On Marriage

(Editor’s Note: Something else that I wrote, this time July 1st, 2009, posted on the other blog. I used to rant a lot — A LOT — and while I had grown out of that phase by this point, occasionally things would happen to draw me back in. As you can see here, Ms. Loh’s column triggered that relapse, and I decided to vent about it on the Internet like anybody else with a broadband account. Much to my surprise, the link at the bottom of the post still works, though I haven’t re-read her original article because I don’t have time to be irate this morning.)

Sandra Tsing Loh wrote a column for The Atlantic on June 22nd, 2009, titled “On Marriage: Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.” The subtitle, as it appeared on MSNBC.com, was “Author Sandra Tsing Loh is ending her marriage. Is it time you did, too?”

No, Ms. Loh, it is not. Honestly, you shouldn’t have either. Or, and this is more likely, you never should have gotten married in the first place.

In Ms. Loh’s article, she explores the reasons behind the split. The catalyst, the straw that broke the camel’s back, was Ms. Loh’s affair, though she couches it in far more flowery language.

I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued. This turn of events was a surprise. I don’t generally even enjoy men; I had an entirely manageable life and planned to go to my grave taking with me, as I do most nights to my bed, a glass of merlot and a good book. Cataclysmically changed, I disclosed everything. We cried, we bewailed the fate of our children.

When you strip out the five-dollar words and the Ivy League-educated writing, what she is saying is that she broke her marriage vows. This happens in many relationships, more than it should, but many couples are able to get past it and continue growing. Would Ms. Loh be one of those?

No, she would not.

…I realized … no. Heart-shattering as this moment was — a gravestone sunk down on two decades of history — I would not be able to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband, which is what it would take in modern-therapy terms to knit our family’s domestic construct back together. In women’s-magazine parlance, I did not have the strength to “work on” falling in love again in my marriage. And as Laura Kipnis railed in “Against Love,” and as everyone knows, good relationships take work.

Ms. Loh quits instead.

She goes on to say that she would continue to do the tasks she had always been doing, “like so many working/co-parenting/married mothers” do, and she lists out a number of acts most parents will recognize; picking up her daughters from school, taking them to doctor appointments, and the like. But in this passage, she strays down a few tangents, like “I can earn my half — sometimes more — of the money,” and “I can drive my husband to the airport; in his absence, I can sort his mail,” and “I can make dinner conversation with any family member.”

Ms. Loh, you will please excuse me if I do not submit your name to President Obama for a medal of honor. What I see in that paragraph is a sense of entitlement and haughtiness about your place in the relationship. Why do you emphasize that you are making more money? Why do you stress that you are able to “sort his mail,” as if this is some tremendous hardship but you, God bless you, will push through and manage? Why do you feel that making dinner conversation is some remarkable achievement? This is nothing to be lauded. This is basic human existence.

But please, Ms. Loh, do go on.

Which is to say I can work at a career and child care and joint homeownership and even platonic male-female friendship. However, in this cluttered forest of my 40s, what I cannot authentically reconjure is the ancient dream of brides, even with the Oprah fluffery of weekly “date nights,” when gauzy candlelight obscures the messy house, child talk is nixed and silky lingerie donned, so the two of you can look into each other’s eyes and feel that “spark” again. Do you see? Given my staggering working mother’s to-do list, I cannot take on yet another arduous home- and self-improvement project, that of rekindling our romance.

Oh come now.

Now, Ms. Loh, I will admit that I cannot understand all of the particulars of your situation. I am only 27 years old, after all, and I have been married merely nine months. But I don’t need to be in your age demographic or your position in life to deconstruct your statements. Your tone gives your opinions away, even as your words attempt to obfuscate your meaning — you don’t care and you don’t intend to care. The dismissive phrase of “Oprah fluffery,” the wording of the “messy house,” and the emphasis placed on your “staggering working mother’s to-do list.” In your opening paragraph you stated that you cheated — not in so many words — and yet here you have already retreated behind your sandbags of workload and age groups, hardening your defenses against any blame.

So no, Ms. Loh, I do not see your point. There are many couples that do get through this period just fine, working together and relying on each other. But I’m interrupting you, I’m sure you have a point you’re working toward. Please, continue.

