The Real War on Marriage

The Real War on Marriage November 12, 2013

I know, I know. I just wrote a piece on marriage. However—it got heavy traffic, which tells me that marriage is on many people’s minds, a lot of the time. And it’s on mine again today. So, here you go.

I may be the only person you know who flips the car radio back and forth between Christian radio and NPR. And that’s a post for another day, but meantime; I was on said Christian radio station today, and heard a woman say a thing about the ‘attack on marriage’ in our country. And I started to sigh the sigh that says, ‘this is why regular people don’t take us seriously!!!” But then I caught myself and realized…wait a sec. I agree with her.  But with context.

The real attack on marriage has very little to do with the gays, with women in the workplace, or a with certain moral laxity that comes from not enough of us reading the Bible. Nor is the marriage crisis a symptom of being ‘liberal’ and thinking that divorce is ‘ok.’ Even the most progressive people I know think that divorce is tragic and heartbreaking, and should always be the last, least desirable option.

Still, there IS a war on marriage in our country—or at least, in our western culture. While it isn’t just an American phenom, we are especially vulnerable to certain destructive forces.  Here are just a few of the subtle and not so subtle environmental factors that may or may not be affecting our relationships—but are DEFINITELY affecting us more than somebody else’s right to marry.

  1. Ryan Gosling. Yes, I just said it. RYAN GOSLING IS RESPONSIBLE FOR  ESCALATING DIVORCE RATES. Ok, maybe not so much RG LITERALLY…but, the type of guy he plays in those Nicholas Sparks movies. Our love affair with rom-com has programmed us to expect a certain kind of sewn up, happily-ever-after-ness that affects real relationships adversely. The movies imply that you don’t really have to WORK for that sort of connection. If you are just clumsily adorable enough in someone’s general direction, they will fall in love with you, and then everything after that (so the ending credits imply) will be EASY. And still clumsily adorable.
  2. Kay Jewelry Commercials. No, ALL jewelry commercials. See the implications above re: fictional romantic expectations, but encapsulated into a nauseating 30-second image that you have to see over, and over, and over again, every day from now til Christmas. Then again til Valentine’s Day. And then Mother’s Day. You could also point the finger at jewelry companies for the ridiculous gender typing that can be harmful to relationships, but I think the real credit for that business goes to
  3. Fundamentalist churches and Disney. Because not every family fits in the box; because sexuality and the rules of attraction sometimes work on a sliding scale; because sometimes people need permission to do what works for their life/home/relationship, even if it does not amount to ‘the man is the spiritual head of the home while the woman’s PLACE is in the home; because when people get married they are often trying to fit into a role that, deep down, they know doesn’t really fit…But Mark Driscoll and Cinderella hold a mysterious power over our collective imagination.
  4. Money: too much. It’s a fact: people with too much money do not rely as heavily on others as perhaps is necessary for strong human connections. Also, as we gain wealth and come to expect ‘more,’ we work more. By and large, the 70-80 hour work week has come to be expected and acceptable, and it doesn’t take Oprah to figure out that is not good for our bodies, our spiritual life, or our families.
  5. Money: not enough. As more and more ‘regular’ Americans struggle just to make ends meet, the toll of that stress is devastating to relationships. And also, ironically, reinforces the 80-hour work week; for many, that’s what it takes just to pay rent and keep food on the table.
  6. Addiction and mental illness.  While more and more of us deal with it, the stigma around seeking help remains firmly in place. See #’s  1-3 re: why we don’t know how to cope with that which doesn’t fit in the box…
  7. Victoria’s Secret. And Cosmo. And Playboy. And even your mom’s Sear’s catalogue. We are plagued by tragic expectations of beauty, for ourselves and others. That hurts us, and causes us to hurt each other. Feeling like you’re fat can really kill your sex life. So can thinking that your significant other is ‘supposed’ to look like those airbrushed angels.
  8. Fear of death and aging. If there’s one thing we value as much as money and physical beauty, it’s youth. The aging process, and thoughts of mortality, freak us the *@^# out, and that is no secret.  And if we can’t deal with aging individually, we sure can’t deal with it gracefully in pairs.
  9. Social media. We make ourselves way too vulnerable to people we barely know. We have problems with boundaries. It is far too easy to connect with that old high school boyfriend, or that one girl you dated in college that never really amounted to much but you always wondered what if… AND THEN—at the same time, it is far too easy for people with jealous insecurities to imagine/invent stuff to freak out about. This is a viscous combination of realities.
  10. Zero sense of irony. When we are unhappy, we look less to our own brokenness, and look more for outside sources to blame, and/or fix us and make us whole.  This very real human tendancy takes on many forms. Sometimes it looks like infidelity; sometimes it looks like reality tv; and sometimes, it looks like anti-gay marriage legislation.

