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


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. 

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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  • invalid-0

    I don’t think that tax benefits make much difference. But, calling it soul sucking does. It should be hard to get into and easy to get out.

  • invalid-0

    Wonderful piece. I must bring up the fact that the 50% divorce rate doesn’t even begin to tell the story of how awful civil marriage really is. There are countless millions of people hopelessly stuck in unhappy marriages because divorce can be such a financial catastrophe. Civil marriage destroys relationships and the people in them. Binding two people together for a lifetime is an absurd fairytale notion. Give ALL people the right to enter into civil unions so they can visit their partners in the hospital, bestow inheritence rights, get healthcare together, etc. I again call on people in the Lesbian and Gay communities to stop your insanity over wanting equality in marriage. Focus your efforts on civil unions.

  • invalid-0

    Chuckling a bit here, Amanda. All I can say is that YMMV. Oh, and I will add that we do seem to like each other a whole lot again, now that we are empty-nested.

  • invalid-0

    Great article, very compelling. Thank you for not mincing words.

  • invalid-0

    Marriage in its current form is a threat to our civil liberties. People being stuck in loveless marriages due to financial disaster in case of divorce is bad enough. People being enslaved to the State long after the divorce is even worse. What am I talking about? Consider the case of the average citizens divorcing in their late-30′s and 40′s. Some of these people end up with lifetime alimony obligations. Imagine paying alimony for 55 years for a marriage that has barely lasted 11. This is a civil liberties disaster.

    More on this topic here:

    http://dontmarry.wordpress.com/

  • invalid-0

    I’m in one of those loveless marriages just trying to hold on. The reality is there’s nothing I can do if my wife decides to divorce me some day. At that point I’ll be financially enslaved to her for the rest of my life. Not only would she probably get a lifetime pension from me, I would likely end up with almost nothing in the way of assets. My state is not 50/50 and with our disparity in income I’d likely end up with almost nothing. She would be retired. Slavery is alive and well in America.

  • invalid-0

    There is some hope of legal reform on the horizon. But it’s probably not going to be fast enough to save this generation.

    http://abajournal.com/magazine/til_death_do_us_pay/

    Stay single. Stay safe.

  • invalid-0

    Marriage is a sacrament of the church and never should have been recognized by the government. That recognition results in the grossest violation of separation of church and state that exists…but for some reason–maybe because people enjoy the tax and other benefits of marriage, even if they aren’t religious–no one protests about it. It’s time to end the state’s recognition of marriage…and I speak as someone who’s been married now for 3 years.

  • invalid-0

    Seriously, Anonymous? “Slavery is alive and well in America”? Except for the fact that the ACTUAL slaves were brought here against their will and forced to work for rich white men. Unless you were forced into an arranged marriage, quit making comparisons.

  • invalid-0

    The divorce rate for couples practicing NFP (Natural Family Planning) is much lower. There are marriages that are working.

  • invalid-0

    You know…I hear this particular assertion a lot…and it gets on my nerves. The 1% of the population that practices NFP are pretty much a self-selected group dedicated to doctrine to that goes far beyond birth control practices. There is no evidence to suggest that NFP folks do NOT live the same life of quiet desperation described upthread, and are in fact, grimly adhering to doctrine…as opposed to having a mutually enjoyable marriage.

    That said…I like marriage, and the official recognition of my marriage. Thirty years in, I’m not willing to give up the perks nor back-peddle on the responsibilities. For those folks who do not think there should be legal recognition of marriage…the response is, naturally…do not get married.

  • amanda-marcotte

    I love how anti-choicers tout NFP as the magic cure for everything.  It cures menstrual cramps! Divorce! Depression!

     

    Why not go whole hog and claim that NFP can cure cancer and stop our economic crisis?

  • invalid-0

    Snerk! Depression!

    Uber-fertile here…and my “depression” vanished post vasectomy. Why is that?

