Marriage in all its divine tedium
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Non-Fiction news every morning.
My wife and I are nearly 11 years married, which means we’ve reached the stage in our relationship where friends are starting to get divorced. Thanks to my wife’s loquaciousness with her girlfriends, I have some sense of why these break-ups are occurring. The problem, in most cases, is the same: the wives are profoundly dissatisfied with their husbands. These aren’t bad husbands in the conventional sense — they’re not philanderers or closet gamblers. Their flaws are more low-key: they talk too much, and thus diminish their partners; disappear into spouse-excluding hobbies; fail to do their share of housework. In short, they are failing to make their wives fulfilled.
These husbands came to my mind while I was reading This is How Your Marriage Ends. A self-help book by the American blogger-turned-marriage therapist Matthew Fray, it appears at a moment when divorce is under the spotlight in Britain, thanks to the introduction earlier this month of the “no fault” divorce law, removing the need for couples to assign blame if they want to get divorced immediately. Fray’s starting point is that when marriages collapse, someone usually is to blame — the husband. There is some statistical basis for this view: in both the US and the UK, around two-thirds of divorces are filed by wives, which does rather suggest that men bear responsibility for the greater portion of marital woe.
Fray reports that most wives leave their husbands not because they’ve committed any “major marriage crimes”, but because of an accumulation of smaller offences, endlessly repeated. He knows whereof he speaks. His marriage lasted nine years. He is, he tells us, a well-meaning person who felt fully committed to his wife. But he was still a “shitty husband”. His own small crime — the one he repeated over and over — was to leave unwashed dishes and glasses on the counter. When challenged, he turned the tables on his wife. Since he, personally, wasn’t offended by the sight of a stray glass, why should he modify his behaviour? If anyone was at fault, it was surely her, for failing to “manage” her emotions properly.
Today, Fray sees things differently: the glass on the counter was important simply because it mattered to his wife. His leaving it there sent out a clear message that her feelings were beneath his consideration. Fray was failing in perhaps the most important job of a life partner — recognising and validating the other person’s experiences, even when they differ from yours. Minor as they seemed to him, his infractions ebbed away at his wife’s faith in their union and destroyed their marriage. “We didn’t go down in a fiery explosion,” he writes. “We bled out from 10,000 paper cuts.”
Fray is not a refined writer. His frat-boy tone quickly becomes annoying — words like “douchebag” appear a lot — and he makes his points over and over. In fact, the further I got into This is How Your Marriage Ends, the more I began to question his account of his wife’s decision to leave him. Might it have had less to do with his slovenliness, and more to do with his tone of voice? Yet ultimately, the measure of a book like this is the usefulness of the advice it offers. And it’s hard to quibble with Fray’s central message — that men could learn to “suck less” at marriage by becoming more attentive to their partners’ feelings.
It’s a book that feels pertinent for another reason — the way it plugs into the conversation about masculinity taking place across our culture. In recent years, there has been a growing tendency to denigrate masculinity, with many seeing it as the root cause of much toxic male behaviour, from rape and murder to (relatively) minor offences such as “mansplaining”. On the other side of this debate are those who believe that society has become unjustly intolerant of masculine values, with men increasingly made to feel that their very natures are under attack.
Fray occupies an interesting middle ground. In some ways, he wants men to be more manly, to better perform their traditional role of playing protector to their wives. But to be better husbands, he wants men to sacrifice some of their masculinity — by becoming more fluent in the language of emotions. He wants to show men what they need to learn from women, in order to become better versions of themselves.
Despite it being a very different book (and one not directly concerned with marriage), something similar is attempted by Nina Power in What Do Men Want?. Power is a British philosopher and essayist whose previous book, One Dimensional Woman, explored how the alleged freedoms of consumerism often serve to narrow women’s horizons. Her new one casts its gaze at men, taking aim at that “unforgiving strain” of contemporary feminism that relentlessly focuses on men’s negative characteristics. While not denying that some men behave appallingly, Power insists that most are actually rather nice — “kind, thoughtful, self-aware, interested, compassionate”. She warns that if men are continually lambasted for their shortcomings, more will be pushed towards extreme positions, further worsening relations between the sexes.
In many ways, Power is aiming to do at the cultural level what Fray wants to do for individual marriages. Her suggestion is that, by listening carefully to one another, men and women might learn to get along better. Laudable as her objectives are, they do lead her to adopt some positions on masculinity that struck me as excessively rosy. In a passage dealing with “pick-up artists” — men who cultivate strategies to dupe women into having sex — Power writes almost gushingly about Neil Strauss, author of The Game, regarded as the pick-up bible. Recalling once seeing him give a talk, she describes him as “charming and witty in equal measure” and suggests he would be hard to resist in a nightclub.
