Heather Havrilesky has an article up at Salon examining the question—and lamenting the fact of—why we tend to absorb the details of other people’s troubled marriages with an eye towards Judgey McJudgeniks. She suggests that it’s about wanting a world that’s black and white.
Most married people prefer black and white stories about marriage. We either want a marriage to be blessed by the gods above, fated to endure through whatever crazy obstacles life may bring, or we want a marriage to be doomed to fail, preferably because one party in the marriage is a rat bastard. In either case, it’s obvious what the parties involved should do: stay together forever or end it immediately.
And all the truisms about marriage are trotted out:
And really, who the hell are we to judge? You can never know how another person’s marriage works, even if that person is a very close friend. A dynamic that appears toxic might function perfectly well behind closed doors. Sure, we think we know who’s the angel and who’s the rat bastard, but chances are we really don’t have a clue. In the end, it’s always best to keep our fat mouths shut.
Unfortunately, she hangs these theories on a story she admits is far from the best example, which is that of Laura Munson, who wrote about enduring her miserable marriage into survival many months ago to mostly piles of praise, and who now has a book out about how she saved her marriage through martyrdom. Munson’s story struck me at the time—and reading this book review, still strikes me—as the reason that judging other people has its value, even as we are expected, in tones of highest self-righteousness, to judge the judgers.
The thrill of Munson’s story was that she was supposed to be bucking protocol. Her husband walked up to her one day and said he didn’t love her anymore, and she reacted by confusing the issue until he stayed. People expect things to go a certain way, and that includes believing that if you break up with someone, they will accept that. But Munson didn’t accept that, and her husband didn’t seem to know what to do. He acted like a dick so that she would accept that, and that didn’t work. And so he came back to her, his will to leave broken by her refusal to accept this. There was lots of praise for her method of saving the marriage, but you’re not going to get it from me. I’ve seen relationships that dragged on for years because one person stubbornly refused to accept it every time the other initiated the “let’s end this” talk. You may scoff, but it’s surprisingly hard to get out of a situation when you have total non-cooperation from the person you got into it with. I saw one man escape such a situation by waiting for his girlfriend to go to work and then moving to another state, taking only his personal possessions that he could carry in his car, and giving away everything else that was his in a fire sale that he had to keep very quiet.
Which isn’t to say that I think the husband recommends himself. It’s possible that Munson paints him as a rat to shore up her reputation as a saint of marriage, but if he behaved the way that she says he did, he’s a rat bastard. I said as much at the time. And on this, I will say that I agree with Heather that we can’t know for sure who’s the rat and who’s the angel in a broken relationship, often because there’s two rats. Or two angels, but ones who had to admit that it just wasn’t working anymore. Or often something in between.
But Munson was able to get most people rushing to her side for one major reason, which is that she plays the long-suffering martyr of a wife to the hilt. To make it worse, she does so without stirring up anger at women who dare think they have a right to suffer, by saying she refused to suffer, and so she suffered with a cheeriness that’s been expected of women throughout history, though rarely delivered. There was lots and lots and lots of praise delivered to her for saving her marriage, which is a Good Thing in our culture, and supposedly a brave thing to do.
I’m forced to call bullshit on the notion that a woman who stands by her man, all martyr-like, is somehow throwing off social expectations. I’ll believe that when I stop seeing long-suffering wives stand by politicians who cheated on them in the most outrageous ways. I’ll believe that when we give up this ridiculous investment in “sex addiction”, which is a diagnosis that increasingly seems to have been invented to give cheaters a narrative to keep broken marriages alive. I’ll believe it when we stop rushing to applaud people who use sketchy methods to keep their marriages alive.
And the reason for my annoyance at all this is that people who decide life is too short to suffer so much and walk out are still, in the age of frequent divorce, made to feel like failures. Women especially are still subject to narratives about how they need to be a little more submissive and willing to suffer for marriage. That’s why so many women were eager to call Jenny Sanford a hero for leaving her husband, even though in retrospect it seems she had a life of doormat behavior that only came to an end when he cheated on her in such a spectacular way. Even though Jenny Sanford is a poor example of a hero, I at least appreciate that women would like to see stiff spines lauded over laying down, and women who claim dignity for themselves being treated as heroes, instead of women who find ways to bravely suffer more bullshit.