I live in Los Angeles. There's this great curmudgeonly series that you will never regret watching about how the city is portrayed in film. Having grown up thinking of Los Angeles primarily from those film and TV depictions (and glamorous magazine spreads), I was pleased to find out upon moving here that, in reality, L.A. really is exactly like how you think it is from television. Except, it's not like that at all. Just like marriage.
Most discussions of marriage operate on the premise that it's in big trouble (though you can argue the opposite, or at least show the more nuanced meaning of the decline): New marriages are down by 5% from 2009 to 2010, meaning that barely half of all adults in the U.S. are married. Also, people are getting married for the first time later than ever, with women waiting until they are 26.5 and men, 28.7, or what I like to think of as precisely the moment where you look around and realize that you are surrounded by heinous beasts you've already slept with and you better lock something good down before they abruptly flip on the very bright house lights on and everyone freaks the fuck out.
But defenders of marriage, like this Atlantic piece by Eleanor Barkhorn, argue that marrieds should start speaking up about the sweet deal they are getting by shacking up. The problem is, there's some disagreement about how sweet that deal really is. We all know the jokes about what marriage takes away: a buffet of sex, endless variety, the chance of someone else's face in your face, woman-friendly television programming, the chance to eat chicken again for dinner, just once, with seasonings you actually like.
We've also been told why it's good for us, if a little boring. Better health, greater longevity, financial security, happier children, an eternally smug existence. Hey, Steven Crowder is married! And he fuckin' loves it! In his piece on Fox News' website about it, he explains what a "really good deal" marriage is, listing these five similar reasons for pairing off with the quickness: 1.) You'll be richer, 2.) Your children will fare better, 3.) You'll have mo-better sex, 4.) You'll be more productive, 5.) You won't die alone.
Ok, by now we've all heard those superlatives about marriage before. But have we heard THIS ONE?!?
Picture coming home every night to your best friend, your greatest fan, and your number one supporter. She (or he) makes each good day better, and each bad day good again. Every day, you get to live what is essentially a 24/7 sleepover party with the greatest friend you've ever had.
… Now add sex and sandwiches.
Get married, like, now.
Haaaah. OK, so, now that you painted this picture for me. Gotta question: Are the sandwiches happening DURING or after the sex with your creepy superfan? Where is this mystery day/ sandwich-maker when I need him/her? Because my husband is great but sometimes after work he's tired? We don't always dive giddily right into the sex sandwich? Especially with our toddler sitting right there? Sometimes we just have to settle for the never-ending slumber party.
OK, but, in fairness, we find out a telling detail from the Atlantic response piece: Steven Crowder has only been married six months. Six months! Rookie. (I said that, not her.)
Also, Barkhorn warns (with a pretty perfect surname for warning, amirite?) that defending marriage is a great idea, let's all do that more please, let's just do so with more accuracy so people don't feel super gypped after rushing off to the sex sandwich shop and finding out it's all out of roast beef. How about starting by portraying marriage as a little teeny weeny bit more realistic:
Anyone who's been in a marriage or observed one closely knows that these relationships can go through long periods of financial strain, sexual frustration, lethargy, and loneliness. That spouses are sometimes tired, or cranky, or not in the mood for sex or sandwich-making. And promising marriage skeptics otherwise does not help the case for marriage. It only provokes further skepticism from people who see through the false advertising. And for people who do buy into Crowder's argument, a potentially worse fate awaits: disappointment and disillusionment when the challenges of marriage inevitably arise. Indeed, it's entirely plausible that Crowder's marriage is currently exactly as he describes it: blissful, harmonious, satisfying. Studies say that couples experience a happiness spike in their first year or two of marriage. But that euphoria is fleeting: A couple's happiness returns to its normal, pre-marital level in the years that follow.
Yeah, see? Steven Crowder has only been married six months, but we should acknowledge that to him, this IS a realistic portrayal of marriage. This probably really is his marriage, what with the sex and the sandwiches. Heck, six months in, it's nothing BUT sex and sandwiches. Of course, we'd love to check back in with him in another six months or right after someone loses a job or gains ten pounds, when the sandwiches can turn downright political, Steven Crowder. Downright political.
Later on, as every person married approximately six months and one second or more will tell you, marriage is less about big sparks and more about sparklets. There are lives to lead, bills to pay, children to raise, projects to complete for two hours at night following up on emails. Sometimes you might try to watch a movie to relax and the Apple TV thing keeps restarting and then the fucking Internet doesn't work and now it's it's playing but in high-def which is taking for fucking-ever to stream on iTunes and Jesus Christ the baby woke up.
