Marriage as Work vs Marriage as the Cross

From the department of Those Who Can’t Do and/or Fools Rush In, so as always, this post is worth at most what you paid for it:

Conservatives often argue that Americans have a Disneyfied, “soulmate” view of marriage, which makes us unprepared for the fact that marriage–like all vocations–can be terribly hard. I don’t think that’s quite right. We do have a cultural vocabulary for talking about the “hard parts” of marriage. The problem is that we have only one vocabulary, only one metaphor; and it’s a metaphor which resonates with the fix-it, prosperity-gospel elements in the American character.

Our one vocabulary for talking about the woe that is in marriage is the idea that “marriage is hard work.” You hear this everywhere. The internet is flooded with quizzes and ten-tips-to for people who are “working on their marriages.” This language is widespread enough to generate backlash: Laura Kipnis’s sort of silly Against Love made the heartfelt point that we have work to be work; do we really need love to be work too?

Marriage is hard work. There are skills you can learn and practice. You can do stuff, sometimes: You can learn to talk about feelings you’d rather protect from judgment in the silence of your heart. You can practice gratitude, reminding yourself of all the things your spouse has done for you, maybe even making one of those ultra-American gratitude lists which you update every night before bed. You can improve things, sometimes.

But also, marriage can be the Cross. There will be times, maybe long times, or maybe long times with frequent reprieves, when you just have to hang on and be patient. There will be times when you just don’t have time or energy to “work on your marriage.” There will be times when really the person who needs work is your spouse, and you’re unlikely to be able to do someone else’s penance for him.

Losing this vocabulary of patience and taking up one’s cross has a few negative effects on us. First, if the only response to difficulties in marriage is “work harder,” we judge ourselves and others when our/their hard work doesn’t pay off. We expect payment for work done, and when our spouse doesn’t change, it’s natural to feel resentment. In the metaphor of “marriage as work” there’s no place for that resentment to go, no way to dissolve it: When will you pay me, say the bells of Old Bailey? The metaphor focuses our attention on the work we’re doing and what we’re owed for it.

Or, if other people’s marriages manifestly aren’t improving, we judge them (or give them the kind of advice which feels like judgment, it’s not like I’m innocent here) and tell them to work harder or work smarter.

We keep pretending that we live in these meritocratic systems: the financial meritocracy, of course, but also the meritocracy of mental health; and the meritocracy of marriage. But not everything can be earned or fixed. It’s “Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t heal,” not “Earth has no sorrow that sincere effort and good advice can’t heal.”

Second, our diminished vocabulary keeps us from seeing how real marriages actually get through difficult times. Sometimes the marriage gets better because the spouses learn to communicate, or see a counselor, or whatever (although a lot of the time there’s a causation/correlation thing here, where people’s willingness to do what it takes is more important than the specific techniques or skills the counselor teaches them). But a lot of marriages just get through their hard times by waiting. Part of the way marriage sustains love is that the promise to stick together gives the spouses time.

The spouses wear one another down, reshape one another like trees twisted by wind or rocks carved by the sea. You learn to accept things which would have been “dealbreakers.” You do the impossible, the things you can’t imagine anybody doing or enduring. These are things which happen in what everybody would consider “good marriages,” as well as in ones which are obviously more challenged.

And third, our diminished vocabulary keeps us from honoring those who do take up their cross within marriage. This is the flip side of judgment: Spouses judge themselves so harshly for problems in their marriages, and rarely recognize the beauty in their continuing sacrifices, the beauty in the ways that they’ve been reshaped. There’s beauty (or at least sublimity…) in learning to accept another person at his worst, in shedding our own preferences, in accepting our own powerlessness to fix or heal another person.

None of this is a brief against working on your marriage; and it isn’t a brief against divorce, actually. I’ve counseled women struggling to leave abusive relationships, including marriages (and there’s a separate post to be written about the role of judgment in keeping women in abusive relationships and the role of unconditional acceptance in helping them leave), and my point here is not to tell you whether to remain in any specific marriage. [eta: this is about civil divorce; obviously as a Catholic I believe the sacrament of marriage is indissoluble] People divorce for a lot of reasons, often good ones, and I am not trying to tell you, “Stay there and suffer” (or “You’d be happy if you just learned to suffer”!) as a blanket rule.

My sole point is that our vocabulary for how suffering occurs in marriage, what it means, and how it might be relieved or understood has narrowed in a way which makes it harder for love to last; and harder for friends, families, and counselors to support struggling couples.

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