She is similarly overgenerous to the incel movement (an online group of “involuntary celibate” men who believe that women are unfairly denying them sex). Glossing over its notorious misogyny, Power describes it as a “community for outsiders” who exhibit the “deeply human desire” of “wanting to be loved”. Though incels have carried out various mass killings, Power stresses that the “vast majority” are not in fact murderers — as if a person’s reasonableness can be deduced from the absence of a desire to kill. As well as coming across as naive, such special pleading seems extraneous to her argument. It is surely possible to present a defensible version of masculinity without pretending that men are nicer than they are.
In Foreverland, the American essayist and advice columnist Heather Havrilesky engages with many of the same issues, albeit in a very different form. Her book is a marriage memoir — a genre that, for obvious reasons, tends to be the preserve of those who have fled the institution. Havrilesky, however, is not divorced: she and her husband, Bill, an academic, have been married for 16 years. In reporting from the front line of marriage — on what her subtitle describes as its “divine tedium” — Havrilesky therefore seems to be attempting something at once unusual and rather foolhardy.
And indeed, she doesn’t shy away from chronicling the less pleasant aspects of marriage. Her book seems designed to counter society’s insistence that there is something cosy and romantic about two people settling down together. Marriage, she informs us, “is a life-long market correction to true love’s overvaluation”. It is a “slowly unfolding apocalypse”, something that “grinds your face into the dirt”.
Nor are such brutal assessments confined to marriage itself. She writes witheringly about her husband, who rather incredibly gave the book his full backing. It portrays him as a man of “haunting deficits” who “lacks a frontal lobe”. He is a “wretched, snoring heap of meat”, or else “a heap of laundry: smelly, inert, useless, almost sentient but not quite”. She also reveals that she once developed a crush on a “famous author”, and told Bill that she fantasised about sleeping with him. (His almost implausibly reasonable response was to tell her that she mustn’t “apologise for imagining things”.)
Havrilesky is risking something with all this — Bill’s goodwill, certainly, but also a wider social approval. Marriages — and the feeling they inspire — are generally felt to be private matters, about which it is wrong to reveal too much (gossiping with friends is one thing; writing a book quite another). So it’s no surprise that Havrilesky’s book has provoked a considerable backlash. When an extract was published late last year, she was accused of being “toxic” and “twisted”, and various articles have appeared vilifying her as a woman who “hates her husband”.
The truth, of course, is more complex. Havrilesky hates things about Bill, yes — but isn’t that true of any spouse? Her mocking of him is clearly, in part, intended for comic effect. She is also clear that, when it comes to the really important stuff, Bill is the polar opposite of “shitty”. When, following the birth of their first child, she exhibited feelings of intense fear and anxiety, he responded without the slightest hint of judgment and instantly modified his behaviour. Foreverland, in other words, is more interesting than many are giving it credit for. It is a funny, brave and often moving attempt to capture marriage in all its complexity — the extremities of the emotions it inspires, the fundamental implausibility of the enterprise. It is unlikely to improve anyone’s marital behaviour, but it does present something close to the unvarnished truth of marriage, stripped of the usual pretence and cliché.
And that’s a useful thing, in the contemporary world, when marriage is under increasing strain. The cultural background depicted by Power — one where the sexes are at loggerheads — certainly doesn’t help make it more appealing. And there are lots of other things chafing against it: from the cult of self-fulfilment, which encourages people to follow their dreams, to the need for most households to have two full-time workers (rarely a recipe for domestic harmony). Marriage, in short, has come to seem fusty — an institution rooted in an age when life was more stratified and restricted. All of which makes it unsurprising that in both the UK and the US, marriage rates are at a historic low.
And yet, the institution does endure — and continues to be what most people select as the basic structure of their adult lives. There’s a sense that marriage, for all its imperfections, remains the best path to fulfilment for many — which is perhaps why gay people fought so fiercely for it. Marriage, then, is not about to be ditched; which leaves us with the task of making it work better. The books under review here all go some way to helping — by suggesting what individuals can do to save their marriages, or what we can do as a society to talk about it more truthfully and become better at forgiving each other.
This is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships by Matthew Fray, HarperOne $27.99/Souvenir Press £16.99, 304 pages
What Do Men Want: Masculinity and Its Discontents by Nina Power, Allen Lane £18.99, 192 pages
Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage by Heather Havrilesky, Ecco $27.99, 304 pages
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café
Letters in response to this article: