Has Marriage Gone the Way of the Passenger Pigeon?

Marriage is, well, so retro. All the latest research shows that it doesn’t make much sense for most people, so why bother trying? Read on.

The article (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off“) in August’s The Atlantic disturbed me like few others in memory. It also left me intensely proud to be a frum Jew.

Sandra Tsing Loh is a witty and engaging writer. Rummaging through the debris of her failed marriage, however, has its pitfalls, including the very human reaction of wanting to look good to others and to herself. In a manner reminiscent of Esav’s disparaging the birthright he had sold of his own free-will, Tsing Loh tries to convince us that the institution of marriage itself runs counter to our biological heritage and to our contemporary life styles. It may have worked in the past, but it is futile to live with the expectations of earlier generations.

She lets us know from the get-go that she terminated a long marriage with a rather decent chap after an extramarital amorous fling of hers. This fleeting affair left her desirous of the romance she once had experienced in her marriage. Trying to restore it, alas, would be futile, leaving her little option but to call it off. Between her various apologias she deftly weaves reviews of five books on marriage into her chronicle of discovery.

Sure, it made sense to agrarian families before 1900, when to farm the land, one needed two spouses, grandparents, and a raft of children. But now that we have white-collar work and washing machines, and our life expectancy has shot from 47 to 77, isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?

In her case, she argues, it certainly was so. He husband was a traveling musician, frequently away from the nest. She had long ago mastered the art expected of so many women today – doing it all. She held a responsible job, and still had to juggle all the needs of her children. They, in turn, were used to accessing their parents serially, rather than at the same time. When her friends asked the inevitable question – “But what about the children?” – she was able to respond that little would change. “Now elementary age, my children seem relatively content as long as they remain in their own house, their own beds, and their own school, with Mom and Dad coming and going as usual.”

The theorists support her, she claims. Divorce is not the problem people make it out to be. Rather

while having two biological parents at home is, the statistics tell us, best for children, a single-parent household is almost as good. The harm comes, Cherlin argues, from parents continually coupling with new partners, so that the children are forced to bond, or compete for attention, with ever-new actors. These are the youngsters who are likely to suffer, according to a measurable matrix of factors such as truancy, disobedience in school, and teen pregnancy. Instead of preaching marriage, Cherlin says, we should preach domestic stability for children. Is marriage the best way to ensure this? Apparently not, at least not the way we do it in America.

To have it any other way would be swimming against our biological stream.

Fisher, a women’s cult figure and an anthropologist, has long argued that falling in love—and falling out of love—is part of our evolutionary biology and that humans are programmed not for lifelong monogamy, but for serial monogamy. (In stretches of four years, to be exact, approximately the time it takes to get one kid safely through infancy.)

We are treated to some interesting theories, including the inevitable reductionist one that makes our chances of success in continued monogamy contingent on which of four different hormones predominates and compels a personality type that may be well suited for – or toxic – to our mates.

When Tsing Loh takes her plight to her close friends, she learns that too many women her age complain of an identical problem. Their husbands have lost all physical interest in them, and have become more critical in the process, rather than more attached and appreciative. Each of them has found his own replacement for the trophy wife who decades later has shown some signs of tarnish. One throws himself into cooking, another into internet porn.

If not before, it is here that the contrast with a Torah-observant lifestyle screams out in indignation. The dynamic duo of taharas hamishpacha and hakaras hatov provide such a stark alternative. The monthly separation, observes the gemara, serves to reinject the interest and the desire, where habit would otherwise consign them to mothballs. As years take their toll, the gratitude we have for our spouses, the remembrance of how they toiled for us all those years, make the wrinkles and added pounds look like marks of accomplishment, rather than reasons for rejection. (Of course this doesn’t work for everyone, and we have plenty of failed marriages. But we do have plenty of successful ones that implement this model.)

Most striking to me was that Tsing Loh presents a comprehensive inventory of the damage that neither she nor her children need suffer because of the divorce. Absent is any treatment of what a loving marriage could and should offer the spouses and the children. It is almost as if the promise of the nuclear family has been forgotten, and marriage reduced to a list of tasks that are assigned or shared, and can be shifted to a single parent if needed. Find friends to talk to, get food on the table, pay the bills, and shuttle the kids to soccer and the orthodontist, and what could anybody be missing?

