Easy, Tiger

A SHORT TIME AFTER my wife and I got married, my mother-in-law suggestively forgot in our apartment a brand-new paperback copy of The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller, who gives the message on Sundays at Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. Keller forecast thunder, storms. There would be “humbling defeats.” A virgin on his wedding night, he fell asleep “anxious and discouraged.” His performance was “clumsy and awkward.” So it was the second night, and the seventh. But today sex with his wife makes him want to “weep tears of joy.” As a secular Jew, I viewed his ecstasy with extreme suspicion.

Like many people who believe marriage is an everlasting threesome with God, Keller is also a realist. He is a modern evangelical who ministers even to the divorced and doesn’t harp endlessly on “family values.” Marriage in America was a Christian institution first, but American Christians who insist that God intended sex exclusively for procreation need to dust off their shelves of Latin annals. The early church more or less abided childless marriages, while granting divorces in cases where couples weren’t having sex. Keller, however, thinks there’s almost always a way to have sex. You make your bed and you lie in it; you may as well have fun there.

The popular Christian radio host Steve Arterburn agrees, mounting a vigorous defense of monogamous sex in his new book, The Mediterranean Love Plan, cowritten with his wife, Misty. A while ago, Steve and Misty took a trip to the Mediterranean. Though he’s always had a taste for romance—“I’ve seen hundreds of romantic films,” he tells us—the land of “passionate artistic masters like Da Vinci and Picasso and Michelangelo” opened his eyes to his shortcomings. “Italian men are masters at those casual, zinger touches,” he writes. American men, by contrast, “fall short in making their wife feel beautiful.” Arterburn advises going slow. “Intimate sex is rich Swiss cheese fondue on fresh, warm, crusty ciabatta,” he writes. While I regretted my attempt to unravel this metaphor (what precisely is the fondue?), I could see what he meant and I supported it. But then he explained. Why do we have to go on a love cruise in the first place? “Too much homogenization of the sexes.” Too much feminism.

The social psychologist Eli Finkel, whose book The All-or-Nothing Marriage will be published this fall and is likely to be the most talked-about of the new marriage manuals, has a surprising amount in common with the evangelicals for someone who professes no religion, has no quarrel with feminism, and writes a bit like a management consultant. Finkel’s thesis, which first appeared in a New York Times piece in 2012, is that while the average marriage is getting worse, the best marriages are getting better. He blames this on a misconception: We expect too much of marriage and invest too little in it, treating it like a penny stock when it ought to be a blue chip. The payoff for investing everything in your spouse is astronomical, Finkel says. Like a central casting late-Victorian grandmother, he disagrees with the prevailing American view that “infrequent or unsatisfying sex” is an “indication that one’s marriage is flawed, perhaps even rotten.” The key to being satisfied is having a “meaning-based,” not a “happiness-based,” idea of marriage. Couples who want happiness will give up when the going gets tough, but couples who want meaning will keep trying until they reach the “summit.”

So everything is work. Except, in a twist that would surprise Silvia Federici, sex, which is a “particularly delicious form of play”:

We can carve out time for activities that facilitate the partner-lover transition. We can play the Marvin Gaye, open a bottle of wine, or replace electric light with candlelight—or perhaps all of the above. As the wine kicks in, we can start singing along, perhaps using the wine bottle as a faux microphone. Irresistible, right?

In addition to candlelight and music, we might “adopt dominant and submissive roles or dress in risqué costumes.” There is masturbation, “an ancient option.” For the jet-setter, more modern solutions: “People will wear a device on their genitals—such as Kiiroo’s Onyx (for him) and Pearl (for her)—that reacts in real time to the movements of the other person. When she inserts the Pearl in Topeka, he feels the pressure from her vagina in Tokyo.” How often should one introduce the penis into the Onyx? “Once per week seems sufficient; more sex than that appears to have no additional benefit.”

Absent is any thoughtful application of broader economic and social forces, as Hanna Rosin noted in a Slate piece about Finkel’s article with the headline “The NYT Congratulates Rich People for Having Better Marriages Than Poor People.” While a certain historical obliviousness is the time-honored perk of writing for a white upper-middle-class audience (black marriage manuals deal plainly with racism, for example), a discussion of gender inequality would seem to be foundational for any modern book on marriage. I know how the evangelicals get out of it; how does Finkel? He skirts the issue by avoiding seeming macho, playing, on the page, a gentle character who couldn’t possibly be threatening. (His wife “finds it hilarious” that he’s an expert on marriage.) The sweet feminist husband is becoming a more and more common male pose in contemporary nonfiction about marriage. By sacrificing the aura of traditional masculinity, male writers can shortcut to the right side of the gender war, where they live in a discursive safety zone, albeit a clichéd one.