Sobered by this failure as a mother — which is to say, my failure as a wife — I’ve since begun a journey of reading, thinking, and listening to what’s going on in other 21st-century American families. And along the way, I’ve begun to wonder, what with all the abject and swallowed misery: Why do we still insist on marriage? Sure, it made sense to agrarian families before 1900, when to farm the land, one needed two spouses, grandparents, and a raft of children. But now that we have white-collar work and washing machines, and our life expectancy has shot from 47 to 77, isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?

It’s generally considered improper to write out laughter. Use your imagination.

Again, Ms. Loh, you hide behind your excuses. You say you failed as a wife, but you sneak that out behind a primary failure as a mother. And your journey towards enlightenment is nothing more than a poorly-disguised attempt at self-vindication. Your marriage has failed, so it’s not your fault, it’s marriage’s fault! How did I miss that? You cheated and your marriage fell apart, and the reason you decided to quit on it was because you saw the light. Remarkable.

I will gloss over the next few points. Ms. Loh proceeds to blame failing marriages on the United States of America, religion, and the lack of nannies. Americans attend more church than anyone else in the western world, and agree with the statement “Marriage is an outdated institution” less than anywhere else in the western world, yet Americans have the highest divorce rate. I find this a little strange, because when I think about those statistics, I wonder why people who think that marriage is outdated have much better success with it than Americans do.

I admit I don’t really understand the nanny bit. She states: “My domestic evenings have typically revolved around five o’clock mac and cheese under bright lighting and then a slow melt into dishes and SpongeBob … because yet another of my marital failings was that I was never able to commit to a nanny.” This seems to be primarily more misdirection, blame placed on society because she felt it would be seen as exploitative.

Ms. Loh now has Girls’ Night dinners with her friends, in her divorced person’s “oddly relaxed” schedule. In setting this scene, she labels a number of marriages, the Romantic Marriage (“Think of those affectionate 80-somethings in convalescent homes, still holding hands.”), the Rescue Marriage (“…partners who fit each other like lost puzzle pieces, healing each other from mutual childhood traumas.”), the Traditional Marriage, where the man works and the woman runs the home, and the Companionate Marriage, where both husband and wife have a career and they handle all the tasks together. She asks what type of marriages we have now, in the 21st century, and then introduces us to her friend Rachel. Or, more correctly, Rachel’s house and her husband’s cooking.

Picture a stunning two-story Craftsman — exposed wood, Batchelder tile fireplace, caramel-warm beams, Tiffany lamps on Mission tables — nestled in the historic enclave in Pasadena dubbed Bungalow Heaven. Rachel, 49, an environmental lawyer, is married to Ian, 48, a documentary-film editor. They have two sons, 9 and 11, whom Ian — in every way the model dad — has whisked off this evening to junior soccer camp (or drum lessons or similar; the boys’ impressive whirl of activities is hard to keep track of). Rachel is cooking dinner for three of us: Ellen (a writer, married with children), Renata (violinist, single, lithe, and prowling at 45), and me. Rachel is, more accurately, reheating dinner; the dish is something wonderfully subtle yet complex, like a saffron-infused porcini risotto, that Ian made over the weekend and froze for us, in Tupperware neatly labeled with a Sharpie, because this is the sort of thoughtful thing he does. Ian subscribes to Cook’s Illustrated online and a bevy of other technically advanced gourmet publications — he’s always perfecting some polenta or bouillabaisse. If someone requests a cheeseburger, he will fire back with an über-cheeseburger, a fluffy creation of marbled Angus beef, Stilton, and homemade ketchup. Picture him in bike shorts (he’s a cyclist), hovering over a mandala of pots that are always simmering, quietly simmering. To Ian’s culinary adventurousness, Rachel attributes the boys’ sophisticated taste buds — they eagerly eat everything: curry, paella, seaweed, soba noodles. My own girls are strictly mac-and-cheese-centric (but I’ve been told in therapy not to keep beating myself up over the small things).

Never have I seen a more blatant attempt to meet a word-count limit.

Ms. Loh’s friends commiserate about their marriages. Rachel, the one referenced above, says that she is now considering divorce because she never has sex anymore, along with some other reasons.

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

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

Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad, but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at six, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.

I would agree here that Rachel’s husband appears to be a jerk from this telling, but I don’t see anything here that screams out “Divorce him!” Has anyone heard of marriage counseling in their elite subdivision?

But enough about that, let’s go here.