What is wrong with this is perhaps given best expression in one of the books Tsing Loh reviews. It draws some conclusions from close observation of fifty happily married couples. The authors conclude that four types of marriage make themselves available to us. Different kinds have different rates of success. The Traditional Marriage succeeds “because the man works while the woman runs the home.” Today’s most common marriage has shifted to the Companionate Marriage. Each spouse has a career, and they share responsibilities. The Romantic Marriage keeps going through a spark of love that somehow lasts. In The Rescue Marriage, each spouse is the savior of the other by providing what the other needs or has lost.

In Torah circles there is a fifth kind of marriage. I won’t speculate on how many in our community make use of it, but many know that it is there, because it is ever-present in our training, whether explicitly or implicitly. Let’s call it The Common Goal Marriage. Two young people spend the first two decades of their lives learning that life is more about avodah, serving, than taking. Whatever other self-serving motivations may coexist, when a Torah couple stand under the chupah, they are very much aware of the power of a Jewish household in serving Hashem. They know that bringing children into the world to serve Hashem is both a noble goal and a daunting task. They know that it takes at least two people working in close concert to do the job well. They realize that a Torah home can and does become a beacon of light to others, and a spring of chesed to the world beyond its walls. They look forward to all the benefits that a loving marriage will bestow upon them, but they know that privilege begets responsibility. They will be expected to make their home a haven for G-d’s interests in the community.

Ironically, that responsibility to G-d and community yields dividends to them personally. Few marriages, if any, are devoid of strains, struggles and conflict. As the problems inevitably arise, the spouses are brought closer together, not more distant, because of what they share. The common goals they share can act as the agent that keeps them together, when others, who might look only at whether the relationship satisfies their individual needs and expectations, would decide to call it quits. They understand that Hashem’s Providence brought them together in the first place. While divorce is sometimes necessary, it is a very last resort. They will be less likely than others to see a relationship on the rocks as a mistake, or a new phase in their lives that they must learn to accept and move on to the next relationship. They act as partners in a joint enterprise whose mission statement is clear and agreed upon. They know that the most valuable things they can offer their children cannot be put on To Do lists, but concern values communicated and character molded. The accomplishments and the setbacks along the way are both part of a job they both cherish.

Chazal (see Tosfos Bava Kama 97B) tell us that Avraham’s fame was tied to a coin that he minted. One side showed a young man and a young woman; the other showed an old couple. One explanation (see Maharsha) of this passage might be that both couples are the same: they both depict Avraham and Soro. The “currency” with which Avraham paid those who required an instant understanding of the worthiness of his message was the strength of his – and by extension, the Jewish – family. Anyone who visited his home saw a relationship between husband and wife that remained strong in the decades that separated the young couple from the old (see Ben Yehoyada). Between the two sides of the coin there were years and challenges, but no midlife crises, and no grazing at other pastures.

Sandra Tsing Loh and so many others never had a chance at this kind of marriage. We can feel proud to live in a community where, despite all our flaws and faults, we still possess a sense of what can bring husband and wife forever closer with the passage of time, and bond children to parent and to all of history, past and future.

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17 comments to Has Marriage Gone the Way of the Passenger Pigeon?

  • Yaakov Green

    You mention five kinds of marriage, in which the Traditional Marriage is where “the man works while the woman runs the home.” What about the sixth kind – the one where the husband learns, and the wife has six kids, runs the home, and earns the income? I had a meshulach recently come to my door, collecting for hachnasas kallah. He told me that the chassan is in yeshivah, and I asked if that was appropriate when he needs people to collect money for him. When I pointed out that the kesubah places the responsibility for supporting the family on the shoulders of the husband, he looked at me like I was from a different planet!

  • Shira

    Yes, B”H for the Recipe Book we’ve been given, and all the experienced chefs who teach us how to use it!

    In addition to a couple’s common goals, there’s another piece of hashkafa that brings the Jewish couple to a different marriage zone: the declaration of the bat kol 40 days before conception, of one’s soul-mate.

    In a series of shiurim on Shalom Bayis (harmony in the home), Rebetzin Neustadt explains that the decree of Heavenly voice teaches us that our life partner is intended to be part of our mission in life – both for achievement of our goals and self improvement. So when a couple does hit those rough spots, they can reflect upon them as opportunities to grow, to further achieve their personal best.

    (The full version is available free at the kolhashiurim website, second shiur in the series.)

  • TK

    As a young husband in a great marriage with my wife of a year and a half, I say thank you for writing this article. It is always encouraging to hear of the joy in Torah-observant marriages and families. The words you have written remind me of my wedding day, a day when my wife and I looked at each other and promised to work towards a common goal to bless HaShem. Thank you for writing this, my friend. May HaShem bless you today.

  • Nathan

    100 years ago, women were happy to marry a man with: average height, average good looks, average wealth, average intelligence, average education and average personality.

    In our times, being average is no longer acceptable.

    Women only wants to marry a man with: excellent height, excellent good looks, excellent wealth, excellent intelligence, excellent education and excellent personality.

    Since few men excel in all things, few women find the men they really want.

  • another Nathan

    People used to see themselves as members of a tribe, then members of an extended family, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Then their identity became reduced to belonging to an isolated nuclear family. That nuclear family had its role reduced to that of economic fallout shelter, with the state taking responsibility for many functions. With the free love movement of the 1960′s and decline in the concept of responsibility, we had the rise of the single-parent family (that wasn’t the result of a death of a spouse. The next stage will likely be children bred and born in test-tubes, raised by government agencies.
    However, as last night’s referendum in Maine, the earlier one in California, and 30 other such state votes have shown, the majority of the population, though not the media elite, support the traditional concept of marriage.

  • L. Oberstein

    Yes. Many of our young people ‘live together’ without the benefit of marriage. They do not hide it and there is absolutely no stigma whatsoever. This is generally true of Jews and also describes a certain sub-set of nominally orthodox young adults. Marriage ,as the frum world understands it, is not portrayed on television any longer. The bastion of traditional marriage is among really ortodox Jews and probably among many Christians. This phenomenon is causing Arab Americans to engage in honor killings. We just pull our hair out.

  • Shira

    first Nathan: “Since few men excel in all things, few women find the men they really want.”

    Not exactly. In the olden days, neither the women nor the men deluded themselves into thinking that the essence of marriage was about these external qualities.

    For example, the farming lifestyle was by nature a religious framework – investing, hoping, care-taking, waiting, harvesting. Lots of discipline and essential routine. Each family member valued for their contribution. It naturally produced the Common Goal environment that Rav Adlerstein describes above.

    Anyone who was too busy with the non-essential values was eventually pushed out by society – even Rhett Butler caught on, it was Scarlet who blew it.

  • Simcha Younger

    Beautiful ideas are always dangerous, and never a good way to guarantee desired behavior.
    A Romantic Marriage will often fail when the romance is gone, but a Common Goal Marriage will fail even faster if the common goal is gone. There is no guarantee that the two spouses will continue to share the goal, or to interpret it in the same way.

    `Ahava shehi teluya badavar’ – love which is dependent on something (or, love which is dependent on what people say) will not last any longer than the external consideration (Avos 5:19). This applies equally to romance, comapnionship, and rescue, as well as to a common goal. Perhaps our education is strong enough that the goal itself has greater holding power; in some cases that is true, in many it is not.

    I think it is wrong to reject the claim that we are not evolutionarily built for marriage. The Halacha clearly recognizes that women often want to switch marriage partners for no legitimate reason – `shema nasna eineha be’acher’. The longterm benefits of marriage are no match for the immediate wanderlust. The Teshuvos Ha’Rosh seems to agree with her claim, here ( 43:8, in the middle, `V’od Ani Omer’. click for text). Marriage, like the passenger pigeon, cannot survive in the name of the future.

    The excuses that Sandra Loh gives to ignore any downside in divorce are to be expected . She wants out, because she has no sufficient personal interest in staying, and anyone will excuse all external considerations in that situation. I have to admit that I am also getting divorced and I have been hearing all these same arguments from my wife – in terms of our common goals. She cares about the kids charedi education etc… and thats why she needs a divorce. And if I would be promised custody and generous child support, I would insist on the divorce.