Tim Dowling, a columnist for The Guardian, does a self-mocking rendition of this role in his 2014 manual How to Be a Husband. “Being a good husband means hearing the word ‘no,’” he writes. “It means gallantly turning down halfhearted offers of perfunctory, mechanical sex from someone too tired to contemplate anything else.” Ever the strategist, Dowling considers falling on his sword after fights in order to increase his chances of intercourse. “Do you want to be right,” a relationship expert asks him, “or do you want to have sex tonight?”

Antoinette and Billy Edwards in Allan King’s A Married Couple, 1969. Criterion Collection.
Antoinette and Billy Edwards in Allan King’s A Married Couple, 1969. Criterion Collection.

JANET MALCOLM WROTE in 1989 that much American psychotherapy aims not to explore the unconscious but to transpose the genre of the patient’s life, usually from a tragedy to a domestic comedy. Marriage manuals for middle-class whites succeed to the extent that they provide either a romantic story readers can live with or passive acceptance of a not-romantic story that feels warm and comic, not bleak and absurd. They transport us from Happy Days the Beckett play to Happy Days the Fonzie show.

As an aesthetic, hokeyness has a single great advantage. It sets relaxingly low stakes. How life-or-death can it be if we’re talking about piling into the van to play minigolf or fornicating with a ciabatta? But that is the paradox of the marriage-manual form, its special strangeness compared to other how-to guides. By transposing us into a low-stakes story, it forfeits the intensity that draws us to marriage in the first place, turning what was once a one-way ticket to happiness or misery into something that looks like an affair between very polite start-up founders.

Though marriage can be funny, I am not sure it is best understood as comic. The ending spoils it. Romantic comedies end with happy marriage; happy marriage, like tragedy, ends in death. And death is the ideal ending, preferably your own. I notice that I sometimes sublimate my fear of Sarah’s death into the comparatively trivial fear that I will give an inadequate eulogy: I’ll make an ass of myself saying what a beautiful stomach she had, or how she once did the dishes with laundry detergent. “Who will die first?” is another way of asking, “What is the plot here?” Marriage manuals ring false because they are tragedy minus time.

By contrast, the most compelling books about monogamy are written after the fact by a surviving partner once the story has sorted itself out. If we want to learn about marriage, we turn here. Donald Hall’s accounts of life with Jane Kenyon before her illness, for example, provide a glimpse of the pleasures of the quotidian, walking around New Hampshire in the summer reading each other’s poems. They continued reading each other even as she was dying, when he recited a draft of his elegy for her. (She said, “You’ve got it.”)

Hall’s marriage offers a cautionary tale about believing you know your story before it concludes. Kenyon had spent the early part of their life together as the lesser poet, as “Donald Hall’s wife.” Then the story adjusted, as she became a known quantity with poetry in the New Yorker. Finally, one did not speak of Hall without speaking of Kenyon. That should have been the story, but the Aristotelian revelation was yet to come. Kenyon died at age forty-seven. Hall, twenty years older, should by rights have gone first.

Phyllis Rose, in her underrated study Parallel Lives, recounts a similar reversal. For years, Jane Carlyle played the role of “heroic housewife in the service of exasperating genius,” as Thomas produced his biography of Frederick the Great and bitched about the neighbors’ roosters. Then Thomas embarked on a sexless affair with a wealthy patron. Jane had given up her own ambitions to support him; it was too late to change course, and she was lost. She conferred her suffering to her diary, which fell into Thomas’s hands after her death and crushed him. He had believed himself to be in a domestic comedy speeding toward a happy conclusion.

There is hardly anything uncommon here. Imagining, as it occurs, that marriage is a forward-moving narrative—especially a narrative of growth—satisfies one of the weird itches that monogamy produces. Marriage is bizarrely nonnarrative. It continues or it doesn’t, feels good or it doesn’t. Meanwhile, it closes off other fantasies, including that of whom we will marry. Juan, the narrator of Javier Marías’s A Heart So White, becomes suddenly unable, on his honeymoon, “to think about the future, which is one of the greatest conceivable pleasures known to anyone.”

