Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Culture Crash

That mainstream American culture is something of a train wreck is hardly news at this point, and that regard there's a certain wisdom to the approach, "Let the dead bury their dead," rather than having the brashness to be the one shouting, "Oh, hey, look! A body!" Still, occasionally one runs across things which are at the same time so sad and so indicative of our cultural ills one feels the need to comment. Such a case, to my mind at least, was this article from the most recent Atlantic Monthly suggesting that for the modern Homo suburbanicus middleclassus marriage is a failed idea which should be pretty much abandoned. Or as the cheery sub-headline succinctly put it: "The author is ending her marriage. Isn’t it time you did the same?"

The author is a 47 year old woman, a successful performance artist married to a musician, who after twenty years of marriage and two children find herself in the aftermath of an extramarital affair deciding that she really doesn't feel like doing the work to rebuilt a relationship with her husband.
Which is not to say I’m against work. Indeed, what also came out that afternoon were the many tasks I—like so many other working/co-parenting/married mothers—have been doing for so many years and tearfully declared I would continue doing. I can pick up our girls from school every day; I can feed them dinner and kiss their noses and tell them stories; I can take them to their doctor and dentist appointments; 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; I can make dinner conversation with any family member; I can ask friendly questions about anybody’s day; I can administer hugs as needed to children, adults, dogs, cats; I can empty the litter box; I can stir wet food into dry.

Which is to say I can work at a career and child care and joint homeownership and even platonic male-female friendship. However, in this cluttered forest of my 40s, what I cannot authentically reconjure is the ancient dream of brides, even with the Oprah fluffery of weekly “date nights,” when gauzy candlelight obscures the messy house, child talk is nixed and silky lingerie donned, so the two of you can look into each other’s eyes and feel that “spark” again. Do you see? Given my staggering working mother’s to-do list, I cannot take on yet another arduous home- and self-improvement project, that of rekindling our romance. Sobered by this failure as a mother—which is to say, my failure as a wife—I’ve since begun a journey of reading, thinking, and listening to what’s going on in other 21st-century American families. And along the way, I’ve begun to wonder, what with all the abject and swallowed misery: Why do we still insist on marriage? Sure, it made sense to agrarian families before 1900, when to farm the land, one needed two spouses, grandparents, and a raft of children. But now that we have white-collar work and washing machines, and our life expectancy has shot from 47 to 77, isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?

Armed with her experience and the knowledge gained from a passel of books seeking to analyze the ills and possibilities of modern marriage, the author goes out for a "girls night" at the house of one of her friends, and discovers that her own thinking has touched off similar thoughts among her married friends:
But it is now our second Girls’ Night dinner since my horrifying announcement, and Rachel has eschewed Ian’s customary wine-club Bordeaux and is mixing some alarmingly strong martinis.

Leaning forward heavily across the bar, she swirls her glass and huskily drops the bomb: “I have to tell you—since we talked, I too have started thinking divorce.” “No!” we girls exclaim. With a stab of nausea, I suddenly feel as though now that I’ve touched my pool of friends with my black pen, a cloud of ink is enveloping them.

“You can’t!” Renata cries. “Ian—he’s the perfect father! The perfect husband! Look at this … kitchen!”

It’s true: the kitchen is a prime example of Ian’s contribution to their union. He based the design of the remodel on an old farmhouse kitchen they saw during their trip to Tuscany, and of course—carpentry being another of his hobbies—he did all the details himself, including building the shelves. One of the room’s marvels is how ingeniously and snugly all the specialty kitchenware is housed—the hanging copper pots, the garlic press, the mandolin, the lemon zester, the French press coffeemaker …

“Ian won’t have sex with me,” Rachel says flatly. “He has not touched my body in two years. He says it’s because I’ve gained weight.” Again, we stoutly protest, but she goes on. “And he thinks I’m a bad mother—he says I’m sloppy and inattentive.”

The list of violations unfurls. Last week, Rachel mistakenly gave the wrong medication to the dog, a mistake Ian would never make. She also forgot to deglaze the saucepan and missed the window to book the family’s Seattle flights on Expedia, whose chiming bargains Ian meticulously tracks.

Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars.

After spending a while diagnosing the problems with this friend's relationship, another speaks up:
“You know, it’s funny,” says Ellen, after a moment of gloom. (Passing note: Ellen has been married for 18 years, and she also, famously, never has sex. There were the hot 20s with Ron and the making-the-babies 30s, and in the 40s there is … nothing. Ellen had originally picked Ron because she was tired of all the bad boys, and Ron was settle-down husband material. What she didn’t know was that after the age of 38, thanks to Mr. Very Settled-Down, she was never going to have regular sex with a man again.)

“When marriage was invented,” Ellen continues, “it was considered to be a kind of trade union for a woman, her protection against the sexually wandering male. But what’s happened to the sexually wandering male?”

In our parents’ era, the guy hit 45, got the toupee, drove the red Porsche, and left his family for the young, hot secretary. We are unable to imagine any of the husbands driving anything with fewer than five seat belts.

“Ron only goes as far as the den,” Ellen says. “He has his Internet porn bookmarked on the computer.”

“Ian has his Cook’s Illustrated,” Rachel adds. “And his—his men’s online fennel club.”

The author sees hope in some rather bleak ideas:
So, herewith, some modest proposals. Clearly, research shows that what’s best for children is domestic stability and not having to bond with, and to be left by, ever new stepparent figures. Less important is whether or not their overworked parents are logging “date night” (or feeling the magic). So why don’t we accept marriage as a splitting-the-mortgage arrangement? As Fisher suggests, rekindling the romance is, for many of us, biologically unnatural, particularly after the kids come. (Says another friend of mine, about his wife of 23 years: “My heart doesn’t lift when she walks in the room. It sinks, slightly.”) If high-revving women are sexually frustrated, let them have some sort of French arrangement where they have two men, the postfeminist model dad building shelves, cooking bouillabaise, and ignoring them in the home, and the occasional fun-loving boyfriend the kids never see. Alternately, if both spouses find life already rather exhausting, never mind chasing around for sex. Long-married husbands and wives should pleasantly agree to be friends, to set the bedroom aglow at night by the mute opening of separate laptops and just be done with it. More than anything, aside from providing insulation from the world at large, that kind of arrangement could be the perfect way to be left alone.

As far as the children are concerned, how about the tribal approach (a natural, according to both primate and human evolution)? Let children between the ages of 1 and 5 be raised in a household of mothers and their female kin. Let the men/husbands/boyfriends come in once or twice a week to build shelves, prepare that bouillabaisse, or provide sex.

Or best of all, after the breast-feeding and toddler years are through, let those nurturing superdads be the custodial parents! Let the Type A moms obsessively work, write checks, and forget to feed the dog. Let the dads then, if they wish, kick out those sloppy working mothers and run effective households, hiring the appropriate staff, if need be. To a certain extent, men today may have more clarity about what it takes to raise children in the modern age. They don’t, for instance, have today’s working mother’s ambivalence and emotional stickiness.

In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage—or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.

I'd originally thought about quoting a little bit of the article and then writing a lot of analysis, but as I thought it over, I think that putting it out there -- like a cadaver on the dissection table -- with a few basic pointers may make things rather more clear.

A couple of things particularly struck me, though.

Foremost, I was utterly unsurprised when the one sex-starved woman mentioned her husband heading off into the den to watch his internet porn. It would little surprise me if the over-achieving husband has similar habits. In a world in which sex has been totally divorced from its biological meaning, why not retreat into the world of unreality? Why accept a real person with needs and moods and desires and a body which is the product of age, genetics and personal habits when carefully selected bodies can be seen doing anything one desires only a mouse click and a couple dollars away? This is the natural path down which one goes when one separates the mating urge from mating with one's mate.