Of the four of us, Renata has the fastest-thrumming engine, as evidenced by her rabid in-the-moment sex-tryst texting (“omg he flyz in 2nite on red i @ 2 am!!!”). One imagines a string of men toppled behind her in ditches like crashed race cars. “My problem is, I’m a dopamine freak!” She waggles her hands in the air. “Dopamine!”

“Helen Fisher!” Ellen exclaims, pointing at her.

Ms. Loh, your friends are idiots.

Ms. Loh goes on to explain that Helen Fisher wrote a book explaining hormones that lump people in to four categories; The Negotiator, the Builder, the Director, and the Explorer, who is tied to the dopamine that gets Renata all foolish, as seen above. Explorers are attracted to Explorers, and Builders to Builders, but Negotiators are attracted to Directors, and vice versa. One of Ms. Loh’s friends slaps the book and exclaims that her problem is that she’s an Explorer married to a Builder.

Here’s the problem with this idea; it’s too neat and simple. Dropping people into four categories and claiming that it breaks down how attraction works is no less stupid than lumping them into twelve categories based off the Zodiac and claiming that it breaks down how attraction works. It allows you to look at someone as a preconceived label, not as a person. It’s too easy to then dismiss any problems as that elusive “incompatibility” instead of actually working through a problem and solving the issue.

A running theme in this article is the avoidance of any kind of “work” on a relationship. Upon being asked if he wanted a divorce Rachel’s husband said no, saying they must show discipline and work at the marriage. At that, Ms. Loh adds the parenthetical comment “again with the work!”

Ms. Loh posits that “it’s clear females are dissatisfied,” saying that more and more divorces are being initiated by women. She then paints a remarkable picture, and I would be doing it a grave disservice to not present it in its original form.

If marriage is the Old World and what lies beyond is the New World, it’s the apparently stable men (comfortable alone in their postfeminist den with their Cook’s Illustrated and their porn) who are Old Worlders, and the Girls’ Night Out, questionnaire-completing women who are the questing New Worlders.

Ms. Loh continues to state that women get a bum deal, being told to “work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones that schedule ‘date night,’ only to be reprimanded in the home by male kitchen bitches, and then, in the bedroom, ignored.” She presents a few modest proposals, the first of which states that high-revving, sexually-frustrated women could have two men, the “postfemininst” male doing all the work in the house, and the fun-loving boy toy on the side to play around with. This is due to the fact that rekindling the romance is “biologically unnatural.” The children should be raised in a tribal society, from 1-5 years of age, by the woman and her female kin, with men coming by every now and then to provide sex or put up shelves. Then, once that is done, push the children off on the father, or the “superdad,” so the Type A woman can then work and presumably run around with her aforementioned boy toy.

In closing, she states:

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

Ms. Loh, I will not follow your advice, because I must consider the source of the advice. In this case, the advice is coming from a biased, self-righteous, sanctimonious fool.

From the beginning of your article straight through to its conclusion, you dodge, duck, sidestep, and avoid the true issue; according to your own writing, you are the reason this marriage failed. It was not society, it was not latent feminism, it was not America, it was not God. It was not a roaring fireplace or a screaming child. It was not macaroni noodles and a talking sponge. It was not level shelves and a travel schedule. You, Ms. Loh, are the reason. You failed. And here I am not pointing to the affair, because couples can and often do work through that kind of transgression.

You failed, Ms. Loh, because you quit. You gave up. You took a look at your marriage, shattered primarily by your own actions, and you decided that to fix it would have been too hard. Yes, you disguised this as well, claiming biology, society, and other excuses that have no bearing on this. You failed and you gave in. You betrayed your husband’s trust, and decided that because of this, you would not try to restore the marriage.

And what have you taken away from this? A horrible sense of entitlement. You refuse to take responsibility for anything that has happened. You are so full of yourself, so overflowing with confidence, that you believe that it is the world that is wrong, and you, you and your little nest of harpies, you are the ones that are correct. And what’s more, you drag down all women with you. You claim it is the woman’s right, that because you are women you can take this stand. Men are the stodgy idiots blundering about the Old World, while the intrepid explorers, pushing boundaries, exploring new lands, filling out questionnaires — filling out questionnaires! — are the New World. Your audacity astounds me, Ms. Loh.

In closing, Ms. Loh:

Your marriage is over, and despite your best efforts, you have only yourself to blame. You are a failure, a quitter, a coward, a fool, and an embarrassment.

It’s a shame your ego will never let you see it.

-Matt Bowyer

(The link: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31452178/ns/today_relationships/ )