The Marriage Plots

Experts used to tell straight couples they should get hitched and stay that way, no matter what. But one researcher told a different story: marriage was not only harder for women—it could actually ruin their lives.

There are three kinds of marriage. You see them if or when you marry for the first time. There is my marriage, which is special: distinct, complex, it defies easy categorization. There is your marriage, which is evidence of how (I think) your values have served or failed you. Then there is marriage, the category that presumes an ideal exists at all, while other marriages are lost along the fringe. But all marriages are turned into stories—the one we keep private and the one we make public; the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we tell our families; the ones we tell while the marriage is intact and the ones we tell after a divorce. For some people, collecting these stories are a pastime—or profession.

In early October, I saw Esther Perel, the author, podcast host, and in-demand psychotherapist, speak to a packed house as part of the New Yorker Festival. I sat behind two women discussing their self-help books in progress (one was writing her own, the other was reading a well-known title). The rest of the row was taken up by two husbands and two wives, seemingly on a double date. The crowd was the exact overlap of people who could afford a ticket to see Perel speak at the festival but could not afford an hour of her therapy.

Perel entered to enthusiastic yet respectful applause, joined by the book critic Alexandra Schwartz. Before their conversation started, Perel asked the house to turn up the lights so we, the audience, could see each other as well as we saw her. We began with a series of small, increasingly revealing group exercises: Perel asked us to stand if we owed someone an apology. Then she asked us to stand if we were in a relationship—and told us to stay standing if we wished we were not in a relationship. These intimate disclosures made obvious to a crowd should have been embarrassing, but everyone seemed ready and willing in the space Perel commanded.

Historically, the field of relationship experts has been rife with people who use shame, intimidation, or regressive thinking to counsel troubled couples—with an emphasis on keeping people married, at any cost. But Perel takes a balanced and fair view of marriage, as something that is knowable but not natural. In her best-selling 2006 book Mating in Captivity, Perel offers both a history of romantic commitment and a counterpoint to some of the more insidious ideas about love and sex disguised as tradition (such as whether monogamy is inherently a moral practice, or simply the most common). Her success is best measured by the metrics of our contemporary prophets: the tens of millions of views on her TED talks; the thousands of replies that she says she received to a casting call for her podcast, Where Should We Begin, which follows one anonymized couple per episode through an intake session with Perel.

Once, this kind of nakedness would have been unthinkable. Your marriage was what you showed to the world, while your relationship was what happened behind closed doors. The stigma of admitting unhappiness or incompatibility was a steel trap. Now, the stories we tell about marriage rely on a common understanding of it as a struggle, a labor—something we think we’re supposed to want, even when we know the statistics are not in our favor.


In many ways, Perel’s work is about collecting narratives and then making sense of them. As I looked around the crowd, I saw it was mostly couples—presumably, people who had already agreed that a marriage is a story, and a story needs an audience.

That there are two sides to every story is a cliché. That there are two stories to every marriage is almost a science. Years before Perel was leading strangers through public group therapy, researchers in postwar North America were trying to study the truth about marriage. From the late 1940s to well into the 1960s, they kept running into the same issue: shouldn’t a husband and wife, when asked the same questions, give the same answers? Usually, they did not, a phenomenon that became known as “discrepant responses.”

Often (although not always), the couple would agree about facts, such as how many children they had, or their address. When asked about less verifiable elements of the relationship, men and women seemed to be describing different marriages. How often they spoke to each other, to friends, to their children. How often they had sex. How often they shared chores or split household tasks. Who made the decisions. Who had the power. Overwhelmingly, men reported happiness with their marriage, while women reported despair.

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Researchers wondered if it was an issue of methodology. Maybe the couples didn’t understand the questions. Then, in 1968, Jessie Bernard, a recently retired professor emerita of sociology at Penn State, started to wonder about a different methodological issue: did researchers understand the couples’ answers?

That question, and the way Bernard answered it, would have a profound effect on the field of sociology, the practice of therapy, and even—in less easily quantifiable but deeply felt ways—how ordinary people would talk about and understand their own relationships. In 1972, Bernard published her book The Future of Marriage, arguing that couples’ responses were not and had never been discrepant. Her predecessors had assumed that they would find a coherent narrative within a marriage—that the average married couple would see themselves as an us united against the world. Instead, Bernard found there were as many stories as there were spouses—that, in fact, researchers should expect to see “his” marriage and “her” marriage. It had never been about us versus them; married people really saw their marriages as me versus you.

