MARRIAGE, TODAY ?... yes!...
MARRIED: A Fine Predicament
Anne Roiphe's ode to wedded life is sweet, sad and terribly honest. In
MARRIED: A Fine Predicament, she shares her own story and finds examples in
literature, history, and religion to show that despite sometimes disastrous
couplings and emotional minefields, the institution of marriage is a worthy
endeavor. From children to extramarital affairs, from sex to finances (not
to mention in-laws), Roiphe delves into all aspects of marriage and takes
the reader on a journey from "I do" to "ever after."
marriage can be the linchpin of family (although she acknowledges that many happy, healthy families do not involve marriages). In recounting the joys, both simple and grand, of her marriage, she is celebrating the family she has created with her husband.
However, she is quick to insist that romantic ideals, about both marriage and
children, can be damaging when they face the mundane, everyday existence that
makes up the overwhelming majority of married life. Your spouse, she writes,
must be, above all else, a partner. Roiphe is ever realistic, and her
observations are wise and brutally honest: the search for perfect romantic love,
or unending passion, she believes, are empty pursuits that can only hurt all
involved. The partnership that is marriage is instead built on ongoing hard work
with perhaps only a 50% chance of success and often resulting in shattered
expectations, broken hearts, divorce, or worse.
So, why does Roiphe find that marriage is, despite it all, a worthwhile and noble commitment? Her answer is simple: the pursuit and possible attainment of a simple yet incredibly fulfilling happiness. Putting religious and cultural pressures aside (which she demonstrates is not entirely possible), marriage, or successful marriage at any rate, promises unique happiness.
The message in MARRIED may not be immediately obvious. Readers looking for an inspirational book on the subject should keep looking. Not social science nor psychology, MARRIED offers an interesting and thoughtful take on the institution and will please readers ready to engage in a conversational examination of marriage and all its contradictions, its sorrows, and its joys. Roiphe's latest reaffirms the idea that marriage is a good thing but never insults her audience but suggesting it is easy or should be required for all. Because of her open-mindedness and personal writing style this book will appeal to readers with a variety of perspectives.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman
The Miami Herald
Posted on Wed, Nov. 20, 2002
Author's a `big supporter of divorce'
Consciously, Anne Roiphe wanted to marry a man who was the opposite of her attorney dad. A philanderer, her father had a cold demeanor and a bad temper.
So at 21, the author of Married: A Fine Predicament married someone who seemed completely unlike him. The man who would be her first husband was a non-Jewish writer, with an English accent ``he had created for himself.''
Despite her conscious desire to find someone who would treat her better than her mother had been treated, subconsciously, Roiphe had actually married her father, ``with a different accent.''
Roiphe will be the featured speaker at David Posnack JCC's Book and Author Luncheon on Nov. 21 at 11 a.m.
The event is co-sponsored by Temple Adath Or, the United Jewish Community of Broward County's Women's Division and Women's American ORT.
At 26, Roiphe did something her mother would not have done.
Roiphe left the marriage to raise her 2-year-old daughter alone. She did not know what the future would hold, but Roiphe had a feeling good things would happen.
''I'm a big supporter of divorce,'' said Roiphe, who was in Miami earlier this month for the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center's Jewish Book Month. ``It took years to get over that first mistake, but in every divorce there is the hope of something better.''
Now in her 60s, Roiphe did find something better -- a man to whom she has been married for 34 years.
She helped raise his two daughters and had two more girls with him.
Hoping to help the five young women in her life avoid making bad choices, Roiphe, a staunch feminist, concentrated on raising her girls to take care of themselves.
When the daughters got into their 30s and were still unmarried, Roiphe realized there was something she had neglected.
''I forgot to tell them to get married and have children,'' Roiphe told the 500 women at Signature Gardens, who were participating in the Women's Day event, co-sponsored by the Alper JCC and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation's Women's Division.
A true believer in marriage, Roiphe makes realistic observations about the ups and downs of the institution in Married: A Fine Predicament.
The book even includes a Jewish mother's witty and endearing letter to her daughter (who eventually married at age 33) called ``Letter to Any Daughter Who Will One Day Decide to Get Married, Maybe.''
Roiphe has written several books.
In her memoir, 1185 Park Avenue, Roiphe recounts details of her parents' marriage. Up the Sandbox reported on the struggles of a generation of women, while Fruitful celebrated the joys of motherhood. She also writes numerous magazine articles and pens a newspaper column for the Jerusalem Report.
Pro-marriage revivalists praise matrimony as the way and the light. But are they bowing to a false god?
By Heather Havrilesky
June 24, 2002 | A marriage revival is sweeping the nation. With a host of new converts from actresses to sociologists touting matrimony as the one true path, marriage has shifted from a much-maligned, antiquated institution to an honorable, courageous endeavor, one that is said to ensure the health and happiness not just of our children, but of our country. As President George W. Bush and a gaggle of pro-family groups paint matrimony as the cornerstone on which America was built, marriage experts roam the country in ever-increasing numbers, proselytizing to all who'll listen on the pressing importance of upholding our duties as citizens by keeping our marriages strong.
These impassioned sermons spill into bestselling books that crowd the shelves at Barnes & Noble, while those few books for singles are primarily concerned with how to find someone to marry, real quick-like. Young people seem to want the traditional package again -- white dress, big wedding, extravagant honeymoon -- less a vote of confidence in the institution, perhaps, than a reflection of our love of spectacle as a celebrity-obsessed culture. Meanwhile, married couples -- from rock stars to next door neighbors to guests on Oprah -- bray endlessly about how they're willing to work hard to keep their marriages strong, the way people used to brag about being able to eat off their kitchen floors.
With everyone from Dan Quayle to Ozzy Osbourne embracing marriage with a conviction that borders on hysteria (and Quayle complimenting Osbourne on his parenting skills), one has to wonder: Why must we all live in pairs, under a legally binding contract? What horrendous fate befalls those of us who sally forth without a ring? Is marriage really the bedrock of our culture, or are we leaning too hard on a social construct that is fragile at best, given that it depends on the ability of two individuals to play nice for the rest of their lives?
Not only can't Uncle Sam and his badly behaved kids keep their sticky fingers out of the matrimonial pie, they want to tell us what kind of pie we should be baking in the first place. In May, the Alliance for Marriage introduced the Federal Marriage Amendment to Congress, to "send a positive message to our children about marriage, family, and their future" -- that positive message being that gay couples shouldn't be allowed to marry. The amendment states that "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman."
Matt Daniels, executive director of the Alliance for Marriage, explained his organization's stance: "Gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose. But they don't have a right to redefine marriage for our entire society." In other words, if gay couples were allowed to marry, they would forcibly alter the sacred institution of marriage, damaging it beyond repair, so that other couples -- nice, normal, straight couples -- couldn't use it anymore.
If the sacred union of a man and a woman happens to involve a single mother on government assistance, best wishes flow from the public and private sectors. Not only do these marriages make our country strong, they boost the federal budget, or so goes the reasoning behind President Bush's recent welfare reforms that include $300 million for programs that promote marriage among single welfare mothers.
"Stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy," Bush said in February. "Building and preserving families are not always possible -- I recognize that -- but they should always be our goal."
Inherent in this stated goal is the less lofty aim of cutting welfare costs by marrying off women who need government support. Unfortunately, the other program designed to remove women from welfare rolls -- the Welfare to Work program -- appears to be driving women away from the altar. Recent studies show that women who participate in the program are less likely to marry than women in traditional welfare programs. Apparently Bush's two plans to reduce support for poor single women just can't get along.
