For a few interesting weeks this summer—catapulted by romantic melodramas with a wide cast of characters, including Republican politicians and popular reality-show parents Jon and Kate—the question of opposite-sex marriage and its own meaning momentarily took center stage.
Just about everyone, it seemed, took the opportunity of these latest marital calamities to weigh in. Newsweek contributed a July story about the rise in polyamory, that is, multiple-partner families. Ruminating from Crete alongside her ex-husband and their children, pop-cultural weathervane Arianna Huffington offered another postmodern contribution: She urged other divorced parents to reach the point where “there really is nothing to work out” so that they too could vacation together as a big happy post-divorce non-family. Meanwhile, among other efforts to say something new about the subject, two unexpectedly compelling essays ended up serving as lightning rods: Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in The Atlantic, and Caitlin Flanagan’s nearly simultaneous and ferociously opposed “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?” in Time.
The Flanagan and Loh pieces, much more than the usual pro and con over marriage, are also windows into a rapidly evolving moral and cultural landscape. Both Flanagan and Loh are middle-aged women, both are among The Atlantic’s best writers of the past ten years, and both rely for their literary firepower on a brew of pop sociology and personal confession that is nearly always a potent read. But there do the common denominators end.
In “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?” Flanagan proves herself an unapologetic apologist for traditional marriage as best for children, best for adults, and critical to society. Loh—despite having relied on her own marriage and family life for literary inspiration throughout years of popular essay writing—now declares herself as ferocious a foe of marriage as Flanagan is a defender of it. Using her own impending divorce as emblematic, as well as a blunt battery of anecdotes about the marriages of acquaintances and friends, Loh argues that rising lifespans and impossibly inflated expectations have ruined a once viable institution.
An obvious question—the one at the center of Flanagan and Loh’s dispute—is What is modern marriage doing to kids? Shocking though that question proved to detractors of Flanagan’s Time essay, not everyone is so naive; readers passably acquainted with the decades of family sociology following the Moynihan Report will already suspect the answer. More interesting is another question: What is modern marriage doing to adults? More precisely, what today is the state, in our apparently postmodern, postfeminist, post-judgmental social order, of what antiquarians once thought of as “the war between the sexes”?
The answer seems to be one long, strange trip to an enigma in which many unhappy people apparently feel themselves trapped. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” is a searing, sometimes brutal, attack on traditional marriage. It could also fairly be called postfeminist, in that its chief complaint is not so much that men are intolerable as that marriage per se is impossible. Loh’s essay marches relentlessly through the details of her own marital collapse (initiated by the author herself, as she acknowledges from the outset), her itinerant misgivings about what the split might do to her children, and her conversations with friends and others that further fuel her thesis. “Now that we have white-collar work and washing machines and a life expectancy that has shot from forty-seven to seventy-seven,” she argues, the idea of marriage “has become obsolete.” The essay closes with a “final piece of advice” that delivers its gist with bitter élan: “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.”
Meanwhile, Flanagan undertakes a pithy channeling of what generations of social scientists have been painstakingly documenting since the 1960s: “There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers’ financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass.”
Citing just a handful of some of the authors who have been putting out the bad news about broken homes for years—Robert Rector, David Blankenhorn, Sara McLanahan—Flanagan excoriates her happy-talking divorcing or unmarried peers with children for their willful blindness. Reaching even beyond the defense of marriage to a warning about the wider social ramifications of the collapse of the family, she concludes on a note plainly designed to chill her fellow baby boomers above all: “The current generation of children, the one watching commitments between adults snap like dry twigs and observing parents who simply can’t be bothered to marry each other and who hence drift in and out of their children’s lives—that’s the generation who will be taking care of us when we are old.”
These authors don’t exactly pussyfoot around their theses, and neither have the commentators rushing to pummel them. Flanagan, predictably enough, has been roundly flogged by the usual suspects for what her critics correctly interpret as a shockingly retrograde defense of the family—one all the more unusual because, unlike most other champions of heterosexual marriage in the public square these days, Flanagan is a self-declared Democrat and supporter of abortion who relies largely on anecdote and occasional secular sociology to make her case.
