Yet another article on the decline of marriage misses the point: if you want people to do something, try reminding them why it’s a good idea.
I’m not sure what else we will remember 2011 for, but on the conservative social commentary front it’s sure to go down in history as the year of the Who Ruined Marriage Blame Game. Back in February, we had Kay Hymowitz’s much-touted indictment of video games and cheap beer. Now, as the year draws to a close, Suzanne Venker fires back—for the other team. At NRO this week, Venker pins the downfall of marriage not on delayed male maturity but on the feminist movement and, more basically, on her own sex.
Women, in Venker’s view, seem to be guilty of three cardinal sins. Firstly, they’ve been fooled by the feminist movement into seeking worldly power ill-suited to their feminine nature and to the basic dynamic of marriage. Secondly, they don’t cook enough. Thirdly, they are frigid.
I agree with Venker about one thing: I think there is a way in which the feminist movement has done women a great disservice. When it characterized parity between the sexes as perfect coextension of behavior and equal degrees of sexual licentiousness—and, perhaps most of all, when it framed the movement toward equality as a power struggle—it set the stage for a dynamic that could truly help members of neither sex. Marriage, as a relationship of persons, eschews the exercise of power by either spouse over the other. It demands complementarity, fidelity, and permanence. Feminism injures all of these things. To the degree that this is Venker’s point, I endorse it completely and I wish she would say it a little more clearly.
Beyond that point, Venker’s argument leaves me dissatisfied. I think she’s right that marriage requires self-sacrifice, and that self-sacrifice requires maturity; I’m not sure why she thinks that modern women lack this maturity any more than modern men do. I think she’s right that no-fault divorces (and, I would add, widespread acceptance of the contraceptive mentality) damage marriage, but she presents no proof beyond assertion that the modern attachment to these inventions is a characteristically feminine one.
On top of which, for all Venker’s talk of the differences between men and women—which I agree exist, and which demand both celebration and a certain amount of accommodation—she seems guilty of an odd inconsistency. She excoriates women for demanding that men “adapt their nature to accommodate the needs of women.” At the same time, she argues that women in successful marriages “put on their feminine hat [apparently there’s only one hat] and let men be who they are.” Unless I’m misreading her, Venker thinks that marriage only demands flexibility from half of its population. The female half.
But the thing that troubles me most about Venker’s argument is its futility. If Venker really wants women to find happiness in marriage (and I am willing to believe that her shock-treatment article is a sincere, if ill-argued, effort to that end) she needs to stop talking about who’s to blame—and so do all the rest of us.
Nobody who cares about marriage disagrees that it’s in trouble. And the easiest thing to do when a fundamental societal institution is on the verge of collapse is find someone to blame. It’s men’s fault. No, it’s women’s fault. No, it’s the church’s fault. Blame it on no-fault divorce. Blame it on television. Blame it on the Pill. And probably all of the potential scapegoats in that litany are partially responsible for the decline of marriage—but pointing our fingers at them isn’t going to help.
Venker’s right. Real marriage isn’t a power struggle. Real marriage is about two people seeing the good in each other and choosing to spend every day for the rest of their lives seeking that good for one another. Together. Real marriage is about mutual self-sacrifice and mutual generosity and a mutual willingness to care for the other, to consider the needs of the other and place them before one’s own. It is complete reciprocal self-gift, received in joy and continuously poured out in lots and lots and lots of really hard work.
Marriage is also about the family and about the community. It is fruitful and life-giving. It exists in a broader context, upholding and upheld by the fabric of the society around it. Marriages need communities, and communities need marriages, and the whole-hearted pursuit of family life is the most valuable contribution a couple can make to the world.
Marriage is so good. It’s so beautiful. And the way to restore it is not to proclaim to the world who is to blame for its degradation. I find it hard to believe that men will be suddenly inspired to go out and get married by articles telling them to get off their bums and accept some responsibility for a change. I find it equally hard to believe that women will be rendered more amenable to the reality of marriage by articles telling them, quite literally, to set down their briefcases and bake some pie. Pace both Hymowitz and Venker, the way to restore marriage is to remind people how good it is.
It is the inevitable reflex of the opinion writer to anticipate, as soon as she reaches the end of a piece, the primary mode its readers will choose to attack it—and so I cannot resist a final disclaimer: read carefully before you accuse me of flighty romanticism. I am not advocating the promulgation of a fairy tale as the solution to the marriage problem—just go back up and count the number of times I put “lots” in front of “really hard work.” I’m arguing that a renewed widespread acceptance of the nitty-gritty realities that married life entails will only be possible when the relentless demands of that life are framed, as they ought to be, in the even more persistent truth that embracing something demanding and all-encompassing and costly can (and will, if we let it) really and truly help us flourish.
Miriel Thomas Reneau is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She has served as an ISI Honors Fellow, a John Jay Fellow, and an American Enterprise Institute policy analyst in constitutional studies. She endures many a sleepless night, though reports differ on whether this is due to her concern over federal courts’ equity jurisdiction or her addiction to caramel lattes. In her daytime hours, she can be found defending St. Augustine against Calvinist co-optation and T. S. Eliot against everyone.