In this month’s Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh writes about her recent divorce from her husband of 20 years. Divorce is not, for her, what it was in the Gloria Gaynor days, a path to delirious freedom and dramatic rebirth. Instead, her marriage dissolves the way it was lived, with haggling over domestic tedium. Tsing Loh, who had the affair (as she confesses obliquely), guiltily offers to keep changing the kitty litter.
What’s ultimately distressing about her essay is not the details of the divorce (affair, alienation, what to do with the kids) but her dismal portrait of the modern American marriage. Long-term monogamy is obsolete and unnatural in any age, she argues, with some support from anthropologists. But in our age, when relationships are governed by children’s needs and defined in management speak, they are doomed.
“Given my staggering working mother’s to-do list, I can not take on yet another arduous home and self improvement project, that of rekindling our romance,” she writes.
The piece has its exaggerations and tropes-for example the scene where her group of girlfriends, who stand in for all womankind, suddenly break down and confess that they, too, are dying to get divorced.
But many of the details in her very vivid and damning portrait are bound to resonate. The most common and seemingly happy marriages are “companionate” marriages, where two people co-parent, co-clean, co-work, co-everything. These are the kinds of marriages middle-class feminism fought for and won, and yet … they are miserable, in her telling, and particularly miserable for women.
The endless exhortations to “work” on a marriage, the chore that is “date night” (take heed, Obamas), the “perfect” husband who helps with the kids and cooks but then chides his wife because she forgot to deglaze the pan (“kitchen bitch,” she calls him), the wife pacing the kitchen at night eating mini Dove bars because her husband won’t sleep with her. “Long-married husbands and wives should pleasantly agree to be friends, to set the bedroom aglow at night by the mute opening of separate laptops,” she writes.
How did this happen? How did the drive for equality land us here? How is it that even when we free ourselves, we do it with a whimper? Have we lost even the hope for a Gloria Gaynor-style anthem of liberation?
Photograph of couple fighting by George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Creative Images.