  • invalid-0

    Well actually, artificial contraception does increase the risk for some cancers. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/oral-contraceptives

    And NFP is nearly free, so think of the economic stimulus if we weren’t spending billions of dollars on contraception. So, heh, just maybe…

    But I guess we’ll never know until more than 1% of the population actually tries it.

  • http://dontmarry.wordpress.com/ invalid-0

    As humanity achieves greater levels of learning, awareness, economic wealth, and freedom, what we need are more choices, not less.

    We can’t turn back to clock to “a simpler time”, even only to a century ago, when the average human lifespan was barely 50 years.

    Institutions, whether marriage or organized religion, were created for the benefit of humans. Not vice versa. We can’t sacrifice human freedom and dignity on the alter of outdated/dying institutions. It is the institutions that must be swept aside.

    Marriage itself has roots as a collusion amongst males to “preserve the peace” and to create a delicate (but unnatural) system to maximize parental investment. In the natural world of mammals, Bambi never gets to meet her father. Sometime during the hunter-gatherer era, humanity developed a “neat-trick” to solve this problem via forced monogamy. This served its purpose in the rise of civilization as we know it. However it was never a natural nor comfortable arrangement for most of the parties involved. Women felt cheated as most could no longer have access to the top 20% of males (like they used to in the old free for all system). The top 20% of men (i.e. alpha men) were also never at ease with the system because they now had to share the women with their lesser brothers (betas). One man, one wife.

    Anyways now with women being equal learners, earners, and achievers, we may need a new model moving forward. This following essay is male-centric, and parts of it may be offensive to some female readers. But it is a good start. I know that the author (Novaseeker) is open to revising it with some more female perspective. The goal isn’t to oppress either gender, but to arrive at a new and fair framework for both genders moving forward:

    http://novaresources.blogspot.com/2009/04/general-theory-of-human-mating.html

  • invalid-0

    I hear you. And the word is getting out about what marriage is really all about. As a result, fewer men are proposing than ever before. I, for one, had absolutely no idea what marriage was when I got married in my early 20s. That’s the problem. Noone tells you the truth. It’s all a big secret. Marriage is nothing but a welfare program. I bet my wife likes marriage too. She’s hardly had to work her whole adult life. She’s been in retirement since her early thirties and now I have no choice at this point to take care of her lazy butt, either through marriage or divorce. When I’ve pressed her to work in the past she just threatens to take my kids away. A little marital extortion for kicks on top of a loveless marriage. This is the real face of marriage. Thanks again to Amanda for bringing up this very important topic.

  • invalid-0

    Oral contraception also appears to help decrease the risk of some cancers, per your own cite.

  • invalid-0

    Marriage is nothing but a welfare program.

    Yah…because women just sit around eating bonbons, blah, blah…
    Could you possibly be less original?

  • invalid-0

    Ahunt, that is true that the study shows decreased risks of some cancers, but I doubt many women get on birth control to reduce the risk of ovarian or endometrial cancer that’s just a bonus. I just wanted to make the whole hog claim that possibly natural may be better.

    Sometimes it’s better to go natural, like with the organic food craze. It’s not ok to put hormones in the cows we eat, but we’re perfectly fine with flooding our bodies with hormones, that are known to cause problems, in order to be readily available for sex on demand. I’m just saying fertility cycles are probably there for a reason.

  • invalid-0

    Why is everyone so threatened by the sucessful marriages of most people who use NFP? I don’t use it but I’m not afraid of people who do and this desperate attempt to write off the facts regarding low divorce rates is pitiful. “Oh maybe they are not really happy. They can’t prove their happy. Lets go with that.” This from the same people who claim to want birth control to be a private matter. So, they have a low divorce rate. It’s not something to be angry about. Good for them.

  • invalid-0

    Have you seen the real housewives of NJ?

  • invalid-0

    Have you seen the real housewives of NJ? Please stop. Just stop now. Do not embarrass yourself any further here.

