Domestic Policy: Are Dreams the New Dowry?

Posted by 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?

Leave a Comment

  1. On 21 Mar, 2008, ndulj said:

    That is one of the most thought provoking indictments of marriage I have ever read. Sad, but also sadly true.

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  2. On 21 Mar, 2008, Miles said:

    Man if my wife wanted to work while I stayed home with (hypothetical) kids, I’d be all over that.
    Anyway, I think this is pretty interesting, but it’s all too easy to make up depressing stories and give a one-sided perspective. Not all women, for one thing, dream of long working careers. Not all men do either. Nor are all marriages “one-sided compromises.”

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  3. On 21 Mar, 2008, MissPearls said:

    This is a ridiculous piece. Marriage is a choice, it doesn’t just happen to women. And it’s hard to feel sorry for anyone — male or female — who makes a lifelong commitment without first coming to know his/her partner and discussing their mutual goals. I can’t imagine marrying someone without knowing what I wanted for myself in terms of career and family, and discussing it with him.
    These stories may be “ancient”…because women didn’t used to have the same options of rejecting a suitor, or marriage altogether. But to today’s woman…they strike me as merely fictitious.

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  4. On 21 Mar, 2008, Cara said:

    “But to today’s woman…they strike me as merely fictitious.”
    Miss Pearl, you may laugh, but have you SEEN the real life of a soccer mom ?! it does happen EVERY DAY that women give up their ambitions. I watched an episode just the other day of a woman who received a scholarship to the police academy, and CLEARLY wanted to take the opportunity after her week of secretly working there. Her husband simply said “NO” and that was the end of the discussion.
    You are right there DOES need to be discussion between partners about this type of stuff so that it is avoided. The problem is many women are sometimes not encouraged to think about what THEY want and go for it, and they are afraid to do ANYTHING for fear of being judged for whatever decision they DO make.
    My fiance and I are both of the mind-set that as long as we are truly partners, we can both have fulfilling work and family lives.

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  5. On 07 May, 2008, K said:

    this is such an interesting post. i can tell you that my mother gave up a lot for me and for my dad. she moved to the US so i could have a “better life” (more educational and career opportunities), and she also gave up her dreams of becoming a nurse to support our family. while i appreciate all she has done for me, i’ve also been saddled with guilt knowing that my mom could have achieved more in her life if she didn’t have me.
    my mom is a strong and very giving person, but after watching her toil six days a week for years at a dead-end job made me reevaluate my thoughts on marriage and childbearing. i am happily married now, but i am also questioning the idea of having kids and sacrificing what i’ve worked so hard for just to make others happy. as of right now, i just don’t want to go down that road.
    interestingly (and maybe ironically) enough, though, my mother has slapped me with the “selfish” label when i told her that i might not want children, especially when there are so many other things i’d rather save my money for. needless to say, her comment made me very upset. i’ve been raised my entire life to have my own dreams, but i’m also expected to drop them for the sake of a baby…so why did my mom encourage me to have dreams at all? why does she want me to struggle as she did? it is so frustrating.

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  6. On 07 May, 2008, Miss B said:

    Thanks for the candid feedback K! We are finding this is a very relevant subject for modern women, and are going to be exploring more in the future about how to have a dream-safe marriage :)

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