The World, C’est Moi

First, let me say I am terribly sorry to read about Sandra Tsing-Loh’s divorce which, according to her essay in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, apparently occurred after she could not meet a deadline imposed by her therapist for re-committing to her (still) husband after she enjoyed a brief affair. But I think in her desire to draw a greater social lesson from her experience (namely, that a long-term monogamous commitment to one partner is both unnatural and unnecessary), Tsing-Loh misses many important facts about how and why marriage works.

Marriage developed as a social and economic institution, designed to protect the family. This might explain why Americans remain more committed to the institution than Western Europeans, a fact Tsing-Loh spends a lot of time pondering. It’s not that we are more religious or more romantic or more credulous, as she finally concludes. It’s that our social support structures are, to put it kindly, a bit lacking. Marriage is, for better or worse, a social safety net in this country. A Western European single mom can count on such basics as government provided child care and health insurance. We can’t. The economic consequences are profound. To take one example, single mothers in the U.S. file for bankruptcy at significantly higher rates than their married counterparts.

Yes, long-term monogamous marriage comes with some serious downsides, like curtailment of freedom and a squelched individuality. Few would deny that it can, at times, feel quite boring and oppressive. (I wrote about this in my rather well known essay, The New Nanny Diaries are Online). Yet marriage survives, likely because it has much in common with Winston Churchill’s observation on democracy: It might well be one of the worst forms of male/female/family relations ever, except for all the other ones we’ve tried out.

There has always been a strand of self-righteousness in Tsing-Loh’s essays. In her view, what is true for her is true for all of us. The world, c’est moi. Take her otherwise excellent writing on the benefits of public education. She’s right in many ways and yet in her self-congratulation for resisting the lure of a $25,000 a year school she couldn’t afford she goes over the top. Anyone who has ever sent a child to a public school knows that even the best are far from trouble-free. The vast majority cannot compete educationally with the private sector. I always feel guilty when I first read Tsing-Loh’s evangelic education bromides since, after all, the vast majority of mothers of children at my sons school commit the Tsing-Loh sin of speaking English as a first language. But then I remember – my children do go to a public school! Yes, it commits the sin of being in the suburbs but it is economically diverse! We fight over budgets! And our mothers — many of them volunteer too. (Not me, by the way, but I’m willing to acknowledge that Tsing-Loh has me beat as a person on this issue.)

That streak of self-righteousness and self regard is present in this essay too. Take Tsing-Loh’s depictions of her friends’ marriages all of whom, it turns out, are as miserable as hers. They simply lack her moxie, her willingness to call it quits. This, frankly, defies belief. More likely, her unhappy friends confided in her and the others – well, they probably exercised tact and common sense. After all, if a friend came to you and said their marriage was over, would you respond by saying, “My husband is the greatest ever?” I don’t think so.

All this isn’t to attack Tsing-Loh for her decision. It’s possible –in fact quite likely – her marriage was a dysfunctional mess that needed to end. No one flippantly ends a two decades long marriage. I am just not convinced its demise holds any lessons for the rest of us except, perhaps, to avoid family therapists who impose arbitrary cut-off dates on you and yours.

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