Today I continue my examination of Laura Kipnis’s anti-marriage article. See yesterday’s post for the first part. I meant to provide a disclaimer yesterday: Laura Kipnis holds a couple of advanced academic degrees (her Northwestern University bio lists them as a BFA, an MFA, and an independent study program at the Whitney Museum) whereas I hold a bachelor’s degree in journalism, which took me seven years to obtain. She approaches her topic from an analytical, academic (though I might also add slanted) perspective whereas I address it based on life experience and anecdotal observation. That could account for many of our differences of opinion.
Let us contemplate the everyday living conditions of this rather large percentage of the population, this self-reportedly unhappily married majority: all those households submersed in low-level misery and soul-deadening tedium, early graves in all respects but the most forensic. Regard those couples – we all know them, perhaps we are them – the bickering; the reek of unsatisfied desires and unmet needs; a populace downing anti-depressants, along with whatever other forms of creative self-medication are most easily at hand, from triple martinis to serial adultery.
No doubt these conditions do exist in many homes. Unhappy people often self-medicate with whatever is at hand, be it pharmaceuticals, alcohol, pornography, or multiple sexual partners. But these are all symptoms of individual and specific problems needing attention, not an institution needing annihilation.
Yes, we all know that domesticity has its advantages: companionship, shared housing costs, childrearing convenience, reassuring predictability, occasional sex, and many other benefits too varied to list. But there are numerous disadvantages as well – though it is considered unseemly to enumerate them – most of which are so structured into the expectations of contemporary coupledom that they have come to seem utterly natural and inevitable. But are they?
This touches on an important topic. If I could give advice to every young couple contemplating marriage, I would tell them this: “Before you marry, you need a good reason to do so that does not include the phrase ‘because we’re in love.’ If you base your marriage on ‘being in love,’ then your marriage will fail because that feeling does not last. If you base your marriage on something of actual substance, then that feeling can grow into something more wonderful than you can imagine. But ‘in love,’ if that is all you have, falls apart at the first serious conflict.”
That’s just sort of a sidebar. Kipnis gets to her real point in the next paragraph.
Consider, for instance, the endless regulations and interdictions that provide the texture of domestic coupledom. Is there any area of married life that is not crisscrossed by rules and strictures about everything from how you load the dishwasher, to what you can say at dinner parties, to what you do on your day off, to how you drive – along with what you eat, drink, wear, make jokes about, spend your discretionary income on?
Is there anything, any endeavor in this entire world, that does not include rules and strictures to somehow govern our behavior? Any activity, any situation, any and every bit of our lives that involves contact with other people carries with it rules of etiquette, if not law, regarding acceptable conduct. True, as long as I live with my wife I have to take her feelings into account with nearly every decision I make. If I get the urge to drink a gallon of vodka and sing Dont’ Worry Be Happy at the top of my lungs for four hours, I resist. That may be “unnatural,” but anything else would be uncivilized. If we do away with marriage because it does not allow us to act in any way we please, then we must also do away with society in general.
What is it about marriage that turns nice-enough people into petty dictators and household tyrants, for whom criticising another person’s habits or foibles becomes a conversational staple, the default setting of domestic communication? Or whose favourite marital recreational activity is mate behaviour modification? Anyone can play – and everyone does. What is it about modern coupledom that makes policing another person’s behaviour a synonym for intimacy? (Or is it something about the conditions of modern life itself: is domesticity a venue for control because most of us have so little of it elsewhere?)
Replace the word marriage with academia in that paragraph and you have a better question. The truth is that selfish people, married or not, are by definition self-centered and behave in ways that benefit themselves and hurt others. Kipnis’ argument here is begging the question. Marriage doesn’t make people selfish and controlling. Selfish and controlling people make marriage miserable.
Then there’s the fundamental premise of monogamous marriage: that mutual desire can and will last throughout a lifetime. And if it doesn’t? Well apparently you’re just supposed to give up on sex, since waning desire for your mate is never an adequate defence for ‘looking elsewhere’. At the same time, let’s not forget how many booming businesses and new technologies have arisen to prop up sagging marital desire. Consider all the investment opportunities afforded: Viagra, couples pornography, therapy. If upholding monogamy in the absence of desire weren’t a social dictate, how many enterprises would immediately fail? (Could dead marriages be good for the economy?)
I believe this is what professional debaters call knocking down a straw man, assigning an indefensible argument to an opponent in order to argue decisively against it and score an easy victory. “…mutual desire can and will last throughout a lifetime”? Is that really “the fundamental premise of monogamous marriage”? I have never in my life heard anyone make that ridiculous claim. In fact, I would bet that every happily married couple will tell you that desire ebbs and flows, that sometimes you like your spouse and sometimes you don’t, that sometimes you pursue sex with real gusto and sometimes you just don’t feel like it. But love and commitment infuse real joy into a passionate relationship and keep a couple content when desires cool.
Kipnis also seems to be implying here that the main purpose of sex is physical gratification—a common but fundamental misunderstanding. Sex in its purest and most satisfying form is a physical union between two people who share their entire lives with each other. Active love and unshakeable, exclusive commitment in a marriage inspire desire.
I will finish this tomorrow.