Is Marriage Obsolete?

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In the current issue of The Atlantic, the newly-divorced Sandra Tsing Loh wonders out loud “isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?” but then holds off a little from answering that question directly in order to do a characteristically amusing roundup review of five recent and not-so-recent books about marriage and divorce: Marriage-Go-Round, The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, Open Marriage, Why Him? Why Her?, and Generation Ex.

She writes of the sexual dissatisfaction of her friends in their mid-40′s, all of them mothers:

“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.” … 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.

And a bit later:

“When marriage was invented,” Ellen continues, “it was considered to be a kind of trade union for a woman, her protection against the sexually wandering male. But what’s happened to the sexually wandering male?”

In our parents’ era, the guy hit 45, got the toupee, drove the red Porsche, and left his family for the young, hot secretary. We are unable to imagine any of the husbands driving anything with fewer than five seat belts.

“Ron only goes as far as the den,” Ellen says. “He has his Internet porn bookmarked on the computer.”

“Ian has his Cook’s Illustrated,” Rachel adds. “And his—his men’s online fennel club.”

Fennel club?! Talk about sublimation. Those lines have ensured that I will worry about my libido for the next six months at least.

To work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones who schedule “date night,” only to be reprimanded in the home by male kitchen bitches, and then, in the bedroom, to be ignored — it’s a bum deal. And then our women’s magazines exhort us to rekindle the romance. You rarely see men’s magazines exhorting men to rekindle the romance.

That’s because men’s magazines exhort their readers to go rekindle the grill, as it were, after getting off.

Loh says a few things that sound like jokes, and you laugh, but actually they are sad facts:

While a Rutgers study suggests that only 38 percent of married people in America describe themselves as happy, we stay married for many good reasons. Take, for instance, the otherwise unaffordability of homeownership.

Or even rent, if you live in San Francisco or New York.

Some of us stay married because we’re in competition with our divorcing 1960s and 1970s parents, who made such a hash of it.

And

Some of us stay married because … what else is there? A lonely apartment and a hot plate?

Well, I stay married because I like my wife. But then again, I’m only 31, with no kids, and we’ve agreed to extend our 20s by five to seven years, so I guess that means we’re actually both still 29, and are going to remain so for the foreseeable future. And that’s a deal you can’t make with just anybody.

Loh concludes the article with some modest proposals for the replacement of marriage — among them being quasi-open arrangements, asexual unions, and raising children in an extended-family setting — most of which I suspect are being practiced more widely than is generally recognized. Link.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →