ON RINGS AND HAND-WRINGING

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Fewer Americans are getting married, yet the institution itself has only become more fascinating. Emily Gould considers some recent books on women and marriage ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE 

Marriage, in America at least, is an institution in decline. The Pew Research Centre recently reported a significant drop in the number of married couples between the ages of 30 and 44: 60% in 2007, down from 84% in 1970. This erosion in legally bound partners has been steady: 77% of this demographic was married in 1980, down to 65% in 2000. During this same period another dramatic change was taking place: the expansion of economic and educational opportunities for women. As the Pew report points out, female college graduates now slightly outnumber male ones. And while the wage gap still exists, women are, for the first time, slightly more likely to be employed than their husbands. 
 
You might be tempted to conclude that the new economic caste of well-employed, highly educated women is responsible for marriage's decline; it's not. Female college graduates, like their male counterparts, are now more likely to be married than their less-educated sisters, whose drop-off has been the most precipitous: from 78% in 1970 to 43% in 2007.
 
What does all this mean? The short answer is, as with most statistical findings: pretty much whatever pundits want it to mean. But the most basic assumption I might make, based on this report—were I, say, an anthropologist visiting from another planet—is that given the steady decline in the popularity of marriage, the institution itself must be becoming less significant in our culture.
 
Then, I suppose, I would put down the Pew report, scan the bestseller list, turn on a marathon of "Say Yes to the Dress"—a TLC reality show set in a venerable New York bridal shop, in which women are shamed for budgeting less than $5,000 for a single-use garment—and reconsider America's inscrutably perverse relationship with marriage. To this end, "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage" by Elizabeth Gilbert, and "Marry Him! The Case For Settling for Mr. Good Enough" by Lori Gottlieb would top my reading list. 
 
Both of these recently published books aim, via disparate strategies and wildly different motivations, to make a case for the primacy of marriage in modern heterosexual American women's lives—including, in both cases, the authors' own.
 
Gottlieb, who has never been married, had a son via sperm donor at age 37. Now 41, she wishes that she had been less picky about her romantic options in her 20s and 30s, mostly so that she, like her married friends, could have someone around to help shoulder the responsibilities of child-rearing. Even her friends with "less-than-ideal marriages" and "less-than-ideal spouses", she claims, are "in many cases happier than they've ever been." To them, she says, she is "a mildly tragic figure, if not a cautionary tale." It may be true that Gottlieb's married friends are happy, and that their marriages have contributed to their happiness. Yet here and elsewhere Gottlieb's pronouncements are as grand as they are unverifiable. Gottlieb's life may indeed be a cautionary tale, though perhaps not in the way she thinks it is. 
 
Her book is filled with stories that are meant to chill the blood of young female readers, presumably in order to send them running into warm male arms. For example, we have Jessica, whose story can be found in the chapter titled "How Feminism Fucked Up My Love Life". Jessica's medical-student boyfriend Dave proposed to her at the tender age of 23, but she rejected him—not because she didn't love him, but because she wanted to experience something of youth, work and life before committing to a life-long contractual bond. Cut to Jessica, woefully unmarried at 29 (though it’s mentioned in passing that she’s become a the communications director of a museum). Turns out she is still in love with Dave, who in the intervening years has become Dave MD, while Jessica has been living "the so-called empowered single girl life," "ordering takeout" and so forth. Jessica finally gets up the gumption to ignore the advice of her girlfriends (those harpies) and call Dave. Alas, after pining for Jessica for years, he moved on to a marriage-minded fellow resident. "Dave is now married to this woman and both are pediatricians," the story concludes.
 
It's not clear what the word "feminism" means to Gottlieb. It seems to be interchangeable with an amorphous idea of "empowerment", as in, "we empowered ourselves right out of a mate." To Gottlieb this "feminism" is not incompatible with a worldview in which all men's peccadilloes, short of explicit psychosis, are to be accommodated by women, who must stop being so damn picky. It is okay, in other words, for a married man to tell Gottlieb that most men know right away whether they're going to marry their girlfriends—"it's a very visceral feeling," he says—but that they stay in relationships with unmarriageable types anyway, for the "perks". He's just being honest! Whereas a woman who breaks up with a man because she "just wasn't feeling it" ought to reassess her priorities or risk winding up alone forever—the worst fate imaginable, or at least, the worst fate Gottlieb can imagine: "How bleak it felt...to have nobody to talk to in those intimate moments before bed except for girlfriends on the phone. It was so boring!" 
 
