Last week, the editor-in-chief of Ladies Home Journal went on the Today show to promote the magazine’s new series of webisodes, based on the iconic midcentury column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” These snappy two-and-a-half-minute clips are meant to update the 57-year-old marriage-improvement series for a reality-TV age. A goofy man in an Unsolved Mysteries-style, trench coat narrates the couple’s woes against a fake-gritty backdrop, with a fog machine blowing, before looking into the camera and asking the audience things like, “Will Robin choose her puppy over her hubby?”
But his lighthearted banter belies the enormity of the task at hand. The issues shown in these webisodes range from petty to serious and everything in between: There’s good old “Robin” and her husband “Ted” who get a dog in order to pave over the problems in their relationship. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to have a dog in bed with us,” Ted rages. Another webisode features “Jim” and “Melissa,” a “typical young couple” who have not had sex in years. Years! With no end date planned for the series, the webisodes will surely cover every possible marriage pitfall, from in-laws to bedtimes to incompatible dishwasher-loading techniques. It’s enough to spook a girl off of marriage entirely. But I am getting married—in a little more than a month, in fact—and quite happy about it, so I am determined to take an entirely different view of the whole thing.
As a bunch of new books have pointed out, the culturally accepted goal for marriage these days is perfection. We expect “mutual emotional, financial and sexual gratification” at all times, Rebecca L. Davis says in her cultural history of marriage, More Perfect Unions. This high bar is the happy result of decades of feminism and devotion to personal fulfillment. But it’s also exhausting and pretty destructive. If perfection is the goal, then no problem is too small for scrutiny—not failure to eat a green-bean casserole or an unwillingness to let go of a Betty Boop statue (both problems trotted out on the NBC show TheMarriage Ref) or even the dog. So we submit ourselves to an endless string of experts—Imago couples’ therapists and trench-coat man and Jerry Seinfeld—in our tireless efforts to get it right.
In the early 20th century, a marriage was only considered a “failure” if you got divorced, as Davis points out. In the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” columns from the ‘50s and ‘60s, couples were not striving for the ideal—they were trying to fix major, seismic problems. Take Diana and Guy, the subject of the very first “CTMBS?” column in 1953. The couple married when Diana was barely 16. Guy was a mechanic who frittered away their savings on his car. He drank too much; she thought he was too rough in the sack; he couldn’t stand that she didn’t keep a clean house. They were 100 percent miserable, and the counselor who interceded brought them back from the brink of divorce. The column’s tone was appropriately serious in discussing Diana and Guy’s problems, and in the end, they had made real progress.
But now there are all sorts of ways to be a failure, ones you probably never even thought of before! Tara Parker-Pope in a recent New York TimesMagazine article excerpted from the book For Better: The Science of a Good Marriagesays that if you fight the wrong way—without using any terms of endearment while arguing—you’re going to have a heart attack and die. Fight the wrong way? Now, I have to worry about that? Elizabeth Weil, who describes herself as “happily married” embarked on a massive marriage-improvement project and accompanying memoir because she thought she was being too laissez-faire about the relationship. Weil and her husband argue about where to vacation and his indulgence in fancy cooking. Weil chides herself for hating to French kiss and not always helping her husband when he’s barfing in the middle of the night. For shame! This is all small potatoes compared with an alcohol problem and financial woes. And in the end, Weil concludes that the very act of submitting her marriage to so much scrutiny is what could ultimately be more destructive.
Jill Lepore notes in her review of More Perfect Unions, For Better, and the rest of the recent marriage-improvement books in The New Yorker, “there’s not much profit in pointing out that some things—like the unglamorous and blessed ordinariness of buttering the toast every morning for someone you’re terribly fond of—just don’t get any better.” I, for one wish people would spend more time talking about that buttered toast, because I suspect it’s the best part. There’s nothing that makes my little heart soar more than watching old episodes of The Larry Sanders Show in bed on Saturday mornings after my fiance has brought me coffee from our favorite neighborhood bakery. In the movie Date Night, Tina Fey and Steve Carrell’s characters seem to be having the most fun before they set out to “improve” their marriage. When they’re yukking it up at their favorite restaurant—the one they go to every week where they always eat the same thing—they’re relaxed and truly enjoying each other’s company. It’s when they have their New York City adventure at a swanky restaurant that they end up having a string of near-death experiences and no fun at all.
I want to believe the message of the movie: that this obligatory, therapeutic “date night”—a stand in for the constant refining and perfecting and fine-tuning of marriage—might just suck the joy out of it. Noticing that the talk surrounding marriage these days was all about hard work, Sandra Tsing Loh, writing in the Atlantic, suggested we throw the institution over for some other model. I have a more modest proposal: Can we just stop thinking of it as an endless improvement project?