Saturday, September 19, 2009

The new marriage war

The latest First Things arrived the other day, and I came upon What Does Woman Want? by Mary Eberstadt. Lots of interesting stuff: a rise of unhappiness in women, the effects of pornography on middle-aged men's sex drive, a rise in the "narcissism index" (I can spell "m-y-s-p-a-c-e"). And a mention of a recent article from Caitlin Flanagan's golden pen: "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?" in Time Magazine of all places! An excerpt:
The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it... simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake now: there probably aren't many people whose idea of 24-hour-a-day good times consists of being yoked to the same romantic partner, through bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets, until after many a long decade, one or the other eventually dies in harness.

Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and function — to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct...
Preach it sister! By the way, Ms. Flanagan isn't a pro-life anti-feminist; as she wrote in this 2007 piece, "... a thousand arguments about the beginning of human life will never appeal to me as powerfully as a terrified pregnant girl desperate for a bit of compassion." ("The Sanguine Sex", the Atlantic, May 2007; also search for the phrase "damn refrigerator" in "The Wifely Duty", January 2003).

Though I differ with Flanagan on some issues, I'm a long-time fan. She does not suffer hypocrites gladly, referring to Mark Sanford (of the Argentine mistress) in the same breath as "other marital frauds and casual sadists," and Rielle Hunter (cf John Edwards) as "this erstwhile cokehead and present-day weasel" (Sex and the Married Man, Atlantic, September 2009).

But it's her passion for the truth and compassion for the downtrodden that makes me glad Flanagan is widely read. Read for example her reply to Drexler's letter in the December'05 Atlantic Letters:
Peggy Drexler's letter repeats, in microcosm, the fuzzy thinking at the heart of her book. Her argument: Traditional two-parent families are no better equipped to raise sons than are "non-nuclear families," and this is good news because there are more female-headed households than ever.

Now let's consider the facts: Fatherlessness is the single biggest crisis facing American boys. It is the No. 1 predictor of poverty, criminality, dropping out of school, and impregnating girls outside of marriage.

How do we reconcile her happy talk with my grim reality? By remembering that as a gender scholar, Drexler is pushing an agenda shaped by the concerns and lifestyle choices of upper-middle-class feminists, gays, and lesbians. Championing the parenting skills of affluent single mothers—a maternally capable, if statistically insignificant, cohort—is not indefensible. Suggesting that the success of these wealthy families means that fatherless boys across the nation are in good shape is reprehensible. Who is speaking for those boys whose lives have been made pitiful because of paternal abandonment and the breakdown of marriage—those boys who have no fathers to protect them, or to teach them how to be men? Not Peggy Drexler.
Or read her remarks in "How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement" from 2004, where she talks about the elephant in the room: women who complain about exploitation, while themselves exploiting an underclass of (mostly) women to do their domestic work.

In contrast to Flanagan's commentary on marriage is Sandra Tsing Loh's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from the July/August Atlantic. I read it, in print, soon after the magazine arrived, and remembered that we'd recently heard a sermon about marriage and the myths thereof. One of the myths (myth #2, starting at 7:56 on the video, or on p.3 of the transcript) is that "Marriage is about my fulfillment." Which has always been a crock -- do you remember "my wife and I were like two fleas, each thinking the other was the dog"? Eberstadt's remarks about the rising narcissism index may be pertinent here.

Yes, marriage does take work. Someone asked me once what might have happened to me if I weren't following Jesus. "I'd probably be divorced at least once by now," I said. I meant that without Jesus I'd probably be more intolerant and impatient and selfish than I already am -- and thus more divorceable. I also suppose that without the biblical exhortations, marriage as a picture of God and his chosen people (whether the Jews as shown in Hosea and Ezekiel, or the church as shown in Ephesians and Revelation) and the unequivocal declaration "I hate divorce" (Malachi 2) I'd be more inclined to fly the coop when things got tough. And they do get tough; here's Loh:
To work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones who schedule “date night,” only to be reprimanded in the home by male kitchen bitches, and then, in the bedroom, to be ignored—it’s a bum deal.
Men of course have their own litanies, which I won't go into here.

Ignored in the bedroom?

When I first read that part about being ignored in the bedroom, I was baffled. But then I remembered that scene near the end of Spanglish where John (Adam Sandler) comes home and says he can't sleep in the same room as Deborah (Téa Leoni), who has had an affair with the realtor. So there's one reason: alienation (or hostility or feeling betrayed).

Sometimes people are just too tired. The lovely Carol may not believe this, but I have had that experience--of being too tired I mean.

Sometimes one or both spouses forget that they love or are loved by their partner. If that is the case they could do a lot worse than visiting Penny McNeel in Palo Alto, who asks some great questions.

Here's something else I'm curious about: what is the effect of pornography on a middle-aged man's sex drive? I thought it tended to make them too carnally minded with regard to their wives (come to think of it, I don't remember that other article saying much about that). However, both Loh's and Eberstadt's pieces suggested that porn-using men are actually less interested in sex, at laest with their wives.

Well, this is something I hope never to find out personally. Lead us not into temptation, you know? But thinking about all this leads me to something I read somewhere: that pornography and other forms of adultery make too little of sex rather than too much. Or, in words attributed to Leonard Michaels, "Adultery is not about sex or romance. Ultimately, it is about how little we mean to one another."

Which brings us back to the narcissism index. Perhaps Eberstadt is on to something here. When I first read her piece, I thought, "Narcissism index? What's that?" Upon discovering that it was based (at least in part) on whether people were likely to agree or disagree with the statement, "I am an important person," I jumped to the conclusion that it was all about the self-esteem teaching we're doing. But if we have collectively discarded the Apostle Paul's exhortation to consider others as more important, then we're all looking out for #1 and nobody means that much to anyone else.

Well, I suppose moral reform begins at home, so I'm going to climb into bed beside the lovely Carol.

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