The Straights Are Not Ok
Dispatches from the confines of heterosexual marriage
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Two essays, one on the annoyances that come with a long marriage to a male partner and another on ending a marriage for no reason other than an unshakeable desire to be free, are making the rounds and roiling the internet this week. They are both very well-written and both worth a read; both authors, Heather Havrilesky and Honor Jones, are exceptionally talented writers whose pieces crack open a little view into the confines, expectations, and grind of nuclear family life. These essays also fostered the predictable responses, roughly half of which amounted to “this essay is amazing” and roughly half of which were something like “these women are evil and selfish.” For Havrilesky, the question was, “why doesn’t she just get divorced if she hates her husband so much?” For Jones, it was, “how dare she get divorced?”
Without weighing in on either women’s choices, all of which were made in universes far more vast and complicated that we can glean from a single essay, their essays are important because they speak to what remains a widespread truth: For a great many women, marriage and particularly marriage plus motherhood are confining, stifling, and creativity-killing. And the degree to which marriage can be confining, stifling, and creativity-killing comes as a particular surprise to ambitious women who thought they were doing marriage differently than their mothers and grandmothers.
I could relate to both women, and I couldn’t. For many years, I didn’t want to get married because of the exact frustrations and sense of being stifled that they describe. Marriage, it seemed to me (and frankly still seems to me) can narrow the aperture of your life; life seems to get even smaller when you expand into a nuclear family unit, particularly one living in a single-family house, particularly one living in suburban disconnection.
I got married anyway, in large part because I met someone I couldn’t imagine living without, but also because it was the first relationship of my life that felt expansive. In some ways, my life did get smaller — I had fewer social events on the calendar, because with only so many hours in the day and many more of them dedicated to a partner, the kind of third-tier casual friendships I had long maintained (a coffee or a cocktail every few months, a late night out after a random run-in at a party) slipped away, and more of my friendship time was dedicated to a smaller group of women with whom I felt greater intimacy. The adventure of single life in a city, which is how I spent my twenties and half of my thirties, shifted to a different kind of adventure: My partner and I moved overseas; as a fiercely independent and often wildly selfish person, I started the long and ongoing work of figuring out how to be one part of a pair, how to forge and then nurture what I hope will be a lifelong bond. And I learned, for the first time, how pairing with someone else can feel more like a multiplying of the best of both of you, rather than a blending of one into the other. Not to sound too much like a smug married, but I got wildly lucky and married someone who is brilliant, brave, kind, and talented, and who it feels like dedicates most of his emotional energy into making me feel brilliant, brave, kind, and talented. The first years of our relationship were some of the best of my professional life, in no small part because I found his work so interesting and inspiring that I wanted my own to be better. I watched him at work, saw the professional risks he took, watched the seriousness and diligence with which he pursued his craft, and thought, I would like to be more like that. And every single time I expressed interest in trying something new but scary, every time I said “I would love to write something like that, but I don’t think I can do it,” every time I talked about feeling like an imposter and an outsider and a fraud, he was the person challenging my own self-doubt and pushing me forward. I don’t feel like my husband is my protector or a shield from the risks of the outside world; I feel like he is my solid foundation, the kind of structure that lets big things grow.
Marriage doesn’t have to make you small, in other words. It doesn’t have to be drudgery and resentment and a floor covered in crumbs.
But a lot of the time, for a whole lot of women, it is. And since it’s not 1955 anymore, and since men were supposed to be better than this and women were supposed to have picked better than this, the very valid frustrations that grow out of very gendered inequities get stripped of their politics through the filter of humor or the rosy glaze of self-actualization. And because we still live in a society that offers few socially understood ways of organizing the family beyond the married nuclear family, and presents everything else in opposition to it — single people are routinely described as “unmarried,” but no one has ever called married people “un-single;” there isn’t a word for a woman without children that doesn’t position that status as either a political choice or something that’s missing — divorce is still largely seen as a failure rather than, often but of course not always, the end point of a successful relationship. When it comes to women’s roles and family set-ups, we have come so far, and yet we so stubbornly stuck in old paradigms.