The stories we tell about marriage rely on a common understanding of it as a struggle, a labor—something we think we’re supposed to want, even when we know the statistics are not in our favor.

Bernard, who studied the way gender influenced a person’s encounters with the world, was retired and in her 60s before she first identified as a feminist, and she was 69 when The Future of Marriage was published. At the time, white heterosexual marriage was a norm enforced at the expense of all other forms of love and commitment. Laws against sodomy had only just begun to be repealed. It was five years after Loving v. Virginia made interracial marriage legal in all 50 states, more than 40 years before gay marriage would be legalized in same, and decades before no-fault divorce would become readily or widely accessible across the country.

Against this background, gender acted as an easy expression of power, a shorthand for who had greater social leverage over the other. It was Bernard who suggested that not only were a husband’s and wife’s stories different, but that, in a traditional heterosexual marriage, the husband’s life would improve while the wife’s would decline. In the ten-year anniversary edition of The Future of Marriage, Bernard writes that when she started the book in 1968, she approached the subject naively, thinking she would only have to put her research into a systematic framework. Instead, with every passing year, month, week, or day she found herself with a new draft, a new idea; she describes the “breathless pace” of a greater feminist consciousness being raised and social codes revealed, in a new light, as shadows. Bernard’s focus had two tracks: what is the nature of a commitment that turns a relationship into a marriage, and what lifestyles accompany that commitment once it’s been established? The questions, Bernard knew, had the qualities of being both urgent and useless. By the time we know enough to criticize our norms, they have already lost their hold on us.

Bernard writes that there are three ways of forecasting the future: predications based on historical trends, projections based on statistical curves, and prophecies based on what people say they want. Research trying to predict what would happen to marriage seemed, to Bernard, to be asking about “the controls on sexual behavior,” a defining concern of the 1970s. Free love had made it out to the suburbs, and writers and academics wondered if marriage could survive that much freedom. Would we discard the institution entirely in service of personal liberation?

Marriage had been the building block of American social order. Books and magazines alike aimed to convince women that their marriages were a full-time occupation, and that any problems they experienced were just in their heads or their responsibility to fix. Part of this came out of what Stephanie Coontz, the author of the 2005 volume Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, calls the “golden age of marriage in the West,” and what other historians call the “long decade of the 1950s,” a boom of domestic and economic stability in the United States that began in 1947 and lasted until the early 1960s. People married younger, divorce rates fell or held steady, more children were born, and, perhaps most crucially, wages rose quickly and steadily in the lower half of the middle-class population. In 1950, Coontz writes, only 16 percent of children in the United States had mothers who made money working outside the home, a percentage that had never been that low before and would never be that low again.

It is not just that experts and advisers had reason to believe these trends would continue; it is that they wanted them to continue. They spoke to and about the American family as though, with the right guidance, everyone in the country could be swayed in the right direction, toward the overwhelmingly conservative vision of marriage still present today: one man, one woman, the kids, the car, a house with an American flag on the porch.

Bernard’s research revealed that this social good was one-sided. She writes that there were “few findings more consistent, less equivocal, more convincing than the sometimes spectacular and always impressive superiority on almost every index—demographic, psychological, or social—of married over never-married men.” It was so reliable that insurance companies factored it into their clients’ life expectancies. “The value of marriage for sheer male survival is itself remarkable,” says Bernard.

But married women showed much more uniformly depressing results. More married than unmarried women reported feelings of anxiety and unhappiness; they were more likely to feel passive and phobic. Bernard calls this the “shock theory of marriage,” the idea that marriage “introduced such profound discontinuities into the lives of women as to constitute [a] genuine emotional health hazard.” Marriage made the women in her studies feel themselves to be less independent, less impulsive; their self-image declined the longer they stayed married. One study cited by Bernard showed that 73 percent of husbands tended to overestimate their own power, while 70 percent of wives underestimated theirs. Both spouses were deferring, the subjects explained, to who they thought had “the right” to make a decision—in this case, the man—and conforming their marriage to this presumed model. When Bernard concludes the portion of the book detailing this concept, she summarizes the current state of marriage with a cutting analysis: “His, not bad, and getting better; hers, not good, and badly in need of change.”