But even if these approaches could work in tandem, how, exactly, does the administration plan on encouraging single welfare mothers to wed? Wade Horn, the Bush administration's top spokesman on family issues, told the Sacramento Bee that when an unwed mother gives birth, the father is often asked to sign paternity and child-support agreements on the spot. "We ought to ask at that moment if it wouldn't be a good idea for them to get married," explained Horn. "We would refer them to pre-marriage services."
Ah yes, imagine that magic moment when the parents of a newborn child stop and turn to each other, as if for the first time, and say: "Marriage! Of course! Why didn't we think of that?"
So, while the Alliance for Marriage seeks to deny homosexuals the right to legal matrimony under the guise of "protecting the sanctity of marriage," President Bush is feverishly pushing marriage on unwed parents who didn't consider it and weren't necessarily in love in the first place. All of which highlights the question: Is a marriage somehow more sacred when the two people involved are married for economic reasons, or don't really want to be married at all?
To hear the authors of a slew of books on marriage tell it, love and happiness are now entirely beside the point. "Marriage is not designed to make us happy," writes Iris Krasnow, author of "Surrendering to Marriage," "it is God's way of forcing us to grow into responsible adults."
To drive home her point, Krasnow has filled her book with chilling stories of infidelity and love lost. Like many of these authors, she seems to feel that most human beings are unruly animals who need marriage to save them from their own naughty urges. Forget the notion that love will lead us from temptation -- we need scary anecdotes and stern tones to prevent that. Krasnow pummels her readers with barrage of modern "We know you want to, but you'd better not" fables. Each one ends with an unwieldy lesson: "There are several hard truths to take away from Beatrice's story," says one. "Marriage is a sacred covenant that needs to be valued, not devalued. Illicit love can never really be satisfying. And, finally, if we do fall down, it is possible to pick ourselves back up." That is, if we never, ever tell our spouses what we did, and swallow down our guilt indefinitely, like Beatrice did. Ulcer, anyone?
Married writers of books on marriage ply us with clichés and unsubstantiated generalities, assuming, perhaps, that a marriage license is the only proof we need of their expertise. Experts, such as Robert Stephen Cohen, author of "Reconcilable Differences: 7 Essential Tips for Remaining Together from a Top Matrimonial Lawyer," deliver equally obvious bits of advice, like "Divorce is a life-altering and devastating process that should be avoided at all costs." This particular threat, invoked by one and all, is packed with ominous urgency that, when taken with the recent glut of books about the devastating effects of divorce on children, conjures marriage as deliverance from the fire and brimstone of those ungodly human relationships that remain unbound by legal contracts.
In her book "Married: A Fine Predicament," Ann Roiphe offers some insightful personal stories, a lot of generalizing, and some vague observations, all of which is punctuated by such ominous, weirdly disembodied statements as, "In marriage sex loses its novelty." "Sex can be withheld as a weapon against a partner in revenge for some other deed." "Even when a short marriage ends it feels like an amputation has occurred." When this short book ends, it feels like the long-awaited amputation of a gangrenous limb has occurred.
The bottom line for many of these authors is a prescriptive twist on "Misery loves company." If we managed to stay together, they tell us, then you should, too. Of course, there are the usual disclaimers about how divorce is sometimes necessary for those in physically abusive relationships -- a category that conveniently sidesteps the immeasurable range and breadth of emotional abuse that can occur in married relationships. But the overall thrust of these books -- and of marriage-related legislation in general -- is that there are no good excuses for avoiding marriage. One can almost hear the impatient blurt of "It's your funeral ..." being intoned by each of our myriad advisors.
Roiphe, for one, explicitly states that she is preoccupied by marriage in part because of her children. With all the modernity of a Victorian era aristocrat, Roiphe laments over her inability to marry off her daughters:
"As the mother of daughters, some of them still unmarried, I noticed that I was reading the wedding announcements with an indecent amount of attention. I read descriptions of weddings of people I didn't know and would never know as if hidden in the lines were a secret code that if I could decipher it would bring my children to their own marriages."
By the time Roiphe wraps things up with a letter to her daughters regarding their future marriages, we're beginning to wonder if such a fixation on her children's marriages doesn't indicate some restlessness and ambivalence toward the path she's chosen for herself. She writes, "You can't go on just doing as you please, just following your star, just flashing your pretty wings about the universe." Oh really? Says who? Whether this is good motherly advice or good old-fashioned jealousy, this book can leave you more determined than ever to flash your pretty wings anywhere you damn well please.
In the epilogue, Roiphe is overjoyed as one of her daughters announces her engagement, and as pedestrian as this anecdote may sound to some, her joy is surely not uncommon. Still, it remains unclear why Roiphe should feel so invested in her daughter's adherence to some preset notion of what love should look like, beyond a need to justify her own choices.
What makes us so suspicious of people who firmly state that they're not interested in getting married? In "The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families," James Q. Wilson's suspicions are on parade. He asserts that America is made up of two nations:
"In one nation, a child, raised by two parents, acquires an education, a job, a spouse, and a home kept separate from crime and disorder by distance, fences, or guards. In the other nation, a child is raised by an unwed girl, lives in a neighborhood filled with many sexual men but few committed fathers, and finds gang life to be necessary for self-protection and valuable for self-advancement ... In both nations, harms occur, but in the second, they proliferate -- child abuse and drug abuse, gang violence and personal criminality, economic dependency and continued illegitimacy."
Wilson asserts that this second nation falters because its inhabitants refuse to marry. "Family is the foundation of public life. As that foundation has become weaker, every structure built upon it has become weaker." How does he support this sweeping statement? By dumping on single-parent families, of course. "The children of single moms are more likely than those of two-parent families to be abused, to drop out of or be expelled from school, to become juvenile delinquents, to take drugs, and to commit adult crimes." Wilson concedes that single parents are often poorer, and that therefore some of these problems may be caused by poverty, but then cites a study that concluded that "poverty by itself accounts for about half of the differences in how children behave; the rest is explained by living in a one-parent family."
How can these two factors -- poverty and single parenting -- possibly be separated from each other? Wilson's book is filled with such tenuous leaps that, by the last chapter, add up to a nightmarish narrative: Soon our country will be subsumed by lowlifes, drug addicts and criminals who are "armed to the teeth, excited by drugs, preoccupied by respect, and indifferent to the future." What's the solution? Marriage, of course: "No matter how we arrange money incentives, we have not induced people to marry. And unless they marry, and stay married, the children will suffer."
So once again we hear the typical narrow-minded us vs. them reaction to difference: What's wrong with them? They're not like us. How can we fix them? By making them more like us.
Surely there are a large number of people who have perfectly sound reasons for not wanting to be legally wed, or for avoiding long-term relationships -- from career goals to creative pursuits to travel to anything that requires moving through the world without dependents. A mirror to Wilson's book might be titled "The Marriage Problem: How Our Families Have Weakened Culture." Such a book might explore the deplorable state of modern art, literature and philosophical thought, thanks to the overwhelming emphasis society places on building families. When families take precedence over art, over innovation, over ideas and lofty, evanescent goals that don't take the form of steady employment -- and therefore rule out the possibility of creating a nurturing environment for children -- how can our cultural arts flourish, except among the supernaturally rich?
Of course, few would argue that marriage is bad for people across the board. Most who are happily married recommend it strongly, one senses, for the peace of mind and the feeling of permanence that it brings them.
Perhaps it's not surprising that many of us would cling to marriage at this time in our history. After all, there is a loneliness to American life today. We often live thousands of miles away from our families, in cities where most public spaces are indistinct, impeccably designed by corporate creatives telegraphing class -- the towering pillars of the Banana Republic at the outdoor mall, the endless escalators and tiled walls of the multiplex. Jobs come and go, people move away at the drop of a hat, relationships begin and end and begin again. It's understandable that so many of us long for some feeling of permanent connection, some certainty of a relationship that could withstand the constant flux we experience, year after year.
