You think you are happy in your marriage?
Well, you are not as happy as gays and lesbians! Or at least so says Liza Mundy in her cover story, “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss, for this month’s Atlantic magazine about the lessons heterosexuals should glean from homosexual marriages.
Mundy argues that instead of undermining “traditional” marriage, as conservatives have argued, gay marriage might actually be strengthening the institution.
For one thing, there is reason to think that, rather than making marriage more fragile, the boom of publicity around same-sex weddings could awaken among heterosexuals a new interest in the institution, at least for a time. But the larger change might be this: by providing a new model of how two people can live together equitably, same-sex marriage could help haul matrimony more fully into the 21st century.
She goes on to explain how heterosexuals inevitably enter marriage with preconceived notions of which gender should do what, whereas gays and lesbians get to truly start fresh when determining which spouse is in charge of what. In doing this they come up with life-solutions that are best-suited to their particular needs as individuals and a family.
It’s a nice argument, and Mundy carefully threads together study after study to prove this point. By the end, however, I wasn’t exactly convinced that this “back to the drawing-board” approach is leading to happier marriages.
On one hand Mundy argues that these partnerships are more egalitarian and spouses therefore treat each other more fairly; some go to extremes to ensure nobody is being taken advantage of. One couple went so far as to put all their money in jars and split everything to the penny.
On the other hand Mundy tells us how some gay couples have accepted that when it comes to parenting, it can much easier to have one spouse be fully in charge, while the other one is the primary breadwinner. Mundy quotes a 1981 book that explained that allowing one spouse to specialize in their profession while the other specializes in taking care of the homestead ultimately allows the working spouse to make more money to the household. (Mundy fails to mention how one-salary isn’t enough for most families these days, or how childcare can allow two spouses to specialize in their professions while Fresh Direct can take care of the Friday night challah — which she refers to her in her piece.) A few paragraphs later she quotes a study that showed that the process of deciding who gets to work and who gets to stay home is often a fraught one, because neither partner is too keen on being the caretaker.
Am I the only one seeing the rub here? Mundy presents these almost utopian partnerships, in which the absence of a legacy of gendered expectations allows them to not just rewrite, but actually write the rules for their marriage and their lives. At the same time, we have a generation of gay dads ripe for a “mystique” of their own. Also, am I only one who thinks that such a strong emphasis on fairness could become a mutually shared unfair burden in its own right? I can imagine those women arguing about who last counted the pennies in their money jar.
If you read between the lines of the piece, you will see that while gays aren’t undermining marriage in any which way (and no sane person thought they would), they don’t exactly have it all figured out. And this is where the beauty lies. Marriage, when done right, isn’t a puzzle to solve. Instead, it is complex and malleable system that twists and turns as ourselves and our circumstances shift and change.
The couples in the story seem to be engaged in the same maddening and delightful task of figuring out how to make their partnership work as the straight couples I know who strive for egalitarian marriages as well. Perhaps a “Gay married people, they’re just like us!” approach wouldn’t have had a big enough hook to catch the cover of the Atlantic, but that is what I discovered reading it, and that is the story I liked.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.