Tsing Loh compelling argues, kills passion—she even namechecks Laura Kipnis’s Against Love and decries the tyranny of having to “work” on your marriage. I’m sure I could chew on the edges and nitpick Tsing Loh’s essay, but honestly, I thought it was awesome and I love anyone who copes through dark humor so brilliantly.
I also knew that tipping over the sacred cow of marriage would result in defensive reactions, above all. Which is why it was amusing to see the bloggers at Double X react (mostly) by defending marriage against these inappropriate questions. Slate’s contrarianism usually is one inch deep, and usually a matter of shining up reactionary responses and presenting them as if they’re original. There is some of that—Meghan O’Rourke runs with the idea that it’s feminism that killed marital passion, that real passion can only exist if one person in a relationship is perpetually being treated like a debased supplicant. One would have to live in an utter bubble to believe that, but I’m willing to introduce O’Rourke to the many couples I’ve known with both the proper gender imbalance and separate bedrooms. It’s also neatly disproven by social science,
But mostly the bloggers try to nip around Tsing Loh’s claim that the domesticated life of marriage-and-kids is a drag. Hanna Rosin denies that being boring is boring, Dahlia Lithwick suggests that Tsing Loh set her expectations of perfection too high, Abigail Pilgrim personalizes Tsing Loh’s all-too-common story and laying the whole thing at Tsing Loh’s feet for being a Bad Woman (in other words, divorce couldn’t happen to me—I never make mistakes!), and Kerry Howley suggests that marriage would work better if people treated it like a business partnership that is still a success if dissolved, as long as you have happy children as a result. Of all these, the one I sympathize most with is Lithwick’s—marriage is still popular with Americans precisely because we’re fed these fantasies, but I suspect that the fantasies are the only thing keeping it so popular, and without that, people would drift away from marriage in even larger numbers than they are already.
Of all these, the one that has the most social science support is Jessica Grose’s post on how it’s not marriage that is a drag, it’s having kids. As Daniel Gilbert demonstrated in his book Stumbling on Happiness, couple’s satisfaction with their relationships plummets dramatically after the kids are born, and it only really creeps back up after the kids move out. But pointing this out doesn’t do much for the argument for marriage, as Grose seems to think—while having kids isn’t mandatory to marriage, it’s definitely part of the marriage ideal that Tsing Loh is describing as broken. Without children or economic dependence, the reasons for marriage drift away, and all you’re left with is the Pottery Barn fantasies that Lithwick describes, and a strong argument to always keep your options open, and enjoy the pleasures of love without state-mandated monogamous domesticity.