This narrative novelty, far from sparing her the wrath of her critics, seems to have inflamed it exponentially. Blasting even in advance of the appearance of the Time essay, alphafeminist Linda Hirschman derided its author as a “working-mother scourge,” complained of her reliance on “outmoded studies” and “interviews with experts from right-wing foundations,” and ultimately excoriated Time itself for “running another unsubstantiated, apocalyptic cover on the awful consequences of most American women’s fates.”
Writing in The Nation, Katha Pollitt sharpened similar claws. Dubbing Flanagan a “professional antifeminist” and “author of a whole book of essays attacking working mothers, herself excepted,” she concluded that “the attack on divorce isn’t really about poor people and their families,” but about “reinforcing the idea that ‘the family’ is not just a haven in a heartless world but the only safety net you have, or should have, from the blows of fortune”—apparently, to those of Pollitt’s way of thinking, about as ludicrous an idea as can be imagined. The American Prospect blog called the essay “overwrought,” claimed the author was “never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and concluded (in sneer quotes) that such efforts “to ‘save’ marriage ‘for the kids’ sake’” were “patently disingenuous.”
Sandra Tsing Loh, not surprisingly, got off more leniently in the left-liberal mainstream for her confession of an affair and her subsequent decision to divorce. Though some readers wrote the piece off in disgust, others sympathized and openly applauded her move, albeit with occasional qualifications. “No doubt,” as a writer at Salon put it, “some will blame Loh for not trying hard enough. But she’s never been one to show us the ideal; just what’s real.” Left-wing blogger Amanda Marcotte, another indicator, echoed Loh in a piece titled (with admirable clarity): “For Many, Marriage Is Sexless, Boring, and Oppressive: Time to Rethink the Institution?”
One intriguing fact unmentioned in the general fray was that Loh’s portrayal has drawn consistent demurral from at least one subset of readers: men. Delving at some length into the essay and its author for the Los Angeles Times, James Rainey criticized the implication that today’s married men are “disdained by their wives as being less than men. These twenty-first-century pantywaists follow all the new rules—providing incomes, helping with parenting, sharing chores, and cooking elaborate meals—and in the process become domesticated, sexless drones.” Robert Franklin, at MensNewsDaily.com, dismissed the essay as “the same self-absorbed mewling we see periodically from the privileged,” as the author’s “desperate attempt to explain herself to herself (and unfortunately, to us).” Judging by many of the blogs, other male critics, though few females, have similarly faulted Loh for her generalization of today’s married man as a sexless, sex-withholding “competitor wife.”
What to make of this unexpected tempest in a summer teapot? On the intellectual playing field, of course, Flanagan gets everything right, beginning with the not insignificant libraries of social science now testifying to the effects of broken homes on children. So many economists, sociologists, psychologists, and other experts have by now contributed to that record that no single set of books, let alone a Time essay of a few thousand words, can hope to capture it; but Flanagan does about as well with the challenge as anyone has.
Even so—and here is where things begin to get curiouser—the summer marriage wars go deeper than a mere empirical slam dunk about kids and broken homes. In the depth and rawness of Loh’s essay, as well as in much of the commentary praising it, there lurks a different kind of truth-telling that has gone largely undiscussed. It amounts to two charges made repeatedly, almost always by women and with many echoes elsewhere in contemporary sources: first, that the combined pressures of motherhood and marriage and breadwinning are just too much to bear; and second, that many of today’s marriages—that is to say, marriages made among enlightened, older, educated, sophisticated people—are a sexual desert.
In one particularly forthright passage summarizing both complaints, Loh writes:
Indeed, what also came out that afternoon [in a failed therapy session] were the many tasks I—like so many other working/coparenting/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.... [But] 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.
On this noteworthy reading of modern marriage, it’s almost as if the war between the sexes has ended: first, in the figurative sense that there are no more sexes, only lists of chores that one gender unit mysteriously does better than the other; and second, in the literal sense that there are no more sexes, because contemporary man has lost interest in sex.
