Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sandra Tsing Loh's Divorce

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer for The Atlantic Monthly who usually covers domestic life. In the current issue she brings us up to date on her marital history.

She hated her father and wished her parents would divorce. She married a decent guy, had two girls, and they made a busy and solvent upper-middle-class home. Then in her mid-40s she had an affair. After therapy she decided she just didn't want to work at saving her marriage. She used this month's column to announce her divorce.

She then drew what she thinks is the logical conclusion from her story and that of some of perpetually dissatisfied friends: we should abolish marriage. More: human beings were never really meant for marriage, anyway. She cites Andrew Cherlin's review of the high U.S. divorce rate, which I wrote about recently, as evidence. Yet what Cherlin shows is that Americans have a higher divorce rate than other countries because we have a higher marriage rate to begin with - because we believe in marriage the most.

Sandra Tsing Loh's divorce is sad for her and her husband, and tragic for her children. It is not evidence that human beings were not meant for marriage.


TallCoolOne said...

And why are these people -- especially the women among them -- "perpetually dissatisfied"? Capitalism, in a word. When everything has a price, and the only "rational" thing to do is calculate the costs and benefits, there's just no point in thinking about anyone else and obeying any norms one hasn't chosen (read, invented) for onself.

There is also the (figurative, but nonetheless real) emasculation of males in a service-economy to consider, but I'll leave that to the specialists.

Black Sea said...

I don't think her analysis revealed anything that many married people in their 40s haven't already thought of before, but she probably is on to something. Committing to "sharing one's life" with one other person over a 50 year span most likely works against our biology, and increasingly, against our culture.

A few random observations:

In the first paragraph, she allows that she doesn't generally "enjoy" men (I guess she means the company of men), that she and her family have engaged the services of a family therapist for years, and that prior to her divorce, she had an affair.

She later mentions that women initiate divorce more often than do men. This could be, in part, because women are more likely to get alimony out of a divorce. In her case, for example, the fact that she'd engaged in adultery just prior to the divorce -- had she been a man -- would quite likely have resulted in an extremely punitive settlement. Had she been a man, she might actually have found herself living in the U-Haul storage container from which she files her video report.

She apparently hated her father. This does not bode well.

A couple of her married friends report that they live in sexless marriages, about which they appear to be upset. It is true that sex creates a bonding experience (chemically), and probably this lack of sex is both an expression of their husbands' loss of attraction toward them (which they no doubt find angering) and, from a biochemical standpoint, an actual factor in the diminishment of closeness between them. Women, even fat, 40-something women, find it deeply wounding to their pride to discover that they are no longer attractive to their mates, probably more so than men, although this rejection or indifference from a spouse is wounding to men as well. This sexlessness between married couples may well reflect that larger gender-neutering that afflicts both men and women in post-industrial societies. Cubicle culture doesn't encourage much in the way of masculinity, nor for that matter, feminity. And we grow bored with androids.

We live in a culture in which growing up is synonymous with a kind of impotence, or irrelevance, or premature demise. Not surprisingly, people resist doing so. It struck me both in her writing style, and more obviously, in her fashion choices, that she emulates the jokey, semi-ironic "cleverness" of a perky, slightly sassy university student. Unfortunately, she is almost 50. Her grandmother, for example, may well have BEEN a grandmother at that age. By contrast, she is dressing in bandanas, junk jewelry, and novelty sunglasses. This seems telling. Our culture bestows almost nothing in the way of respect on maturity. I mean this both chronologically, and in terms of one's capacity to . . . well, act like a grown up.

I suspect that in part, she is divorcing because she feels that she can afford it (financially, I mean). From an emotional standpoint, she may well be happier outside of marriage. I've known an awful lot of people, men and women, people whom I consider good and decent, who have breathed an enormous sigh of relief when the divorce was completed. It will probably be harder on her children than she cares to admit at this point, but as T.S Eliot pointed out, "Humankind cannot stand very much reality."

Gruntled said...

I think the capacity to be dissatisfied with a good life long antedated capitalism.

Black Sea, I agree with your assessment of the details. I don't think our culture or our biology is any more hostile to marriage than the ever were. Rising life expectancy is a very misleading number - adult life expectancy has gone up only slightly in the past century, but the divorce rate has increased gigantically.

People who stay married are committed to marriage, as well as to one another.

Unknown said...

