This Just In: Marriage Not For Everybody

I recently read an article called “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” by Sandra Tsing Loh in the Atlantic. The author, an NPR science commentator with whom I was not previously familiar, had an extramarital affair and decided, on trying to piece the marriage back together, that the entire institution is outdated and that not only should she divorce, but no one should get married in the first place. I read it because it was described as “provocative” and someone whose opinion I think very highly of said that it affirmed her choice to not get married.

I thought the entire thing was a gigantic pile of steaming bantha pudu. Loh is a good writer, and I am interested to read her book on choosing a preschool for her child (the preschool phenomena in this country is, in my opinion, the most ridiculous and out-of-control nonsense I have encountered in other parents, and Loh’s decision to put her child in public school makes me curious), but this article failed to engage my interest and did not, in my opinion, do anything to make a case against marriage. All it successfully made a case against was Loh herself being married, and frankly only because she came across as a selfish shrew who was unsuited for partnership of any kind.

Here’s the basics: After twenty years of marriage, Loh has an affair. She breaks it off, and she and her husband seek counseling. She decides to stop pursuing reconciliation when she realizes that her husband does not excite her the way her fellow transgressor did. When she tells her apparently happily married girlfriends that she is divorcing, they take it as permission to give up on their marriages and confess that neither of their husbands will have sex with them anymore and they feel trapped in their marriages.

A few years ago I read another pro-divorce article, this one by a woman in my age group (Loh is more than a decade older than me) who had been married for a few years and liberated herself by kicking her husband to the curb and starting over again. And hey, so did all her friends! Starter marriages are all the rage! Unfortunately, I can’t find the article now. It might have been by the author of The Starter Marriage, but I don’t think it was.

These articles are being hailed as revolutionary and feminist. And I’m sorry, but that is just crap. There is nothing more feminist about ditching a commitment than there is about working hard to keep one. Neither is inherently feminist, though it is arguable that the latter is more mature. (It’s so circumstance-dependent that it’s honestly absurd to make a generalization either way.)

I’ve gotten a lot of grief over the years because I don’t call myself a feminist. My reasoning is simple: the word has too many connotations I don’t want to associate myself with, and furthermore is not adequately descriptive of my feeling that everyone is equal. Right now, though, I am going to put my feelings on semantics aside.

I think it is feminist of me to make my marriage a priority, to work through our problems and to consider my husband’s feelings and opinions equal to my own; to treat our relationship as a true partnership instead of putting myself first. That does not mean that I don’t look out for myself or that I in any way submit to my husband. Just ask him. Though I warn you that he will probably make a joke about blowjobs.

A few weeks before my 30th birthday, we hit a major crossroads. One day everything was fine and the next day we were maybe going to split up. There was an ultimatum involved, and neither of us believes in those. It was that bad. Both of us felt that it was worth salvaging; the terms of the ultimatum were met; we worked very, very hard at communicating with each other; our marriage is now, more than a year later, better than it has ever been.

That would not work for every marriage. Some people should get divorced. I really believe that. But the fact is that before a marriage ends in divorce there is a point where the partners have choices. Acting as though working on it is not an option is disingenuous and dishonest.

I wish Sandra Loh and the author of the mystery article would own their mistakes instead of trying to blame outside forces, i.e. marriage as an institution. Maybe their marriages truly did suck. Maybe ending them really was the smart thing to do. But to say that marriage itself is to blame? I’m going to need much better evidence than the whining of bored, privileged women.

Anyone who believes that everyone should get married is crazy. If you don’t want to get married, then for heaven’s sake don’t get married. But don’t you dare try telling me that I shouldn’t have.

32 thoughts on “This Just In: Marriage Not For Everybody

  1. B

    August 13, 2009 at 8:53pm

    *applause*

  2. amie

    August 13, 2009 at 9:12pm

    Well put. I wish I could offer more in my comment but I am currently so tired that I am bordering braindead and you really stated it so well anyway. Great post.

  3. Ellen Bloom

    August 13, 2009 at 10:37pm

    Sandra is/was married to a musician. He travels most of the time. That was a major part of the problem!!

  4. Katherine

    August 13, 2009 at 10:38pm

    I think the idea that “marriage” is one size fits all is total bullshit. Every marriage is different. I have an acquaintance who says about their marriage: “It is the dance we do.”