But, uh, that's just me. And that's exactly my point. The Informal Campaign for Marriage by People Who Really Do Like It suffers from a slew of unreliable narrators. We are all telling our own story of marriage when we talk about it, something that an outsider can at worst, totally disregard for the bias it is, and at best, take with a grain of snippy salt.
But why don't we want to talk about that? The fact that marriage no longer looks like it used to in more ways than the wedding album? Because regardless of what marriage will or won't do for some people, the biggest myth about marriage is that it is a monolithic experience with a fixed set of advantages.
The less we need to get married for financial reasons, the more likely we will get married for personal, quirky, irrational reasons. So depending on whom you ask, that could be for the sex, or companionship, or security, or to always have a date on New Year's Eve. It could be to marry up or to not be alone or to have children or to get to move to Paris. It could be for love. It could be for lust.
Furthermore, what it does for you after the fact is an entirely subjective thing, too. No doubt the reason that the divorce rate has roughly stayed the same. We get married for all kinds of perceived benefits that vary from individual to individual, but we all get divorced for pretty much the same one: didn't work out.
In fact, if we were to ask everyone who thinks marriage is a good idea to start shouting the hows and the whys from the rooftops, we'd get a whole bunch of shouty, contradictory stories. I'm not saying marriages are snowflakes — there is some overlap of experience, to be sure — I'm saying they are magical snowflake-like creations that occasionally melt into a big pile of slush on the hallway floor.
In other words, it's just like you'd think — great and fun and silly and awesome — but nothing like you'd think — boring and hard and frustrating and a big pain in your ass. It is both glamorous and seedy and marvelously mundane in between, like Los Angeles in the movies. Speaking of which, in this piece on marriage in movies, Jeanine Basinger, who wrote the just-out I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies and who has been married 45 years, argues, "There is a mystery to marriage and an inexplicable quality." Furthermore:
"It is kind of an untenable concept, and yet we stay with it," she continued. "Real marriage is about communication that is often not verbalized in any particular way. When you are married as long as I have been married - we couldn't even bother to argue because what's the point? We are committed. We knew we are going to work it out."
She says when she turns to television for accurate portrayals of marriage, she only occasionally sees anything that looks familiar. "Friday Night Lights" is one example. But that happens even less often in the movies, she laments.
She does mention the terrific squabble-fest Two for the Road, featuring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn in fun British cars and funner fashions, but her book's scope doesn't travel much beyond the 1960s, so she misses out on Husbands and Wives and Scenes from a Marriage. Points for including The Kids are Alright, though, which offers that same familiar ratio of squabble-to-harmony but with a lesbian couple.
Basinger says the problem with Hollywood portrayals, which is no doubt part of the way marriage is portrayed by most defenders, is that it skips the parts in between, preferring to focus on the highlights. Marriage is full of lowlights too though, some of them downright dark.
Hollywood, she said, realized that marriage "doesn't have any dramatic arcs, it isn't going anywhere. It is a merry-go-round, not a roller coaster ride, so they have to pull a plot together and give it some arcs, destination and some shape that a real marriage doesn't have. Movies don't have time to give the kind of rhythms that marriage has."
I disagree, because I think marriage does have big arcs for a lot of people. And two, I think movies, taken together, DO show us marriage accurately, by showing us every way ours is and is not at the same time. As an amalgam, it's honest. Marriage is different for a lot of people, but for most people, it is awesome and shitty. Great, although hard. Difficult, but worth it.
Of course "Difficult but Worth It" may be no one's idea of a stellar marriage PR campaign. Still, it's better than the alternative: a warmed-over, glossed-up picture of something that's just asking to pretty please let you down.
Barkhorn, back at the Atlantic, says the more accurate case for marriage is less sexy sleepover and more something that "promises that marriage will make two people kinder, more patient, more forgiving, more creative, more selfless-not richer or healthier or "better" in any number of superficial ways. These are virtues worth being vocal about-and worth clinging to when the 24/7 sleepover party gets old, as sleepover parties always do."
There is value and truth in that — I personally think marriage is a path to better personhood, if for no reason than that for me, making it work means learning the transcendent value of compromise. Some of this comes from any long-term relationship, but particularly when you make it official.
But you know, for some people it is also about the mo-better sex and money and the more superficial pleasures, or all of the above. And that's valid too. Our bigger problem in most things in this country is our inability to have nuanced conversation about it, so that we can stop advocating for one big thing we are all supposed to want.
Of course, this all comes with a big asterisk. All these "good" reasons for hitching, superficial or not, only come with "good" marriages. "Working" marriages. A bad marriage will shut down all that faster than you can prepare a mouth-watering sex sandwich. And there's no point in advocating for that.