Monday, June 22, 2009

Marriage: New & Improved! (And More Confusing Than Ever!)

Posted by on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 12:30 PM

click to enlarge divorce-wide.jpg
Yesterday was Father's Day, and the Internet was atwitter (and probably also aTwitter) with ruminations about the modern Dad. It seemed everywhere I looked online there were essays about stay-at-home Dads (and how they blog), Dads who (thankfully) don't treat their daughters like princesses, the perils of shopping with kids (from a dad's perspective), and even whether single mothers, who play both nurturer and disciplinarian, should be honored on Father's Day. Fathers need to "step up," Obama said in a speech two days earlier, and take a more active role in their children's lives. We have, some seemed to say, and guess what? The Father's Day gifts are still shitty. But though these stories mostly celebrated the new and improved modern man, they often doubled as stories about the new and improved modern marriage--the equal partnership, the gender-free division of labor, the shared burden of childrearing. And so, of course, along came a slew of other essays about what a ridiculous illusion this all is. Thank you, Internets! That stable domestic bliss you think you have? Kinda bullshit compared to the heart-pounding thrill of stormy romance, which should always be your ultimate goal. But this essay, by the recently divorced writer/radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh, seems to capture the spirit of all those naysayers who were initially happy to find men who cooked and cleaned and could build the shit out of a sturdy pair of shelves, only to find themselves strangely dissatisfied anyway. Women may now have husbands who are more attentive, sensitive and involved than ever in domestic duties, only they're still trapped in sexless marriages, Loh explores in an essay peppered with examples of her 40-something married female friends. Here's an excerpt from one about couple Rachel and Ian.
It's true: the kitchen is a prime example of Ian's contribution to their union. He based the design of the remodel on an old farmhouse kitchen they saw during their trip to Tuscany, and of course--carpentry being another of his hobbies--he did all the details himself, including building the shelves. One of the room's marvels is how ingeniously and snugly all the specialty kitchenware is housed--the hanging copper pots, the garlic press, the mandolin, the lemon zester, the French press coffeemaker ... "Ian won't have sex with me," Rachel says flatly. "He has not touched my body in two years. He says it's because I've gained weight." Again, we stoutly protest, but she goes on. "And he thinks I'm a bad mother--he says I'm sloppy and inattentive."
And later:
Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad, but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at six, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.
But mostly, it was this paragraph that gave me deep, feminist brow-wrinkling pause:
That said, it's clear that females are dissatisfied--more and more, divorce seems to be initiated by women. If marriage is the Old World and what lies beyond is the New World, it's the apparently stable men (comfortable alone in their postfeminist den with their Cook's Illustrated and their porn) who are Old Worlders, and the Girls' Night Out, questionnaire-completing women who are the questing New Worlders. They most embody what Tocqueville described as America's "restless temper," or l'inquiétude du caractère. (Interestingly, according to EnlightenNext magazine, some northern European women are reportedly eschewing their progressive northern European male counterparts and dating Muslims, who are more like "real men.")
Having only been married for six months, I would not dare speak to the perils of a decades-long union. But having been a gender-obsessed thinker for years, I will take a stab at something: If we ask of men that they shed their old roles and welcome new ones, we must also anticipate the cost of that. What happens when you tame the sexually wandering male? To ask a person to direct more energy into one thing means less energy into another. If what women have always wanted are men who are involved, engaged and attentive, can we continue to judge them based on old notions of masculinity? Are we not then just as retrograde as men who expected us to have children up, fed and off to school, the laundry done, the house tidied, and still looking the picture of pampered and perfumed femininity? Or how 'bout blunter terms: If men are the new women, what does that make us?

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