But that fixation on one lasting connection may actually contribute to our inability to keep our marriages intact. If, in the back of our minds, we're fixated on marriage as the answer to all our woes, then we won't manage to invest enough in the jobs, people and places that do come into our lives, and they'll ultimately pass us by like billboards on the freeway. Building steady, permanent relationships with a wide range of people and fostering a sense of community that transcends romantic relationships may contribute more to our health and happiness than we can imagine. More and more people seem to believe this, as the definition of family broadens and bends to include endless variations on the nuclear model.
And it is these variations that seem to scare the traditionalists at the Alliance for Marriage. Their amendment states, "Neither this constitution nor the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups." This is the language of a country under siege, the kind of law that feels decidedly martial. And it is, ultimately, unrealistic. By recognizing marriage as the only legally binding relationship an individual can choose, and by pushing marriage on those who are economically and emotionally vulnerable and therefore are potential candidates for domestic violence and child abuse, the government puts undue pressure on a relationship that is, by all accounts, difficult to maintain, its permanence impossible to guarantee.
In the end, the mystical baptismal waters of family and country and faith and honor that the marriage revivalists praise simply boil down to a legal contract. Pro-marriage pundits fervently assert that we need federally applied binding to save us from our own worst urges. But how sacred is a vow that only remains intact under the constant threat of repercussions?
Despite the best intentions of those who vehemently spread the good word of holy matrimony, the current marriage revival can only be approached with the caution one reserves for cults that punish members who try to defect. For a true sense of permanence, two individuals must foster a faith in each other, on their own, private terms. Likewise, it is the deterioration of this faith -- not the deterioration of some higher sense of duty or moral obligation -- that causes marriages to fall apart. And faith can't be manufactured or legislated.
About the writer
created the cartoon Filler with illustrator Terry Colon. She's a regular contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered," maintains and is writing a novel.
REVIEWS IN BRIEF
Sunday, May 19, 2002
A Fine Predicament
By Anne Roiphe
BASIC; 285 PAGES; $25
Ann Roiphe has already taken on divorce and motherhood in her fiction and nonfiction, so it makes sense that she would tackle the other biggie of adult life, marriage. In "Married: A Fine Predicament," she ponders the question, "Do we still need marriage, and if we do, what do we need it for?"
If there's no longer a social stigma attached to premarital sex or couples living together, women have their own careers and don't have to depend on a man for income or social standing, why do we still crave legal spouses?
On the way to answering that question, she maps a minefield of reasons marriages fail or are difficult: infidelity, unresolved psychological issues of the partners, money trouble, the stress of raising children, illness befalling them or the spouses.
Roiphe, who wrote the feminist classic "Up the Sandbox" (1971) and "Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Real World" (1996), weaves into her ruminations her own story: an unhappy childhood with wealthy parents in a miserable union (ground she covered in her 1999 memoir "1185 Park Avenue"); her brief marriage to an alcoholic playwright, which left her a disillusioned single-parent to their daughter; and her remarriage to a psychoanalyst with whom she had two more daughters and remains happily married after 34 years. "What I know comes from experience good and bad," she writes.
So her analysis is more heartfelt than scholarly, colored by unabashed hopes for her unmarried daughters' marital bliss. Oddly enough for a book about marriage, she spends considerable time trumpeting the merits of divorce. "Every divorce tells us that someone hoped for something better in their lives. "
Some of her reasoning is surprising, coming from a feminist. Considering our high rate of divorce and the difficulty modern women have finding a mate, she wonders if the foreign practice of arranged marriage is not such a bad idea (except for the occasional wife-burning part). She also questions the wisdom of unmarried couples living together. "[T]his long courtship process, which can involve a change of partners again and again, threatens female fertility, is wearying, bruising and tough to live through. This is a social change that might better be abandoned or rethought." She acknowledges that the revolution may need some tinkering. "Feminism cured some ills but brought others down on our heads. This is the nature of social change."
So why bother getting married? It's the best way to raise children, she concludes, and the best antidote to loneliness, by entering into what she calls "the twoness of marriage."
Published so close to wedding season, this book might seem like the perfect bridal gift. But its good counsel would come too late. Better to keep it as a manual for anxious singles, on the nightstand next to "Bridget Jones's Diary."
Liberals and conservatives agree
that the institution of marriage needs help. But neither side knows what to do
On the August day when my husband and I were married, the priest's homily clashed with the careful harmony of an ode set to Beethoven and bridesmaids in patchwork skirts. He cited statistics on the chances of divorce: low if you were Catholic and active in your church, higher if you believed in God but slept in on Sundays, off the charts if you were an atheist who lived in California.
I wondered then if he was slyly placing odds on the durability of our new-made marriage. More likely, he was warning us. It was 1975, when the notions of open marriage and no-fault divorce looked ominous, and for a priest in small-town Minnesota, California seemed like the epicenter of apostasy and new twists on sin.
None of us had yet seen the dreary consequences of treating fidelity as passé and marriage as a pact that could be traded like a used car when it started riding rough. We know better now. Pick your indicator: One-third of U.S. births are to unmarried women (it's nearly 70 percent among African Americans), and the rates continue to climb. The assorted damage inflicted upon children by poor, neglectful, and abusive families--all of which are more common in single-parent homes--is well documented.
Meanwhile, the young adults whose parents married in the 1970s are cohabiting more and marrying later, if at all. True, the divorce rate for first marriages has fallen to about 43 percent from 50 percent. But analysts believe the decline has more to do with rising rates of cohabitation, which takes the worst risks out of the marriage pool, and a growing incidence of divorce later in life, than more hopeful developments. For second marriages, the divorce rate remains at about 60 percent.
Many young men and women want the affection and security of marriage but can't seem to find the right partner or are themselves unwilling to commit. As essayist Anne Roiphe writes in her new book, Married: A Fine Predicament: "There is abroad in the land an acute anxiety about marriage." While President Bush wants poor people to get married, various social critics urge middle-class Americans to stay married.
A crop of new books assesses why our collective hopes for marital bliss have soured and what might be done about it. Viewed together, they reflect a surprising consensus that has emerged of late between liberals and conservatives over the virtues of, if not the road to, holy matrimony. It's a consensus that's been largely overshadowed by recent partisan debates over whether the government should be getting involved in such private decisions as to whether poor people ought to get married. But this new development represents something of a détente in the 30-year culture war over gender roles, family values, and the meaning of tying the knot.
Among the authors to take on the subject recently are Roiphe, criminologist James Q. Wilson, and E. Mavis Hetherington, an emeritus psychology professor at the University of Virginia who has studied families for decades. Roiphe and Wilson are the yin and yang of the marriage debate--a liberal feminist focused on the marriage gap for middle-class women of her daughters' generation, and a conservative criminologist concerned about out-of-wedlock births among poor, inner-city minorities.
But both are partners in long and happy marriages, and they share a deep concern about the erosion of marriage and families. They agree on several fundamentals: Marriage is valuable to society and individuals, particularly children; living together is not the same as marriage--it's generally short-term, shallow-rooted, and emotionally bruising; the value our society places on personal freedom conflicts with the compromise and support needed for marriage; many people expect too much and give too little in marriage.
But their paths to this common ground could hardly be more divergent. Roiphe writes in lyrical terms from the emotional heart of marriage, drawing from the miserable marriage of her parents, her own unhappy first marriage, and then her present happy one, which has endured for 34 years. Her tone is wryly maternal; one pretext for writing the book was to persuade her unmarried daughters that, despite its obvious risks, marriage is worth the plunge.
