People Are Still Getting Married, and This Book Is Here to Help
Why would a woman ever marry a man? “Happy Ever After,” a new book by the behavioral scientist Paul Dolan, argues that women who don’t marry or have children are happier and live longer than those who do. A University of Arizona study from 2017 suggested that divorce improves the health of postmenopausal women. Mountains of academic and anecdotal research indicate that married heterosexual women suffer from an unequal division of labor at home. As the sociologist Lisa Wade has written, “marriage is a moment of subordination”—it is definitionally unequal, and perhaps it follows that it is obsolete. We keep hearing these messages, and we keep getting married anyway, much as the sitcom husband keeps leaving the socks on the floor. And perhaps we stay married in the same resigned spirit as the wife who decides to stop nagging the sitcom husband about the socks and resolves to pick them up herself, without complaint, every day, until one of them is dead.
“Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together,” a warm and companionable volume by Belinda Luscombe, does not really question the notion of marriage as the societal default. As such, the book arrives in the world already feeling like an artifact. “Marriage, that fusty old institution, is worth fighting for,” Luscombe writes. A marriage may “wilt” naturally, like produce, she explains, but a bit of ingenuity may perhaps preserve it, in the way that one refrigerates a vegetable, or pickles it. Preservation is a goal unto itself, and a rebuke to a culture that feels ever more transitory: “Permanence is temporarily out of favor,” the author writes. “Things that have been around for a while are no longer accorded honor simply because they’ve endured.” But Luscombe’s examples of venerated antiques—“beautiful cathedrals, old growth forests, vintage clothes”—do not derive value simply from their age. Some unions resemble an old shed more than the Hagia Sophia.
Luscombe does acknowledge that marriage has been rapidly transformed by economic, technological, and sociological factors: ballooning personal debt, stagnating wages, advances in fertility science, waning stigma against singledom, the rise of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, gender fluidity, the Internet. As material and cultural realities have shifted around marriage, so has its meaning. “People want relationships that will make them more perfect versions of themselves,” Luscombe observes. “They want fulfillment, stimulation, security, devotion, status, liberation, connection, collaboration, personal brand enhancement, transformation.” In a recent essay in the Times, Amanda Hess describes the Internet phenomenon of the “wife guy”—or the man who achieves virality and builds a personal brand by posting about his mate—as a product of an era when “marriage is being pitched less as the fulfillment of a social contract and more as a kind of personal achievement.” “Marriageology” accepts this premise without much in the way of either endorsement or critique; the book’s approach is practical, its imagination conventional. In a couple’s quest toward self-actualization in tandem, Luscombe recommends that they fortify their bond by doing exciting things (skiing, going to concerts) in each other’s company. Such efforts, she writes, create an association between your spouse and your own sense of personal enlargement: a useful confusion of correlation and causation.
“Marriageology” is organized into six topic areas, which are framed as challenges to long-term monogamy: familiarity (“when a relationship is more commute than adventure”), fighting, finances, family, fooling around, and finding help. Luscombe’s hacks for each are fairly intuitive. One should practice gratitude, generosity, and forgiveness. One should steer clear of the “conflict behaviors” most predictive of divorce: contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. The guide brushes an unnecessary but fun veneer of brain science over its prescriptions. It’s best to apologize quickly, so that bad feelings aren’t consolidated and stored in your partner’s long-term memory. Never fight in the car, because images in one’s peripheral vision scan as threatening, and may activate a flight-or-flight response.
Luscombe, a staff writer at Time, has a wry touch, a gift for scene-setting, and an endearingly even temper. But “Marriageology” sweats with a strenuous tolerance for marriage, with the author as the straight-A student dutifully plowing through her least favorite class. On the oft-dispensed marital advice to develop mutual hobbies, Luscombe writes, “research has found that a lot of the so-called ‘shared’ passions end up being the husband’s.” At one point, she describes a recurring fight she has with her spouse. The fight stems from Luscombe’s failure to put the butter dish on the table when she serves dinner; she doesn’t eat butter, so she often forgets. Here, I wanted more from “Marriageology.” Is it the institution of marriage itself that renders a man incapable of fetching his own butter? Is the butter a metaphor for empathy, and has Luscombe neglected to imaginatively connect to her husband’s exact mealtime needs? What is her version of his butter—the thing that she wants? Is it the freedom to envision alternative modes of transporting the butter to the table? Could they both more fully enjoy their symbolic butter if the actual butter found a different path to the table? Would it solve Luscombe’s problem to bring down the actual butter dish on top of her husband’s actual head?
It’s no surprise that a book about “the art and science of staying together” thinks that staying together is, in most cases, a desirable goal. But if she could not make a logician’s case for marriage, I wanted Luscombe to articulate the institution’s weird, heavy, persevering glamour, now faded, like an old brocade covered in birds and deer. The nuptial rituals feel similarly stale and unkillable: the proposal, the vows, the first dance. These rites speak of stasis and endings, happily ever after stretched over the rack of eternity. In Shakespearean comedies, marriage puts a halt to the madcap energy and silvery flux of midsummer. There is a hysteria to its finality, its flawless self-containment. (“The wife guy,” Hess writes, “defines himself through a kind of overreaction to being married.”)
When I was a kid, I used to eavesdrop on my parents’ conversations after bedtime. I’d lean against the bannister of an open staircase that spiralled down into our kitchen, where they spoke with hushed intensity, and try to decipher the meaning of their grownup talk. Behind the staircase hung a photograph of a medieval tapestry, in which a long-lashed stag gazes over its shoulder at an ardent hunter. Blood drips from its body, but the animal looks almost coquettish, the curve of its spine an invitation. It sees, in the hunter, something it likes. The hunter, too, grasps the stag’s potential. Their earthy romance isn’t healthy, but it works for them. And marriage works for some people, too. Perhaps the message of “Marriageology” is that together can be bad, but, with the right partner, it is better than not-together. The couples for whom this is true, year after year, feel like the exception, and yet many of us still want to be in the club—or, perhaps, in the museum exhibition, surrounded by china and draperies, a mystery calmly enduring behind glass.
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