So I wrote this piece last year for Culture11. I wanted to link to it in response to the tedious Sandra Tsing Loh, because the piece says all I want to say about her and her opinion– how predictable she is, how boring, how self-centered and empty. (If you are recently divorced, or going through a divorce, please: do the world a favor and leave your “marriage is a sham” testimonial to yourself. Just as you mock and deride newlyweds who you think have a naive vision of marriage, you deserve mockery for thinking that your solipsism and self-obsession constitute an argument.)
Anyway, as you know, delenda est Culture11, and the website itself no longer exists. So I’m posting this up here. I don’t know if this is a violation of copyright or what. I figured it couldn’t muchhurt to post this. It’s the best thing I ever wrote. –Freddie
At the risk of penning a “bogus trend” story, it seems to me that there is a cottage industry, within the public conversation, dedicated to deriding marriage, romantic love, monogamy, sexual fidelity and all of the ephemera surrounding these institutions. Every few months, it seems, I encounter a new screed against marriage, whether from a forthcoming book, or in a magazine article, or on a blog.
We live in an age of contrarianism; every pundit and commentator styles him or herself as a provocateur. There’s no easier path to notoriety and attention, for your average writer, than to attack a “sacred cow”. And what do people take more seriously, or spend more of their lives considering, than romantic love, the desire to find a partner with which to spend one’s life, and with whom to confront life’s challenges and triumphs? Life-long monogamy, as a uniquely touted and treasured enterprise, is particularly vulnerable to a public discourse that encourages tearing down cherished institutions in the name of novelty or shock.
Well, it’s worth saying that I don’t find marriage literally sacred. But I find my respect for marriage, and my desire to one day take part in the institution, to be no worse for not believing that it is literally ordained by God. Modern life is a difficult prospect, filled with both pragmatic troubles and spiritual, existential crises. It is difficult to confront these things alone. They’re also difficult to confront as part of a pair, of course. But permanent romantic pairing offers us, sometimes, if not the removal of our problems, then the quiet grace of shared pain and mutual understanding. It is true that the claims made of love are often grandiose and unrealistic. No one has ever been delivered from all of their many sufferings by falling in love, and having that love returned. The most elemental and simplest aspect of love, though, can make those sufferings take on a new character: the knowledge that those sufferings are not faced alone, but with a friend, a companion, who will confront those problems beside you. That may be small comfort to some. To others, though, that’s a blessing worth pursuing at any cost, and this is a true thing: men have died in pursuit of it. That fact alone tells us little about marriage or love’s worth — men have died for the love of heroin and gambling, after all — but when something has meant so much to so many for so long, we should take the time to fully consider its worth.
There are a myriad of books, magazine articles and blog posts proclaiming the death of romantic love, and its realization in permanent marriage, but all of them take the same basic form. Permanent, monogamous romantic love is naive; it’s unworkable in the modern world; it’s a sad religious artifact of different times, when mothers were incapable of supporting themselves and the marriage contract was necessary for the perpetuation of the species, or at least of civil society. On the one hand, the common complaint about romantic love is that it is quaint or idealistic, not practical given human desire and human failing. Laura Kipnis’s Against Love: A Polemic, perhaps the sine qua non of the genre, insists that adultery is little else than a fundamental truth of man, and is sure that this prevalence of adultery amounts to an inescapable damnation of monogamous marriage. So love is supposedly an idealistic fantasy. On the other hand, romantic love, we’re told, is enforced both by the vestiges of paternalistic Christian culture, and by the economic interests of the Hallmark corporation and other business interests who create profits out of the “love industry”. Susan Squire’s I Don’t: A Contrarian’s History of Marriage describes the evolution of marriage’s image as one of control to one of romantic love, and insists that these systems of control continue to undermine the very notion of marriage and fidelity. (Incidentally, Squire’s book is the purest and least apologetic expression of self-satisfaction and self-regard I’ve ever encounted. And I’m well read.)
So marriage is said to be both idealistic and crass, cynical and quixotic, at once an artifact of unrealistic, artistic ideals, and at the same time buttressed by the worst kind of capitalist cynicism. Marriage, it seems, can survive neither the complexity of modern life and modern desire, nor the overpowering spread of the profit motive to every corner of life. Love, and the codification of that love into a legal contract and religious covenant called marriage, apparently, are antique institutions. This attitude is supported by the fact that marriage has become so hard, in contemporary life, and that this is reflected in a conventional divorce rate above 50%. (Half of all marriages or more fail, as marriage critics insist on reminding us– but more on that later.)
What are those of us who continue to see value and meaning in the prospect of lifelong romantic partnership to say, in the face of these attacks? Let’s be honest: yes, indeed, life-long monogamy is a difficult and uncertain venture. There’s little question that dedicating your life to a partnership with one other person, and maintaining sexual and emotional fidelity with that one person, is an enormous challenge, one that many if not most of us will fail. Marriage, we are reminded often, requires constant work, and even then, it is not always a winning proposition. This is true; I am under no illusions. Many marriages, no matter how genuinely undertaken, no matter the effort of the two involved, will end in divorce. No marriage can last without work and dedication. But no amount of work and dedication alone is enough to preserve every union. Some people simply will not stay married, no matter how dedicated and tough; though we are often vigorous in our process of mate selection, even the most thorough of us isn’t seer enough to know what the vagaries of chance will do to our relationships. Some, meanwhile, chafe at the idea that work is a necessary component of true love, suggesting that love should be a pure and selfless venture, free from work. Well, that, I think, is a genuinely naive notion, and often a self-defeating one. If you happen to be in a partnership that requires no work or sacrifice … vaya con dios. For the rest of us, love and monogamy are difficult prospects that require constant attention.
And yet saying that marriage requires work and sacrifice is merely to point out that it shares that characteristic with everything else of genuine value in human life. I find it a depressing sign of our times that so many seem to think that saying “it is difficult” is identical to saying “it cannot be done”. Have we really devolved to the point where something as valuable as romantic love isn’t worth sacrifice and toil? When any of us considers the aspects of our lives that are the most meaningful and fulfilling, we will realize that those are precisely what we have worked the longest and hardest for. Many see romantic relationships as refuges from the kind of effort that we invest in our professional or educational lives. To them, I would say that luckily, when we work to preserve our monogamous relationships, we are flexing entirely different muscles than the ones we use at the office, or in class, at the supermarket or on the road. We do the work necessary to preserve our unions precisely so that we have that refuge from the casual degradations of day to day life.
The divorce rate, of course, is the favorite bludgeon of the anti-marriage set. Yet the divorce rate is the definition of a misleading statistic. As the New York Times wrote in 2005, the divorce rate “is based on a simple – and flawed – calculation: the annual
marriage rate per 1,000 people compared with the annual divorce rate…. [T]his is misleading because the people who are
divorcing in any given year are not the same as those who are marrying, and the statistic is virtually useless in understanding divorce rates.” A better method, and one generally used by social scientists, is to calculate how many people who have ever been married have subsequently divorced. Additionally, this method has been endorsed by Americans for Divorce Reform.
Even this method has its failings. To begin with, this method still fails to apply any weight to length or quality of given marriages, and instead merely traffics in the reductionism of “number of marriages/number of divorces”. This enables small numbers of serial marriers to skew the divorce rate upwards. Since these individuals have divorced three or four or more times, they increase the total divorce rate in this (and the conventional) model. There is no way from looking at the divorce rate, however, to know how many unique individuals had a failing marriage, and how many failed marriages are in fact the product of multiple marriers. Most of us would, I think, be less concerned with individuals who marry and divorce many times, than with higher divorce rates across a larger collection of people. Meanwhile, people who marry four or five times have no pro-marriage analog that similarly skews the rate down. A couple who marries and stays together for 50 years has no more of a positive impact on the divorce rate than one that has been married 6 months. Certainly, a stable marriage of several decades has as much positive value as several quick divorces have negative value. And the “stayed married/got divorced” binary has little or nothing to do with an honest appreciation of the health of marriages.
Consider a person who marries in their early 20s, divorces after three years of marriage or less, and then marries again in his or her late 20s or early 30s, and this time stays together for the long haul. This is an entirely common occurrence. Half of this person’s marriages, of course, ended in divorce. He or she has a personal divorce rate of 50%. But does anyone think that this sort of situation demonstrates a failure of the institution of marriage? A marriage that is abusive and loveless that lasts for life is no victory for marriage as a whole; a husband and wife who part ways after realizing that their union was fundamentally a mistake, no defeat. It is the stability and love of individual marriages that determines the health of the institution, and these things can never be reduced to crass statistics.