    Marriage/lifetime commitment is a choice. You are choosing to love and partner with someone, to hold them above all others. I think too many people don’t realize that it is, in fact, a choice, and that marriage isn’t a romance but a commitment. Where it breaks down is when couples don’t talk about what commitment means to them in practical terms. That’s the conversation that never ends, that’s the part that everyone in a successful marriage calls “work,” that is the dance we do.

  5. the slackmistress

    August 13, 2009 at 11:17pm

    A friend of mine is good friends with Sandra, and even she said it was a load of crap.

  6. Ewokmama

    August 13, 2009 at 11:21pm

    Yay! I love your take on it. As you know, I was married 9 years and well, that ended and I never thought I’d get married again. I’ve learned that it’s not about the institution, though, it’s about how the people in that institution handle it and work together.

  7. Swistle

    August 14, 2009 at 4:45am

    I HEART this. I hate so much the “My Experience = THE ONLY EXPERIENCE” stuff.

    I love this line: “All it successfully made a case against was Loh herself being married, and frankly only because she came across as a selfish shrew who was unsuited for partnership of any kind.”

  8. Nell

    August 14, 2009 at 6:05am

    I don’t disagree with your assessment of Loh’s situation, or the idea that (duh) marriage works for some people and not for others, but my problem with the article is that it just doesn’t feel finished. Her aversion to “work” (which she claims not to have) has done her a disservice in writing this article. It’s written as a personal narrative with research elements, but the personal isn’t personal enough. By excluding details about her own experience – was her marriage already an empty shell before the affair? what happened? where is this other guy now? – Loh demands that readers simply take her word for it and start reading from the same place where she started writing, but that’s an unreasonable expectation.

  9. Sam

    August 14, 2009 at 7:55am

    Great assessment. I read the article, and felt sad that these women felt “trapped” but honestly, just deciding you don’t want to work to make your relationship better is plain lazy. Still, I would like to read more about marriage where it’s not all “we work hard at our relationship: work work work!” or “we are soulmates and have sex at every possible opportunity” – isn’t there a happy medium? Marriage really is a very personal experience and we all have to find our balance within it.

    Lord knows I have friends who are divorced, and for good reasons, and I support and love them wholeheartedly. Still, I think, especially when KIDS are involved, that you should definitely work like hell to get to a good place, if at all possible.

  10. Julia

    August 14, 2009 at 9:20am

    Thank you for writing this, I appreciate your honesty and I agree so much. I’ve been married 8 years and man oh man, there have been times when things were Hard. And there have been times when things are great and times when things are average. They all weave together to make this amazing beautiful life together. So to you, Sam (commenter #10), I say there is a very happy medium.

    I had breakfast with a friend I hadn’t seen in a year and she asked me how me and my husband are doing (She knew about some of the hard times). I teared up telling her how wonderful it is and how STOKED I am to be with this man and have a life together.

    Okay, I’ll stop here because if I go on any longer I should be blogging this on my blog!

    Thanks for this post Annika!

  11. Annika

    August 14, 2009 at 9:50am

    Ellen–that may be true, but I am fairly certain he didn’t become a musician after they got married, so I doubt it was a big surprise.

  12. Bo

    August 14, 2009 at 10:52am

    Most of his work had been local for the early part of their marriage, and then he got a job with Bette Midler’s band, and the touring got more intense.

    You know, Loh was married for 20 years. Maybe her perspective is a little different than yours. I don’t see anyone hailing the piece as revolutionary. Where did you get that?

  13. Annika

    August 14, 2009 at 11:11am

    The goal of being a musician (at least for most musicians I know, which is a lot of them) is to go on tour. So the fact that he was playing locally when they met is irrelevant.

    Of course her perspective is different than mine. But it has nothing to do with how long each of us has been married, and everything to do with the fact that we are not the same person.

    It’s nice of you to fact check me. I don’t remember where I saw the word “revolutionary” but I can point you to at least two instances of “provocative.” I’m not going to bother, though, because you never, ever comment except to criticize me.

  14. The Daily Randi

    August 14, 2009 at 11:35am

    You know, I haven’t read The Article you write about. But, I read “A Year In Van Nuys” a few years ago and it stands as One Of My Favorite Books because it Inspired me to tell my own stories. I thinks Sandra Tsing Loh is An Excellent Humor Writer and am anxious to read her latest.

