In her classic study, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family, Lillian Rubin (1976) chronicles the lives of young working-class white men and women as they grow up, get married, and start families of their own in the early 1970s. Examining the paths that they took to marriage, Rubin reveals that getting married was often seen as an escape from repressive parental authority, symbolizing “a major route to independent adult status and the privileges that accompany it.” When Rubin asked her respondents why they got married, both men and women displayed a “seeming lack of awareness,” framing marriage—whether the result of accidental pregnancy or simply the desire to move out of one’s parents’ home—as the only logical choice. Their difficulty in explaining why they got married underscores that, just forty years ago, marriage was understood as a taken-for-granted, unexamined component of adult identity; as one man put it, “What do you mean, how did we decide?”
The men and women in Rubin’s study entered marriage with deeply gendered but unspoken dreams of the future: “For her, the realization of her womanhood—a home and family of her own. For him, the fulfillment of his manhood—a wife to care for him, sons to emulate him, and daughters to adore him. For both, an end to separateness, to loneliness.” But economic hardship forced these young people to grow up quickly, and soon their dreams gave way to the hard reality of married life, where expectations of a “good life” shrank to signify one in which unemployment, violence, and alcoholism were rare. The women in Worlds of Pain were discontented by the lack of emotional connection in their relationships and the burden of balancing paid labor and child rearing. The men felt overburdened by the strain of providing for a growing family and angry at their inability to fulfill their wives’ emotional needs. Still, they stayed married, anchoring their commitments in distinctive gender roles, mutual dependence, and, sometimes, a lack of alternative options.
Nearly forty years after the publication of Worlds of Pain, I sat across from Allie, a thirty-year-old white secretary, at a small Irish pub on the outskirts of Lowell. Allie launched breathlessly into her coming of age narrative before I could even open my menu. “In your early twenties you think you have it all mapped out already, and then life throws you a curveball, and you start at square one. And it is like, oh no, what do I really want out of life? Where do I want to go, what do I want to do?” I met Allie through her father, a white-haired police officer who eagerly wrote down her phone number on a paper napkin for me. “She’s young, pretty, but just hasn’t met the right guy yet,” he beamed. What he left out of his description, I would soon come to find out, was that Allie was recently divorced. This omission proved to be an important clue in understanding the generational cleavages that divide Allie’s visions of successful intimacy—and adulthood—from that of her parents.
Allie grew up in what Rubin would have termed a “settled” working-class family: her parents were high school sweethearts who married in their late teens, had Allie and her brother in their early twenties, and had weathered the ups and downs of marriage for over three decades. Brought up with “old school traditions and values,” Allie lived with her parents while earning a two-year administrative degree and then began work as a secretary. At church with her family one Sunday, she ran into Jake, the son of her parents’ old friends, and the two quickly became inseparable, marrying soon after she turned twenty-three. In hindsight, Allie explains that she was trying hard to follow the well-trodden path of her parents—even though something about it didn’t quite feel right. Recalling the day Jake proposed, she confided:
We were at my parents’ house and he came downstairs and said, “Close your eyes, I have a surprise for you.” I was thinking he had candy or something. I probably would have been more excited about that. I could feel him in my face, like, “why are you so close to me?,” and when I opened my eyes he was down on one knee with the ring. And I kind of, my heart sank, like this wasn’t special. . . . I’m in my pajamas and I look like hell. So you know I acted surprised but I was so disappointed and I felt horrible that I felt disappointed. It just wasn’t special and I think I knew then that it wasn’t . . . that chemistry was missing. But hey, you live and learn. And I did not go through all that stuff to make that mistake again. Oh, no.
As Allie acknowledges hesitantly and even guiltily, what she wanted was chemistry—psychic satisfaction, a sense of uniqueness, of self-fulfillment. What she got instead was a relationship full of tension over housework, gender obligations, and money, culminating in the painful realization that they could not cope with the “pressures and expectations” of married life. Allie and I discussed:
A: We just grew apart. He . . . I don’t want to say he was responsible, I am responsible for 50 percent of why it didn’t work, even though I didn’t realize that fully at the time. You know I went through a lot of counseling to get my head on straight again and figure out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do and accept my part of responsibility for it not working. So, we had gone through counseling together as a couple too, separation counseling. Just to get us on the same track because I was the one that asked for the divorce. I was very unhappy and I knew that I couldn’t make him happy. He really wanted a family and was pressuring me for it. At that point I didn’t know if I ever wanted kids.