If Gottlieb had paid closer attention to those conversations with her girlfriends, she might have written a more useful book. Too-pickiness might be a legitimate problem for Gottlieb, who spends 322 pages detailing her struggle to overcome it (spoiler: her book is nevertheless dedicated to "my husband, whoever he may be"). But for most of the women I know—among them a woman who spent five years with a man who Blackberried his way through her mother's funeral and another whose live-in boyfriend gave away their dog without warning—the problem seems perhaps to be that they're not picky enough. Maybe the current crop of women in their 20s and 30s is fundamentally different from Gottlieb in this regard. Or maybe, just maybe, there is a fundamental flaw in the assumption that one can extrapolate what all "women" do, and what they ought to do, based on one's own experiences. Drawing from her own loneliness, Gottlieb encourages others to embrace perfunctory marriages for fear of being left husbandless. But this is only good advice if you believe, as Gottlieb does, that some intangible but necessary benefit automatically comes with marriage.
 
Elizabeth Gilbert, a mega-bestselling memoirist, begins her book with the opposite assumption about marriage's inherent goodness, at least in regards to herself. On finding out she must marry her Brazilian beloved in order for him to live legally with her in America, she feels "mournful and sucker-punched and heavy and banished from some fundamental aspect of my being." Having been through a rough divorce, she has real doubts about the institution, finding it sexist and oppressive; she will spend the next 285 pages detailing these doubts, she tells us at the outset of her book, and then at the end, reader: duh.
 
One imagines Lori Gottlieb and her marriage-minded ilk narrowing their eyes here: Gilbert is essentially telling us that she has, after years of therapy and well-documented soul-searching, finally found the man of her dreams, an articulate gem trader who will not try to force her to have the children she doesn't want (he has been there, done that) and who, she says, is constitutionally faithful—"meant to mate for life." This is a man so good-natured, so mature and so obviously besotted with Gilbert that he does not balk at spending a ten-hour bus ride across Laos hashing out the terms of their pre-nuptial agreement. And now she has to marry him! Oh, cry us a river!
 
The great achievement of this book, then, is that Gilbert succeeds in making us sympathise with her ambivalence—and, not incidentally, better understand our own (assuming we are not in the Gottlieb camp). As she assesses statistics, literature, pop culture and her own life to piece together the socio-cultural history of marriage, she concedes that her anxieties are of a privileged sort. Worrying over whether or whom to marry is not something the Hmong villagers she interviews seem to spend much time doing; they are too busy farming and cooking and sleeping 12 to a one-room hut. But for many women in the West, the matter of marriage is deeply vexed. Despite her folksy methodology, Gilbert demonstrates that examining the necessity of marriage, for oneself and for women in general, is actually not self-indulgent or frivolous. For this, she deserves thanks. 
 
"It was slowly becoming clear to me that perhaps there was never going to be any tidy ultimate conclusion here," Gilbert announces, tongue firmly in cheek, on page 201 of "Committed". She knows, presumably, that the reader had a similar suspicion on page one. Having expertly piled up evidence for and against marriage, Gilbert ultimately dismisses most of it. While maddening, this makes emotional sense. In the end, she never really explains why she finally ends up embracing such a flawed institution. But the cumulative effect of her book is to convey that she probably did so for the same reason that anyone falls in love with another flawed human being.
 
It is time to return to the alien anthropologist—the one who examined the Pew report and wondered why marriage, in its death throes, still holds such sway over our imaginations. Why would a single woman write a whole book admonishing others to marry whomever they can? Why are those who are barred from the institution clamouring to swell the dwindling ranks of the legally bound? Why, when most marriages end in divorce, are weddings more fetishised than ever? To these niggling questions, Gilbert provides a kernel of an answer. Describing the decision to take a solo trip to Cambodia after a few particularly tense weeks of travel with her fiancé, she acknowledges that it is a mistake to believe we can have "equal parts intimacy and autonomy in our lives." "Marriage has a bonsai energy," she writes. "It's a tree in a pot with trimmed roots and clipped limbs. Mind you, bonsai can live for centuries, and their unearthly beauty is a direct result of such constriction, but nobody would ever mistake a bonsai for a free-climbing vine." After spending so much time with Gottlieb's unequivocal endorsement of marriage and horror of singleness, it was a relief to read such a perfect evocation of the virtues and drawbacks endemic to both states.
 
But the real collective import of these recent books about marriage may just be that it’s impossible to read them and not think about how lucky women are to be able to live in a time when marriage is no longer compulsory. Now that women have a real choice about whether or not to enter the institution, statistics reveal the results of practical cost-benefit analyses. In this light, even the exhortation to “Marry Him!” reads like progress; implicit in it, after all, is the suggestion that, unless hectored, we very well might not.

 

(Emily Gould's first book of essays, "And the Heart Says Whatever", will be published by Free Press in May. Her blog is emilymagazine.com. Her last article for More Intelligent Life asked the question "What are women fighting about?")

Picture credit: clevercupcakes (via Flickr)