Of course, when the subject is divorce, infidelity is sure to follow. The obsessive focus on infidelity in anti-marriage screeds is natural, but filled with lazy assumptions and bad faith. First: not everyone, in point of fact, cheats. Quite a few don’t. Even if our number is small, what of it? I am distinctly unimpressed with moral defenses of the kind “Everybody does it”; it’s never true, and if it was, it would have nothing to say about the moral content of the act in question. Some believe that infidelity is wrong because it is a sin, or because it is against fundamental moral laws. Others believe that infidelity is wrong because it is the violation of an individual compact or understanding between two people. Many believe it to be both. Whatever is true for the individual relationship, infidelity represents a violation of trust, and damage to the partnership. Is infidelity common? For sure. Does the fact that it is common make infidelity inevitable, or excusable? Of course not. Lying and stealing are also common. I know of few people who advocate no longer morally opposing them.
I suspect that there is more going on in the assertion of ubiquitous infidelity. We live in an era of non-judgmentality, or so we believe. This is the sad caricature of non-judgment that we have reached: not only must active judgment be suppressed, the appearance of judgmentality through alternative behavior must be eliminated. A world where there are those who honor their commitment to fidelity and trust is a world where the failure to so honor those institutions can be judged. In this culture of hyper-tolerance and freedom from any moral or ethical constraints, such a notion cannot stand. So those who would themselves be free from exclusive relationships, or from the immorality of violating that exclusivity, must therefore deny the very existence of fidelity. If everyone cheats, no one can be judged for cheating. This is the depth of our culture’s desire to never face judgment: not only must we never judge, we must never present moral behavior that might imply judgment. This is an assault on the very idea of right behavior, and it is founded in the most profound bad faith. Laura Kipnis, in particular, is someone who seems agog at the idea that anyone could be faithful. Surely, if she can’t maintain fidelity, than no one can, or should. This is the most toxic form of arrogance there is, the most penetrating and corrosive solipsism, and a sure sign that Kipnis and people like her are as deep as a wading pool.
One of the more popular attacks of romantic love, and one I find quite in vogue, is to say that love is not the selfless pursuit it has been made out to be. Well, from a certain angle perspective: yes, of course, love is not a purely selfless phenomenon. The desire to be in love and to feel the way love makes us feel is a “selfish” impulse, though only necessarily so in that it is provoked by self-interest. While we may be motivated to join in a romantic union by personal desire, it is also true that almost all of us want to share with another, to know what it is to give whatever one can to that one other person. In this sense, the lines between selfishness and selflessness become vague and tangled — and at times gloriously so. I can think of no feeling that has filled me more totally or been more transformative than this feeling: I cannot be without you. This feeling is often dangerous, sometimes deceptive, and not nearly enough to build a stable and fulfilling partnership. But it’s neither selfish nor selfless; rather, it’s some strange combination of both. That’s precisely what makes love a truly unique phenomenon, because it alone allows us to truly let go of the “for me/for others” binary. This is also, by the way, why it is true that romantic love is in one sense anti-modern: it is a turn away from the cult of the individual, where only the desires and needs of the individual person matter, or are to be pursued.
In any event, who can let the desire for that feeling go? Most of us, I think, find that surrender of our individual happiness to the control of another person to be something that we can’t possibly give up on, unlikely prospect though it is. Let me be plain — I don’t mean to present myself as someone who has the right to give relationship advice, or to stand as any symbol of romantic love or fidelity. I have had my failings within relationships, and I have had my failures of relationships. I stand before you only as someone who believes ultimately that, on balance, both love and marriage are good things, on rare occasion transcendent things, and worth fighting for, even against all odds. A.O. Scott once pronounced the romantic ideal fallible but nonetheless indispensable, and that’s about exactly what I believe. There is, of course, evidence all around us of failed marriages and broken unions. But there are also examples to encourage and inspire us, though rarer, and quieter, and a little harder to find. We just need to expend a little more energy in looking for them. One of my closest friend’s parents are going strong after 35 years; when we go out to dinner, I often catch them holding hands under the table, and they act like two people who can’t stand to be apart from each other. I’m sure their marriage isn’t perfect. I long for a day when I can have a marriage of similar imperfection.
