Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A Postmodern Marriage

A woman in a postmodern marriage writes to New York Magazine’s advice columnist, Ask Polly, to ask whether she should divorce her husband.

The short answer is: No.

On that Polly seems to concur. On the question of what is going on in the marriage, Polly offers an astute analysis. The two spouses are playing for different teams. They do not cooperate; they do not work together; they do not make decisions jointly. They are constantly at each other’s throats… bickering and arguing about every decision. They are not spouses; they are antagonists.

As for what the couple should do to solve their problem, Polly descends into her favorite fever swamps and goes on at length about how the man needs therapy and how they should both feel their feelings and empathize with each other. It’s mental drool, but, given that Polly’s analysis of the state of the marriage is on point, we are inclined to ignore her flights of feeling.

One thing that’s wrong with the marriage is simply: the lack of resources. This postmodern man earned a windfall from his work in tech. So he quit and decided to become a photographer. Nothing like getting out of the corporate rat race and doing something creative. We do not know how great a photographer he is, but, in truth, he is not bringing in enough money to support his family. Period. And he now resents his wife for having had two children… and for not contributing to the family coffers.

He is self-involved. He blames his wife for the fact that they had two children. Apparently, he thinks that the children served as an impediment to his having a career as a photographer. And he does not do very much by way of housekeeping and childcare. His wife is outraged at his failure to do housework and to support the family.

As I said, we are seeing a postmodern couple jump off the rat race into the void. The man seemed not to understand that spending all your money leaves you with no money. And he did not understand that working for a good living was a good thing. As it happened, his wife nearly had to blackmail him into having children… which is a bad approach to the childrearing issue.

But, he did not seem to understand biological realities or the fact that a woman who is approaching 35 will normally want to have children. He did not understand that when you marry a young woman, children are part of the deal. If he did not want to have children with her, he should not have married her. Clearly, she resents his selfishness. She is right to do so.

Once he discovered that he needed to find a job, he found one and another and another. Somehow they did not work out very well. And they did not pay very well. Obviously, the problem was his, because he did not prepare to be a breadwinner. And once the obligation presented itself, he did not know what to do.

Of course, the culture has taught us all that the role of breadwinner is outmoded and regressive. This story shows what happens when a man walks away from an apparently good job when he is young and has no sense of the future. Nothing good.

Polly remarks the relationship dynamic when the family outgrows its apartment in a toney section of Brooklyn. The wife goes out and finds new place, in a considerably less toney neighborhood. Husband thinks that it’s a move downward and balks. Wife threatens him with divorce. He gives in. Such is their relationship dynamic.

The letter writer explains it:

By the time the little one turned 2, it was clear that the 800-square-foot apartment in Cobble Hill with the gorgeous high ceilings just wasn’t working. I found a duplex in Bed-Stuy with — wait for it — a basement AND a yard. A golden ticket! I told George, who promptly freaked the hell out. He’s never been super into change, and the previous nine years had severely drained his resources. He would not, could not, do it. And he was NOT happy about this less tawny address, despite the reality of his less tawny paycheck.

As with the baby ultimatum, I finally just told him: Look, I need this. Things are too hard. So move with me, or I’m moving alone. He moved with me, but under duress.

The role of breadwinner might be outmoded, but she disparages her husband for his inability to act the role.

He blames her and she blames him. They are not getting along. They are not sleeping in the same bed. They are not very happy.

And yet, they seem to be reconciling. After all, if they can barely afford an apartment in Bed-Stuy, they can certainly not afford two rents.

In passing, the writer explains that his parents have been helping to support the family. When the unhappy couple moved to Portland, his parents moved to be near them… and perhaps even to help out caring for the children. As of now, the couple moved back to New York and penury. His parents are still in Portland… they love it there. Yet, they are tired of being the couple's piggy bank.

As it happens, things have calmed down. Letter writer, dubbing herself Lost Mama, has calmed herself down. Things seem to be righting themselves… largely because husband is looking for a better paying job.