This complaint—that today’s husbands, at least of the enlightened, chore-sharing variety, can be counted on to lose interest in sex with their wives—is so central to Loh’s essay that the piece might accurately have been subtitled “A Manifesto against Metrosexuals.” In her judgment this misery amounts to a social trend—including among many of her friends, even those with marriages that might appear ideal. “When marriage was invented,” she quotes another friend whose husband has also allegedly lost all interest in sex, “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?” As Loh sums up, “To work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones who schedule ‘date night,’ only to be reprimanded in the home by male kitchen bitches, and then, in the bedroom, to be ignored—it’s a bum deal.”
To certain of these points, Caitlin Flanagan would almost certainly agree. Writing in The Atlantic several years ago about “The Wifely Duty,” she made similar points about modern man and woman. Citing a variety of sources—sex therapists, popular novels, friends, and correspondents—she reflected at length on the portrait painted by Loh: Many modern marriages, at least in the more stylish circles being reported on, are sexually barren. As no less an authority than Dr. Phil put it, “Sexless marriages are an undeniable epidemic.” A sizeable industry of therapists and other experts has lately risen to what surely would have seemed an odd vocation to most preceding generations: teaching married people how to have sex.
This same theme, that there is something uniquely dissatisfying—sexually dissatisfying—about modern marriage, turns out to have been plumbed ubiquitously of late, at least by women. In yet another essay about yet another therapist, published by yet another female writer for The Atlantic, Christine Nehring similarly pondered the question of sexlessness, only to decide: “We are talking ourselves to death. We are talking our desire to death. . . . Perhaps we could regain some of sexuality’s transgressive energy by remystifying our eroticism rather than by demystifying it, by re veiling our desire rather than by rehearsing it ad nauseam, by rediscovering the power of wit and suggestion, sublimation and caesura.”
Other writers plumbing this new confessional mode have similarly drawn attention to the demise of romance not only in marriage but in all relations between men and women. The utter boredom even figures into the justifications for polyamory offered by a couple of proponents in the Newsweek piece. “I think if we were all given a choice, everyone would choose some form of open relationship,” one says. “I just like variety,” another agrees. “I get bored!”
Is there nonanecdotal evidence out there that this latest form of female dissatisfaction amounts to more than just another example of certain people spending more time on the Internet than they probably should? Two Wharton economists, Betsey Stephenson and Justin Wolfers, called forth considerable comment with their recent paper on the subject, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” Using thirty-five years of data from the General Social Survey, they observe that, given the many social and economic transformations of modernity that would appear to benefit women—a closing gender wage gap, an educational attainment that now tops that of men, the sexual freedom conveyed by artificial contraception, and more—one would reasonably expect to see those who are the beneficiaries of these trends registering increased happiness.
Instead—and hence the paradox of the study’s title—the reverse seems to be true: Over the past thirty-five years, “women’s happiness has fallen both absolutely and relative to men’s in a pervasive way among groups, such that women no longer report being happier than men and, in many instances, now report happiness that is below that of men.” Moreover, their data show, “this shift has occurred through much of the industrialized world.”
So what is happening out there to account for all these miserable, dissatisfied wives and mothers? Why are many of today’s marriages apparently peopled by snippy, ineffectual husbands and smoldering (in all senses) desperate housewives?
Part of the answer appears to be, first, that many marriages are not like that. A 2008 poll of five hundred Parade magazine readers, for example—to take a perfectly flip but indicative example from elsewhere in the popular culture—painted a different portrait of modern American marriage, with 88 percent of respondents reporting themselves happy or reasonably happy in their marriages. Interestingly, the Parade poll did bear out one point made by Loh and her literary posse: Men are apparently happier in marriage today than are women, with 70 percent of men, for example, reporting that they would never leave their spouse, while half the women said they think about leaving occasionally.