Wilson's The Marriage Problem, meanwhile, probes marriage in a more detached fashion. He scans anthropological reports, sociological studies, and historical accounts for the causes and effects of the breakdown in marriage and suggests possible remedies. While Roiphe focuses on what happens in private, between husband and wife, Wilson looks to welfare policy, the history of the Enlightenment, and the legacy of slavery.
Both writers face a fundamental dilemma. Marriage is clearly a good thing for society. It promotes social stability, the well-being of children, better health, higher incomes, and more family support during illness and life's other travails. Being loved and honored in an enduring relationship is good for people. The long and contentedly married even have better and more frequent sex. (Take that, Hugh Hefner.)
But those findings aren't enough to sell marriage to much of the public or to sustain those whose marriages are on the rocks. Moreover, not every marriage is good for the individuals involved, and even Wilson rejects the popular conservative notion that government can fix the problem by making divorce more difficult or marriage more financially attractive. Yet insistence on maximum personal freedom conflicts with the compromise and mutual support necessary for successful marriages. As Roiphe points out, "Freedom is a wonderful, heart-raising ideal, but not so helpful in the house."
Clearly the terms of the marriage compact have changed as women work more, earn higher incomes, and are more able to have children without marriage. Among the middle-class families Hetherington studied in For Better Or For Worse, women initiated two-thirds of the break-ups. They expected more emotional depth and companionship from marriage than their husbands provided and were less willing than their mothers might have been to stick it out for children or financial reasons.
Some of Wilson's data--and there's a blizzard of it--seems designed to scare women into marriage. He discusses at length the problem of a low marriage ratio--too few available men for women of the same race, age, and education levels--and notes that the problem worsens after age 25 for college-educated white women.
The logical conclusion for young unmarried women is to grab your man early and hold on--not particularly helpful advice for women trying to choose carefully and for keeps. Women like Roiphe's daughters are unlikely to scare so easily. Moreover, perhaps it's men who should be more frightened. In Hetherington's study, more men suffered as singles after divorces; they had far less contact with their children and weren't as skilled as women at building networks of friends to sustain them.
If there are flaws in these books, it's that both Roiphe and Wilson seem rushed, as if the writers and publishers knew they needed to hurry to catch this wave of interest. Both also remain on opposite sides of the policy vs. personal divide.
Roiphe's book is an incisive essay on marriage that seems padded to make a book. So we get literary examples and psychoanalytical babble that divert us from her insights into the issues small and large that enhance or destroy marriages. And she says little of the larger social and policy context that might encourage and sustain marriages. Without a moral or religious underpinning for marriage, without stigma to discourage out-of-wedlock births or easy divorces, liberals are left propping up marriage on the slender pillars of personal satisfaction and commitment. Is that enough to sustain marriage?
She acknowledges the problem: "Determination is essential if divorce is to be avoided. You need some bottom line sense that the family, the marriage is not to be questioned, is not to be broken, is sacred and must be treated as such no matter what . . . The forever after part cannot be tentative, just until the weather turns; it must be absolute if the marriage is to have a chance for a long life."
But her remedy is tongue-in-cheek: arranged marriages. Watching her own daughters cycle through various romantic interests and live-in boyfriends, she muses that the young, especially in our culture, focus too much on romantic love and have no cultural guides. Despairing over her daughters' enduring single status, Roiphe is certain that parents like her could speed up the selection process and choose mates based on the steadier categories of class, status, wealth, and family connections. "We simply do not always want for ourselves what we ought to have . . . Our freedom of choice sets us loose in a bewildering herd of our contemporaries," she writes. One can only imagine the rolled eyes when she ran that past her daughters. Again, sons may need guidance more than daughters. Hetherington found women to be pretty hard-headed in choosing their mates; men were more apt to swoon over looks and style.
On the other hand, Wilson's omnivorous examination of marriage--his footnotes cite studies on everything from jealousy to family patterns in sub-Saharan Africa--can leave the reader intrigued but baffled by how the disparate pieces relate. Meanwhile, he pays little attention to the day-to-day behavior--such as men's still-paltry contributions to housework and child care--and choices that determine whether marriages endure.
What to do? These books are not manifestoes, full of certainty and wind. None of them has a sure-fire answer for what ails our families. They all approach the question of remedies with some humility, even quirkiness. Wilson reminds us that other cultures have used polygamy as a remedy for excess supply of women but acknowledges that this won't fly in Western cultures. So he suggests instead better PR for marriage, more stigma for out-of-wedlock births, more effort by churches and other private groups "to inculcate self-control" into young people, much as the YMCA, temperance movement, churches, and other organizations did in the Victorian era.
The skills that make for successful marriages are easily stated. Here's Hetherington's list: "learning how to compromise, to be sensitive to each other's needs and feelings and to support each other in difficult times." Deal with problems that can be fixed, and don't fixate on those that can't. Mutual respect, friendship, and support sustain marriage; hostile criticism, contempt, and withdrawal undermine it. After 27 years of marriage to the man the priest tried to warn me about, I well understand Roiphe's conclusion that what is so easily written can be so difficult to live. In the end, as these books make clear, dogma isn't the answer, and eventually both liberals and conservatives may reasonably conclude that trial and error might be.
Lynda McDonnell is a writer and educator in Minneapolis.
Doting husbands and sugar
Some great female writers have had male muses. Lucky them, says Anne Roiphe
Saturday May 24, 2003
At least a part of Virginia Woolf's mythic reputation lies in the loyal devotion of her husband Leonard. Gertrude Stein had Alice B, but the role of muse is hardly one that every little boy aspires to. Crazy, drunken, male writers, no matter how ugly, old and ill-tempered, will always find a willing girl to mop up the morning after, but females given to bouts of depression, nightmares and long manuscripts that take precedence over dinner will not so often find a willing muse to hold the pot roast.
Yes, the woman writer deserves a lover, someone to answer the letters and arrange the cookies on the platter, to remember names and encourage when the day has not gone well; someone to lean on when the reviewers attack, when the publisher grows gruff or the work stale or the bills need paying. But we have questions, even if we don't ask them aloud, about those males who nurse successful female artists: are they angry at the role that has befallen them, do they take vengeance in subtle or not so subtle ways? Are they tempted to burn letters like André Gide's bitter cousin, or to misfile a poem or two? Yet we have them, these husbands of woman writers, these saints of support and inspiration. In fact we have had them in ages far less kind to woman's ambitions than the one we live in now.
In 1856 Mary Anne Evans went on holiday with George Lewes to Ilfracombe. She woke from a dream and told George the story that became her first novel, The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton, published under the name of George Eliot. Five years earlier, the two had met in Jeff's Bookshop in Burlington Arcade. He was a prominent critic and editor of the Leader and the Fortnightly Review, and had enjoyed considerable success with his biography The Life of Goethe (1855). But at some point during the 20 years they spent together it must have become apparent to him that his beloved was a genius, that he was a bit player in the orchestra while she was a diva for all time.
Of course we were not there, not at the dinner table, not at the bedside, not when she had a terrible cold or he suffered from gout. We do not know if the patience and affection and sublimation of one's own interests that are required of both parties in any long-term companionship were worn a bit at the edges by the enormity of her accomplishment and the more ordinary nature of his. We don't know if her adoption of a male name made her less womanly, or if it was simply a disguise for a world that was not expecting much from the Mary Annes in its midst.
But there is a clue. Eighteen months after Lewes's death from cancer in 1878, George Eliot married John Cross who was 20 years her junior. It might have been simple lust, the way male writers seek ever younger versions of their original loves. But one has to wonder whether she sought a younger man because his lesser age and status would make him malleable and eager to serve - less rivalrous, perhaps?
