The last few years have seen some good news about divorce rates – that is, that they’ve held steady after years of climbing and are maybe even starting to decline. The problem is that they were really high to begin with, and it still seems like around 50 percent of marriages end in divorce (with subsequent marriages ending at higher rates than that) and a large portion of the ones that do stay together are relatively unhappy. For something so important and so potentially fulfilling (and so damaging to the soul when it goes wrong), this should be an out-and-out crisis. Yet, while we’re socialized to be competitive about everything else – jobs, appearances, the appearances of our life partner – being “the best husband” or “the best wife” is conspicuously absent from this list.With a chance as good as half, is a marriage working out really just a matter of probability? This one guy got divorced and didn’t like it so he started writing about it and his words exploded with popularity…mostly among women. Infuriating (I’m a woman so his words rang bell-true), but not surprising (speaking of infuriating, most of the comments are a top-notch exercise in missing the point while simultaneously illustrating the one the author’s trying to make). I’m not about to rag on how men are either clueless or absent or overly absorbed in their work – those things can all be true about women, too. But sexism is alive and well; I’m more and more convinced that all the 1960s did was give women permission to be more like men, and that’s not helpful since men and women are actually different. Could this account for why way too many marriages fail?
There’s one difference in particular that I think might. Girls are not told the same things about marriage as boys are. Girls are raised and socialized to believe that their worth depends on their attachment to a man and that she isn’t a real woman (or really a real person) until she “gets someone” to marry her. If you question this, just look at how many movies score well on The Bechtel Test (to pass, the movie needs to have (1) two female characters (2) who talk to each other (3) on screen (4) about something other than a man). We certainly do teach our girls, indirectly (sometimes the more powerful of the two options) and everywhere, that marriage is the pinnacle of success and don’t give safe spaces for girls to process whatever ambivalence they may have about this: the presence of a man does decrease the amount of street harassment a woman will face on a given day; yet the number one threat to women is men. We teach girls that being grown up means being ready to sacrifice everything, including their name, for a guy whose “ultimate” proof of love is some shiny thing he could buy.
We teach boys something else. We teach boys that their value comes from what they can do. In capitalism, that translates to their work (how else to afford that ring?) and how well they do at it, which usually involves being better than other people. We actually don’t teach boys that they – not women – have the power to make or break a relationship. So when push comes to shove, the default priority for men is work. How painful for the woman who grew up being taught to value that single relationship more than anything else. How painful for the man to see himself failing. But they were set up for pain from the beginning – perhaps one reason so many marriages fail is because, in general, girls and boys are told, from very young ages, very different things about how to value and prioritize it. Maybe you specifically weren’t, but think of how a single guy in his 40s isn’t under nearly as much scrutiny as a woman in that same position is (“what’s wrong with her?” is almost an instinct to think, whereas maybe “he’s focusing on his career” might be the thought, if there was one at all, for the guy).
It’s not as easy as simply raising boys and girls to value both equally or to even choose their own path. It’s not like I don’t know any men who deeply want to get married or any women who very much want a career; so many want both. But it’s about more than personal choice; we simply do not have the kind of communal support for that kind of freedom. If a woman chooses to be single, she’s questioned; if she doesn’t choose to be but is, she’s pitied. If there is an equivalent focus on men’s relational status, I don’t know of it. I know of some men’s groups who focus on supporting one another in having great marriages, but it’s much more common for women to gather in that way, even in this crazy-liberal city I live in. Until we as a community value marriage and work – what you do matters, and love is a doing word, after all – as valid choices for anyone regardless of gender, I fear we’re going to keep seeing the same gender divide when it comes to trouble in heterosexual marriages and we’re not going to get very far in healing the wounds that come from failing to prioritize either the way they are meant to be.