[Marriage] is the psalms and the Song of Songs and it is the Crucifixion, or at least it is our aspiration to all of these things.
–Maggie Gallagher, The Abolition of Marriage: How We Destroy Lasting Love
In the previous installment of this series I wrote about the damage wrought by even the best divorces, and the limitations faced by even the most dedicated live-away fathers. These discussions, while necessary, are incomplete—even haunted. They’re haunted by the half-felt, unnamed presence of the people who live in bad, painful marriages. What do the best authors on marriage and family life have to say to them?
Surprisingly little. So in this installment, rather than recommending a book on how marriages get better, I’ll talk about why it is so hard to find such a book.
It’s not because marriages that go through intensely painful times can only drag on miserably—or end in a divorce which everyone involved greets with a sigh of relief. The Abolition of Marriage cites one relatively early study of one hundred couples which found that “of the long-married very happy couples, a fourth had at one time sincerely considered divorce, often for very serious causes.” Gallagher tells the stories of some couples who faced the terrible question of divorce and held on, despite gambling, drug use, adultery, and even advice from friends and family to divorce. Today these marriages look idyllic. Looking in from the outside you would never guess how hard-won Grandma and Grandpa’s bliss has really been. Another study (not cited by Gallagher) found that 86 percent of spouses who said their marriages were so unhappy that at least one spouse was considering divorce, but who did not divorce, when interviewed five years later said that their marriages were now happy.
But how does that happen? Gallagher’s book skimps on this subject, and few other writers interested in renewing marriage as a cultural institution have even tackled it.
My impression is that these stories are hard to tell for three main reasons. One is fear of adding to the pain of people who did divorce. This is a totally correct impulse: As I’ve written before, divorced people are still stigmatized and shamed. Writing about a marriage which survived cruelty, infidelity, or exhaustion may seem to imply that every troubled marriage can and should be saved.
If the writer tries to avoid this danger by emphasizing that every couple’s story is different, we run into the second problem, which is that . . . every couple’s story is different. In every marriage that survived great pain and came out stronger, there are things we can point to which explain how that transformation was able to occur: sources of support, beliefs that helped the couple hang on, small gestures of hope. These signposts may have only appeared in retrospect, but if your own marriage lacks them then that story of marital renewal may just seem irrelevant to you. This is especially true if you feel no personal connection to the couple or their story.
And an enduring marriage lacks an obvious narrative structure. There is no climax, no decisive action. Even if an unfaithful spouse vows never to see the lover again, there may be other potential lovers in the future, and there’s still a fractured marriage to repair. A wedding is a climax; so is a divorce. How do you tell a story that’s all aftermath—all epilogue?
NPR’s This American Life made the point in the 2009 episode “Somewhere Out There.” After telling the ridiculously romantic story of an American man’s quest for a Chinese opera musician, the interviewer explores the rest of the story: They did marry, but “it was really hard. The novelty had worn off and the framework of their entire relationship was an ocean away . . . After going through those rough years when they even considered splitting up, the story of how they met came to feel less and less important and they didn’t talk about it as much. Now they have a different story.” The man, Eric Hayot, describes it as “the story of struggle and pain passed through, and fought through, and overcome. And that’s a story that you don’t tell in public because no one ever asks how did you two stay together? Everyone always asks how did you two meet?”
Almost all happy families endure great unhappiness somewhere along the way. So maybe one way to figure out how couples last is to ask the ones who have. Ask how aging couples stayed together. Ask until you find some of the 86 percent.
This post is part of a series by Eve Tushnet about the postnuclear family. Our new family landscape may look chaotic, but the books in this series can help us understand what’s going on with sex, love, and marriage in America.