At the same time, given the vivid testimony of so many women before, during, and after the summer marriage skirmish, there is no denying that at least some of the dissatisfaction that Loh and many other people have now described—specifically, the dissatisfaction among enlightened, upper-middle-class, university-educated interchangeable gender and work partners—is all too real.
Loh herself, like other people who would retool heterosexual marriage, offers one popular explanation for this putative rise in domestic misery: longevity. Of course, it is difficult to take seriously an argument that so perversely turns a good thing (longer life) into a bad one (unwanted extra years of marriage). But even if we did—to draw a parallel to the point made by those Wharton economists—any unhappiness at being stuck more years with a partner ought to be more than offset by a few other benefits that the health revolution has wrought: drastically lower infant- and child-mortality rates, far less incidence of death in childbirth, and the like. So the simple fact that we are all living longer—at least the fortunate among us—seems hardly to explain today’s increased female immiseration.
Another answer proposed lately may get closer to the heart of the matter. In recent, also widely discussed research, the psychologist Jean Twenge used data collected from some 16,000 college students and found a sharp rise in scores on a “narcissism index” personality test among young adults—disproportionately, among the young women. (In the 1950s, to take one example from the index, only 12 percent of college students agreed that “I am an important person,” whereas that figure was 80 percent by the late 1980s.) This “narcissism epidemic,” as some have termed it, has in turn given rise to speculation about what might account for such an exaggerated sense of oneself: Capitalism? Indulgent, ego-pampering parenting? Digital technology that relentlessly raises the bar for personal appearance?
While the jury of psychologists remains out, the charge of narcissism does seem convincing, as reading just a few hundred of the assorted essays, blogs, and other public complaints entered in the “new confessional mode” makes painfully clear. Throw in also, for those who can bear it, the booming subgenre of contemporary books deriding children and domesticity with tellingly ugly titles like The Bitch in the House and Bad Mother and others too depressing to catalogue. Today’s resentment of domesticity is not the hate that has no name; it is the hate that won’t shut up. It emanates from the self-same women who are, after all, among the most historically fortunate members of their sex in world history, which does suggest something deranged about the whole dynamic. If this is not psychotic narcissism in the clinical sense, there is at least abundant pop-literary evidence of a uniquely spoiled and ungrateful age.
Even so, dismissing this ongoing new outcry of feminine injury would be a mistake—because, annoying and risible though it may appear, there is an unmistakable authenticity running through it. Some of these writers may really be onto something. Just not something that most of them are likely to want to face.
Back in her 2003 essay on “The Wifely Duty,” Caitlin Flanagan discerned that ideologically imposed sexlessness is obviously part of the problem. “What we’ve learned during this thirty-year grand experiment,” she observed, “is that men can be cajoled into doing all kinds of household tasks, but they will not do them the way a woman would. . . . They will, in other words, do as men have always done: reduce a job to its simplest essentials and utterly ignore the fillips and niceties that women tend to regard as equally essential. And a lot of women feel cheated and angry and even—bless their hearts—surprised about this.”
She is undoubtedly right about that much. Women have higher standards than men about many domestic realities, as some linguistic innovations go to show. Women who work outside the home, for instance, have a “second shift,” though men do not. Likewise, there is a reason the phrase “having it all” is used only about modern woman—because only a modern woman would attempt so many tasks at once; no man would drive himself mad trying to pretend he’d baked a pie, to take an example from the opening scene of a recent light look at the war between the sexes, the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It.
Yet the explanation from imposed gender neutrality does not by itself go far enough. Something else lurks under the rocks picked up by the fashionable writing about marriage these days—something that crawls away from the light even as it squirms just under the surface of much of the new confessionalism.
“Don’t eat too many snacks, or you’ll ruin your dinner.” Every woman issuing the new literature of complaint and heartache will understand just how meaningful the saying is—at least when it applies to kids and dinnertime. Yet sexual satiety, of the kind that oozes by other names from so much female confessional literature these days, is almost never recognized the same way. In particular, pornography is the invisible ink of many of these essays and lives—obvious one minute, unnoticed the next, and the bearer of a message no one apparently sees. Understood or not, however, it appears to be leaving a mark on at least some of these publicly lived lives.
In Loh’s essay, for example, a husband—as it happens, one of those husbands no longer interested in sex with his wife—bookmarks his pornography on the computer; his wife knows all about it, even reports it to her friends who are also commiserating about their sexless marriages—and no one seems to connect the dots at all. Another writer for Salon, reflecting on Loh’s essay, similarly nudges up against this obvious if missing piece of the puzzle (in a piece called “Why Your Marriage Sucks”), noting, “I write this article from a hotel room in New York City, where nearly a dozen porn movies are on offer”—a fact the author uses to highlight what she thinks of as an irony, when it might instead suggest something else: a possible causal relation between all those movies on the one hand and, on the other hand, a loss of romantic interest on the part of those who think them inconsequential.
Or consider the critical success of a recent chick-lit book called I’d Rather Eat Chocolate. Praised in Salon and The Atlantic and other cutting-edge venues, it is the casually told story of a husband and wife whose tension over marital sex leads finally to an amicable solution: She has her chocolate, and he has his Internet pornography. Might there just be a connection between all this casual talk (and use) of pornography and all those frustrated women and disinterested husbands?
Dr. Phil, interestingly enough—among other sexperts concerned with the sexlessness of some modern marriages—has no trouble connecting the dots at all: “It is a perverse and ridiculous intrusion into your relationship,” he writes on his website. “It is an insult, it is disloyal, and it is cheating. . . . You need to tell your partner that viewing pornography is absolutely, unequivocally unacceptable in your relationship.” Why does he see what so many unhappy women do not?
The answer is that the kind of feminism these women have so unthinkingly imbibed has come at a great cost. It has rendered many of them ideologically if not personally blasé about something they cannot really afford to be blasé about. In Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy chronicles the steady infiltration of pornography into female society. The pressure on women to accept pornography as an inconsequential and entertaining fact of life rises by the year—and outside the circles of the conservative and the religious, there is little cultural ammunition for any woman who wants to resist it. In fact, one of the few tony writers who does seem to grasp the destructive role of pornography in modern romance is Naomi Wolf, who chillingly observed several years ago that “the onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as porn-worthy.” Almost none of her feminist sisters have followed suit.
All of which brings us back to the enigma of this summer’s marriage wars. Perhaps some of the modern misery of which so many women today authentically speak is springing not from a sexual desert but from a sexual flood—a torrent of poisonous imagery, beginning even in childhood, that has engulfed women and men, only to beach them eventually somewhere alone and apart, far from the reach of one another.
At least that way of looking at the puzzle might explain some of the paradox of all that female unhappiness. Between bad ideas of gender neutrality and even worse ideas of the innocence of pornography, we reach the world so vividly described by Sandra Loh and many other dissatisfied women: one where men act like stereotypical women, and retreat from a real marriage into a fantasy life via pornography (rather than Harlequin novels), and where women conversely act like stereotypical men, taking the lead in leaving their marriages and firing angry charges on the way, out of frustration and withheld sex.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, but it has. Enlightened people only meant to take the small- s sex out of marriage: the unwanted gender division. Along the way, capital- s Sex headed for the exits as well.
As an interesting footnote, during the same summer months that middle-aged and upper-middle-class readers were saturating the blogosphere with their opinions on heterosexual marriage, enthralled movie audiences escaped the heat with the runaway animated hit of the summer, Up. A critical and commercial smash, the film is a touching tale of two lonely misfits who end up finding one another. One is an old widower without children. The other is a young boy left fatherless by either divorce or illegitimacy who longs desperately, and unsuccessfully, to keep his father in his life.
Both these characters, in other words, are victims of the ongoing demise of the natural family. The world described during this summer’s marriage wars will surely produce many more unhappy people like them. The good news is that Up has a happy ending. The bad news is that it’s fiction.
Mary Eberstadt, a contributing writer for First Things, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and consulting editor to Policy Review.