In his new book, The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century, Stephen Marche explores the current state of gender relations through a personal account of his nearly 20-year marriage—with footnotes from his wife, Sarah Fulford. A novelist (The Hunger of the Wolf) and a columnist for Esquire, his articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic and The Globe and Mail.
Rachel Giese writes about politics and culture for Chatelaine, where she is editor-at-large. Her work has appeared in The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Real Life and NewYorker.com. Her book about modern boyhood and masculinity is coming out in early 2018.
Marche and Giese were panellists together on CBC Radio’s arts and culture show, q. They both live in Toronto, where this conversation took place.
RG: Your book is about a modern marriage—your own—using it to look at how men and women relate to one another in the most intimate of relationships. It’s also a meditation on your own evolving sense of what it means to be a man. With that in mind, I was struck by two very different pictures of marriage on display during the U.S. presidential inauguration, when the old first family moved out of the White House and the new one moved in.
The Obamas are partners, two enormously smart and impossibly charismatic people who share a sustaining, loving and still flirtatious marriage, an almost idealized version of the companionate marriage that you talk about in your book. It’s unbalanced, of course, as any marriage involving the American president would be. Michelle Obama, like many women, was the one who had to put a pause on her ambitions and desires to support her
husband’s. She gave up her home in Chicago,
her privacy, her career and any sense of a normal life. What she made of that, though, was extraordinary: an enviable eight-year mid-life, mid-career sabbatical that allowed her to travel the world with her kids and mother, to seriously dedicate her time and energy to charitable causes, to act as a sounding board and moral support for her husband, and to hang out with Beyoncé. We should all be so lucky to make such sacrifices. What’s more, her husband’s esteem and respect for her are palpable.
Then you have the Trumps. From his string of infidelities and the accusations of sexual assault levelled against him, to the graceless way Donald Trump treated his wife, Melania, when he bounded up the stairs to the White House on inauguration day and left her to exit their car by herself, he could not be more different from Barack Obama in how he acts as a husband (never mind as a president).
As someone who has thought about what it means to be a husband and a partner, what do you make of Trump’s marriage? And how does it reflect upon him as a man and as a politician?
SM: One thing about marriages is that they are the ultimate black boxes. Nobody really knows what’s going on inside them. One of the reasons I decided to include my wife’s footnotes in the book, other than the fact that I thought they were so insightful in themselves, is that whenever I read about other people’s marriages, I always end up thinking, “that’s bullshit.” I mean, it’s not like they’re lying, but it’s always just one side of the story. And the thing that’s interesting about marriage is that it is doubled.
Now, that said, with the Obamas and the Trumps we have an incredibly distinct presentation of marriage. With the Obamas, you have this rather wonderful image of modern marriage, between equals, with sacrifices as you say. I mean, it must have been miserable for Michelle to go from being one of the top lawyers in Chicago to basically an aide-de-camp responsible for cutlery. But he’s a loveable guy. And it is the presidency.
Then we have Trump and Melania. Trump looks, I think, like a patriarch. People describe him that way. The neo-patriarchy. In fact, he is not. He is new. He is nothing like the patriarchs that the Republican Party coughed up in the primary. And his marriage reflects that. There will be no first lady in the White House anymore. Melania won’t even sacrifice New York for the presidency. He is not a traditional figure of masculinity. He is something new. And his marriage—the more or less complete unsentimentality of the arrangement—reflects that.
RG: I’d argue that the apparent lack of sentimentality in the Trumps’ marriage is traditional, if you cast back to those strategic medieval arrangements that were not about love, but rather about politics, economics or power. Or you don’t even have to go back that far to find a precursor for Trump in the mid-century cliché of the sleazy rich businessman chasing secretaries around his desk and dumping his aging wife (in Trump’s case, two of them) for a series of younger women.
Leaving presidential marriages aside, the question of what constitutes a non-traditional marriage in 2017 feels increasingly impossible to answer. In the last 50 or so years, the institution has undergone a revolution largely, but not exclusively, because of the feminist movement. Prior to the 1960s, marriages could be loving and supportive, but they couldn’t be equal. Not when women had little control over reproduction, not when domestic violence and marital rape were legal and when divorce required proof of fault, not when women could not buy a car or get a mortgage without their husband’s signature.