    From what I recall from her previous book, her husband was a musician who did mostly Studio Work and Commercial Jingles. I don’t’ think it is True that all musicians have A Goal to go on tour. I have actually never heard of that before and have quite a few Musician Friends. Some want to Compose, some merely want to Teach. Not that I am defending her decision to End Her Marriage. I just think that Judging Someone Else’s Decision To End Their Marriage is really not anyone’s place. I do think you have to consider How Her Perspective May Be Different Than Yours, due to factors you do not relate to.

    It is sort of like That Book, “Eat Pray Live” or whatever it is called. I started it last summer and couldn’t get through it because I thought The Main Character Was So Freaking Selfish (She ends her marriage for what seem to be Stupid Reasons to me.). Lots of people Love That Book. It wasn’t for me. So I stopped Reading. But, I did note to myself that, even though I would maybe not have made the same choices, perhaps The Author Did The Right Thing For Herself Because She Got An Incredibly Popular Book Out Of The Whole Mess. Now The Husband apparently has A Book Deal, too. So, it is Win/Win.

    xoxo,
    TDR

  15. existentialwaitress

    August 14, 2009 at 11:39am

    Really interesting post. I’ve been on both sides of the fence now, having been married twice, and years ago in my early twenties I might have sided with Loh. At this point in my life (I’d like to think that) I’ve grown up a little bit, and that, as you stated, it IS feminist to make my marriage a priority and to consider my husband’s feelings and opinions.

  16. Annika

    August 14, 2009 at 11:45am

    My point was not to speculate on why her marriage ended or whether it should have. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. I am just tired of the idea that ending a marriage instead of working on fixing it (which she very clearly states she did not feel like doing) is something to be applauded. It is not. Some marriages absolutely should end and I am not in charge of which ones, nor would I want to be. Likewise, I do not think that Loh should be in charge of whether marriage itself is a bad idea just because she doesn’t like it.

    As for the touring musicians thing, I should have said that ONE goal for most musicians is to go on tour, not THE goal. I type faster than I think sometimes. THE goal, as far as I know, is to play music. Touring is a huge opportunity to do so. That’s all I meant, but I didn’t get into it because I don’t think it has anything to do with anything.

  17. The Daily Randi

    August 14, 2009 at 11:56am

    Okay. Back, having just read The Article. And Two Things struck me. First, I think that Sandra Tsing Loh is attemping to be Provactive on purpose. This is sort of her style — Doing Something Against The Norm and Writing/Being Clever about it. Secondly, the people that she writes about, including Herself, have been married for Many, Many Years, are in their Mid To Late 40’s, have School Aged Children, and are in Wildly Different Tax Brackets than most of the people we know. I think the Issues they are experiencing are Very Skewed to their own particular lives.

    (Please don’t see this as A Critical Comment, Annika. I am just trying to Contribute to The Conversation and enjoy your Point Of View.)

    xoxo,
    TDR

  18. The Daily Randi

    August 14, 2009 at 12:03pm

    Also — one last thing. (Sorry!) When she writes about How She Doesn’t Want To Do The Work, I think she is trying to be Funny. She clearly is (or has) been Working On Her Marriage, as she writes about how she comes to The Revelation To End Her Marriage while sitting in A Therapist’s Office and for a lot of people, Just Going To Marriage Counseling is A Great Deal Of Work. I think she means she had done all the work she could do and was tired of Trying To Make Things Better. I kind of think she was sort of being Tongue In Cheek.

    Okay. Sorry for The TDR Show. Now back to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming.

    xoxo,
    TDR

  19. Annika

    August 14, 2009 at 12:17pm

    Is having an affair and/or getting divorced really against the norm?

    (I should say more but I am on my way to battle traffic. That just really stuck out at me.)

  20. The Daily Randi

    August 14, 2009 at 12:37pm

    Well, saying that No One Should Get Married is clearly Against The Norm. Most people don’t agree with that. That is what I meant she was trying to be clever about.

    “A Year In Van Nuys” was all about her buying a house in Van Nuys, which (at the time) no one would think of doing. She writes from The Typical Los Angeles Woman point of view — neither of us are part of this demographic, mind you. But, you know The Type. They go Shopping and worry about Carpools and get Botox and have Mommy Blogs and Stuff. She is part of that Demographic, but then Mocks It. Add in her Asian American Heritage and that is what makes her Funny. Obviously, she is Not For You. (A few years ago, she got Kicked Off of KCRW for something — I think it was for offensive remarks? It was sort of outlandish that she got kicked off considering that having Outlandish Point Of Views is sort of her thing. She had been a regular contributor at the time. Perhaps another of your commenters recalls the story? My point being — you are not the only one who she is not for.)

