Marriage Reimagined

It is easy to view the vast and varied landscape of marriage in the present day as a radical departure from a more conservative past. But many of these marriage alternatives—including polyamory, open relationships, and the rejection of marriage altogether—have existed for as long as marriage has. In some cases, we appear downright quaint when compared to our predecessors. Models for non-traditional coupling have long been found in fiction and nonfiction alike. Ultimately, the question of who to marry and how—or if at all—is a question of how to live. We’ve been tinkering with the answer for ages, with no sign of stopping.

Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe

If you thought your relationship was radical, try being the progeny of the Victorians. Uncommon Arrangements is a group biography of seven Bloomsbury writers, which is focused on their unconventional marriages. Driven by a penchant for experimentalism in the years between the First and Second World Wars, these couples believed they could shake off their parents’ stodgy conservatism and imagine themselves and the world anew, though they didn’t want to entirely dismiss the idea of marriage. Radclyffe Hall, the openly-gay author of The Well of Loneliness, assumed the husband’s role in her union with sculptor Una Troubridge—which, according to the mores of the day, entitled her to a mistress. Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s artist sister, reimagined family in her East Sussex farmhouse, where she lived with her husband, Clive Bell; their children; Roger Fry (a former lover); Duncan Grant (a gay artist she loved desperately); and his lover, David Garnett (who would eventually marry Bell’s daughter). Though the seven marriages detailed in the book were often fraught, if not agonizing, it is hard not to admire the exercise: These authors brought the creative moxie normally reserved for their work to the rest of their lives.

Future Sex by Emily Witt

“Even as I settled for freedom as an interim state, I planned for my monogamous destiny . . . [but] my desires and my reality had diverged beyond the point of reconciliation,” Emily Witt writes in Future Sex. “I wanted to picture a different future, one aligned with the freedom of my present.” The book is Witt’s exploration of that freedom, in which she explores online sex forums, porn, “orgasmic meditation,” polyamorous Silicon Valley, and Burning Man. At the end of the only marriage ceremony in the book, the officiant announces, “You can kiss each other and other people.” In her simultaneously open-minded and skeptical narration, Witt delightfully skewers the techno-optimism of the Bay Area while earnestly searching its depths for meaning. She is stiff in the “cuddle puddles,” the tech world’s cloying version of pre-orgy foreplay. “I was interested in their project but I did not want to have to talk to these people again,” she writes of the practitioners of orgasmic meditation. At the center of the book is an urgent question: What is free love—and do we even want it?

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton has made a career of disguising self-help books as literature, creating an appealing alternative for those readers who wouldn’t be caught dead with the former on their nightstands. In his novel The Course of Love, de Botton isn’t really seeking to disrupt marriage by challenging the premise of the institution; instead, he seeks to disrupt the stories we tell about it. “The stories of relationships, maintained over decades, without obvious calamity or bliss, remain—fascinatingly and worryingly—the exceptions among the narratives we dare to tell ourselves about love’s progress,” de Botton writes. The novel follows Rabih and Kirsten from dating to midlife, as they navigate cultural differences, child rearing, demanding careers, an affair, and the regular disappointments of being married to a human. To de Botton, the true drama of marriage takes place in the arguments over bedroom temperature that are really about childhood trauma, or the realization that the child you made together is both the most boring and most beloved person you know. De Botton’s verve for self improvement comes across in the italicized interludes that speak directly to the reader: “Good listeners are unfussy about the chaos which others may for a time create in their minds; they’ve been there before and know that everything can eventually be set back in its place.”

The Heart is a Shifting Sea by Elizabeth Flock

The Heart is a Shifting Sea is a portrait of three Indian couples—one young and “modern,” a Muslim pair struggling with infertility, and an arranged marriage—that capture the country’s changing attitudes toward wedlock. They are, as Flock writes, “romantics and rule breakers. They dreamed of being married for seven lifetimes, but they didn’t follow convention. . . . Where the established rules for love did not fit their lives, they made up new ones.” Flock reported the story over roughly a decade, which enabled her to capture the full range of experiences that make up a marriage, from the quotidian to the momentous: the apologies made without eye contact, the minor grumblings between in-laws, the morning rituals, infidelity, childbirth, infertility, and the contemplation of divorce. Like de Botton, Flock mines the nitty-gritty of married life, searching for a more honest narrative, but her vision emphasizes a wider cultural shift. The hearts that Flock excavates in forensic detail are not just those of the individuals, but of a country as it reimagines itself.

Aftermath by Rachel Cusk

Sometimes we can only understand the structuring power of marriage once that structure has been demolished. Aftermath, Rachel Cusk’s slim memoir about the months after her divorce, is a record of marriage in negative: Cusk’s husband hardly appears within the pages, save for brief glimpses. Instead she details their lives without him—dentist trips gone awry, the abandonment of mealtime rituals, the first tentative steps towards new loves and new life. Cusk investigates family life with a jaded clarity that is often accessible only through pain. Watching families biking with their helmets and luminescent strips, she sees the burrowing fearfulness of nuclear family life. “We’re not part of that story any more, my children and I,” she writes. “We belong more to the world, in all its risky disorder, its fragmentation, its freedom.” Aftermath, like all of Cusk’s work, is icy and cutting. It is this viciousness that makes her writing about womanhood so satisfying. “A veil is torn down—how delirious it is, how curiously liberating, to tear it!”

Laura Smith is the author of The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust. She is a history writer and editor at