Colette had two muses in one lifetime. She married the first, Willy Gauthier Villars, when she was a not-so-innocent 20, and he turned out to be a fraud and a leech. He published her work under his own name and career-ed around Paris fuelled by her talent. He drove her hard, he stole her fame or would have if he could have. Her second husband, Henri de Jouvenal, was far more satisfactory. At least he stayed by her side as she became one of the most celebrated writers of her time. She lived a wild life, and boring bourgeois fidelity did not burden their arrangements. Nevertheless, Villars must have provided her with a centre. He was 18 years her senior and perhaps served as a benign father figure. Lucky her. A girl's father, if he's a good father, can be expected to take pride in her achievements and not be competitive or grouchy at the attention she receives. The father may be many girl's original muse and one of the disappointments that plague many women is that the husbands they marry are rarely so willing to play the part. Not many women writers are fortunate enough to have a sugar daddy on hand for the sour days.
And the sugar daddy may have a bitter aftertaste. This was surely so for Iris Murdoch. John Bayley was clearly her best friend, protector and chief admirer and happily took the role of second fiddle in society's eyes. But then she got sick and died and he told all. He revealed her infantile habits and her pains, and presented her to the world in a way that she would surely have gone to great lengths to avoid. The books he wrote about her showed us his literary gift, his wonderful eye, his smarts, how good he was to her, but at the same time in their grisly details they took revenge.
Colette, who had one daughter, described children as "those happy unconscious little vampires who drain the maternal heart." The male muse, whatever he can or cannot do, does not conceive, carry or nurse children. But a female writer who brings children into the world needs a male muse who is also a mother. While such men must exist, they are hard to come by, which is perhaps why some female writers - Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Iris Murdoch and Emily Dickinson among them - skipped motherhood. Others, such as Mary McCarthy and Rebecca West, were so bad at it that perhaps they shouldn't have tried.
In this post-feminist era, we would like to believe in the marriage of literary giants, two stars in one firmament: Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn made headlines this year when they both appeared on the shortlist for the Whitbread award. Barring that, we would like to think that the role of muse is genderless and that either sex may apply. But it is still harder for a male to be married to a famous and productive female than the other way around. Not that it isn't hard on a woman to be ignored at cocktails and trained to subjugate her needs to the work habits of a forceful, successful man. It is. But we look on the marriage of famous man and non-famous wife as normal. We don't necessarily expect it to last but we don't find anything odd in it.
We are haunted not simply by the outdated attitudes of those of us who learned about gender roles in another time, but by the problem - and not just for writers - of who dominates and who submits. Was George Lewes an odd man or just the best husband in the world?
Married: a Fine Predicament by Anne Roiphe is published by Bloomsbury at £14.99.
The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2003
The Wifely Duty
Marriage used to provide access to sex. Now it provides access to celibacy
by Caitlin Flanagan
Books discussed in this essay
I Don't Know How She Does It
by Allison Pearson
The Sex-Starved Marriage
by Michele Weiner Davis
The Total Woman
by Marabel Morgan
For Women Only
by Jennifer Berman, M.D., and Laura Berman, Ph.D.
Motherhood and Hollywood
by Patricia Heaton
I'm Not in the Mood
by Judith Reichman, M.D.
Okay, So I Don't Have a Headache
by Cristina Ferrare
The Bitch in the House
edited by Cathi Hanauer
strange days in New York last winter, three married people—one after
another—confessed to me either that they had stopped having sex or that they
knew a married person who had stopped having sex. Like a sensible person, I
booked an early flight home and chalked the whole thing up to the magic and
mystery that is New York. But no sooner had I put my coat on the peg than it
started up again. A number of the mothers in my set began making sardonic
comments along similar lines. The daytime talk shows to which I am mildly and
happily addicted worried the subject to death, revived it, and worried it some
more. Dr. Phil—who, like his mentor Oprah Winfrey, has an uncannily precise
sense of what American women in the aggregate are thinking about—noted on his
Web site that "sexless marriages are an undeniable epidemic." Mass-circulation
magazines aimed at married women rarely go to press these days without an
earnest review of some new sexual technique or gadget, the information always
presented in the context of how to relight a long-doused fire. (And I must say
that an article in Redbook that warns desperate couples away from a
product called Good Head Oral Delight Gel—"the consistency is like congealed
turkey fat"—deserves some kind of award for service journalism.) Patricia
Heaton, a star of Everybody Loves Raymond, has published a memoir called
Motherhood and Hollywood, in which she observes, "Sex? Forget about it. I
mean that literally." Books with titles such as Okay, So I Don't Have a
Headache and I'm Not in the Mood have become immediate hits, and
another popular book, For Women Only, lists various techniques that
married women use to avoid sex, from the age-old strategy of feigning sleep to
the quite modern practice of taking on household night-owl projects. And Allison
Pearson's much loved novel about a busy working mother, I Don't Know How She
Does It (which opens with the main character engaged in just such a
late-night project), features a woman so tired that she's frantic to escape sex
with her husband, prompting Margaret Carlson, of Time magazine, to
observe, "Sleep is the new sex." It has become impossible not to suspect that a
large number of relatively young and otherwise healthy married people are
forgoing sex for long periods of time and that many have given it up altogether.
And so we turn our curious attention to the marital therapist Michele Weiner Davis, whose new book, The Sex-Starved Marriage, is so well timed and so aptly titled that it is primed to become a cultural sensation. Davis is not particularly interested in the cause of this strange turn of events, though she tosses around the expected observations about the exhaustion that dogs contemporary working parents and the reduction in lust that has always gone along with marriage. Hers is not a deep-thinking, reflective kind of book but, rather, a get-cracking-and-solve-the-problem kind of book. Solutions? She's armed to the teeth with them. She has created a "passion-building toolkit" filled with "field-tested" techniques—none of them bad. Although I found Part IV ("Doing It Together") far more appealing than a scary mini-chapter called "The Do-It-Yourself Solution," her notions about how to jump-start the old hanky-panky seem eminently reasonable. Make "romantic overtures," she counsels. A wife might buy some new lingerie; a husband might wear flattering clothes. Most important, though, is a recommendation based on exciting new "research" revealing that for many people, waiting for the urge to strike is pointless; better to bash ahead and hope for the best. Davis asks, "Have you ever noticed that although you might not have been thinking sexual thoughts or feeling particularly sexy, if you push yourself to 'get started' when your spouse approaches you, it feels good, and you find yourself getting into it?" Many of her clients have received this counsel with enthusiasm. "I really wasn't in the mood for sex at all," reports one of her advisees after just such a night, "but once we got started, it was fun. I really enjoyed it."
What's odd here is not the suggestions themselves—each seems quite sensible, and I myself can vouch for more than one of them—but, rather, the generation that apparently needs them. American adults under the age of fifty tend to know more about sex and its many delightful permutations than did streetwalkers of an earlier century. When Davis describes the process of arousal ("You notice a feeling of fullness in your pelvic area as your genitals become engorged with blood"), you might think she was addressing a seventh-grade health class rather than adults of the post-sexual-revolution era. Yuppies, with that winsome arrogance that is all their own, proudly describe the nature and frequency of their premarital couplings with a specificity matched only by advanced seminars on animal husbandry. The reason abortion rights hold such a sanctified position in American political life is that they are a critical component of the yuppie program for maximum personal sexual pleasure. But let these inebriates of nooky enter marriage, a state in which ongoing sexuality often has as much to do with old-fashioned notions of obligation and commitment as it does with the immediate satisfaction of intense physical desire, and they grow as cool and limp as yesterday's Cobb salad.