JS: What was holding you back?
A: Money. Money and, um, he was never home. And I felt like I was a single parent taking after him anyway because he is messy and I am like, there is no way I can have a baby and do this full-time and have the baby and him never home. We were barely scraping by as it was money-wise. I didn’t think it was good timing, and there was a little missing maternal piece to me for a very long time. Until I had my nephews, I had never been around babies and I had no interest in them. And when we got married, we said next year we will think about it. Next year came, and neither one of us were ready, and the next year, he was like, I am ready, and I was still not ready. So we said okay, another year, and by that time, I was like, I don’t know if I ever really want kids. I mean, you see how your parents’ relationship went—they got married and had kids and bought the house at a young age, and my brother followed that too. . . . It’s a lot of pressure being the black sheep of the family, divorced with no kids.
While Allie idealized her parents’ smooth transition from marriage to children to home ownership in their early twenties, this path felt neither authentic nor viable to her. She undertook a central ritual of adulthood—marriage—but her performance felt empty: she could not convince herself of its legitimacy. Reflecting on their divorce, Allie sighed: “I feel like I am eighteen playing in the adult world.”
The Intimacy Trap
Since the courtships and marriages of Allie’s parents and grandparents, men’s labor power has diminished, prompting women’s mass entrance into the workforce. The gendered division of labor at the core of industrial society has become unworkable, thereby releasing men and women from the traditional roles and expectations that once anchored partners, for better or worse, in the institution of marriage. Simultaneously, through its efforts to combat gender discrimination in the workplace; legalize no-fault divorce, contraception, and abortion; and promote educational equality, the Second Wave feminist movement also sparked a decline in the legitimacy of gendered marriage, empowering women to leave marriages that were unequal, abusive, or emotionally unfulfilling.
In the wake of these momentous social transformations, young people like Allie are finding that their relationships are less and less determined by external moral, religious, and legal codes. Consequently, intimacy must be increasingly negotiated “from individual biographies, from discussing and questioning each step, finding new arrangements, meeting new demands, justifying one’s decisions.” While Allie’s parents’ relationship was based on distinct social obligations, a gendered division of labor, a lack of choices, and a shared history that bound them together, Allie felt a strong pull to be true to her authentic feelings and protect her own interests. Enabled by her earning power in the labor market as well as the availability of birth control, she rejected the traditional role performed by her own mother: she became angry at her husband’s refusal to share equally in domestic tasks and chose to postpone childbearing because she wanted, and needed, to continue to work full-time. Her husband, in response, felt betrayed by her rejection of traditional marital roles: like Rubin’s male respondents, he yearned for “a wife to care for him, sons to emulate him, and daughters to adore him” even though he in turn could not fulfill the traditional, masculine provider role.
Allie and Jake were thus trapped, haunted by the meanings of traditional adulthood but unable to make them work within the constraints of their daily lives. Ultimately, Allie prioritized equality and emotional satisfaction over marriage: she could not be happy in a relationship that forced her to pull a “second shift” of housework and sacrificed her interests, opinions, and desires. In doing so, Allie illustrates the power of the modern cultural ideal of love and marriage as therapeutic:
This therapeutic attitude . . . begins with the self rather than with the set of external obligations. The individual must find and assert his or her true self because this self is the only source of genuine relationships to other people. External obligations, whether they come from religion, parents, or social conventions, can only interfere with the capacity for love and relatedness. Only by knowing and ultimately accepting one’s self can one enter into valid relationships with other people.
As scholars of intimacy and modernity have documented, in place of traditional marriage, a new cultural ideal of romance and love has developed: a “pure relationship” of “sexual and emotional equality, which is explosive in its connotations for preexisting forms of gender power.” The ethos of modern love is predicated on the autonomy, rather than the mutual dependence, of partners: “The principle of autonomy entails open discussion about the respective rights and obligations of the partners, and the contract may be renegotiated or voided if the relationship is perceived as unfair or oppressive." Marriage has been rendered more equitable, but also much more fragile.