In March 1970, about 100 women staged a sit-in in the office of John Mack Carter, Ladies’ Home Journal’s editor and publisher, and demanded a “liberated” issue of the publication. Part of the protest focused on one of the magazine’s longest-running features: a column first called “Making Marriage Work” when it debuted in the December 1947 issue of the Journal, and later rebooted as “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” (The answer was almost always “yes.”) It was initially intended to be a seven-part series beginning in January 1953, but ran in the magazine for about 60 years.

The protesters thought “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” was emblematic of the ways in which the magazine demeaned its readers—and the writer and critic Ellen Willis, a member of the feminist collective participating in the strike, supposedly said that they should rename the column “Can This Marriage.” The Journal gave in to the protesters’ demands and agreed to publish the liberated edition—and when they did, in August 1970, they offered a column called “Should This Marriage Be Saved?” in which Barbara, a young wife and mother of three, decided that her marriage, for once, should not. The column also included “A Bill of Rights for Divorced Women,” with the goal of “meaningful change in the family system.”

“The value of marriage for sheer male survival is itself remarkable.”

The attitudes of marriage counselors reflected the same shifts. In the 1950s, counselors had considered unhappy clients to be too immature for their marriages; they chided women for not working hard enough at making a happy home. In the 1960s and ’70s, people began to talk a lot about “communication,” a slightly more egalitarian distribution of blame between couples. “Conjoint marital therapy”—today we call it “couples counseling”—was introduced, allowing therapists of all kinds to see what happened when spouses spoke to each other rather than relying on one side’s interpretation of events. Practitioners began to wonder if they should be helping people adapt to divorced life rather than pressuring them to stay married; the editors of Ms. and Redbook frequently published stories of women who were relieved to end their marriages.

This was the field when Bernard entered, and she expanded it, with a crucial sociological reading of what it was really like to be married. By the time her studies were published, the culture was primed to read these unions—and divorces—in a completely new way. Soon after The Future of Marriage was released in 1972, it was followed by therapist-penned books like Creative Divorce: A New Opportunity for Personal Growth (1973) and The Courage to Divorce (1974).

Like a vein, stories narrow the farther they get from the heart. They constrict what’s possible. To agree on what marriage is requires agreeing on a unified version of history. There are, Bernard wrote, as many possibilities for what happened as what is still to come. What was common was not necessarily total; what was average was not always thought to be normal. Does marriage have a single past? No, says Bernard. It has as many pasts as it has futures: “For the past has been as varied as the present, with a meandering course and scores of tributaries, large and small, and many potential futures.” Later, she writes one of the most beautiful sentences I’ve ever read: “The future does not hit everyone at the same time.”

At Esther Perel’s event in October, there was a question-and-answer session, and people lined up to share the specifics of their lives—their searches for second spouses, their anxieties about new marriages. I paid particular attention to one woman. She wanted the therapist’s advice on what she considered an infidelity in friendship: after 40 years, she said, she and her husband were horrified to learn that their best friends had opened their relationship and were identifying as polyamorous. She did not want to support what she considered immoral behavior. Perel gently asked the woman to think about what she considered so abhorrent about polyamory, and to reconsider making such a harsh judgment before ending the friendship.

As with many questions of social graces and small units of intimacy, I could see that both Perel and this other woman were right. I, too, have experienced a tense conversation where I couldn’t decide what I was more afraid of, keeping secrets or telling the truth, too afraid of being judged to speak. I, too, have had to listen to a polyamorous couple describe the terms of their relationship. Neither experience caused permanent pain, but I wouldn’t volunteer to sit through either again. It is the feeling of distance I remember most. I could see, in those conversations, the space between myself and the person across from me grow wider than was safe to cross, and no words seemed to work. It’s not just inside a marriage that we struggle with competing narratives.

After my divorce, I read lots of books and said very little about what had happened to my relationship, grateful for the work of women like Bernard and Perel but hesitant to turn my life into a case study. I was sensitive to what I saw as the constant search for storytellers who would make sense out of our lives—the prophets, the experts, the memoirists, or some combination of all three—and the repetition of a narrative that moves us forward. But that repetition is inevitable. Theories and studies have the most impact in the moment we encounter them, and a habit of dissipating on the drive home. Our ideas need a lot of infrastructure.

On the way out of the theater, I found myself behind the woman who’d asked about how to deal with polyamorous friends. She stood with someone who I took to be her husband. “That’s easy for Esther to say,” the man was saying to the woman. “She doesn’t have to have dinner with them.”

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