She writes:

Lately things have equalized for reasons I don’t totally understand. A lot of my anger has burned itself out. I feel less antagonistic, less willing to take on every power struggle. I am getting more and more glimpses of the guy he can be — the sweet, unguarded, devoted, albeit lazy, somewhat delusional, guy. We are laughing more. He is looking for a better-paying job. We are still not meeting our expenses but can see an eventual future when we might. He is making token efforts around the house. The girls are happy seeing us together.

I’m starting to feel alarmingly comfortable. The communication hasn’t improved, so it’s pretty much impossible to know if the closet is just locked or actually less packed with crap. He is still an insufferable control freak who wants all the credit for his 20 percent effort much of the time. He continues to have surprisingly little insight into what makes him tick. He still sleeps downstairs. We still (mostly) don’t have sex.

So, things are moving in a good direction. The issue is: when will husband find a job that allows him to become a competent breadwinner. Could it be that his efforts are reassuring to his beleaguered wife? We hope for the best for the family.

As for Polly’s analysis of the situation, as I said, she is largely correct:

You and your husband are playing for opposing teams. When you want something, you defeat him to get it. When he wants something, you roll your eyes at it. Even when you make choices together — Let’s move to Portland! — the consequences of those choices are used to blame each other. “This was your decision, not mine!” is something married couples should never say to each other, least of all about something as big as a child or a move or a career change. It’s not just incredibly unforgiving, it’s inaccurate: Someone else made you have a kid? Someone made you take a job you didn’t want? You couldn’t stand up for what you wanted?

Of course, the husband does not need therapy. And the couple does not need to share feelings. They need to learn how to work together, to cooperate and to compromise. More than that, they need to reinvent the wheel. That is, they need to get over their culturally conditioned attitudes toward gender roles. They have wasted a considerable amount of time and energy discovering something that earlier generations knew from the start.


Ares Olympus said...

A real mess. Compromise is the answer, but I don't see how you get there without feelings. If feelings don't matter, the man should just walk away and abandon his family, disappear, and pursue his passions and start a family later if it works out.

trigger warning said...

"If feelings don't matter, the man should just walk away and abandon his family, disappear, and pursue his passions and start a family later if it works out."

That's bizarre.

Anonymous said...

"That's bizzare".

It's probably just "Minnesota Nice".
Might explain why I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

IMO, "Feelings"(Capital F) *are* the engine, and Reason is the steering and brakes.

A Ferrari can be a fabulous car.
Without steering and brakes to match that engine, it's just a smoking wreck on the first turn at the track.

- shoe

Trishapatk said...

Feelings are affected by a lot of things, including decisions, attitudes and the choice you make in how you view them and treat each other.

Trishapatk said...

You may know Dr. John Gottman as “the guy that can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy.” His life’s work on marital stability and divorce prediction has been well documented in the national media, and it was even featured in the #1 bestseller Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

After watching thousands of couples argue in his lab, he was able to identify specific negative communication patterns that predict divorce. He called them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and they are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Contempt is the most destructive of The Four Horsemen because it conveys, “I’m better than you. I don’t respect you.”

Trishapatk said...

I cut and pasted that from the Gottman site ... and should have said so.

The contempt part is interesting and who's to say whether she has contempt for him. It seems as though the letter writer has shown disrespect for her husband in so many ways, direct and indirect. My heart goes out to the man. What man doesn't want respect for what he is doing right? I do understand the woman desire for more stability and for improvement in the relationship itself but it sure seems as though her approach isn't one that'll be helpful.

Sam L. said...

I have to say I see the husband as bringing this down on his own head by quitting the job he had. Now he's trying to get back to earning more money, but the wife can't seem to appreciate his efforts.

Anonymous said...

You haven't truly seen a post-modern marriage until you attend a Muppets-themed wedding ceremony... In all fairness it wasn't bad, just a bit psychologically disorienting when Here Comes The Bride or Canon in D becomes the Muppet Show theme tune.