It’s clear from both women’s essays that they were the logistical and emotional engines for their families. Havrilesky writes not just about organizing a vacation for her family of four, but then being the person in charge of managing everyone’s emotions — cheering everyone up, keeping everyone entertained — when they hit a series of travel snafus. Jones writes about her kitchen (and herself) being “three percent blue Play-Doh; 10 percent toast; 87 percent Honey Nut Cheerios dust.” She gets help from the housekeeper she hires, but she does not mention her husband doing half the work of managing the mess. Instead, he serves a more traditional role, as provider and protector. In a stunningly beautiful paragraph, Jones writes:
I didn’t have a secret life. But I had a secret dream life—which might have been worse. I loved my husband; it’s not that I didn’t. But I felt that he was standing between me and the world, between me and myself. Everything I experienced—relationships, reality, my understanding of my own identity and desires—were filtered through him before I could access them. The worst part was that it wasn’t remotely his fault; this is probably exactly what I asked him to do when we were 21 and first in love, even if I never said it out loud. To shelter me from the elements; to be caring and broad-shouldered. But now it was like I was always on my tiptoes, trying to see around him. I couldn’t see, but I could imagine. I started imagining other lives. Other homes.
It’s not that brutish men routinely quash the dreams of previously bold women. It’s that American marriage is itself an institution with hundreds of years of history and baggage, and all sorts of assumptions of roles and obligations. Many feminists think we can break the old rules, make our marriages different. And we can, to some extent. My marriage is worlds different than my grandmother’s; it is worlds different than the more traditional marriages of many women my same age; it is worlds different than Havrilesky’s and Jones’s. But it is still a marriage. It is still an institution in which decisions are not universally individual but rather often made according to long-standing patterns, put into place before my mother’s mother’s mother was born, passed down through action, custom, and habit, so common and so ingrained as to be nearly invisible.
Which is why we need to do the work of putting words to what feels amorphous, until we can shape that feeling into something we can name. It’s why it’s not enough to talk about marriage as a private relationship between two people, a space in which everyone is different and couples are making the choices that are right for them (this is so often the line when we talk about wives taking their husbands’ names, or American children almost universally taking their fathers’ last names, or women being overwhelmingly the spouses who drop out of the workforce). These are not simply individual choices or private decisions made between spouses; they are the outgrowth of generation after generation walking the same ground, until there is a well-worn path off of which one must consciously choose to divert.
It’s why marriage really shouldn’t be the primary organizing relationship of American society.
The thing with marital malaise is that in the United States, women’s lives have changed tremendously, and men’s lives haven’t changed nearly as much, and we still have an ideal in which all of us pair off together in happy twosomes. I’m not convinced that women were happier in the old days when women’s roles within the family were clear but constrained, but I am convinced that married women now have both the opportunity for happier marriages and a much higher chance of profound marital dissonance. Many women believed they were signing up for an equal partnership, only to find themselves doing ever more for everyone else and precious little for themselves. Jones talks about spending “so many years as a wife” writing nothing at all, exhausted and overwhelmed by the work of keeping a house and birthing, breastfeeding, and raising three children. Havrilesky writes about her husband as essentially a large third child, somehow louder, more obnoxious, and less emotionally regulated than her two actual children. These snapshots look like so many marriages, and sound like so many of the cultural tropes and the “jokes” that women and men alike make about their partners: the hapless husband and the harried wife; the dolt and the nag.
You could say it’s all self-inflicted, and to some extent it is. Men could do more at home and in the day-to-day organization of family life. Women could demand more, or at least choose to do less — to simply not vacuum up the cheerios, not plan for the kids’ spring break six months in advance, not force their partners to go to the doctor. Maybe women are making their own beds, pairing up with men who don’t do their fair share. And certainly, if I were to be doling out advice, I would say exactly that: You don’t need to get married, and if you do get married, make sure you marry someone who makes your world bigger, who knows how to live on his own, and with whom the day-to-day feels both fun and fair.