Giddens celebrates the emancipatory features of modern intimacy, and he is certainly right to do so in the sense that the pure relationship empowers people—and women in particular—to hold greater control over their romantic destinies. However, as Illouz has demonstrated, making this new kind of relationship “work” in everyday life may require a particular set of emotional, linguistic, and material resources that are more accessible to the professional middle classes than to the working class. For Allie and her ex-husband, concerns about money, and the affordability and desirability of children in particular, drove a wedge in their relationship that ultimately led to their divorce.
The Changing Landscape of Sex, Love, and Marriage
Marriage and child rearing once represented core milestones of adulthood, yet their relevance to adulthood may be fading: while 95 percent of Americans consider education, employment, financial independence, and the ability to support a family to be important steps on the path to adulthood, only half believe that it is necessary to marry or to have children to be considered an adult. Today’s young men and women are waiting longer to get married, as evidenced by the fact that at age thirty, only 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men are married, compared to 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men in 1960. They are also less likely than their Baby Boomer counterparts to stay married—23 percent of marriages end in divorce in the first five years, while half of marriages end in divorce within fifteen years—or to have children all together.
While these statistics may be read as a commentary on the declining value of marriage and family, a closer look reveals that they are more accurately a story of inequality—not only of the economic benefits of married such as pooled material resources, but also of symbolic and emotional goods such as lasting ties, trust, and love itself. That is, national data reveal a growing “divorce divide” in the United States: since the 1970s, marital dissolution rates have fallen dramatically among highly educated men and women but remained steady among those with lower education such that women with a four-year college degree are half as likely as other women to experience marital dissolution in the first ten years of a marriage. While nine out of ten college-educated women wait to have children until after they get married, only six out of ten with a high school degree postpone childbearing until after marriage, which means that the material and symbolic benefits of marriage (e.g., pooled income and assets, less financial risk in making large purchases) accrue to those already born in the top of the income distribution. These patterns are particularly pronounced for black couples, whose divorce rate is even higher.
Among the 100 working-class young people in my sample, only eighteen are married, while fifty-six identify as single, twenty-one as dating or cohabiting, and five as divorced. I find that most are trapped between the rigidity of the past and the flexibility of the present. On one hand, young people express anxiety over the fragility of commitment, yearning nostalgically for the lifelong marriages of the past. They long for enduring relationships, based not solely on personal happiness but also on transcendent roles and obligations that ensure stability over time. Indeed, many single men and women avoid entering relationships precisely because they would rather be alone than loosely and tentatively attached. On the other hand, respondents speak of a desire to form therapeutic or “pure” relationships that nurture their deepest selves, meet their personal needs, and, most important, do not weigh them down with emotional or financial obligations.
Economic and social vulnerability only exacerbate this tension: indeed, both models are rendered fragile by the strain of job insecurity and the privatization of risk. Among informants who were single (56), dating (21), or divorced (5), fear—of being deemed unworthy, of losing their selves, of betrayal, of failing and losing what little they have—dominated their experiences in the romantic sphere. For those who were married, the family became a constant battleground where they wrestled with these fears and their longing for solid, lasting ties. In an era when economic and social shocks such as job loss, illness, or disability are the responsibility of the individual alone, intimacy becomes yet another risk to bear, especially for black men and women who carry the additional burden of racism in both the labor and the dating market. The unpredictability, insecurity, and risks of everyday life come to haunt young people within their most intimate relationships, not only by shrinking their already limited pool of available social resources but also by disrupting their sense of security, destabilizing their life trajectories, and transforming commitment into yet another risky venture. Children remain the last bastion of commitment and stability— yet the social institutions in which young parents create families often work against their desire to anchor their lives in connection with others.
Excerpted from Coming Up Short by Jennifer M. Silva with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright 2013 Oxford University Press USA and published by Oxford University Press USA. (www.oup.com/us). All rights reserved.