How can we translate this belief in an ideal of marriage into practical policy? How can we, as a (small-l) liberal society support the institution of marriage? We’d do well to continue to erase the pressure that the unmarried still sometimes feel to marry for the sake of marrying. I cannot see the good in a marriage of convenience, or one undertaken to please others. A lifelong partnership with another person is a difficult enough prospect without the shadow of coercion. Many complain that tax subsidies for married people and parents are coercive in the direction of marriage. This discussion, unfortunately, is hung up on the question of whether or not a subsidy for some amounts to a backdoor tax on others. I’m not particularly compelled to eliminate marriage subsidies, and I think it’s important to recognize that our fractured and lumpy tax code has many more inequalities than just the marriage subsidy. I do have sympathy for those who feel that they are being economically pressured to marry. I would remind them, however, that legal marriage entails a dissolution of the status of an individual economic agent, into a legal financial unity, which has many of its own dangers and problems. I don’t see many people jumping into marriage out of a simple desire to pay low taxes.
As for other questions of how best to preserve marriage, I don’t see any benefit to marrying after a short courtship. These whirlwind romances rarely end well, and they make a mockery of matrimony when, 6 months after the wedding or sooner, they dissolve. What possible benefit can there be for a couple to rush into marriage? I have heard from people before that they were sure that “it was meant to be,” or that the two were soul mates. A great aspect of things that are “meant to be” is that they will still be meant to be a year later on. Relationships need to be put through the strains and challenges of time, to be tested, before they are legally conjoined, or consecrated by God (if that’s your interest). There is no substitute for the experience of being joined together through a long period of time. I would never advocate any kind of legal barrier to wedding after a short courtship, but if we truly want to strengthen marriage, we should socially discourage that practice. And, though I recognize that some people’s moral and religious responsibilities make this impossible, a period of cohabitation seems to me to be a valuable barometer for long-term compatibility. Living with someone, of course, is more than cohabitation. But there are many fine-grained details of shared expectations and habits that make a big impact on the ability of two people to live together, whether in friendship or in love, and it seems sensible to me to explore these vicissitudes before permanent coupling.
Ultimately, I believe that marriage will be strengthened if less people marry. This is a counter-intuitive point. But given the challenge inherent in matrimony, it stands to reason that there won’t be as many couples truly compatible with marriage, in comparison to the numbers of people who married when marrying was simply something you had to do. Though I would never endorse any political or governmental ventures designed to discourage marriage, it seems inevitable to me that an improving institution of marriage would ultimately mean less married people. My preferred vision of marriage is a culture that approaches it more slowly, more cautiously, with a greater appreciation of what marriage really entails. A stronger institution of marriage is one that has less frivolous and ill-considered marriages. (For those who are uncomfortable with the notion of less married couples in our society, I can think of many thousands of Americans who are desperate to join the franchise, if given the opportunity. But this is controversial.)
This is the spirit in which we should confront matrimony in the contemporary age: we should recognize marriage’s fragility, its imperfection, and we should remain ever cognizant of the immense challenge that marriage represents to even the most loving couples. But we must also recognize that marriage has not suddenly become an impossible or unworkable dream. We should remember that cynicism and doubt are weapons that are easy to use against others, but nothing that we should live with, or would want to. I put this to you simply: most of those who attack marriage do so out of the desire to put one over on other people. There will always be people who will make appeals to the worst aspects of human behavior and claim that they are “telling it like it is”, leveraging the sad reality of human failure to make an argument that in no way follows from that reality. Call this for what it is: self-aggrandizement, and at the expense of those who believe in something that is at times righteous and brilliant and true. We are never more vulnerable, rhetorically, than when we make appeals to the transcendent. There are people who live to kick the legs out of others who reach for the heavens. Don’t let them.
For those who don’t believe in marriage, and don’t wish to partake, the way forward is blissfully simple: don’t marry. The social and cultural bias against remaining single is shrinking, and I will always lend my voice to support those who choose to not marry or raise a family. All you need do is not to participate. If you have deeper animus against marriage, or monogamy, or romance, well — for God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love.