Posted by jade on 20 Mar, 2008
Lately Bridezilla has been wondering if the modern marriage has really evolved, and the string of political scandals lately only brings this burning question to the forefront. Sure, we no longer have to bribe our grooms with chickens and cows to get them to marry us, but what are we giving up instead? Dreams, dignity, and in the case of many prominent politicians’ wives, the right to bear facial expressions.
The terms have become more abstract, but the marital trade-off seems to be the same. With this ring, women are selling personal lifestyle preferences, career goals, and identities to become nothing more than figureheads and trophy wives. We sacrifice our single woman hopes until we can’t even recognize them, all under that most dangerous term of “compromise.” But can there even be compromise when it’s completely one-sided? Or is what we call balance really just bondage?
Not so long ago Silda Spitzer, a Harvard Law grad herself, was standing in a church, exchanging vows of love and fidelity with one of the most promising politicians of our time. When does the fresh-faced glee of the altar turn to stone-faced horror at the podium? And how many compromises will marriage demand before wives become a mere caricature of womanhood?
Call us macabre, but from politics and beyond, it seems like even a modern marriage contract can mean signing the death certificate of your personal dreams. From the humiliation of our poker-faced first ladies to the debacle of everyday desperate housewives, are women ever factored into the marriage equation?
Take Rhonda*, a leggy brunette who dreamily dreamed of Ph.D’s and medical school from the innocence of her freshman dorm. By the time Rhonda is a senior, a handsome, dimpled Poli Sci major named Greg catches her eye, and she starts thinking how a Master’s degree would leave more time for marriage and motherhood. “Women are more adaptable,” she thinks. ” I can always go back to school when he’s through.” Ten years later, Rhonda, a dental hygienist with three kids and every episode of “ER” on DVD, wearily treks her brood to the pediatrician. She watches the young women physicians glide by like swans in their sleek white coats and right-hand rings, self-consciously smoothing her Marshall’s blazer and purple Costco jeans (“The budget,” her husband’s stern voice, a constant echo refrains in her head) Before her, the pediatrician reels off a sphinx’s riddle of prescriptions, the language which, under paper lanterns and bunk beds, she believed as a nineteen-year-old she would master. Now, Rhonda can’t even find her bachelor’s degree. She thinks it might be in the basement somewhere.
Then there’s Betty*, who was brought up in a Baptist church believing the marriage bed was undefiled. Watching the Spitzer trial and others like it, Betty finds herself doing unthinkable acts in bed, telling herself it’s her duty, telling herself she doesn’t want her husband to satisfy himself somewhere else. She gets through it by imagining she is swimming in a pool. Her only orgasms are alone, achieved by imagining tender marital scenarios that have never happened. Betty traveled the world in college, and posts pictures of Ireland and Ibiza above the pile of bills. For her birthday each year, her husband takes her to the Embassy Suites up the street for an overnight, sometimes two if she begs.
Even more common is Jennifer*, a woman who never really pictured having marriage or a family, but a cocky young attorney convinced her he could make her dreams come true. For his job, they had moved across the country twice. For his lineage, she had almost died in childbirth. When her promotion opportunity came up, it was dismissed over breakfast with a newspaper rustle. “Don’t think about yourself, think of the children. We can’t take the kids out of school.” But when he made partner six months later, they moved in an eye blink. “The kids could use a change, and so could you. You seem…tired? Are you in menopause?” Jennifer is only 29. She tells herself it’s not so bad. Her friends are happy for her, telling her his career achievements are her family’s crown. They move to Chicago though Jennifer loves the sun. She talks to her mom on the phone constantly, wondering how she ended up in this steel jungle where strangers bump into her on the street and don’t apologize. She never wanted children, but he convinced her lack of progeny was emasculating for a man, so she gave in. He hasn’t been home before eight since the twins were born, and she’s so damn tired she doesn’t even care.
These stories are fictitious. These stories are ancient, and modern. These stories are very, very real. Sure, marriage takes compromise, but why does the man always get to keep his career and his family, while the woman has to choose? Is married life just one big consolation prize for The End of Experience? What is it about marriage that seems to shrink women’s sense of self? That prohibits them from living larger-than-life lives?
There has been progress, but not enough. For every Michelle Obama, there’s a Silda Spitzer. For every Maureen Dowd, there’s a Caitlin Flanagan. For every Hillary Clinton, there’s a Hillary Clinton.
Where does this leave us? Are we any closer to egalitarian marriages, or are we paying a steeper price for companionship than ever before? And if so, should marriage be avoided at any cost?