Where is the sequel to the marriage plot?
Rom com finales, the proliferation of the marriage-based reality TV, the backlash against a marriage memoir, and the great unknowns of long-term partnership.
With many of the logistics of my wedding finally pinned down, I finally have the space to contemplate the marriage that lies beyond July. This contemplation is spurred in part by the need to determine what our wedding ceremony will look like and what vows we will make to each other. What do I want to promise Ben? What promises do I need to make and keep in order to ensure our marriage lasts a lifetime? Despite having witnessed my parents’ marriage for the last thirty-three years and having been on the sidelines of my friends’ marriages for the last eight or so, I find myself struggling to know where to begin beyond the familiar parameters — to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish. I suppose these vows remain popular for a reason. But as a lawyer, I know that any broad contractual language, while flexible, can only kick the process of deciding what that language actually means down the road. What does this language mean to me? What kind of union are we trying to design?
As a self-proclaimed feminist, I am horrified to realize how limited my imagination is re: what a modern marriage could look like.1 This realization follows my admission that I am preoccupied by my fear of losing, in marriage, some abstract notion of freedom or independence, even though what I stand to gain is so plentiful and obvious—an emergency contact, economic stability, Saturday night plans forever, someone who makes me coffee EVERY SINGLE MORNING, a baby daddy, a trusted sounding board who is also the funniest person in the world. I am choosing this. I choose him and I choose us waking up next to each other every day and doing it all again, and yet in our chosen interdependence, I find myself wincing at the notion of my own dependence. I depend on him to make me coffee and keep our plants alive and to decide when to soak beans for dinner and to drive us home on the freeway at night and, most mornings, I depend on him to walk the dog so I can write, and most of the time, I depend on him to pay when we go out to dinner because he makes more money than me. I don’t yet think of it as our money, and it is hard not to feel like a selfish lug with an insatiable appetite for more alone time for writing. Each of these little dependencies makes me worry I am atrophying my self-reliance muscles, and also makes me fear I am taking something from him.
But though I can’t see money as “ours” yet, I do see the future as ours, and we are a “we.” I use “we” far more often than I ever expected to, sometimes even when an “I” would suffice, and each time, I am self-conscious. Do “I” even exist anymore, when “we” have tried that restaurant, or “we” will bring a bottle of white, or “we” just started watching Pachinko? I will keep my own name, because this feels true to me. It feels like one way to ensure my identity will not be completely erased or sublimated when I assume the role of a wife, but in 2022, what does it even mean to assume the role of a wife?
I find myself looking to the culture for representations of what marriage entails and who a woman is once she finds herself in one. And … there are not many. What is the last television show that you watched that was actually about a wife in a functioning marriage (and not merely in a quest for marriage, or the slow dissolution of a marriage after an affair or a murder)? All I can think of is the short-lived Duplass brother dramedy on HBO, Togetherness, which ran for two seasons before getting cancelled. Perhaps on some subconscious level, this lack of representation contributes to my fear of erasure. My Instagram “Explore” page went from being dominated by wedding content to dominated by baby content seemingly overnight, which reinforces a narrative in which becoming a wife means stepping into a rocket to Planet Mom, in which a (white) woman’s role as a wife or an individual is quickly sublimated into the role of exhausted but perky Mom who sells hand-dyed bandanas on Etsy.
To the extent a woman’s role as a wife is acknowledged, it is acknowledged only in how she is perceived by the outside world—she is “taken,” she is past her sexual prime, and past the point in which she could be a protagonist in her own life. We don’t see stories, at least on screen, that grapple with what it means to navigate this new role within the marriage. Togetherness challenged this narrative, which is part of what made the show so unusual and appealing. Featuring a young white couple with young kids, in a small house in a gentrifying neighborhood on the east side of LA, Togetherness was about the struggle to find personal fulfillment and retain an identity while also maintaining intimacy and excitement in a marriage while also meeting parenting obligations while your unemployed best friend and/or unmarried sister is sleeping on your couch. This is the aspect of marriage that I find myself thinking about these days — the extent to which a successful marriage requires sublimation of the self, the extent to which it permits (or requires) guarding certain parts of yourself for yourself only. I don’t know the answer, and I posit that most of us don’t know, because other people’s marriages—even our parents’—remain a mystery to us. These are struggles that remain within the private, intimate realm of the marriage.
Talking about one’s marriage remains akin to airing one’s dirty laundry. It is a breach of the private threshold of the home. Writer Heather Havrilesky (also known as the brilliant voice behind Ask Polly) has faced tremendous backlash in recent weeks after writing freely about her marriage and her husband in Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage, a memoir published last month. Havrilesky writes with great heart and humor about her husband and with great honesty about their daily struggles over the last 16 years (her publishing this book is not one of them). For me, this book is a revelation. I am not the only one who feels like a lazy, unlovable, sweatpant-wearing ghoul who is baffled that a wonderful man is thrilled to come home to her every day and regularly tells her to be kind to herself, to write! I am not the only woman who finds it complicated to find herself depending on her husband to maintain her sanity. She captures the moments when her husband feels like the first person to ever understand her and the moments when she feels like no one has ever understood her less than her husband, and explains how they navigate them. She confesses her reluctance to compromise, and her initial reluctance to having a family. When she does end up having a family, it is the strength of her marriage that sustains her through the chaos of having young children. It is a love story.
But Foreverland is not a conventional love story. From Pride & Prejudice to My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Crazy Rich Asians, most of our courtship fictions conclude—resolve!—with the engagement or marriage or profession of love, with the completion of one individual by another. “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible,” says Harry to Sally on New Year’s Eve in the final scene of When Harry Met Sally, though we never get to see the rest of their lives. Havrilesky begins her love story where the marriage plot ends—the girl gets the guy and only then does life get interesting.
The marriage plot exists not only in the realm of fiction, but is apparently so popular that it has spilled over into reality television. We can debate to what extent the narratives in these shows are sculpted and manipulated by producers, but with the golden era of the rom com behind us, there is no question that romance-based reality TV is scratching a widespread cultural itch. Even as The Bachelor ages with all the natural grace of a face with too much Botox, the culture and I apparently share an insatiable appetite for new forms of love-related content, in all flavors. I’m most interested in the relatively vanilla Married At First Sight, 90 Day Fiance, and Love is Blind, as well as the old stalwarts, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Some of these shows set up their contestants up for failure, and others set them up for success, but in all of them, marriage is the goal, something which the particular gimmick of the show purports to aid and abet. Though millennials are supposedly delaying or eschewing marriage, there is nevertheless an appetite for portrayals of marriage as the pinnacle of true love.
But what none of these shows talk about is what true love looks like after the vows (or after the engagement ring). As Heather talked about with some of my favorite feminist cultural critics on Rich Text, the real threshold in any romantic relationship is the moment when you have to confront your partner’s poop—in sickness and in health. But like the nineteenth century marriage plots, in each of these reality shows the love stories end before they begin, far before the magical alchemy of true love can form from the composite parts of infatuation and attraction and compatibility. Despite their public origins, I contend these marriages perpetuate the zone of privacy around marital relationships. Unless we get a reunion episode a year later, we don’t get to see what happens after the couple affirms their commitment to one another. We don’t get to see how the red flags we the viewers spotted in episode 5 are resolved or not resolved in the years to come.
I wonder what patriarchal aims are served by the preservation of this zone of privacy. (For one, it was this zone of privacy that formed the basis of the Supreme Court’s 1965 decision to strike down a state law that prohibited a married woman from using contraception. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Court recognized the right of an unmarried woman to use contraception.) A marriage is not only a relationship, but an institution, and implicit in the notion of a marriage as a private space seems to be a belief that the institution could be weakened if it were critiqued or discussed in public. (Until only very recently, husbands could rape their wives and it wouldn’t be considered rape in most places.) Havrilesky has been charged with committing the crime of embarrassing her husband. But if marriages are private, shouldn’t we let each couple make their own contract, and set their own terms about the extent to which they are willing to waive that purported right to privacy, just as we now (hopefully) allow couples to decide what it means to love and cherish your partner in 2022?
This is not a call for Married at First Sight to follow its couples for six years instead of six weeks, but it is a call for more honest stories about what marriage is and how it works. Where are these stories??? What is this institution that is offered as a reward to every patient heroine? How strong can the institution of marriage be, if speaking openly about it is perceived as a threat that could cause it to crumble? I’m freaked by the backlash against Havrilesky, who can write openly about her marriage because her marriage is strong. I can only imagine how powerful it would be to hear a chorus of voices talking about marriage the way we are finally starting to hear women talk about motherhood—as something that is capable of being two things at once, exhausting but magical, impossible but easy, something in which we can find or lose ourselves. How else can will radicalize our imaginations about what a marriage can or should be?
This is not a comment on any of the marriages that surround me—I approve of all of my friends’ partners, and appreciate their support for my friends, their senses of humor, and their commitment, but can only know so much about what goes on behind closed doors.