The XX Factor

Has Marriage Become the Sacred Cow of Feminism?

Dahlia, Hanna, Jess, Abby: This debate over marriage arrives as I am in a perfect storm of marriage-related texts. In addition to Tsing Loh’s provocative piece about why everyone should get divorced, I’m in the middle of Thy Neighbor’s Wife , Gay Talese’s controversial account of the 1960s sexual revolution, and Christina Nehring’s excellent A Vindication of Love , a polemic making the case for the importance of love-messy, violent, volcanic, inequitable love-in women’s lives. Perhaps I, too, have read too many books, but I don’t quite agree that a) the real drag is children, not marriage or b) that Tsing Loh is a victim of magazines that peddle a vision of a life of “perfect romantic intimacy” and “perfect mothering.” Taken together, all this material suggests just how idealized the “companionate” marriage has become. So let me ask: Could she just have decided that such a marriage is, well, not for her? And that-gasp-she was going to be arch about what has, after all, become the sacred cow of feminism?

Her piece is most interesting to me for the personal corrective it offers to the view that a present-day equitable partnership between a man and a woman is the ideal arrangement to which all of us should aspire. In a sense, Tsing Loh is just writing about the old division between passion and intimacy / security. She doesn’t have much new to say (this has been a debate forever, and at some point someone-me-inevitably reminds us all that “courtly love” was originally adulterous love, an ameliorative balm to the tedious social arrangements that were marriage). But I found it refreshing to hear a woman confess so baldly that she doesn’t want to “work” on her marriage anymore-and, what’s more, that an affair led her to this realization. I am not “approving” of Tsing Loh’s personal choices, just as I am not judging them; I merely want to make the observation that this rhetorical stance is less than usual in our culture. (Instead, wives tend to criticize their husbands in public without leaving them, as we’ve discussed before.)

Her point resonates with the issues Talese and Nehring deal with. In Talese’s book, all sorts of folks are trying to work out whether a little adultery might not be “healthy” for a marriage. Their non-possessive approach to love sounds good until you remember watching Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and reading, say, Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm . Nehring is making a more complicated argument. Her main point is that we have devalued passionate love in our age of fairness and rationalism. As she compellingly argues, romantic love depends on power imbalances, on compulsion, on passion (which, let’s recall, means the same thing as “suffering”)- the very things that feminism has tried to strip out of women’s lives, because they are messy, confusing, and cannot be legislated like domestic chores. An afterward makes it clear that Nehring herself has an unconventional arrangement; she has a child but does not seem to be married.

The reason her book and Tsing Loh’s article spoke to me, whatever their flaws, was that each was trying to carve out an individualistic response to a social institution. These writers remind us there is no “right” thing. There’s just a confusing life in which we may be foolishly influenced by the idea of achieving ongoing romantic intimacy peddled in magazines, but also genuinely crave, from within our sloppy, needy souls, passion, renewal-even independence. Even, perhaps, independence from the most companionable of partners. Even if it comes with pain, heartache, and loneliness-emotions Tsing Loh notably, and evidently purposefully, steered clear of describing in her piece.