All of this makes me reflect that those repressed and much pitied 1950s wives—their sexless college years! their boorish husbands, who couldn't locate the clitoris with a flashlight and a copy of Gray's Anatomy!—were apparently getting a lot more action than many of today's most liberated and sexually experienced married women. In the old days, of course, there was the wifely duty. A housewife understood that in addition to ironing her husband's shirts and cooking the Sunday roast, she was—with some regularity—going to have relations with the man of the house. Perhaps, as some feminists would have us believe, these were grimly efficient interludes during which the poor humped-upon wife stared at the ceiling and silently composed the grocery list. Or perhaps not. Maybe, as Davis and her "new" findings suggest, once you get the canoe out in the water, everybody starts happily paddling. The notion that female sexuality was unleashed forty years ago, after lying dormant lo these uncountable millennia, is silly; more recent is the sexual shutdown that apparently takes place in many marriages soon after they have been legalized.
Jane Greer, Redbook's online sex therapist, has a thriving midtown-Manhattan practice. When I asked her about what I had been hearing, she told me that she has seen many married couples who have gone without sex for periods of time ranging from six months to six years. Why? "Marriage has changed," she told me. "In the old days the husband was the breadwinner. The wife had the expectation of raising the children and pleasing him. Now they're both working and both taking care of the children, and they're too exhausted and resentful to have sex." I asked Greer the obvious question: If a couple is not having sex because of job pressures and one partner quits working, does the couple have more sex? The answer was immediate and unequivocal: "Absolutely!"
And this, of course, is the general plot of I Don't Know How She Does It, which has the heroine, Kate Reddy, playing dead in the sack for a world of nights until, at book's end, she resigns from her job and runs into her husband's arms. (We have been pointedly instructed by the author not to imagine that this character is based on her own husband, Anthony Lane, but it's just about impossible not to do exactly that.) "The hug wasn't that dry click of bones you get holding someone when the passion has drained away. It was more like a shadow dance: I still wanted him and I think he wanted me, but we hadn't touched in a very long time." Let us get one thing straight from the outset: despite its rapturous reviews, the book is not artful or literary or—to borrow Time's thunderously wrong adjective—"sparkling." It's full of stock characters, including a wise minicab driver who is forever making insightful remarks about the meaning of life. A pigeon family constructs a nest outside Kate's office window and teaches her valuable lessons about motherhood. "Phones may have become cordless," we are lectured, "but mothers never will." When Kate and her husband reconnect in a London coffee shop after a brief, miserable separation, "we both laugh, and for a moment Starbucks is filled with the sound of Us." (Funny, I thought that grating, deafening sound was the coffee grinder.) Still, though, the book has struck a chord—on an episode of Oprah devoted to the book Oprah Winfrey introduced it as "the new bible for working mothers." In particular, droves of readers report that the nature of Kate's marriage mirrors theirs exactly.
The dominant feature of Kate's attitude toward her husband—that is, before they resume making the sound of Us—is blistering contempt. Contempt for his work: he is a quietly successful architect, given to building whimsical little structures like Peace Pagodas, a pursuit that leaves him time to make pesto and watch Disney videos with the kids while she strides off to her high-paying, high-pressure job. Contempt for his inability to notice if the family has run out of toilet paper or whether the children are properly dressed for a birthday party. Contempt for his very existence in the household: when he wonders whether it would be such a bad thing if their uncooperative nanny quit, Kate tells him, "Frankly, it would be easier if you left." That the man entertains even a single amorous notion about this ball-breaker—much given to kittenish, come-hither comments along the lines of "Richard, I thought I asked you to tidy up?" and "Why the hell can't you do something that needs doing?"—is testament either to a libido of iron or to an erotic sensibility that leans toward the deeply masochistic. If best-selling novels succeed because they "tap into" something in the culture, surely this woman's helpless anger at the man who she thought was going to share her domestic burden accounts in part for the book's immense popularity.
Pearson told an interviewer, "Until they program men to notice you're out of toilet paper, a happy domestic life will always be up to women"—a sentiment almost unanimously held by the working mothers I know. What we've learned during this thirty-year grand experiment is that men can be cajoled into doing all sorts of household tasks, but they will not do them the way a woman would. They will bathe the children, but they will not straighten the bath mat and wring out the washcloths; they will drop a toddler off at nursery school, but they won't spend ten minutes chatting with the teacher and collecting the art projects. They will, in other words, do what 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. In the old days, of course, men's inability to perform women's work competently was a source of satisfaction and pride to countless housewives. A reliable sitcom premise involved Father's staying home for a day while Mother handled things at his office; chastened and newly admiring of the other's abilities, each ran gratefully back to familiar terrain. Nowadays, when a working mother arrives home after a late deposition, only to find the living room strewn with Legos and a pizza box crammed into the kitchen trash, she tends to get madder than a wet hen. Women are left with two options: endlessly haranguing their husbands to be more womanly, or silently fuming and (however wittingly) launching a sex strike of an intensity and a duration that would have impressed Aristophanes. The men who cave to the pressure to become more feminine—putting little notes in the lunch boxes, sweeping up after snack time, the whole bit—may delight their wives but they probably don't improve their sex lives much, owing to the thorny old problem of la difference. I might be quietly thrilled if my husband decided to forgo his weekly tennis game so that he could alphabetize the spices and scrub the lazy Susan, but I would hardly consider it an erotic gesture.
It turns out that the "traditional" marriage, which we've all been so happy to annihilate, had some pretty good provisions for many of today's most stubborn marital problems, such as how to combine work and parenthood, and how to keep the springs of the marriage bed in good working order. What's interesting about the sex advice given to married women of earlier generations is that it proceeds from the assumption that in a marriage a happy sex life depends upon orderly and successful housekeeping. Marabel Morgan's notorious 1973 book, The Total Woman, has lingered in people's minds because of the seduction techniques it recommends to unhappy housewives. They ought to consider meeting their husbands at the front door in sexy costumes (heels and lingerie, that kind of thing), calling them at work and talking dirty to them, seducing them beneath the dining-room table. (Morgan does not, however, recommend that women nurture a burning intelligence. In a list of unconventional locations in which to make love, she includes the hammock, counseling her readers, "He may say 'We don't have a hammock.' You can reply 'Oh, darling, I forgot!'"). But long before she describes any of these memorable techniques, Morgan gives a quite thorough accounting of how a housewife ought to go about "redeeming the time" and the energy so that she is physically and emotionally able to make love on a regular basis. A housewife should run her household the way an executive runs his business: with goals, schedules, and plans. She should make dinner—or at least do all the shopping and planning for it—right after breakfast, so that she isn't running around like a madwoman in the late afternoon with no idea what to cook. She should take time to rest and relax during the day so that she is not exhausted and depleted come whoopee hour. With the right kind of planning, "you can have all your home duties finished before noon." In a household run by an incompetent wife, however, "by the time her husband enters the scene, she's had it," Morgan writes. "She's too tired to be available to him." This seems a fairly accurate depiction of many contemporary two-career marriages, in which dinner is a nightly crisis (what to eat?) and an endless negotiation (who to cook it?) entered into by two people who have been managing crises and negotiating agreements all day long and who still have the children's homework and baths and bedtimes to contend with.
A document in circulation on the Internet purports to be a list contained in a 1950s home-economics book and announces that it is designed to offer future wives "preparation for married life." I recently attended a dinner party at which this list was read aloud by the hostess, to general hilarity, and I know of at least two classrooms (one at a prep school, the other at a graduate school) where it was read and received in similar sidesplitting fashion. The book advises the housewife to prepare for her husband's arrival at the end of the day: to have dinner ready, to minimize household noise and clutter, to avoid assaulting her man with a list of domestic problems and disappointments, and to inquire about his day. There was a sense back in those innocent years that a day at the office was a tiring event that required a bit of recuperation: a cold drink, a sympathetic companion, a decent meal—all of which, I suspect, functioned as a sexual tonic. The modern professional workday, as we all know, is far more demanding than its predecessors: it lasts much longer, and the various technologies that were supposed to liberate workers from the office have in fact made the whole world an office. (I recently sat on an otherwise deserted tropical beach, a few minutes after a spectacular sunrise, and watched a middle-aged American man march grimly through pellucid knee-high surf, barking commands on a cell phone.) When a professional person crosses the threshold at the end of the day, the commute hasn't provided a transition from work; it has been a continuation of it, thanks to the array of pagers, phones, and even Internet connections available to the modern driver. And—here's the kicker—there isn't just one spouse who has had such a punishing day, there are two of them. No one has spent even a moment planning a gentle re-entry into home life, let alone plotting a thrilling seduction.