  • colleen

    First of all I’m not inclined to believe the reports of a lower divorce rate. Last I read the divorce rate for Christians was somewhat higher than the national average and understandably so.

    Second, unlike other forms of ‘family planning’, couples use NFP when they’re trying to GET pregnant.Very few use it as a form of contraception.

    Finally, social conservatives tend to make all sorts of overblown and  ridiculous claims for various forms of NFP. The notion that a ‘birth control’ method with a typical failure rate of 25%, which requires obsessive daily attention to one’s body functions and celibacy for at least a third of the month is a good idea for women who don’t want to be pregnant is ridiculous when there are so many more effective alternatives available.

    The notion that others are threatened by ‘successful’ marriages is right in there with your belief that Planned Parenthood is racist. Indeed I question the long or short term ‘success’ of marriages that depend on unreliable birth control methods to bolster them. That plan sure didn’t work all that well for Randall Terry or Mark Sandford’s wives and many children.

     

     

     

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • invalid-0

    Colleen, you can choose not to believe that NFP users have a lower divorce rate, that is fine. That doesn’t mean it is not true, though. Among the small population of NFP users, the divorce rate is very low. This also doesn’t mean that Christians are using or even know about NFP. Sadly, the divorce rate of Christians is the same as everyone else. Most Christians and even catholics use birth control at the same rate or higher than the rest of the USA. Just because the majority uses BC doesn’t make it right or healthy for the female or the relationship.

    If a couple can openly communicate with “daily attention to one’s body functions” they can communicate about anything. One of the top reasons couples divorce is due to communication failures. Constant intimate communication is required of couples practicing NFP. And the failure rates do depend a lot on the self-control of the couple using it, which in our day and age is rare, but not unattainable. Generally, if we want something, we want it now.

    I don’t know Terry or Sandford, but I could place a bet that they weren’t practicing NFP with any of their sexual partners. Just a guess though.

  • invalid-0

    The point is not believing that NFP users have a smaller divorce rate or not, the point is if it’s actually meaningful – or rather, significant. When the sample size compared to the total, you will see trends that are, in fact, completely meaningless.

    Showing a simple number is meaningless. What you have to do is show some evidence of why the two things are related at all. I bet you a dime to a dollar that if you look hard enough, you can find lower divorce rate in other arbitrarily defined groups: People who like lemon pop, people who sleep sideways instead of face up, people whose surname starts with the letter M… Look hard enough, and you will find, by statistical chance, some population that has a lower divorce rate than the norm. And just as with NFP, it’ll be completely meaningless, unless you can establish causation.

  • colleen

    Colleen, you can choose not to believe that NFP users have a lower divorce rate, that is fine.

     

     Well good because I’m  not inclined to believe much of anything the religious right has to say without actual evidence. And most particularly not when the subject has anything at all to do with the rebrands of the rhythm method. The typical failure rate is 25% and then when it fails the rest of you get to stand around and judge others on their lack of self control. 

     

    If a couple can openly communicate with "daily attention to one’s body functions" they can communicate about anything

     

    If y’all believe that marriages are built on communicating about bodily functions, wifely submission and ‘self control’  it’s no wonder  the ‘family values’ crowd has such a high rate of divorce.

     

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • adolmd

    Many women go on birth control pills not to be "readily available for sex on demand," but perhaps to be control of when/where they will have their periods. And to have a higher efficacy of preventing unwanted pregnancies and thus abortions compared to NFP. I think NFP can be quite effective if you are old and very good at knowing your body.

     

    But if you are young (crazy fertile) and busy (working, stressed out, have a child messing up your sleep cycles, etc), NFP is hard to practice with high efficacy. A lot easier to take the pill.

     

    read this article

    http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_03_10_a_rock.htm

    but in particular the part about how in a "natural" tribe untouched by technology etc, they only have 100 periods a year. But in our unnatural world, we have 300 and thus we have endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer.

     

    Menses is the #1 cause of anemia. And they have shown that women who aren’t anemic but just have low iron (which precedes anemia) do worse on standard exams. So, why have periods? 

