In Our Marriage Madness, Are We Waving Goodbye to Reality?

Amanda Marcotte

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.

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. 

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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.

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