Adding to a modern wife's reluctance to seduce the old man on a regular basis is the fact that her job outside the home has conferred on her a power that housewives simply didn't possess. In The Total Woman there's a quite frank acceptance of the fact that keeping a husband sexually happy is a direct route to a measure of economic power for the wife. A couple of days after Morgan's first night of giving her husband "super sex," he calls her to make sure that she will be home at three o'clock: "I couldn't imagine what was coming and I was stunned to see a truck pull up with a new refrigerator-freezer ... Now, without being nagged, he was beginning to give me what I yearned for." Later he lets her redecorate the family room. The women with whom Morgan shares the secrets of super sex (which, in case you are wondering, include not only making dinner early but also moaning a lot during sex and keeping your hands moving on your husband's body throughout intercourse) also get their share of perks. One delighted postcoital woman breathlessly reports to her classmates in a Total Woman workshop, "He has never brought me a gift before, but this past week he bought me two nighties, two rose bushes, and a can opener!" (Ah, would that Dr. Freud were still with us to contemplate that can opener.)
Although I have an amused tolerance for books like The Total Woman, I am not entirely incapable of good, old-fashioned feminist rage. The notion that even educated middle-class American women had to put out in order to get a damn refrigerator—even that they might "yearn" for one—just steams me. However, I would not advise against using sex for more subtle marital adjustments, of a type described in The Sex-Starved Marriage. Davis reminds women that one of the more effective ways to get a husband to be more considerate and helpful is to seduce him. She counsels a group of female clients who complain of angry, critical husbands to "pay more attention to their physical relationships with their husbands," to "be sexier, more affectionate, attentive, responsive, and passionate." Darned if the old bag of tricks doesn't work like a charm—the ladies arrive at the next therapy session giggling and thrilled with their new powers. To many contemporary women, however, the notion that sex might have any function other than personal fulfillment (and the occasional bit of carefully scheduled baby making) is a violation of the very tenets of the sexual revolution that so deeply shaped their attitudes on such matters. Under these conditions, pity the poor married man hoping to get a bit of comfort from the wife at day's end. He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she is jolly well in the mood, numbingly familiar with his every sexual maneuver, and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the countertops and fold the dish towel after cooking the kids' dinner. He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his e-mail, catch a few minutes of SportsCenter, and call it a night.
A final, less quantifiable development has served to snuff out marital sexuality, and it has to do with the way middle- and upper-middle-class adults think about family life and their role in it. There are many indications of this, but let us simply glance at the Disney catalogue. Not surprisingly, in addition to toys and figurines the catalogue features Disney-themed clothing: bathrobes with Winnie the Pooh appliqués, stretch knit pants with a small Mickey Mouse at the hem, quilted "Magic Winter Jackets" featuring a choice of Eeyore, Mickey, or Pooh. Here's the problem: all these items are for adults. In fact, I was horrified to discover that it would have been possible for my husband and me to spend last Halloween trick-or-treating in matching Tweedledum and Tweedledee costumes—a pretty far cry from Marabel Morgan's idea of a good costume.
For many couples child-rearing has become not merely one aspect of marriage but its entire purpose and function. Spouses regard each other not as principally lovers and companions but as sharers of the great, unending burden of taking care of the children. And make no mistake about it: American middle-class families have made child-rearing a dauntingly complex enterprise. My children are still very small, but it has been made abundantly clear to me by friends and acquaintances that I had better get in the market for an SUV or a minivan, because I am soon enough going to be shuttling the children and their friends to a bewildering series of soccer games, soccer parties, soccer tournaments. Already I throw birthday parties with guest lists and budgets that approximate those of a wedding-rehearsal dinner. The curious thing about this labor-intensive variety of parenting is that it has arisen now, when parents—and specifically mothers—have less time to devote to their children than ever before. One can't help finding in these developments a frantic attempt at compensation for the hours some professional-class mothers spend away from their children. Mothering, which used to be a rather private affair (requiring, principally, a playpen, a back yard, a television set, and a coffeepot), has now adopted a very public dimension. Why, of course Sarah So-and-So is a good mother: little Andrew is at Gymboree, Music Rhapsody, Bright Child, and Fit for Kids every week! All of domestic life now turns on the entertainment and happiness not of the adults but of the children. At vacation time my husband and I don't drag our little boys through the Louvre, as I was dragged at a tender age (because my parents wanted to see it, and it would never have occurred to them to consult their children about where to go on holiday). Rather, we check into hotels with elaborate children's pools and nightly fireworks and huge duck ponds. It's all very jolly, but it is entirely possible, I suppose, that some parents will overidentify with the whole thing, will forget that they are in fact the adults and not the children. And if your conception of yourself is as a great big eight-year-old, you're not very likely to have sex on your mind come the end of the day.
When I was a teenager, in the 1970s, I was always quite happy to accept a baby-sitting job, because I knew that once I got the kids to sleep, I could read The Joy of Sex for an hour or two; I don't think I baby-sat for a single family that didn't have a copy. There was a sense that young parents of that generation—granted, I grew up in Berkeley, which may have skewed the sample considerably—were still getting it on. Similarly, the characters one encounters in Cheever and Updike, with their cocktails and cigarettes and affairs, seem at once infinitely more dissolute and more adult than most of the young parents I know. Nowadays, American parents of a certain social class seem squeaky clean, high-achieving, flush with cash, relatively exhausted, obsessed with their children, and somehow—how to pinpoint this?—undersexed.
If I Don't Know How She Does It, a book about a working woman who discovers deep joy and great sex by quitting her job and devoting herself to family life, had been written by a man, he would be the target of a lynch mob the proportions and fury of which would make Salman Rushdie feel like a lucky, lucky man. But of course it was written by a with-it female journalist, so it's safe, even admired. Allison Pearson, we have been given to understand, is telling it like it is. And what she's telling us, essentially, is that in several crucial aspects the women's movement has been a bust, even for the social class that most ardently championed it.
Given the curious alchemy of feminism, which transforms absolutely anything women choose to do into a crucial element of liberation doctrine, confessing that one has given up sex has become a very right-on and empowering act. A hot new collection of essays (all of them interesting and one of them—by Ellen Gilchrist—exquisite) titled The Bitch in the House is filled with such gleefully tendered admissions, including that of the writer Jill Bialosky, whose account of a long lunch with an old friend is featured on the book's jacket: "My friend asked me about my marriage. 'Are you guys having sex?' she asked bluntly ... I wanted to laugh." What's interesting about these public confessions—and, I suspect, what makes them so satisfying to women—is that they are utterly humiliating to husbands. Granted, Bialosky has protected her husband's privacy by referring to him as "D." throughout the essay—but perhaps, if her heart had really been in it, she would have written under a pseudonym. Clearly, sticking it to D. was part of her intention when she wrote and published the piece. Every account I've ever read in which a married woman admits she's not having sex anymore begins with a red-hot account of the sex she used to have with her husband before they had children. Before Jill Bialosky decided to cut off poor D., he was having the time of his life.
