Why would anyone submit to the doomed delusion that is marriage? The unmarried among us have surely begun to ask this question. (No doubt the married have, too, though in the past tense.) For several years now, disdain for heterosexual unions has been on the rise -- or at least the disdainful have been more vocal -- and it's become increasingly difficult to believe that a lasting marriage is possible. If it is possible, the "hard work" it requires will wring the partnership of all passion and wonderment and joy. From the narratives of wifely grievance routinely published in women's magazines to the spectacular public bust-ups of numerous celebrity marriages in which we have placed our bruised faith, it's easy to glean that we currently inhabit a vast and bleak landscape of marital discontent.
There are numbers to corroborate this: In a much-discussed recent survey of 35,000 American women, published in the July issue of Woman's Day, 72 percent of married women said they had considered leaving their husbands. Seventy-nine percent said they'd like sex more often, and 52 percent said they have no sex life to speak of. Contemporary marriage, all signs would indicate, is a long, tedious slog toward sex-starved paunchiness via an endless, embittering negotiation of banalities: who will shuttle the kids, walk the dog, prepare the meals, wash the laundry.
Last week, as though timed to the release of the survey findings, two female writers offered their respective takes on the subject. In a heavily parsed essay in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly titled "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," writer Sandra Tsing Loh explores the dissolution of her 20-year marriage, pinpointing as the superficial cause her extramarital affair and subsequent inability "to take on yet another home- and self-improvement project, that of rekindling [her] romance." From her personal predicament she diagnoses a broader epidemic of dissatisfaction -- emotional, social, familial and, most of all, sexual -- among women. "To work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones who schedule 'date night' ... and then, in the bedroom, to be ignored -- it's a bum deal," she writes. Literary critic and essayist Cristina Nehring, who also happens to write for the Atlantic, takes a more impersonal approach in her contrarian polemic, "A Vindication of Love"; she writes of the bankrupt state of romantic love in our society: "We inhabit a world in which every aspect of romance from meeting to mating has been streamlined, safety-checked and emptied of spiritual consequence … Romance in our day is a poor and shrunken thing."
Do our problems with marriage arise from our impoverished ideas about romance? Though Loh cites lack of love, a fairly standard excuse, as a reason for her divorce -- "I did not have the strength to 'work on' falling in love again in our marriage," she says, in the therapeutic parlance of our day -- Nehring is convinced that love as we currently define it, or at least as we practice it, is too safe, too sterile, acculturated and tamed. We are apparently unwilling to acknowledge love in all its unresolved messiness, unable to recognize that transgression, obsession, power inequities and strife might enflame our passions rather than diminish them, saving us from blandness and boredom. "It is the trivialization of love that is the tragedy of our time," Nehring writes, with signature melodrama. "It is the methodical demystification, recreationalization, automatization, commercialization, medicalization, and domestication of Eros that is making today's world a much flatter place." Her solution is a kind of perceptual readjustment. "Romantic love needs to be reinvented for our time. For those of us as bored by the cult of safe love as we are by the man-hating clichés of old-style feminism, it needs to be formulated afresh." A change in ideology, perhaps, will bring about a change in attitude.
But I don't believe that our notions of romantic love are at fault, nor are they all that different from the ideal Nehring propounds. For many of us, our models of deep romantic feeling have been formed through books and films and television. Romance novels comprise 32 percent of adult mass-market paperback sales; Harlequin, the predominant publisher of bodice-ripping tales, sold 130 million books in 2007, notes a recent article on the genre. These portraits rarely involve what Loh calls "companionate marriage," with partners divvying up the childcare and chores. Fictional love tends to be obsessive, transgressive, regressive, operatic, unequal, full of conflict or a disaster of the grandest proportions -- in other words, characterized by many of the elements on which Nehring places such a premium.
As with most Americans, my own ideas about love were formed not only by books -- "Jane Eyre" and "Pride and Prejudice," "Emma" and "Wuthering Heights," yes, as well as the incestuous "Flowers in the Attic" series, "The Thorn Birds," and the Andrew Greeley books with their fornicating priests -- but also by soap operas and romantic comedies: the tempestuous on-again-off-again affair of Bo and Hope on "Days of Our Lives," the jaunty repartee of "When Harry Met Sally." "Almost everything in modern society militates against our falling in love hard or long. It militates against love as risk, love as sacrifice, love as heroism," writes Nehring. This is not entirely true. Even if the self-help establishment promotes romance as an "organized adult activity with safety rails on the left and right, rubber ceilings, no-skid floors, and a clear, clean destination: marriage" -- and I'm not sure it does -- tension exists between the domesticated romance of relationship manuals and the many depictions of outlaw love in the culture around us.