The classic solution to the problem of monogamy’s storylessness is an affair. But an affair confines you in another way, placing you in a rigid plot of its own. One day Johan, the husband in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, interrupts his cozy middle-class life to begin an affair with a fellow academic he meets at a conference. As the flames of banality lap up his life—lies, liaisons—he laments in bewilderment, “It sounds like lines from some old hackneyed melodrama. . . . It sounds so damn melodramatic.”

There are shockingly few nonfiction accounts of heterosexual monogamy shorn of the narrative expedient of affairs. It’s just a very hard thing to write about without novelizing, because it entails a privacy in which the action is subliminal, erotic, and intellectual, directed away from the outside world, adhering less to accessible cultural tropes than to a shared, invisible myth. (Simone de Beauvoir, in The Prime of Life, a memoir of her time with Jean-Paul Sartre, describes this phenomenon beautifully as a matter of having “identical signs on both our brows.”)

Adam Phillips proposes another angle in his gnomic book Monogamy. “A couple,” he writes, “is a conspiracy in search of a crime.” Criminality seems to me a powerful metaphor, worth extending. Think of the similarities: Criminals work in tight teams, share objectives, value loyalty, communicate in code, defy their parents, and continuously resist the pull of the other (better??) life. Once they make an agreement, there is no backing out. And while a major felony like homicide or embezzlement may occur in a matter of minutes, the fallout plots the course of the rest of a person’s life, an irreversible redirection. Such a skewed ratio between an action and the consequences recalls the disparity, in duration, between marital vows and marriage.

Finally—and perhaps most important—criminals keep secrets. Sociology doesn’t have my back here, but in casual observation it’s obvious that people who love telling secrets find themselves itchy in monogamy. This is not good or bad, just fact. Nor should it surprise: Monogamy involves keeping secrets, and successful monogamy is itself like a secret, one that even the spouses don’t know. Only much later do they discover what it was.

IT FOLLOWS, THEN, that one of the most engrossing nonfiction accounts of marriage would also be the most impenetrable, the best at concealing the relationship’s core. Shot in the summer of 1968, Allan King’s documentary A Married Couple shows that even when we sit at the same table, even when we sneak into their bedrooms with the lights on, what we see is still opaque. Opaque, despite King’s shooting with full access in Maysles-style vérité, without visible intervention in the action.

Our protagonists are Antoinette and Billy, two young white people in Toronto. (Perfect names for archetypal spouses, they become “A” and “B,” like characters in a Beckett radio play.) Billy works as a copywriter, Antoinette stays home with their son. At night they fight about money.

B: No, you’re not going to buy a harpsichord.

A: Oh, yes, I am buying a musical instrument.

B: You’re not buying a harpsichord. The reason you’re not buying a harpsichord is because a harpsichord is a selfish instrument just for you. The money is going to go to buying things that we absolutely need. What do we need a goddamn harpsichord for?. . .

A: Look, I saved money for a harpsichord, and then I put the money into the couch.

B: You saved about twenty-eight dollars for that harpsichord.

A: Hell’s bells! I saved 525 friggin’ dollars!

Each stars in a movie that does not exist. Billy adopts the role of a white-collar provider bedeviled by a spendthrift airhead (“You want one of those goddamn faggot-approved [kitchens]!”). Antoinette plays a dreamer bullied by a boor. In bed Billy tries to seduce her:

A: Did you want something?

B: I just came over to borrow a cup of sugar.

A: Well, we’re fresh out.

A and B appeal to King’s lens, and by extension to the film’s audience, for supremacy of each one’s version of events. Spouses always believe that they would be declared the unambiguous victims if they could only present their cases to a reasonable third party, like a UN election observer. They audition and discard theses that would sound at home in one of the marriage manuals. “If you can at least stand the sight of each other,” Antoinette attempts at one point, “put up with it and try to make a life for yourself.” Then Billy tries his own idea: “You want to have it all; you can’t have it all.” In one scene, Billy, for some reason wearing a jumpsuit, throws Antoinette out of the house by her hair. The most intimate moment by far is the discussion of a hypothetical separation that would cause them to split up the house.

When I first saw this as a just-married person, I thought, Are you kidding? This one’s easy. It’s an awful marriage, Billy’s fault. Their divorce came through in 1972.

Twenty years later Billy was hit by a car and killed. In 2009, Antoinette, then remarried, recorded an interview at her home for inclusion in a retrospective of King’s work. In the video, she sits in front of a piano, the instrument Billy wouldn’t let her get. “I basically remember my marriage to Billy as having been a good one,” she says.

Jesse Barron is a writer living in New York.