Women’s liberation forced a massive, momentous shift in marriage within the span of a generation or two, as well as an exodus from it. Today, as Rebecca Traister pointed out in her 2016 book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, only around 20 percent of Americans aged 18–29 are married, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960. Those who do wed now do so later and they also postpone having kids. (The Canadian trends are similar.) The upside for women is obvious: more freedom, more career opportunities, more economic and sexual agency. You make the less-heard case in your book that men benefit from women’s independence, too. How so? And since you brought up the patriarchy, in light of all this change, how’s it faring these days?
SM: There have been a couple of monumental shifts in marriage, but I am not sure they are inherently devaluing it. Far from it. It’s true that women under 30 marry a lot less. People in general marry a lot later. But the reason for that is that you don’t have to get married anymore in order to screw. Hence the rise of companionate marriage, which is the subject of The Unmade Bed. This, incidentally, has a great deal of other unintended consequences. Because people marry in order to have a companion, they tend to marry people of their own class, otherwise known as assortative mating, which is one of the main drivers of income inequality. And you’re right: it is new. But I cannot imagine many men want to go back to being patriarchs. It’s just a shitty job. Who wants to hold the sole responsibility for an entire family? Who wants to work all day and then have no fleshly experience of your own children? Who wants to have to go to war and then cover up forever all the scars? No wonder they drank so much.
I did a piece last year for The Guardian on The Red Pill, a misogynist online community hosted on Reddit, where men share tips on dating and so on—they all ultimately want a loving marriage. They want a marriage to a woman with a job.
RG: In regards to the manosphere, so much of the hostility toward women in that realm seems to come from a fear that the new order of gender relations has emasculated them and they are no longer sure of their place and their role within families. A lot of those guys seem to want women and hate women in equal measure.
Now that marriage is no longer an economical necessity for women—although women overall still earn less than men and still take far more of a salary hit when they have children—women can be choosier when it comes to a mate. For women, marriage is just one of many options for a fulfilling life. Certainly, many, many women want a partner and family, but the absence of that is no longer viewed as a crushing failure as it was 30 years ago when Newsweek ran a cover story saying a 40-year-old, single, white, college-educated woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married. (To be fair, the magazine retracted that stat in 2006.)
Where does that leave men? Does being married and having kids confer the same status on men as on women? Research shows that married men are healthier than single men, but is being a husband and father still a defining feature of manhood?
Plenty of guys, of course, are adapting just fine. Others, though, appear to be struggling to figure out what it means to be a husband and father when they no longer fit the traditional definition, when they are no longer the sole breadwinner, sole sexual aggressor, sole family protector. Are men having these kinds of conversations with each other? How does your role as a husband and father differ from how it was for your dad? Tell me about how you and your wife, Sarah, divide the money earning and domestic chores.
SM: The biggest point in the book, I think, is that men aren’t talking about this, whatsoever. I am doing quite a bit of publicity for The Unmade Bed right now. I have literally not spoken to a single man about it. In terms of thinking about gender, and gender negotiations, men are somewhere in the vicinity of 70 years behind women. There are very good reasons for this: manhood has always been intimately tied up with silence. There is nothing less manly than talking about manliness. At the same time, the great shift in gender relations, which is economically inevitable, has forced men into considerations of masculinity whether they like it or not. Women are used to thinking of femininity as a performance; men are not. But look at Trump. He is masculinity as a pure act. And men have no way to negotiate this new reality. We just go from show to show, not really understanding the meaning.
As for Sarah and me, I think we are fairly typical of a modern marriage in a big city. We try to make as much money as we possibly can. (We are journalists in the 21st century after all.) She cares way more about housework than I do, and we fight about it. I have to admit that I’ve been fascinated most by the response to the housework chapter in the book. My basic argument about housework is that everybody should do less of it. That’s what Simone de Beauvoir thought and Angela Davis, too. And the findings of the sociologists show that less and less of it is being done by both genders. But this read as some kind of excuse for men. “Why won’t men just clean up after themselves?” I thought the porn bit would shock, but no. It’s cleaning up.
RG: Entire university departments are devoted to gender studies and, in the end, it all comes down to the dishes! I should fess up and say that, as a lesbian, I’m also fascinated by how fraught the issue of chores becomes for straight couples.