  • invalid-0

    As a queer man, I completely agree that marriage isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone, and that one of the LGBTQ movement’s greatest potential impacts is to imagine new ways of living and loving together, outside of civil marriage. But I have a big problem with being told that we shouldn’t ask for equality, even in a flawed institution like marriage. The personal and psychological effect of being excluded from what, for better or worse, is a central cultural institution is serious and damaging, I can tell you personally. Don’t blame *us* for straight communities’ problems with marriage – do you own work, and don’t ask us to fix relationships in society for you. Thanks.

  • invalid-0

    You’re right Elliott, marriage isn’t the best option for everyone, only the lazy and golddiggers. If you’re in one of these two camps, by all means, press on for marriage. On the other hand, if you’d rather not be the “dole” to a freeloading spouse then don’t get married when you get the chance. …and that one of the LGBTQ movement’s greatest potential impacts is to imagine new ways of living and loving together, outside of civil marriage.” Don’t squander this opportunity.

  • invalid-0

    “…at the expense of enslaving the historic wage earner…”

    http://abajournal.com/magazine/til_death_do_us_pay/

  • invalid-0

    I think that marriage has fulfilled its useful purpose.
    Now, the same institution has become fossilized and has become a barrier to progress. It stands the reason that marriage has to be abolished because it has become toxic.

    Old institutions die in honor: that’s the route marriage must take.

    But that shall hardly be enough.
    We need to put a brake on the number of births in order to bring the world population to a more manageable level.

    I suggested that only a selected few be given authorization to reproduce and compulsory abortion be done on those who are unallowed.

    These two minor corrections should put humankind on the road to progress again.

  • http://dontmarry.wordpress.com/ invalid-0

    Elliot makes a good point about the hypocrites who claim to be “defenders of marriage”. Not only do we find some of them violating their own marriage vows (like the SC Governor), these are the same folks that looked the other way when legal-theft divorce laws were being put in place in the 70′s and 80′s. Where were they, why weren’t they “defending marriage” back then? Where were they when divorce rates shot up from the single digits to 50%? These guys aren’t defending anything. They just want to throw rocks at gay citizens. End of story.

  • invalid-0

    Married men are scared to death to protest. Why do you think I’m on here as “Anonymous”? Remember, there’s a difference between peace and quiet.

  • invalid-0

    If you expect marriage to be a total institution that is satisfying in every way, you WILL be disappointed, if not disallusioned.

    If you expect marriage to be an opportunity to grow alongside a person who cares about you and whom you care about then maybe not so much. YMMV is very true.


    Me, I think the 5 year renewable marriage has a lot going for it. It makes it clear that staying together is a choice.


    Young’uns like Amanda seem to want their intimate relationships to be like toys to play with and dispose of when or if playtime gets dull. Others find in the commitment of marriage a deeper opportunity for personal growth and fulfillment.


    David Schnarch (author of “passionate marriage”) calls marriage “a people-growing machine.” He coined the term the “cruciable approach” for one way of addressing the inevitable issues of marriage by standing strong and holding onto your integrity. He argues that the purpose of marriage is , through sexual intimacy, to produce “differentiation”, a strong sense of self– to grow people. Personally I like this idea better than the thought that my genitals are my personal carnival ride and that romance is like going to the movies.


    When two of life’s strongest drives — individuality and togetherness — are brought into tension in a committed relationship and are are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful partnership that doesn’t deterioriate into the boredom and resentment of emotional fusion (Schnarch, 1992)

  • http://dynastyirondoors.com/page/1n4w7/INTERIOR_WINE_DOORS/WROUGHT_IRON_DOORS.html invalid-0

    Marriage is hard. No matter who you are or how well you get along, at some point not everyone gets along all the time. It takes effort to stay committed and to want to stay together. You have to communicate and you have to keep things alive in the bedroom. Just a few tips from someone who has been married a long time.