    xoxo,
    TDR

  21. uccellina

    August 14, 2009 at 1:14pm

    I read this piece when it first came out, along with the inevitable discussions on all the feminist blogs I read so devotedly. I didn’t actually see this hailed as an unproblematic, wholly feminist piece anywhere. There are a whole lot of very unfeminist, classist assertions, such as the following: “Today, the most common type of marriage is the Companionate Marriage, in which husband and wife each have a career, and they co-parent and co-housekeep according to gender-free norms they negotiate.” ORLY? I think this is often true among upper middle class urbanites, not so much more generally. To pretend otherwise is to gloss over the experiences of most women – and men – which is not so much a feminist act.

    Like you, I believe that it is a Good Thing to work on one’s marriage or non-marital long term relationship, and a Bad Thing to cheat. Where I agree with Tsing Loh is that Marriage as an institution comes with a lot of cultural baggage that places unfair expectations on men AND women, so that when life inevitably happens – lowered libido, arguments, unexpected change in circumstances – people feel they’ve failed. And when relationships fall irrevocably apart, people feel obligated to work on them not because they actually want to for themselves, but because they are loyal to Marriage as an ideal.

    TDR – She got kicked off KCRW for swearing on the air. It was stupid.

  22. Connor

    August 14, 2009 at 1:27pm

    Frankly, I think it is not a viable reason for divorce, just because your husband won’t have sex with you. Marriage shouldn’t be based on sex. It should be based on friendship and companionship. Passion dies, but mutual understanding and care don’t.

    But I grew up on Victorian Brit Lit, so I can’t really say.

    And about the word feminist:
    I completely agree. It’s a shame that the word has come to mean something so vile, or at least perceived as vile. I personally consider myself a humanist, in the historical sense, with an belief in “self, human worth and individual dignity” (thank you wikipedia.) and equality of races, sexes, and creeds.

    Back on marriage, the inequality of the today’s institution is a problem. Many women are expected to work outside the home, but still raise children, cook, clean, etc etc, which is a full time job, as I’m sure you know. But that’s not the institutions fault, that’s the prejudices and social stereotypes of society. Marriage is absolutely beautiful, and should be viewed so. The desire and ability to live and work with another person, and view them as a part of yourself, and navigate the world as one entity with the same goal is one of the most inspiring things about humanity. If you’re just going to give up because you’re attracted to someone else, you obviously don’t get the point of it all.

    Well, that’s my stream of consciousness two cents.

  23. oslowe

    August 14, 2009 at 1:28pm

    I just love the way TDR Capitalizes Some Things. I do the Exact Same Thing. Which is probably Very Annoying when I am writing fiction.

  24. uccellina

    August 14, 2009 at 1:28pm

    I like Dahlia Lithwick’s take: “Nobody is saying modern marriage is easy. But maybe if your “staggering working mother’s to-do list” isn’t built on hitting media-invented benchmarks of perfect intimacy, partnership, and material success, the probability of feeling like a bitter failure diminishes.”

  25. kata

    August 14, 2009 at 5:46pm

    I’d like to write something insightful except that I couldn’t agree with you more – and you’ve said it very well already.

    When I read Loh’s article it pissed me off not because she was divorcing & had an affair. Both of those things are her business and they don’t make her at all special though they also don’t make her the norm. It pissed me off that she had this absolute certainty that her experience was everyone’s experience, which is, in general, a stance that REALLY pisses me off.

  26. CosmicAvatar

    August 15, 2009 at 12:00pm

    Hear, hear.

  27. Amy

    August 16, 2009 at 1:15am

    This isn’t really on topic, but Helen Fisher was one of my advisers at Rutgers. I find it so weird that she’s, apparently, a famous person.

    Incidentally, while I found her to be a delightful person, there is so much about her work that I find fault with. So, when I got to that point in the article (I totally read the whole thing!) I mentally noted: This is Enneagrams with hormones — your argument is invalid.

  28. Edelweiss Transplanted

    August 16, 2009 at 10:12pm

    I AM Sandra Tsing Loh’s age, married 18 years, and I think that “a gigantic pile of steaming bantha pudu” is the most gloriously apt description of her essay ever uttered.

    Thank you!

  29. courtney

    August 17, 2009 at 6:52pm

    But the fact is that before a marriage ends in divorce there is a point where the partners have choices.

    Well said.

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