"The author is ending her marriage. Isn't it time you did the same?" So the Atlantic Monthly provocatively introduces its July/August feature "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." It comes at a propitious moment. This seems to be the week for TMI -- too much information. South Carolina's Gov. Mark Sanford has told more, much more, than we needed to know about his mistress (how he met her, how their relationship ripened), his views on God's laws, on the Appalachian Trail, and on forgiveness.
Why must wayward American public figures stage these auto autos da fe -- these self-immolations on TV? Dignity, which arises from a proper sense of keeping private matters private, is a lost aspiration apparently -- along with so many other virtues, like dignity's companion restraint. Yes, Sanford needed to apologize to the citizens of South Carolina for going AWOL. But as for the messy private details, a simple written statement that he was having marital issues would have sufficed. At least Mrs. Sanford showed some sound judgment by declining to pose next to her straying spouse as he fielded queries about his extramarital activities. But even her statement -- and it goes without saying that she finds herself in this situation unwillingly -- strayed into TMI. She told the world under what circumstances she would consider repairing their union: "I remain willing to forgive Mark completely for his indiscretions and to welcome him back, in time, if he continues to work toward reconciliation with a true spirit of humility and repentance." That's the sort of thing that should be communicated to one person only.
The Atlantic's Sandra Tsing Loh -- not content to cheat on her husband and file for divorce -- compounded the betrayal by writing about it in cringe-inducing detail. Her account begins in the office of the couple's marriage therapist, where Loh recounts the moment she decided she couldn't "work" on her marriage despite having two young sons. "We cried, we rent our hair, we bewailed the fate of our children. And yet at the end of the day ... I would not be able to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband, which is what it would take in modern-therapy terms to knit our family's domestic construct back together." Does the whole world need to know that? Do her children? Her children's classmates?
But because Ms. Loh is a journalist, she cannot resist the urge to, in George Will's term, "commit sociology." Since her own divorce, she's begun a "journey of reading, thinking, and listening to what's going on in other 21st-century American families. And along the way, I've begun to wonder, what with all the abject and swallowed misery: Why do we still insist on marriage?" This, bear in mind, comes from the magazine that boldly declared "Dan Quayle Was Right" on its April 1993 cover.
Loh's form of sociology is a sloppy one -- a few quotes from pop psychology texts, a few examples from among her friends and acquaintances -- and she is ready to declare that marriage itself is the problem. "To work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones who schedule 'date night,' only to be reprimanded in the home by male kitchen b------, and then, in the bedroom, to be ignored -- it's a bum deal." How far we have come, sisters, from "The Feminine Mystique," when Betty Friedan cried under the lash of domesticity. Today's woman is apparently miserable because her husband is too much of a culinary perfectionist and too inadequate a lover. Maybe. But that's one problem with playing a sociologist in magazines. It's all impressions, not data.
Loh's solutions range from the casually immoral (wives should take lovers without leaving the marriage) to the tribal "Let children between the ages of 1 and 5 be raised in a household of mothers and their female kin. Let the men/husbands/boyfriends come in once or twice a week to build shelves, prepare that bouillabaisse, or provide sex."
There are no solutions to the problems Loh identifies. People will become dissatisfied with their spouses, and they will behave selfishly. But as countless real social scientists have shown -- W. Bradford Wilcox, Sarah McLanahan, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, and David Blankenhorn spring to mind -- marriage remains the most secure arrangement in which to raise healthy children. It also conduces to adult happiness more than any other arrangement.
Ironically, for all her fulminating, Loh hints at the end of her piece that her own selfish quest ended unhappily. "(A)void marriage -- or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love."
How about another solution that is only about 3,000 years old? How about avoiding adultery?