Has Marriage Gone the Way of the Passenger Pigeon?
Marriage is, well, so retro. All the latest research shows that it doesn’t make much sense for most people, so why bother trying? Read on.
The article (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off“) in August’s The Atlantic disturbed me like few others in memory. It also left me intensely proud to be a frum Jew.
Sandra Tsing Loh is a witty and engaging writer. Rummaging through the debris of her failed marriage, however, has its pitfalls, including the very human reaction of wanting to look good to others and to herself. In a manner reminiscent of Esav’s disparaging the birthright he had sold of his own free-will, Tsing Loh tries to convince us that the institution of marriage itself runs counter to our biological heritage and to our contemporary life styles. It may have worked in the past, but it is futile to live with the expectations of earlier generations.
She lets us know from the get-go that she terminated a long marriage with a rather decent chap after an extramarital amorous fling of hers. This fleeting affair left her desirous of the romance she once had experienced in her marriage. Trying to restore it, alas, would be futile, leaving her little option but to call it off. Between her various apologias she deftly weaves reviews of five books on marriage into her chronicle of discovery.
Sure, it made sense to agrarian families before 1900, when to farm the land, one needed two spouses, grandparents, and a raft of children. But now that we have white-collar work and washing machines, and our life expectancy has shot from 47 to 77, isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?
In her case, she argues, it certainly was so. He husband was a traveling musician, frequently away from the nest. She had long ago mastered the art expected of so many women today – doing it all. She held a responsible job, and still had to juggle all the needs of her children. They, in turn, were used to accessing their parents serially, rather than at the same time. When her friends asked the inevitable question – “But what about the children?” – she was able to respond that little would change. “Now elementary age, my children seem relatively content as long as they remain in their own house, their own beds, and their own school, with Mom and Dad coming and going as usual.”
The theorists support her, she claims. Divorce is not the problem people make it out to be. Rather
while having two biological parents at home is, the statistics tell us, best for children, a single-parent household is almost as good. The harm comes, Cherlin argues, from parents continually coupling with new partners, so that the children are forced to bond, or compete for attention, with ever-new actors. These are the youngsters who are likely to suffer, according to a measurable matrix of factors such as truancy, disobedience in school, and teen pregnancy. Instead of preaching marriage, Cherlin says, we should preach domestic stability for children. Is marriage the best way to ensure this? Apparently not, at least not the way we do it in America.
To have it any other way would be swimming against our biological stream.
Fisher, a women’s cult figure and an anthropologist, has long argued that falling in love—and falling out of love—is part of our evolutionary biology and that humans are programmed not for lifelong monogamy, but for serial monogamy. (In stretches of four years, to be exact, approximately the time it takes to get one kid safely through infancy.)
We are treated to some interesting theories, including the inevitable reductionist one that makes our chances of success in continued monogamy contingent on which of four different hormones predominates and compels a personality type that may be well suited for – or toxic – to our mates.
When Tsing Loh takes her plight to her close friends, she learns that too many women her age complain of an identical problem. Their husbands have lost all physical interest in them, and have become more critical in the process, rather than more attached and appreciative. Each of them has found his own replacement for the trophy wife who decades later has shown some signs of tarnish. One throws himself into cooking, another into internet porn.
If not before, it is here that the contrast with a Torah-observant lifestyle screams out in indignation. The dynamic duo of taharas hamishpacha and hakaras hatov provide such a stark alternative. The monthly separation, observes the gemara, serves to reinject the interest and the desire, where habit would otherwise consign them to mothballs. As years take their toll, the gratitude we have for our spouses, the remembrance of how they toiled for us all those years, make the wrinkles and added pounds look like marks of accomplishment, rather than reasons for rejection. (Of course this doesn’t work for everyone, and we have plenty of failed marriages. But we do have plenty of successful ones that implement this model.)
Most striking to me was that Tsing Loh presents a comprehensive inventory of the damage that neither she nor her children need suffer because of the divorce. Absent is any treatment of what a loving marriage could and should offer the spouses and the children. It is almost as if the promise of the nuclear family has been forgotten, and marriage reduced to a list of tasks that are assigned or shared, and can be shifted to a single parent if needed. Find friends to talk to, get food on the table, pay the bills, and shuttle the kids to soccer and the orthodontist, and what could anybody be missing?
What is wrong with this is perhaps given best expression in one of the books Tsing Loh reviews. It draws some conclusions from close observation of fifty happily married couples. The authors conclude that four types of marriage make themselves available to us. Different kinds have different rates of success. The Traditional Marriage succeeds “because the man works while the woman runs the home.” Today’s most common marriage has shifted to the Companionate Marriage. Each spouse has a career, and they share responsibilities. The Romantic Marriage keeps going through a spark of love that somehow lasts. In The Rescue Marriage, each spouse is the savior of the other by providing what the other needs or has lost.
In Torah circles there is a fifth kind of marriage. I won’t speculate on how many in our community make use of it, but many know that it is there, because it is ever-present in our training, whether explicitly or implicitly. Let’s call it The Common Goal Marriage. Two young people spend the first two decades of their lives learning that life is more about avodah, serving, than taking. Whatever other self-serving motivations may coexist, when a Torah couple stand under the chupah, they are very much aware of the power of a Jewish household in serving Hashem. They know that bringing children into the world to serve Hashem is both a noble goal and a daunting task. They know that it takes at least two people working in close concert to do the job well. They realize that a Torah home can and does become a beacon of light to others, and a spring of chesed to the world beyond its walls. They look forward to all the benefits that a loving marriage will bestow upon them, but they know that privilege begets responsibility. They will be expected to make their home a haven for G-d’s interests in the community.
Ironically, that responsibility to G-d and community yields dividends to them personally. Few marriages, if any, are devoid of strains, struggles and conflict. As the problems inevitably arise, the spouses are brought closer together, not more distant, because of what they share. The common goals they share can act as the agent that keeps them together, when others, who might look only at whether the relationship satisfies their individual needs and expectations, would decide to call it quits. They understand that Hashem’s Providence brought them together in the first place. While divorce is sometimes necessary, it is a very last resort. They will be less likely than others to see a relationship on the rocks as a mistake, or a new phase in their lives that they must learn to accept and move on to the next relationship. They act as partners in a joint enterprise whose mission statement is clear and agreed upon. They know that the most valuable things they can offer their children cannot be put on To Do lists, but concern values communicated and character molded. The accomplishments and the setbacks along the way are both part of a job they both cherish.
Chazal (see Tosfos Bava Kama 97B) tell us that Avraham’s fame was tied to a coin that he minted. One side showed a young man and a young woman; the other showed an old couple. One explanation (see Maharsha) of this passage might be that both couples are the same: they both depict Avraham and Soro. The “currency” with which Avraham paid those who required an instant understanding of the worthiness of his message was the strength of his – and by extension, the Jewish – family. Anyone who visited his home saw a relationship between husband and wife that remained strong in the decades that separated the young couple from the old (see Ben Yehoyada). Between the two sides of the coin there were years and challenges, but no midlife crises, and no grazing at other pastures.
Sandra Tsing Loh and so many others never had a chance at this kind of marriage. We can feel proud to live in a community where, despite all our flaws and faults, we still possess a sense of what can bring husband and wife forever closer with the passage of time, and bond children to parent and to all of history, past and future.