unfaithfully yours

Today at work, I picked up a Time magazine. The cover article was titled, “Unfaithfully Yours” and underneath the headline was a picture of a bride and groom sinking into a big white wedding cake. They were up to their heads, drowning in a quicksand of icing, and they looked nervous. I would too if I were about to suffocate on sugary goo. “Infidelity is eroding our most sacred institution,” it said on the cover. “How to make marriage matter again.”

I picked up the magazine partly because I’m always curious to read articles about marriage and divorce, coming from a family of many marriages, divorces, and re-marriages. But mostly I picked it up because I’ve read a lot of books and articles recently — Susan Sontag’s journals, an article by Sandra Tsing Loh about her recent divorce, parts of Ana Fel’s Necessary Dreams — that paint marriage in sad, dark, weary colors. I was hoping, a little bit, for some balance, to be reassured of marriage’s sacredness or importance. So my guards were down.

It was really disappointing. The article was by Caitlin Flanagan, a well-known (though I didn’t know her) and controversial essayist. A google search returned this extremely bizarre Colbert Report appearance, along with reviews of her books and various articles she’s written in support of traditional family values, whatever those are.

Her main point in “Unfaithfully Yours” seems to be that couples need to suck it up and stick together for the sake of the kids. I’m not outright opposed to that idea, of course, I just don’t think it’s very subtle or that it applies in all cases. In the end, her argument is too oversimplified, too heteronormative, too dependent on research by partisan think tanks and anecdotes from reality TV shows, and too dismissive of all the ways that American families are changing, evolving, and assuming new shapes and structures (often without messing up the kids too badly), to be worth breaking down point-by-point. But it is a good read if you want to get a little bit annoyed.

So what I’d really like to know is this: what are some good books you’ve read recently (fiction or non) about long-term relationships and what they mean, in all their complexity, good and bad? Could be marriage or could be something else entirely…

6 Responses to “unfaithfully yours”

  1. 1 Heather
    August 25, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    It does seem like there is a tremendous amount of material out there about the ways that marriages are suffocating, relationships hold you back, and family keeps you from realizing your full human potential. I often feel like the culture-at-large is pushing me to be in a relationship (see every romantic comedy, 19th century novel, and commercial), but is paradoxically telling me that these very relationships will ultimately stifle and kill my sense of self. This dichotomy does not ring true with my own experience, but as a rabid consumer of culture, I can’t seem to just ignore it.

    When I really think about it, the negative cliches about long-term partnership just can’t be true. It seems like every other happiness study I read (and trust me, I read way too many) says that long-term relationships are one of the only sure bets in long term happiness and health. I think a lot of people have found ways to navigate the difficulties of relationships, I just don’t think it makes for very good television.

    That said, here is my short list of recommendations. I actually think the new movie Julie and Julia shows long term partnership in a positive, semi-realistic light. Especially the Julia part. Also, a new book just came out called “A Happy Marriage” by Rafael Yglesias. It sounds promising, although it is ultimately about a fictionalized version of Yglesias’ wife dying of cancer (for another in that vain, see Donald Hall’s “The Best Day The Worst Day”. I think Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” does a lot to dissect what real love looks like and leaves you with a hopeful feeling about the power of relationships.

  2. 2 thetigressreader
    August 25, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Sometimes with Colbert and his guests, there’s so much sarcasm that it’s hard to tell who thinks what. But I think Flanagan was mostly being sincere, which is totally cray cray..

    Interesting post… no surprise that you couldn’t take much comfort in the words of Caitlin Flanagan — she is staunchly anti-feminist and rooted in very traditionalist thinking about marriage. To me, she doesn’t provide much new to the discussion besides a call for us all to suck it up and remember the original meaning of marriage. But that doesn’t address the fact that the original meaning and structure of marriage isn’t working for many-a-modern person, and that despite our best intentions, many marriages still end in divorce and infidelity. I’m not sure that sucking it up will really cure that.

    I too have thought a lot about the idea of marriage. Unlike you, I came from parents that were a model of a good and lasting marriage, and actually, I think I always took it for granted that I would also have a such a marriage. Of course, this idea for me has become complicated logistically (I am a lady would want to marry a lady) but also complicated conceptually. I’ve come to see my parents marriage as an exception to the rule, as a rare success story, instead of the norm. And I wonder sometimes if marriage, or even life-long partnership isn’t on the brink of becoming extinct. One hundred years ago I bet the average American couldn’t have imagined living thousands of miles away from most of their family, that their kids might hardly have a relationship with the grandparents, and yet here we are, and that’s how it is for a growing number of people. The “family” and the way we think of it has changed immensely and I wonder if marriage might not follow suit. Just recently my friend Betty, who’s been living in Sweden for the past year told me that in Sweden, people put very little emphasis on the importance of marriage. Sweden seems more evolved than us in various ways, so maybe that’s the direction we’re heading in.

    This doesn’t mean that I don’t still really want what my parents have and believe such a model can work for certain people. I do. And I hope actually, that something of the original family structure might stay intact in the modern, western world. It already seems a shame that we have become estranged from our extended families.. it’s sad to imagine a world where we become families of one. That said, I hope the concepts of family, marriage, partnerships will evolve into something that makes sense for the changing human being rather than this “suck it up” marriage that Flanagan believes in so deeply.

  3. August 25, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    This is very typical of me, to recommend books I haven’t read. But I have heard really good things about both of these and they are relevant:

    A Happy Marriage, Rafael Yglesias (review here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/books/review/Watrous-t.html?_r=2&ref=review&pagewanted=all)

    The Story of a Marriage, Andrew Greer

    I realize they both have the word “marriage” in the titles, but I promise you I didn’t just run a google search. I have had these on my list of things to read for a while.

    Both are fiction, technically.

  4. 4 tigress d
    August 26, 2009 at 2:45 am

    Hey everyone,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I agree with many of them. I hear strong messages from both directions — to be in a long-term relationship, to go it alone — and I guess I’ve been getting big doses of each of these extremes recently in my reading. For example:

    Susan Sontag: “Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of feelings.”

    Sandra Tsing Loh: “As far as the children are concerned, how about the tribal approach… Let children between the ages of 1 and 5 be raised in a household of mothers and their female kin. Let the men/husbands/boyfriends come in once or twice a week to build shelves, prepare that bouillabaisse, or provide sex.”

    Caitlin Flanagan: “There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage.”

    I know there’s something in-between misery, tribes of women, and suck-it-up marriages, I just have been reading about it lately.

    So thanks for the recommendations!

  5. 5 tigress d
    August 26, 2009 at 2:47 am

    I mean, *haven’t* been reading about it lately.

  6. 6 tigress d
    September 3, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Post Script!

    Just came across a blog entry responding to the same Caitlin Flanagan article that bummed me out so much last week. It bummed this lady out too:


    She hits on the biggest problem with the CF essay (and other hyperbolic anti- and pro- marriage essays) here:

    “But, the thing that all these polemics for and against marriage seem to miss when they speak in extremes and use cartoon examples (Jon and Kate; Tsing Loh’s sexless, miserable friends) is the quiet joy of sharing a life with someone. They miss the mystery implicit in a bond between only two people…”

    So I guess that’s what I was looking for in these reading recommendations. Some more mystery and quiet joy. I haven’t checked any of them out yet, but I’ll let you know how they are when I do.

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