It’s not that queer couples don’t fight about who takes out the garbage (we do) or that queer marriages are models of 50-50, split-everything-down-the-middle egalitarianism—they aren’t, particularly not when there are kids involved. In fact, I know more stay-at-home gay dads and lesbian moms than I do stay-at-home straight parents. We may resent our partners for not vacuuming, but who does or does not do housework isn’t charged with the same kind of baggage about gender roles and gender expectations.
I’ve been married as long as it has been legal for me—13 years—and I am often struck by how very new and unprecedented it is. There are queer couples who have been together for decades, but for at least some of that time their relationships had to be, to a degree, a secret, or at least discreet. It means I don’t have models for the life I’m building with my wife and son. I wish I did. But then, the benefit of having no models is that we are able to create our own rules, which is pretty liberating.
It’s too early to know whether queer people have happier marriages than straight people—among my circle I’m aware of a half-dozen lesbian divorces—but, absent tradition, we have had the freedom to customize our relationships. Lesbians tend to be serial monogamists, for instance, whereas gay men, once they settle down, tend to stay settled—although married gay men are also quite comfortable opening up their relationships. Dan Savage coined the term “monogamish” to describe a fairly typical arrangement, in which a gay couple is mostly faithful, but permitted the occasional fling.
Do you think the boundaries of straight marriage are able to stretch in this way? How important is sexual fidelity in a straight marriage?
SM: I love Dan Savage. I really do. I think he is one of the greatest relationship columnists of all time and the greatest sex columnist of all time, by far. But I think his practice has basically been to try to convince straight people to be as reasonable as gay people in their relationships, and it’s just not going to happen. The gay divorce rate is a little more than half what it is for straight couples. I think you’re right that it’s partly the fact that gay people have had to fight for their family structures—it is not simply a given that they accept it as a social fact. But I think there is another inherent advantage to gay marriage: the couples possess the same gender. In straight marriage, you are always negotiating across a chasm of difference. There is an inherent asymmetry in the business. Straight marriage is actually crooked.
I think that gender gulf means that straight marriages are much more fragile. Of course, there are exceptions, but almost all the straight couples who try these arrangements—at least when they’re honest about it—tend to collapse under the weight of their own optimism. That’s my experience anyway—in the WASP part of Canada, it should probably be added.
RG: Speaking of optimism and expectation: Esther Perel, the Belgian relationship therapist, has written and talked at length about the near-impossible burden placed on marriage today, particularly on companionate marriages. Here is what she said at a talk last year:
For the first time in history, we want one relationship to give us all the needs that have to do with anchoring and rooting and a sense of belonging and continuity and stability and predictability and security and safety … and we still want that same person to also provide us a sense of novelty … [We] want the same person to be familiar and to be new, and to be comfortable and to be edgy, and to be predictable and surprising.
That’s a lot. And not only do people want their spouse to meet all of those needs, but, given current life expectancies, couples might be together for decades. We’re also living in a moment in which happiness and self-fulfillment have become fetishized. As you know, a good marriage requires a degree of selflessness and sacrifice that goes directly against this current of me-first, instant gratification.
Most everyone enters a marriage hoping it will last forever, but do we need to rethink that? Should we add a “conscious uncoupling” clause to our wedding vows? Or, if you’re bullish on marriage, share your wisdom: are marriages happier and better now? If so, what does it take to make a marriage work?
SM: Well, one aspect of the rise of companionate marriage was that it coincided pretty much exactly with the rise of divorce. Conscious uncoupling is just a fancy term for amicable divorce. The truth is that signing some piece of paper in front of a priest or whatever can be undone in an instant. Children are what matter. And it doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t get out of them. That is why I think there is this incredible new cultural impetus on fatherhood. Fatherhood actually matters. Being a husband is really just not that important.
So I don’t think we need to reconsider the way we do marriage, because the arrangement has already arrived and we are simply dealing with the fallout. I think there is a lot of pressure put on marriage today, but the truth is that all our relationships are fraying. The loneliness of contemporary life is unprecedented. I do agree that the nuclear family, as a mode of running a society, is madness, but maybe, at its best, a happy madness.