A wise man once told me, "Marriage is not for sissies." I have shared this bit of wisdom with many of my friends whose relationships were going through tough times and I think it holds true.

I have several thoughts after reading this article. First, I noticed that she gave a percentage around 1/3 (I've already closed the article window so the exact number may as well be lost forever to the sands of time as far as I'm concerned) of folks report that they are unhappy in their marriages. I think this is a misleading piece of data. Adding the phrase, "right now" to the end of the sentence gives a clearer picture of marriage I think. Lots of marriages, most marriages, I'd even say the vast majority of marriages go through peaks and valleys. To say at any given time that 1/3 of marriages are going through a valley seems realistic to me, but what percentage of these will come out on the other side with a stronger, happier, more fulfilling union if they just ride it out? I bet Weston could put a number to that.

Second, I noticed two issues the author deals with that highlight the shortcomings of living in a post-feminist world. The author and her (ex)husband are clearly children of the post-feminist age as the woman in the relationship has an equal, if not greater, role in bringing home the bacon (for lack of a better term) and her partner has assumed several traditionally female roles (cooking for example). At face value this does not seem a problem. In fact it represents how far we've come in gender relations. The problem is that each of these seems to have contributed to the unrest in the marriage.

With the wife busy bringing bacon home and the man doing the same you essentially have two people doing three jobs, because the work of raising kids and caring for the home didn't cease just because women got liberated. Traditionally one parent brought home the bacon and the other cut it, fried it, served it, and cleaned up the mess left. An upper-middle couple with two full-time jobs and kids almost has to hire help because the amount of work vs. the amount of time and energy inevitably leads to burn-out.

That is certainly not to say that women belong in the kitchen and men in the workplace. I take no issue with the reversal of gender roles and think a marriage works best when each partner takes on the jobs they are best suited for (I cook better than my wife). But Loh also cites several instances of women being unsatisfied with their role-reversed, domesticated mates in her conversations with her friends. In our parents’ era, the guy hit 45, got the toupee, drove the red Porsche, and left his family for the young, hot secretary. We are unable to imagine any of the husbands driving anything with fewer than five seat belts. When traditional "mom" jobs are split between two parents the man will be in a less masculine role and I think sometimes women have more trouble adjusting to that than do men. Bottom line: It's hard to look manly while vacuuming.

Gruntled said...

The reason that Loh gave for giving up on her marriage was that it just seemed like too much work.

TallCoolOne said...

The specialists have begun to weigh in, and almost exactly as I expected: it is, indeed, tough to look manly while vacuuming.

The problem, though, is: who or what taught these women to think that "look[ing] manly" meant anything? Or, to put it another way, who or what caused social relationships to be appraised like things, and treated as such? "Capitalism", as a portmanteau concept, may not convince those who cannot see the trees for the desert, but it seems as good a term as any.

Then again, I remember once in class when Guntled chided a young women for "only" wanting her beau to "pop the question" with a diamond of three months' wages, saying that she should hold out for four. It was one of the most striking examples of self-satisfied complacency that I could expect from a centrist. And, as such, was disappointing.

Is that what "being committed to marriage" means in late capitalist societies? Price indices say, "yes."

Semi-full (emotional) disclosure: I've just gone through a divorce not unlike Loh's -- initiated by female infidelity and cemented by her inability to give a damn about anything but her own happiness. The difference, perhaps, is that neither of us make much money, and so the weight falls disproportionately on me to carry the load of child support. I don't mind supporting our son, but I don't want a penny to line her pockets -- or re-upholster her furniture. Sadly, and infuriatingly, there is no way to do the one without the other.

Gruntled said...

"Then again, I remember once in class when Guntled chided a young women for "only" wanting her beau to "pop the question" with a diamond of three months' wages, saying that she should hold out for four. It was one of the most striking examples of self-satisfied complacency that I could expect from a centrist. And, as such, was disappointing."

I don't think I said any such thing. I have inveighed against expensive diamonds in this blog -

TallCoolOne said...

Official correction: it should have been "weeks" instead of "months." I cite fatigue as the cause, though not as an excuse.

Still, the old post of Gruntled's doesn't change much, from the perspective of one burned by the "show me the money" attitude. Keeping the mush, which admittedly was "invented" by a diamond company, seems at best pragmatic, which is no Protestant philosophy.

Gruntled's charmed life seems occasionally to get in the way of his charity. (Which, as a new reader to the blog, is both fascinating and off-putting, and an indicator of what Weber's revision of his thesis might have been.)

virginia said...