    Any marriage which is built on love – `ahava’ – has a very shaky foundation. A true, deep-seated, and authentic love is rare, especially at the time of marriage. Perhaps this is why the Torah rarely refers to marriage in romantic terms, and the Gemara generally deals with it in extremely pragmatic, even economic, terms. Marriage is not good because of the economic benefits each side gets, but those benefits are what can hold it together while the true benefits of marriage develop. The Traditional Marriage is successful because each side gets significant immediate benefit, which forms a foundation for their love, romance, rescue, and common goals.

    All that you have written about the beauty and benefits of a committed marriage are true, but as long as women can have the economic benefits of marriage even after they leave – either as alimony, child support, or from taking a significant amount of the assets – few of them will stay long enough to enjoy those benefits, and even a common Jewish goal will not be enough to keep marriages together.

  • Charles B. Hall

    L. Oberstein,

    Many Christians still get married, but the divorce rate in the Bible Belt is considerably higher than in the rest of the allegedly less religious US, and research has shown that Protestant Christians who belong to conservative denominations or to non-denominational (usually even more conservative) churches have the highest divorce rates of any religious group. (Unfortunately, Jews are right up there with a high divorce rate, too; I’ve not seen a breakdown, though, of orthodox vs. non-orthodox. Catholics seem to have lower divorce rates possibly in part because the church makes some effort to insure that couples are compatible.)

    Possible evidence that the Bible Belt actually has lower moral standards despite their protestations to the contrary is the way that politicians are treated when they stray from traditional standards. James McGreevey and Eliot Spitzer were forced to resign from office, but Mark Sanford remains Governor of South Carolina, John Ensign remains a US Senator from Nevada, Larry Craig served out his term, and David Vitter is actually favored to win re-election as US Senator from Louisiana!

  • DF

    One can nitpick, but basically everything YA said is true. We may have fallen short, at this time, in many ideals, but I think the bedrock of orthodoxy in these times is: shabbos, and the concept of marriage and family. And these two concepts are very much related.

    [I also think Yakov Green's point, at the top, is very important, and I know many people think the same - maybe even YA? - but it doesnt detract from this article.]

  • Ori

    Charles B. Hall: research has shown that Protestant Christians who belong to conservative denominations or to non-denominational (usually even more conservative) churches have the highest divorce rates of any religious group.

    Ori: Is this because they have more couples getting separated, or because the couples that got separated were previously married whereas in more liberal denominations they would be living together without having gotten married in the first place? Is trying to build a marriage and failing less moral than not even trying?

  • Bob Miller

    The attacks on the traditional marriage bond are part of a broader, sinister development in American society, discussed at the American Thinker web site on 4 Nov 2009 in the article The Sociopathic Epidemic. The author, “Robin of Berkeley”, is described there as “a psychotherapist and a recovering liberal”.

    Here are some key portions of this extraordinary article:

    1. “There’s so much crime out here that most of the time, the residents are numb. We have waves of takeover restaurant robberies and you barely hear a peep.

    And when a teacher was beaten and stoned a few months ago during her class at Portola Middle School in El Cerrito (minutes from Berkeley) a small article was buried in the local paper. Many in the leftist community defended the youths as victims of white privilege, and some even blamed the teacher.

    But then, last weekend, there was a crime so evil that no one could brush it off.

    At a homecoming dance at Richmond High School (in the same district as the middle school stoning), a fifteen-year-old girl was beaten and gang-raped for over two hours while a crowd from the dance watched, laughed, and photographed the scene. No one called the cops.

    The girl was left unconscious, dumped under a bench. She had to be airlifted to a specialty hospital.

    The so-called experts fault the usual suspects: absentee parents, indigence, drug-infested schools, and herd behavior. One teacher indicts the media’s sexual exploitation of women. A parent of one of the arrested youths blames racism.

    But there was hardship, alcoholism, bad parents, sexism, and teenagers fifty years ago without such mayhem.”

    2. “It’s easier to blame society than face the deep, dark truth: we’ve created a nation filled to the brim with sociopaths (also known as antisocial personalities).

    I recently read a book called The Narcissism Epidemic. It reports the high number of narcissists among the young and contends that their condition is aided and abetted by self-esteem training.

    True, but the theory feels a bit dated. The biggest danger now is a sociopathic epidemic.

    While narcissists are selfish, annoying people, their humanity is still in place. They possess a conscience and can feel guilt and shame. Most people in power have some degree of narcissism.

    Sociopaths are a different breed entirely. Here are some common features: callous disregard for others, superficial charm, pathological self-centeredness, lying and manipulation, irritability and aggression, lack of remorse or guilt, cruelty, ingratitude, and antisocial behavior.”

    3. “How did this happen, the metastasizing of an antisocial tumor?

    Feiffer’s Little Murders offered some clues over forty years ago, such as self-worshiping, moral relativism, and rejecting God and religion.

    The movie also sounded an alarm about the resurgence of the Left. The film’s most prescient moment is when Patsy’s husband, played by Elliot Gould, recalls being a college radical who has a change of heart.

    In a darkened room, he gravely says to Patsy, “You shouldn’t destroy institutions until you know what will take their place. You might find that you will miss them when they’re gone.” Seconds later, Patsy is shot.

    The progressives have destroyed the structures uniting this country since its founding. Now, the rules of morality that kept people’s base impulses in check have gone AWOL. Cruelty is the new normal, while the sacred is mocked.

    What has the Left unleashed? A quasi-autocracy where dissidents are silenced and the Constitution is trashed. A government that loves animals, the earth, and endangered birds, but not humans.

    Everywhere we look, from the ghettos to the corporations to the pristine halls of the government, we can see people whose hearts and souls are empty.

    Their antisocial behavior is enabled by a codependent society that gives aggrieved groups the green light to pillage and plunder.”

  • CZ

    Charles Hall, I noticed you didnt list Edward Kennedy on your list of immoral politicians who remained in power, for example. Same with Bill Clinton, a philanderer and a perjurer. You may still be living in the 60s, but your party has fallen a long way since Powell v. Mcormack.

    I’d like to see you back up your claims with evidence, and assuming you do that, I’d like to know if you atually studies the numbers. We all know numbers can be manipulated.

  • One Christian's perspective

    “Many Christians still get married, but the divorce rate in the Bible Belt is considerably higher than in the rest of the allegedly less religious US, and research has shown that Protestant Christians who belong to conservative denominations or to non-denominational (usually even more conservative) churches have the highest divorce rates of any religious group” – Comment by Charles B. Hall

    You could be right but stats don’t always reflect the great fluidity of movement today between Christian churches – both within & between the Protestant churches and between the Catholic and Protestant churches. In my grandparents generation and prior, church teaching, cultural values,work ethics and family were much more closely aligned than today for many reasons.
    Reformed Evangelical Churches are “orthodox” in their stance on marriage and divorce. Divorce may be considered for adultery, abuse and abandonment. Marriage within the church is not considered unless the couple attend “counseling” classes that teach the seriousness of the marriage covenant, sound relational values and expectations and the couple must make a serious profession of faith. Interestingly, remarriage is usually not considered unless the divorce was for adultery, abuse and abandonment. NT teachings and OT (teachings of Moses) are both given serious weight. A marriage partner who is unrepentant and unwilling to seek counseling to lead toward repentance and reconciliation can be excommunicated from the congregation – usually after a lengthy period of time and effort has been expended by church leaders. That said, the church provides free programs to facilitate healing, renewal and peace for those suffering from addictions that may lead to divorce (not just alcohol,drugs etc.) and for those suffering from the pain of divorce.

    ” I think the bedrock of orthodoxy in these times is: shabbos, and the concept of marriage and family. And these two concepts are very much related.” – DF

    You are onto something. A Christian missionary serving many years in the field among discarded children – literally thrown in the streets – in the Soviet Union mentioned that very rarely did they have Jewish children in the orphanage. They simply were not discarded by their family.

  • Shira

    Well, if Rav Adlerstein’s article didn’t give us gratitude to be living in a haven, these comments certainly will….

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    I have since read the original article and it is truly sad. My heart goes out to these people. If the Jewish People is to be a light to the nations, we have to get our act together. Both divorce and the shidduch crisis are hitting us and we should not take this article and similar phenomena as a license to be complacent. More is expected of us and we must do the work in our own marriages and families and also in the philosophical and sociological sphere to understand the hard cases which happen to us as well. We have seen some unfortunate divorce cases in our own community and one preventable marriage failure is too many. The kids pay. The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Then the parents publish articles in the media and pour their toxic sour grape waste out into the public sphere.

  • sima braunstein

    I’ve read Ms. Tsing Loh’s article, and a subsequent article published in this month’s Atlantic. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.