As a result, most people long to experience love, especially love of the wildest, most complicated sort. And I would venture to guess that many have -- romance born of mischief, with a co-worker, perhaps, or a professor or student; obsessive love characterized by vigilant waiting for calls and e-mails, or a humiliating inability to stop calling even after the relationship is broken. Most of us have not consciously or categorically banished passionate love from our lives, we just can't seem to make it fit. Indeed, if being in love is such a stimulating and gratifying state -- and it is, of course -- why would we do without it unless, in some sense, we had to? One of the reasons that we have resigned ourselves to a certain dearth of passion may be that we can't seem to afford it economically or temporally. Here is Cathi Hanauer, editor of the bestselling anthology "The Bitch in the House," describing her typical day: "nursing a baby at the computer while trying to make a deadline; sprinting home from my daughter's nursery school, both kids in tow, to return phone calls; handing the children off to Dan [her husband], the instant he walked in at night so I could rush off to a coffee shop to get my work done." And here is Loh, on her inability to cram romance into her life: "Which is to say I can work at a career and child care and joint homeownership and even platonic male-female friendship. However, in this cluttered forest of my 40s, what I cannot authentically reconjure is the ancient dream of brides, even with the Oprah fluffery of weekly 'date nights,' when gauzy candlelight obscures the messy house, child talk is nixed, and sexy lingerie is donned."
When the bureaucratic nightmare that is everyday life has become so intrusive, when both parents work out of the home, the circumstances that allow for intimacy and passion are imperiled. (Sandra Tsing Loh tells us that her musician-husband traveled 20 weeks a year.) When are we to form deep connections? How and where is this hot sex supposed to happen? You can't stay up all night when you have to wake up and go to work the next day; no one is going to grant you a leave of absence for passion. (In an interview with the Telegraph, Arianna Huffingon once discussed sleep deprivation as a negative byproduct of love affairs. "So I've gotten to be a good breaker-upper," said Huffington.) We have, you might say, been forced to adapt to a world that is hostile to romance, our lives full of ever-clamoring responsibilities: bills to pay, BlackBerrys to monitor, e-mails to answer. Talk to almost any therapist, and he or she will tell you that the primary reason people don't have sex is that they're too tired, or have built up a little mountain of resentments over the difficulty of running a household together. If you want an intense, consuming passion, you're probably not going to be as productive, to put it in mundane terms. This is in part why we are so fascinated with marriages that appear, from the outside at least, highly functional and romantic: How do the Obamas make time for "date night" when Barack has a country to run? How, while raising their brood, do the Jolie-Pitts manage philanthropic work and careers?
What's particularly frustrating about Nehring's sophomoric and overlong book (like most book-length polemics, a magazine article would have sufficed) is the vagueness at its core: She ignores reality, writing as though social life takes place entirely in a vacuum, as though culture occurs on some astral plane. In the course of many pages of rather pedestrian literary analysis -- on Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale," Tristan and Iseult, and Emily Dickinson's "Master" letters, among others -- she hardly comments on how we currently live. Nor does she offer any prescriptions as to what sort of configurations or lifestyle choices might be more conducive to the sort of love she values. (By examining the literature of the past, she attempts "to identify alternative modes and arresting new visions of romantic behavior for the twenty-first century.") But there's something dishonest about advocating for a kind of instantaneous sentimental or intellectual reorientation, when a withdrawal from the systems and obligations of contemporary life is what would be required: to stop worrying, say, whether your husband had bought the right brand of detergent or that e-mail messages are idling unopened in your in box. On a larger level, this may mean nothing less than a sacrifice of ambitions or possessions; it may mean simplifying, downsizing or moving. Reading a few books and applying nostrums about transgression and difference hardly seems sufficient.
In the end, I'm not sure the message of "A Vindication of Love" is all that different from any other exhortation to transgression we have seen over the years -- books like "The Sensuous Woman" or articles in Cosmopolitan. If anything has dulled our love nerves, it might be decades of detailed instructions on how to spice up our sex life and marriage. The other night, while loitering in the kitchen of some friends in their 20s, I noticed, pinned to their refrigerator, a page ripped from Cosmo, the title something along the lines of "101 Sex Tips to Try Before You Die," that contained pointers so explicit (let's just say the word "perineum" was in there), it made me blush. I write this article from a hotel room in New York City, where nearly a dozen porn movies are on offer, and, among the potato chips and dry-roasted nuts in the mini-bar, there sits a "pleasure kit" with "silk bondage ties." If romantic love is uncommon or endangered, it's not for lack of trying. It may, in fact, be from trying too hard, from attempting to control a willful, quixotic, emotional impulse. Nehring's argument also left me somewhat bewildered: The female literary figures she praises as models of romantic derring-do acted in repressive, often very religious societies; these days, really, when nothing is taboo, what are we to transgress against?
It's interesting that even as heterosexual women are sounding the death knell for their nuptials, homosexual men and women are fighting for the right to marry traditionally. It may be that you can't properly loathe an institution of which you are not yet a member. And gay marriage, for many in this country, remains intriguingly unfamiliar. Come to think of it, if the current venting among the unhappily married accomplishes anything, it may send the rebellious and romantic-minded to the altar with a defiant sneer. After all, the more marriage is maligned, the more dangerous and transgressive it will appear.