He pressed up against me in dark alleys. I gave him blow jobs as he drove on one of our weekend treks. We made out in taxicabs. There was a kind of volatile tension wired through our relationship that set my body on fire feeling his arm resting against mine in the dark cavern of a movie theater.
But now? "A
little faucet had turned off inside my body. My veins were cold. I didn't want
to be touched." And here—with that little faucet—is the heart of the matter. The
Jill Bialoskys of the world may feel that they belong to the most outrageously
liberated group of women yet to stride the earth. These women assume that in the
very act of confession they are wearing the mantle of freedom. They are not only
free enough to perform oral sex in a moving car—a bit of cutting-edge eroticism
that, I believe, dates back to the Model T—but also free enough to admit, in
tones of outrage and bewilderment, to the abrupt waning of their desire. What
they don't understand, and what women of an earlier era might have been able to
tell them, is that when the little faucet turns off, it is time not to rat out
your husband (is there anything more wounding to a man, and therefore more cruel
and vicious, than a wife's public admission that he is not satisfying her in
bed?) but rather to turn it back on. It is not complicated; it requires
putting the children to bed at a decent hour and adopting a good attitude. The
rare and enviable woman is not the one liberated enough to tell hurtful secrets
about her marriage to her girlfriends or the reading public. Nor is she the one
capable of attracting the sexual attentions of a variety of worthy suitors. The
rare woman—the good wife, and the happy one—is the woman who maintains her
husband's sexual interest and who returns it in full measure.
Sex therapists concur that sexless marriages are not inherently problematic; if both partners are satisfied with a passionless union, the marriage is said to be in fine shape. But I'm not so sure. Marriage remains the most efficient engine of disenchantment yet invented. There is nothing like uninterrupted cohabitation and grinding responsibility to cast a clear, unforgiving light on the object of desire. Once children come along, it's easy for parents to regard each other as co-presidents of an industrious little corporation. Certainly, all sound marriages benefit from sudden and unexpected infusions of good will—What luck! Here we are, so many years later and still as happy as ever! But the element that regularly restores a marriage to something with an aspect of romance rather than of collegiality is sex.
high of infidelity
In the first extract from her book about marriage and monogamy, this author explains why she would never have an affair, and argues that while fidelity does have its price, it also has its rewards
I AM AT lunch with a man who has invited me out to discuss a book project that he would like to work on with me. Before the coffee arrives, he tells me that he wants one more adventure in his life. I think that he wants to climb a mountain or fly an aircraft. It seems that he wants to have an affair with me.
He is appealing. He smiles. “What could be wrong?” he says. “It will be our secret.” He offers a little excitement that won’t hurt anybody. He takes my hand. I am pleased. When you are a married woman this does not happen very often. My feathers must be shining. Why not? No one would have to know. I could play. I don’t believe that sexual pleasure beyond the marriage licence is a serious sin. I don’t believe in my immortal soul. My mortal soul gives me trouble enough.
But then I think of something far worse than sin. I could hurt my husband, whom I would never hurt, not for a second, and I would hurt him if for even one afternoon I went with this man and let him touch my body which knows so well my husband’s body. I would defile the thing we do with each other in the bed when the children are sleeping.
I am not sorry the man has asked me. A woman likes to know that her options are still there. But I am certain that I will not accept. I am not afraid that my husband will find out. I am afraid that my knowing will slide into my life with him, will destroy some absolute closeness we have achieved, will harm us both in some unknown way. I wonder if I am just conventional.
That is possible. But I would not break his trust in me. After all, my trust in him is the cornerstone of my life and all would tumble down without it. I drink my coffee and go home.
There are cultures where infidelity is not such a big deal. They say that in France and Israel a few affairs are only spice for the marriage itself. But, more likely, it is hard for all women, wherever they are, to absorb the idea of a husband’s infidelity, harder than some are willing or able to admit.
I know a man who was a successful business leader, whose wife was quiet, dutiful, without sparkle or spice. There was something dry about her. She made you sigh when you passed her by. The man fell in love with an independent woman who owned an art gallery and who introduced him to the modern masters. She was elegant, knowledgeable, interested in music, politics, style. The businessman fell so in love with this woman who made him feel full of possibility and opened so many new doors for him that he wanted to divorce his wife and marry her. His children were grown up, he felt that he was entitled to the happiness that was within his grasp. His wife did not agree. She said quite plainly that she would commit suicide by jumping out of the window of their Park Avenue apartment if he left her for so much as a day.
The businessman was afraid that she would do it. He was afraid that he could not live with the guilt of her death. He was afraid that no happiness would ever be possible for him whatever he did. He stayed with his wife and gave up the love of his life. He lived a long time after that and was never eager to go home, was always irritated and even rude to his wife, who lived 50 more years knowing that she had kept her husband through blackmail. This is a sad, true story. Birds in cages are never beautiful.
Men, for the most part, find a betrayal by a woman a stab in the heart from which they may never recover. The papers carry a story every few months of an ordinary man whose wife has left him for another who kills her, their children, himself. So deep is his hurt, such is the volcano of anger when he feels abandoned by someone he needs, needs perhaps to taunt, betray, knock about. Most men don’t take to the kitchen knife in those circumstances, but rage they do, and drink, and drive cars too fast and lie awake in their beds thinking gory thoughts.
Folk wisdom tells us that men need sexual activity more often than women.
It is true that when men were beasts — literally, not figuratively — they may have spread their seeds across the available females in reasonable hope of increasing genetic success. But if they didn’t stick around and help the female to protect the helpless child, their DNA was toast anyway.
So while we hear of men who need many women, we cannot assume that this is a pure genetic, environmentally favoured physical drive, one too powerful to submit to the required social controls.
If it is simply in the male character, a given, then we must be understanding and forgiving of men who look for an additional roll in the proverbial hay, even if the hay is the carpet of the Oval Office. But sexual drive in human beings is always caught in the psychological design of our beings. It can be used to help us to escape love or closeness or responsibility. It can be a disguise for contempt for women, reducing them all to whores. It can be an expression of anger at a particular wife who withholds warmth or belittles the man’s accomplishments. This vaunted male sexual drive, the constant seduction process that some men act out, can be a cover for their fear of ineptness, sexual weakness. There are so many reasons a man thinks that he needs to have his way with any attractive female that it seems naive to believe that he was just born that way.
Our society, with its harsh patriarchy and its custom of greater male freedom and female restriction, has created an illusion that the double standard suits our nature. It doesn’t. It suits some men some of the time, and not for reasons that make them happy or signal their true masculinity. But what of infidelity leading to a new true love? What of all those men and women who married too young, or simply badly, whose wives or husbands turned out to be depressed or mad, bitter, incompetent or cowardly, dull or inadequate in bed? What of those who turn towards another out of deprivation and a need to escape? Infidelity can be the flip side of love; it may even bring true and lasting love. One person’s loss is another’s gain.
But if monogamy has its price, it also has its rewards. Would I be a more interesting person, a better lover to my spouse, a wiser woman, had I met this one or that one in this place or that? I will never know. What I do know is that to be with another man in the ways that I am with my husband is unthinkable. It would violate the web of life we have spun together; it would jar and tear at the very roots of our trust.
There are other ways of looking at this: other women play and do as they please. Other women are in marriages with men who disappoint in some profound ways and feel incomplete without the excitement and additional romance of an affair. I understand that. There are men whose marriages have dried, who are contending with depressed or rage-filled wives, who are lonely beyond bearing. This is not a matter of sin, but a matter of circumstance, need, soul. I myself can only be faithful, not because of a sacred vow, not because of the children (who are now grown and what I do is none of their business), but because I have something I do not want to bruise or crumple. I want my love just as it is for as long as fate allows it.