What on earth is "unmanly" about running the vacuum? Is masculinity so fragile that a simple, gender-neutral household tasks unseats it? Surely no one is asking you to wear pearls a la June Cleaver as you do it.

That's just a sneaky way of saying that chores are really "women's work" and thus beneath a self-respecting male.

Speaking as a woman, I find that men who willingly help with domestic tasks are MORE attractive, MORE masculine, than those who are so threatened by the cultural idea of "women's work" that they refuse to help, or do so only grudgingly.

Gruntled said...

Agreed. (Though you mean I don't need to wear pearls while vacuuming?). :-)

Anonymous said...

I was a bit put off by her comment that marriage was just too much work. Raising children is hard work. Suceeding in one's career is hard work. Even friendship requires "work." Guess I was blessed to have been raised by Depression-era protestant parents who taught me that most good things in life require work and that work is a blessing not a curse.

I'm married to a man who comes from a different background from my own. Often we struggle to find common ground and interests. However, we are committed to creating a marriage / life together. We work very hard at this. Yes, there are frustrating times and there has been a time when we almost ended our marriage.


Anonymous said...

My only "take away" from Sandra Tsing Loh's article is that The Atlantic must be suffering dramatically in a financial sense, seeing as how they have no editors anymore. This entire is, no doubt, part of Ms. Tsing Log's healing process. And I hope it helps. But an editor surely would have sent it back.

Unknown said...

Yes, yes... there it is, the feminist attack. Right on time.

No matter how much I attempt to preface a comment (two full sentences, plus a personal example) or what the reality of a situation is (I vacuum at least as much, if not more than my wife in my home) if I so much as touch the topic of work and women I'm accused of being sneaky and I have the security of my masculinity called into question. ::sigh::

Well I don't care. I stand by my statement! It IS hard to look masculine while vacuuming! That doesn't mean men shouldn't vacuum, or that vacuuming is a woman's job, or that my masculinity is fragile; it means exactly what it says.

There are some things that it is hard to look feminine while doing as well. For example slopping hogs. No matter how feminine a woman normally is, she loses it when slopping hogs. Does this mean slopping hogs is men's work? No. I'm sure there are women who are excellent hog sloppers, and God bless them for the work they do. But I'd bet dollars to donuts that they don't wear their pearls while working either. (just for the record, how does wearing pearls equate to femininity? Tying expensive jewelery to a woman's female identity kinda goes along with with TallCoolOne is saying.)

The author of the article specifically talks about how the emasculated males in the lives of her circle of friends are less than attractive. So clearly there are some women who believe that men acting in traditionally feminine roles are less attractive. Hence, "it's hard to be attractive while vacuuming."

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I think she has some real issues from her childhood she's never dealt with.

Yes, roles are changing - but that really doesn't make her husband less of a manly man. Only her attitude does. And she herself has admitted, the old roles weren't so great anyway. So it's a bit of work to find balance in this new world - it's good work, in my opinion. I hope someday she does find the balance.

And BTW, put me down as another on the "pro" list - my husband looks incredibly manly while vacuming, and I'm pretty darn happy about it.

Good luck to us all : )

Anonymous said...

Personal anecdote:

As a guy growing up with many sisters who believed that women should be in corporate america, pulling down work equivalent to the male jobs of the 70's, I was taught that what women found sexy was a man who was sensitive and could cook.

My first marriage of 7 years ended in divorce (no kids thankfully) when she decided I wasn't "sexy enough" anymore. She *thought* she wanted a sensitive man, but she truly desired the manly man - she wanted to be submissive at home.

Spent many years being single, dating, trying to find another woman who was like my first wife. Found many, but noticed a similar pattern - women who said they wanted the sensitive man really still wanted the "bad boy". They would joke about it, but in truth, I think they really did mean it. Last few years of being single I decided to switch roles and do the more "traditional" male role. Found out that I attracted essentially the same population of women as before, but was given a lot more leeway to not be the cook or the domestic god. Am now three years into my second marriage and it seems to be working a lot better, even though I feel sometimes guilty for going against the advice that my mother and sisters told me when I was younger.

BTW, two sisters are having similar complaints about their domesticated husbands. One of them wonders if he's actually a repressed homosexual.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, I guess we have to credit Tsing Loh with sparking some interesting reflection and comments. Even if she does sound like a person you'd never want to know...ever.