The other thing that struck me as interesting was how an excessive emphasis on equality seemed to be driving unhappiness. The author talks about "co-parenting" rather than "parenting", and emphasizes down on the line all the tasks which she is perfectly happy to do in order to hold up her half of the household duties. Her friends over-achieving husband Ian is quick to blame his wife for not holding up her duties equally, on everything from feeding the dog to maintaining the body type he prefers. I'm not an absolutist about "traditional roles", although MrsDarwin and I have always felt strongly about maintaining a single income family with a full time parent at home, but the one thing I think is probably almost never healthy is a strong emphasis on doing everything equally in a marriage rather than having some sort of roles. If you both work full time careers, and both strive to do equal amounts of housework, parenting, cooking, etc., it seems to me that comparisons will almost invariably spring up.

"I do the dishes every night, but she hasn't swept the floor in three days."
"I end up having to help the kids out with homework while she just takes them out to fun activities which cost lots of money."
"I make more money, but he's always going out to lunch as if money were no object."

And on, and on. Perhaps I'm an unusually unpleasant person, but in a work environment I can't help constantly measuring myself against the other people who are "doing the same thing I'm doing". This can be pretty harmless at work so long as one keeps a lid on it. After all, it's just work, and we get to walk away at the end of the day. But when you bring this same tendency towards competition into a marriage, I can see nothing but trouble coming of it. There it seems to me that it's very important to have complementary but different roles -- not do everything together as "co-parents". This doesn't have to be some kind of radical partitioning. But if one of your major goals is, "We'll make equal money, do equal work, and have equal fun," I think conflict will almost invariably result. Marriage is meant to be based on complementarity, not measured equality.

Finally, I'm reminded of something one of my Indian co-workers said when someone asked her how it was that she'd remained happily married for 20+ years to a man she only met ten minutes before her wedding. "You just tell yourself you don't have any other options," she said. "If you really believe that, it helps you avoid starting problems that will make you want out." At this point in modern America's divorce culture, it's very hard to tell yourself that there are not other options, but I think that rebuilding that mentality -- not just as in "I'd better put up with this, because there's no way out" but rather "I had better make sure that I'm easy to live with, because if I cause problems there is no way out of them" -- is probably the only real path back towards marital stability and sanity in the wider culture.

14 comments:

The River Yeti said...

I appreciate how you ended your say by turning the co-workers phrase on its head and making it selfless. The first thing I thought as I read the Atlantic Monthly author's description was, "She doesn't see her relationships with her kids and husband as a gift or vocation, she sees them as a burden or a job." We have made marriage a business arrangement: What's in it for me? Is it as good or better than what's in it for you?

bearing said...

I read the same article and felt nothing but pity for someone to have such a bleak outlook on life and love. I hope her children don't have to read that until they're much older.

But the article is maybe a good one to have out there -- Perhaps it should be required reading for engaged couples. Not that they should take away from it what the author thinks they should, but that they should see what hopelessness and sorrow comes from selfish assumptions. It's just so plain that the author dug this pit for herself, and that it does not have to be this way.

Melody K said...

The last sentence of the quote is very telling, in which she describes love as "demonstrably fleeting". She is defining love as a feeling. If that feeling is gone, or has gotten misplaced, then people think love is gone. It has been said that "Love is a decision" (yeah, I got that from Marriage Encounter). They need more of a sense that love is something they have chosen to do, a committment.
The other thing that comes to mind is that she is at a difficult age. Perimenopause has probably kicked in. Been there. There are times when you feel very irritable and stressed. The overload of things which "have" to be done doesn't help at this point. You really do need to simplify and de-stress; but getting rid of your husband isn't the way to do it. It helps to remember that you are going through a phase, and that things will be better later, if you don't burn your bridges.

Jamie said...

I want to know what The Atlantic is going to publish in the fall! Spring: no need to breastfeed your annoying baby; Hanna Rosin says so (and hey, she has zero public health credentials but she can do incendiary rhetoric nicely). Summer: no need to stay married to your annoying husband; you could have an affair instead. Fall: why you should eat your young? The hidden joys of matricide? One can only imagine.

CMinor said...

A few observations:

--It takes a bit of parsing to get to the crux of that first paragraph: She had a fling. She doesn't come right out and say it; it seems something not that she chose, but something that happened to her ("I don't even enjoy men...") Bunkum. She screwed things up; nobody else did, and she didn't have to. Evidently she lacks the maturity or integrity to even acknowlege it for what it is.

--The author complains that her life is too "cluttered" for her to take the time to rekindle romance with her husband, but seems to have had time for an affair. Maybe I'm just a boring old builder, but I've occasionally reflected that, were I abysmally unhappy in my marriage (and personal integrity were no object), I don't know when I would find the time to have an affair. (The extensive Mark Sanford coverage we've been getting around here lately has given me cause for reflection.) Date night once a week with the guy you're supposed to be sleeping with anyway is much easier to arrange.

--That the author is apparently the product of an unhappy (perhaps abusive?) marriage herself is likely coloring her views.

--That a family therapist is her "shaman, mother, and priest" speaks volumes about her attitude as well.

--Her "support group" is a train wreck unto itself. Nobody in it seems to have unsolvable problems, but no one seems really interested in trying to solve them. They're handy excuses. We've become a generation of seagulls --fly in, mess everything up, fly out, make a mess somewhere else.

--I'm intrigued that all the high-powered, successful contempories of mine profiled in the article have no sex lives. Wasn't the sexual revolution supposed to have changed that?

CMinor said...

A-MEN to your coworker and the last sentence, BTW.

Melody K said...

"...a generation of seagulls --fly in, mess everything up, fly out, make a mess somewhere else." I'll have to remember that; that's a good one!

Bob the Ape said...

Shortly before getting engaged, I stumbled across a marriage-prep book. Most of it I've forgotten, but one thing stuck and stayed: that marriage isn't 50-50, it's 100-100; you have to give ALL of yourself to it. Trying to live that is one reason why the Bride and I are coming up on 19 years.

Cliff said...

"Let children between the ages of 1 and 5 be raised in a household of mothers and their female kin."

So sad. Sounds like polygamy to me. Don't the muslims do that? And we all have heard how their women are treated.

The Bible says it, "you reap what you sow". Obviously, atheistic feminism is bringing in a bumper crop...

CMinor said...

Would that I could claim credit, Melody--I think it's been used in business and military circles before.

Off-topic, but I figured it might intrigue Darwin--Dante's Inferno is now a video game!

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

I wonder if these people will ever realize that this worldview that assumes that the meaning of life is to seek as much autonomy as possible is making them miserable.

Anyway, excellent analysis. Really interesting read.

Sara said...

It struck me when reading this article, from the way the author describes her marriage, that they've never really had a life together. They've been running life in paralell, each of them pursuing what they want for themselves, neither sacrificing much of anything to build up their spouse. Very little active loving of the spouse there.

Amber said...

Wow, how incredibly sad. What the last commenter said hit me as well - they never tried to build a life together, just lives that ran next to each other and intersected occasionally when mutually convenient. And now that it doesn't seem to be mutually convenient... well, why bother?

This article reminds me of something that happened to me back when I lived in suburbia. I was part of a book group - half were younger moms (late 20's, early 30's) and the other half were older moms (early 40's). The older moms all had beautiful homes, two children a piece, very nice stuff and with the exception of one (who, interestingly, was the only one who had four kids instead of two) were very unhappy. One meeting in particular really stands out - we met at the house of a woman who's husband is a exec VP for a large company and as she proceeded to consume an entire bottle of wine the vitriol she spewed about her husband got worse and worse. The loathing she felt for him - my goodness. We all didn't quite know what to do other than try to change the subject and keep the wine away from her. I left the get together at the point where she was trying to get everyone to play some drinking game. It was very, very sad and I wonder what ended up happening to her. That was the last meeting she went to, and she stopped responding to emails and such after that. I wonder if she was embarrassed or despondent or a little bit of both.

cl00bie said...

After reading this article, I felt the same way as a lot of the commenters here. I was so sad for the woman in question.

It is a matter of priorities and balance. I have been married almost 25 years to the love of my life. Reading about their lives is like watching Sex and the City (which my wife and I watched exactly once). Sad, horny people getting their rocks off separately rather than joining their bodies, souls and spirits in joy as close to heaven as we get here on earth.

Makes me grateful for how God has blessed me.