Hence, my sighs when people on the radio mention a war on marriage. Because, while there is one… I don’t think it means what they think it means.



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  • Linda Siegwald

    I agree about Disney leading to divorce, but for a different reason. Ever notice how none of the Disney “princesses” have a nuclear family unit while growing up? They all have missing mothers and sweet but distant fathers. No example of the work and compromise of a real marriage. Then they are swept off their feet (literally) and are off to “live happily ever after.” Roll credits. With no role models working at marriage and that unrealistic expectation, no wonder young women today think, if they are not happy in their relationship, they must have found the wrong guy! Divorce him and find that prince! Obviously, this is simplistic, but it is the brainwashing we are sharing with our daughters and granddaughters!

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      yes! some complex and multi layered stuff alright. not to say that one CAN’T have a happy marriage without role models, but still… I’ve always thought this was one of the gifts of being part of a faith community. whatever dynamic or relationship might be ‘missing’ in your own family, you have this extended group of people to fill all those needs and share in the raising of your kids (well, and the raising of you). it takes a village!

  • Eve Fisher

    Love the piece. In a consumer culture, where you have to keep people buying stuff in order to keep the economy going, everything has to be turned into a commodity – including relationships. Women have always been objectified (interestingly, just as much if not more by other women as by men – men don’t care if your bracelet matches your earrings, etc.), but now we have constant reminders of how far we fall short of the ultimate object, and how if we would only do this, or that…

    Re the hard work of marriage – I’ve been married almost 35 years, and plan to stay that way. When young people sigh, and say, how wonderful, all I can say is, there’s a reason why we old folks cry at weddings – we know what you’re about to go through, the daily grind, year after year, alone is enough to wear you out, much less any sudden tragedies along the way. Rom-coms never deal with any of that; it’s all cute and fun and we’re having a great time. No, sometimes we’re not. But you keep on anyway.

  • Meg Biallas

    I really loved this piece, Erin! I have so many thoughts, but I’ll just a share a few:

    – Ryan Gosling is definitely an issue, though I would argue that it goes back to “culture makers” like Nicholas Sparks. I saw him speak at the National Book Festival in DC a few years ago, and his attitude left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I think a course in media literacy should be required of every college (or high school) student. I learned that there are certain narratives perpetuated through mass media, and I’m certain that Sparks’ romantic love stories are part of that problem. Don’t get me wrong — I love a good chick flick, but I won’t seek them out; it’s just not good for the soul.

    – Addiction and mental illness is huge. To that, I would also add depression. As a young twenty-something, I have had more peers than I care to admit open up to me about their battles with depression. It can be a scary, overwhelming thing, and a good support structure of family and friends is key to lessening its hold over us.

    – Again, with jewelry commercials, this ties back to media/marketing and culture makers. Everyone is selling something, right? So if I view the world with that lens, I can take things (like jewelry commercial) more critically, and not buy into their ideas of happiness.

    Thanks for a great blog post — it certainly gave me a lot to think about!

  • Nancy Smith

    You are not the only one who flips between NPR and Christian stations. I do it too! I also love your pieces.