This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. If you read any of the hundreds of advice columns that have found renewed life on the internet, you’ll recognize a certain genre of question. It comes from a woman, almost always married, who’s describing a partner’s shitty behavior. They often narrativize the behavior in a way that simultaneously asks the reader to understand that something is wrong (
I'm not even done with the piece yet, but this paragraph, holy fuck:
"This situation is complicated by the fact that bourgeois women have been taught that everything, whether the pay gap or enduring domestic labor discrepancies, can be fixed through hard work: hard communication work, hard organizational work, hard therapy work. If they just put in the hours — in their relationships, on top of the hours put into their jobs and their parenting and their body maintenance — everything would work out. The dream of having it all, for so many bourgeois white women, is still tantalizingly within reach. Others know it was never open to them in the first place."
I'm going to have to sit with that for awhile. My marriage, while far from perfect, is solid, and has actually gotten better during quarantine (it helps that my husband has made dinner every single evening of our marriage - other then going out or take out - that REALLY helps, plus he is an excellent co-parent). But where this hits home is the fact that while I KNOW my academic career is dead, and I know and exactly WHY it's dead (because of my academic training), and I TELL myself (and others) that my academic career is dead, I can't quite stop believing that if I just work harder and smarter and keep working the problem, that it will somehow, magically, not be dead. It's fucking pathological.
Thank you very much for this great piece! I think women (all of us) subconsciously understand that the kind of "strong independent women" that society purportedly celebrates is the women who carry an enormous burden silently and make it look absolutely effortless, and the moment it stops looking effortless we know it suddenly becomes a terrible inconvenience to everyone around them and erodes the way others perceive them. So if you have ever experienced anything like that in your life (and many women probably have), it really dictates (or destroys) the vim and vigor you're able to muster for striking out on your own.
This is a half-formed thought, but the bourgeois segment/blue segment/White upper and middle class segment of US society still provides people with very few other accepted avenues for household/family collaboration beyond marriage. Like, it's perceived as somewhat "weird" to be in your 30s and have a housemate (white middle class and above). I have often heard women joke about starting their own tiny friendship-based communes, but in the U.S., we don't see very many of those compounds happen. If I lived in another country, I might live in an apartment within an extended-family compound and have shared support for childcare, cooking, and other household maintenance. If the US was a different society, I might live in an apartment in a friendship compound and be able to have those same benefits.
We act like being single means being alone and like being alone is some type of horror. Then, we keep it as horrifying as possible?
I've read this article 3 times now as it so resonates with me. I'm a (geriatric) millennial, 3 kids ages under age 10 going through a divorce (pre-pandemic separate but boy did the pandemic reinforce that was the right decision. I fit all the markers of your Blue Marriage woman wondering why her spouse won't change their shitty behavior and everyone wondering why I didn't leave him earlier. White, college & grad school education, working professional with higher than average income, lives in the suburbs of a modest size midwestern city.
I cannot emphasize enough how there is no economic safety net for leaving your spouse AND the pandemic also evaporated social safety net. I've so often thought over the past several months, here I am. Educated, middle / upper middle class, with access to resources and a family system that has hugely stepped in and yet I'm still barely treading water. In 15+ professional working years I don't think I ever took a mental health day but I've had 4 in the past month because I just couldn't cope any longer, woke up sobbing, went to bed sobbing.
Add children to the mix and it's so much more than being single. You're single but paying for childcare so you can work, paying for childcare so you can get a break from your kids, the entire economic and social system is built on either 2 incomes or 1 high income and 1 primary parent who handles the mental load. Doing all of it is untenable, and there's a high bar that needs to be reached to recognize your partnership has deteriorated to the point where the impossible is a better situation than the one you are in.
I do think there is a subtlety missing in what constitutes shitty. There are people in obviously bad marriages and there are people whose life has turned out very differently than they expected, but they want to stay in the marriage for real, if not 100% easy, reasons. My spouse has a terminally ill parent and had the worst mental health year of their life last year, and there were moments (and months) when they weren’t a good husband but life is long and I think we will all get harder chapters than we expect when we get married. I don’t think it takes away from the gender or class analysis to say there is a huge disconnect between our cultural models of “good marriage” and what life requires or actually looks like at some points.
This has given me lots to think about- in the low points of my marriage, I have said to my husband that we were not rich enough to get divorced. I have been fortunate in my marriage, so far (27 years). Over that time there have been waves of disturbance, where it seemed as though each week another couple we knew were splitting up. Each instance always caused us to engage in intense discussions about the state of our own "state." I think many women ignore for as long as they can how much many men really despise women (they want to make use of them, for comfort or entertainment or convenience, but they will never see them as equals or even allies). Women are raised to absorb that and see it as normal, and they internalize all of the humiliations that happen as something they deserve or are strong enough to handle (God doesn't give you what He doesn't think you can bear!). We all know those angry, passive aggressive or even outright aggressive, resentful partnerships. And yes, being single is an option! And a good option! Without exception everyone I know who left a bad marriage is better off emotionally. Financially, maybe not so much. And the kids do blame her, at least for awhile, because if she had just put up with it their lives would have continued undisturbed.
The more I read articles like this, and as my friends and peer group move in to our 30s, it hits me that as much as I’d like to feel, and have in the past felt, like a strong marriage is about love and hard work (and I maintain that is a factor), in my case the fact that the teenager in the band turned out to be an equal partner in our 30s really seems like dumb luck.
I know two women, around age 70, both delightful, energetic, and creative, who are very clear that they won't leave their alcoholic (but not abusive, as far as I know) husbands because it would mean giving up beloved homes and having no money, and they don't want to spend old age in poverty, cut off from the lives they've built.
I know another woman who divorced an alcoholic and verbally demeaning husband in her late 60s, and while she is happy to be rid of him, she had to leave a beloved home, has been by herself during the worst parts of the pandemic, and does not have money to retire (he has a day job and she is an independent artist; she moved into a small condo in a nearby city and he moved to Thailand and married a middle-aged woman he met via a website for "travel companions").
I'm 51, and while my husband is not shitty, I also know that I would face a similar choice if I wanted to get a divorce. It sucks sucks sucks.
"But even a privileged white woman can’t burnout their way to relationship stability. Sometimes there is just no antidote to dick."
At least you gave me a good laugh after punching me in the gut.
I work with divorced and never-wed families. My observation is that the lower-income families don't live singly, but they live without marriage - sometimes to the mother or father of their children, often with someone else, frequently in serial monogamy. I speculate that they believe they can't afford to get married or to get divorced if they did get married. When I meet them they often say they live with their "fiance".
When a woman leaves, she's confronted with crappy jobs with crappy pay and hours, the exorbitant cost, questionable quality (and currently the unavailability) of child care. Another reason to make the child tax credit permanent -
Certainly not my only takeaway but I’ve never been happier to be single lol
My parents divorced in 1972, as my youngest brother was dying of cancer, and that was the end of stability. Six grammar schools, moving every 2 years, no money no money go ask your father for that what do I pay child support for anyway. Years of that. My married aunt drank herself to death because she couldn't break free. My grandmother, who divorced her husband after she married off her daughters, telling me over and over "you're smart, go to school, always have your own money."
I never married. Marriage seemed absolutely toxic to me. Found a nice man in my mid-40s, and for nearly 13 years we've been pretty devoted to one another. But we kept our own houses. We alternate, but we each have our own means. We'll probably marry someday, for the legal stuff, but we're neither of us in a hurry.
It works for us, but I still wish I'd had the faith to build something stable early enough to have had kids. I'm a fabulous auntie, and single motherhood would have bankrupted me, so it was the right decision. But still ...
Recently I've been feeling a lot of shame about being devastated that my Blue relationship is on the verge of collapse because he won't communicate with me about our future. Even though rationally I know I'm not demanding a lot for wanting someone who will tell me what they want/need instead of making me guess what they're thinking and act accordingly, I have this instinctual fear that I'm actually making mountains out of molehills and if I could just go along with how he wants our relationship to be and not ask him where this is going then we would be just fine. And then I feel so guilty for thinking these thoughts because what the hell kind of a feminist does that make me, plus I genuinely love being single, so why am I so scared that this isn't working! This piece really clarified and contextualised many of my fears and anxiety I've been feeling. Thank you so much for this timely and eyeopening piece, it has helped me tremendously.
I have (what I think, anyway) is a revolutionary answer to your question - why do women stay in bad marriages? It's because the negative aspects are only one of many potential aspects of a relationship, and they may not be worth leaving over.
I'm an aspie and recently discovered this chart called the Relationship Anarchy Smorgasbord: https://polyamorousliving.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/FB_IMG_1555803632402.jpg Ignore the title and just look at what the chart is: bubbles that break out all of the different ways you can have a relationship with someone - anyone, not just significant others!
As frustrated as I am that my husband is mediocre under the domestic, sexual, and kink bubbles, he is amazing under so many others, especially emotional support, emotional intimacy, companionship, and collaborative partners. Him and I share a lot of other positive bubbles, like romantic, physical touch, social partners, life partners, co-caregivers, spiritual, and of course legal connections and financial. There's other bubbles we don't share, and that's okay because I have those bubbles filled in other ways, such as being in a weekly yoga class and choir for creative relationships. We communicate daily and have daily face-to-face frequency which works for us.
For some people, the things him and I struggle with are absolute deal breakers despite the positives, but as of today, these aren't deal breakers for me. For many others, there are a lot less amazing or even positive bubbles, but the bubbles that are there are too important to break. Financial is a big one, but also a weak domestic bubble can be better than no domestic bubble at all. Sure, maybe the husband only takes out the trash, cuts the grass, and sorta watches the kids while she does housework, but if the wife kicked him out she would now have to do those three things in addition to everything else overwhelming her.
As an aspie, seeing this chart for the first time felt like someone gave me the manual to all of the categories and aspects of relationships. It helped me understand why I often feel so frustrated and also helped me break out what is and isn't working and what areas we need to improve.
I don't know many women who are in true partnerships. I do know a lot of women that are obviously terrified of my situation as a single, yet college-educated woman, and I know that they cling to their lacking husbands after they hang out with me. However, what they don't know is that most of my breakups resulted from the knowledge that if I kept going towards inevitable marrigage with any of these men, I would end up dying slowly inside as I told all my friends, "he's really a good one, it's just these couple of things."
Single parenthood is difficult, and I don't get to take my daughter to Italy and then complain about it, or think much about my own needs, and sometimes it's lonely. But I don't have to stuff down all my feminist beliefs to avoid a simmering anger at the end of each day, and for me, that's something.
Wow, yes. So many thoughts (as a single cis woman who is also an intersectional feminist researcher studying masculinity and has historically been attracted to men and felt a lot of grief about that), I have been dying for content like this!
a. never underestimate the power and perniciousness of patriarchy (so good at perpetuating itself), and socializing women that their value is yoked to "landing a man" and having kids (and then telling her how dreamy that life should be!) is an incredible effective way to staunch a revolution. Add in "and now you can work outside the home!" and you've just thrown another log on that fire. Neurobiologically, if I am overwhelmed/exhausted, I am definitely don't have the capacity to critically analyze the social implications of my situation or reflect at all on whether this was the life that I wanted. Those functions can only happen when we have access to our frontal lobes which are "off line" when we are chronically stressed. If the "ocean that we swim in" is white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy, that ocean has structured a world in which every wave (interpersonal interactions up to social and economic policy) pushes women towards the shores of those values, thus it takes so much will and mental energy to even imagine making deliberate decisions to move away from those norms. And to what?! As other folx appropriately name, there are not a lot of models (especially in the dominant narrative of bourgeois white womanhood) for other relationships/household structures/material ways of providing intimacy and care than traditional hetero (and homo) normative marriage. Authors Maggie Nelson and Amia Srinivasan talk about how much genuine energy freedom takes. Like, if we assume that singleness (esp without kids) is complete freedom and "we WANT that freedom!" we don't account for the energy that goes into all the decisions yourself. And for women who are ALREADY so overwhelmed and overburdened from "having it all," that freedom can actually just feel like an additional burden. As the luminous James Baldwin writes, “freedom is hard to bear.”
b. relatedly, our federal government has been funding marriage promotion programs for ages (and continues to via state block grants channeled through social services, lots of the money goes to things like relationship skills classes populated by middle class folx! Not "bad" in and of themselves, but likely not what folx would generally prioritize for social welfare funding allocation by their state). ALSO, these were "for the kids" (and yes, there is research that suggests that having a 2 parent household is better for kids...duh, because life is hard and expensive and etc.), but ALSO conveniently, this all plays into the continued values of settler colonialism (private property ownership) and capitalism (make individual "units" of consumers via "nuclear families" and that feels our market economy.
c. humans have a fundamental need for safety, love and belonging. It can be terrifying (esp for white bourgeois women who have done "everything right" and that has resulted in material and emotional safety...ie not alienated...their life is legible to others), to imagine jumping outside of that deep trench of the heteronormative timeline/life and now not "belong" in the same way that she always has. So much genuine compassion for this...it is vital to our survival and sense of self and takes so so much courage and imagination (sadly, given the lack of models and public alternatives) to choose a life (divorce, singleness) that could result in no longer feeling belonging (or the perceived belonging that we can construct when we, at least, "play the part" to fit in).
This is where AHP’s discussion of "being like"' others is so vital. It isn't just "I care what others think of me" it is "my nervous systems is convinced that my survival is dependent on being "like" others.
d. also grief…the grief of the life that you thought you were going to live (and the one that was “sold” to you via every book/rom com/article in YM etc) said that you were going to have one life and it is really difficult to turn towards the one that you actually have and not feel deep and profound grief. I recently said to my therapist that being an adult feels like constantly grieving “the life not lived” (Adam Phillips has a great book about this in all its forms, not just our partnerships called Missing Out: In Praise of the Life not Lived). I joke (but not also seriously), that this is how “women like me” (other old millennial white educated women who are single) are like “incels” or, not full crossover, but also like not formally educated white men in declining industries. We were sold a bill of goods that we were going to get a good life and be proximal to power (ie not feel helpless!), and yet, that was a bill of goods that still ultimately serves those few white 1% men in power (we were just the proximal pawns). Women like me were sold a story that said that we could “have it all” (def never emphasized reflecting on whether you wanted “it all” bc of course you did!) and that included a job outside of the home that felt meaningful and you made good money. However, proportionally, nothing culturally or politically shifted to grow and support the emotionally attuned, connected, engaged, justice-oriented, empathic men that we thought that we were going to marry (and taught that “we deserved.”) Surprise! You actually have to dismantle the archaic and inequitable gender norms that built this house before we can ever hope for it to be equitable or fit the narrative that old millennial straight white women were sold. And so, I think a lot of women feel like they are stuck. Naming that this is from a place of financial privilege, that I don’t need another income to support myself, and this is from a US dominant context, and there are certainly communities of folx living in intentional communities and, for example, during the AIDS crisis in the 80’s/early 90s many queer and trans folx had networks of care and intimacy that certainly extended beyond normative constructions of family. And, given all of those caveats, it feels like generally, I can either stay in my own feminist integrity and do a lot of emotional and physical work to construct a life that is aligned with that with very few models of what that could look like and how I could get my needs for touch/intimacy/care met. OR I can be really disappointed that what is on offer is not a great option (ie mediocre male partner). And, if I feel up for it, I can look down, to the side, and all around, at the simmering and ubiquitous rage and sadness (that we “shouldn’t ever feel”) that inevitably comes when we realize the systemic gaslighting that characterizes our gendered socialization in the US. And that shit is hard.
Sorry this is so long...DAMN! This stuff gets me going. Thank you AHP for diving into this world, there is SO much generativity here! And everyone on here for being so open and insightful.