But when I read these essays, I don’t necessarily see women who chose poorly (although I would also advise women not to get married before 30). What I see are wives who are living under the oppressive expectations of what modern family life is supposed to look like — expectations that have only ratcheted up as other demands on women’s lives and time have also gotten more pressing, and expectations that most men were largely raised without.
I notice this in my own life: My husband and I split chores pretty equally, and if I’m being honest, he probably does more of the cleaning than I do. But I lose my mind if someone is coming over and our house is messy; our house is rarely the kind of mess that I suspect people with kids would qualify as “messy,” but I will still drop everything to rapid clean as much as humanly possible so that our house is gleaming, beautiful, and spotless. I will feel my neck tighten over a badly-folded blanket, a dish in the sink, or an ugly towel left out in the bathroom. I practically hyperventilate when he has a friend over without putting everything in its place, even if I am not there. This is not because I am naturally neater than my husband. It is because, if I dig in, I feel like a messy house — even an imperfect house — reflects badly on me. He hauls around no such baggage.
This is probably an affliction disproportionately borne by upper-middle-class college-educated couples. In these homes, both partners typically work for pay, but it’s the wife who feels more pressure to show that she is doing it all and has it all under control — that family vacations are not just planned but deeply enriching; that the kitchen is the beating heart of the house and is welcoming, warm, and ideally well-appointed; that the home is as well-organized as an Excel sheet. Many of us do this without being conscious that we’re doing it, falling into a set of expectations bookended by gender and organized to reflect class status. Women are working hard to meet expectations we didn’t even know we had, and then fostering resentment when our male partners don’t see all we’re shouldering, don’t pick up extra weight, don’t feel the same demands we do with the same sense of urgency.
Of course some women are angry. Of course some women feel that resentment harden into hatred. Of course some women blow up their lives.
I don’t have a great answer except for this: It doesn’t have to be that way. Marriage is not the only way to build a great life, and a marriage to the wrong person or a marriage built badly can make you feel far lonelier than singlehood ever could. A marriage isn’t necessarily a failure because it ends. A relationship definitely isn’t a failure just because it doesn’t culminate in a wedding.
And a really great marriage to a really great partner can also avoid so many of these pitfalls, but it doesn’t happen by accident. Just about everyone on the planet wants to feel as though their life has a purpose, that they are loved and valued, that they are safe and secure, and that they are capable of reaching their potential. Doing the work of cultivating purpose, forging deep and loving human connections, providing for yourself, and rising to challenges before you seek out what you hope will be a lifelong partnership will put you on much more solid ground, and hopefully allow you to walk shoulder-to-shoulder in a partnership. Don’t marry anyone who doesn’t have a proven track record of loving you well, embracing the other people who love you, pushing you to reach your potential, and establishing themselves as a warm home open to you, no matter where in the world you are.
It also helps to talk to your partner and everyone else — and talk and talk and talk — about the inequities, big and small, that have long characterized marriage as an institution, and that continue to make actual, human marriages less equal, less joyful, and less interesting. Choosing to pair with another human being is a borderline insane act of radical faith — in them, in yourself, in the kind of depth and magic that humans can find when we commit to being family even when it’s not all sexy and fun and new. I am so, so glad I did it, and so, so glad that my younger self recalibrated her desires and her vision for her life when she got randomly lucky enough to meet an excellent man.
But being happy into the forever is not an act of random luck. It’s a million small choices that, historically, women have not had much room to make, and a million small incentives and pressures that we’ve been raised to pretend don’t exist. I agree that one step toward a happy marriage is probably choosing not to air all of your marital grievances in the pages of the New York Times. But if we want people generally to be happy, and if we want women specifically to be happier, then we can’t keep plodding on as though marriage were simply an arrangement between two people in love and not a political institution saddled with a whole lot of baggage. And, as incredible as marriage can be, we really shouldn’t continue to treat it as the best way to organize a life, or even the best way to be in love.
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