Zeitgeist | Defending Marriage . . . and Singledom

happiness-buttons-worldmeganYou’d think it was the first time anyone’s ever gotten a divorce.

Sandra Tsing Loh’s recent admission in The Atlantic that she’s divorcing her husband after 20 years (following her own extramarital affair) has ignited a firestorm of high-minded controversy debating the pros and cons of marriage. The story was picked up nationally, with nearly all the major news outlets chiming in online, on air and in print.

The particular point of contention is Ms. Loh’s theory that perhaps the reason we have a divorce culture is because we marry too often. Citing “all the abject and swallowed misery” she observes in modern marriage, she wonders, “Why do we still insist on marriage?”

Then she really gets down to it, ending her polemic with a

“final piece of advice: avoid marriage—or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.”

Not to pick on Sandra Tsing Loh, but by saying that it’s now better to be single just because she’s getting divorced, she has succumbed to the common tendency of viewing her own personal choices as a referendum on what everyone else should be doing. And so has everyone who has joined this odd debate.

So . . . is it better to be married or single? It’s a ridiculous question, of course.

The name of the game is happiness. Fulfillment. Living an abundant life. For some people that means marriage, for others it means independence. A lucky few—married or not—manage to create committed relationships that don’t require sacrificing essential parts of themselves, or (even better) that actively support the things they value most in themselves.

Aaron Traister is a great example of someone who enjoys being married. In an article on Salon.com he says, “The years since we got married have been the most challenging and at times most frustrating years of my life. They have also been the most productive, happiest and most hilarious.” His description of his marital bliss doesn’t whitewash the daily realities: the financial problems, the demanding children, the constant home repair, the lack of romance and, inevitably, the lack of regular sex.

With all due respect, his bliss is my worst nightmare. If I were living his life I’d be torn between shooting myself or my partner. But that’s exactly the point—his marriage makes him happy. For him, it’s a source of contentment, humor, challenge, and personal growth that fulfills him on many levels.

He admits to being fed up with

“divorced people speaking as though they are oracles from the future who know how the rest of our unions will turn out. All the marriage bashing going on out there feels like a way of shedding a certain amount of personal responsibility. By telling the world the institution is flawed, or that we’ve somehow outgrown it, nobody has to own up and admit that it was their interpretation of it that was screwed up.”

Traister’s frustration with divorced marriage bashers is the reversed mirror image of the annoyance that quirkyalones often feel when the smugly coupled get on their high horses about singledom. Just because they found being single frightening, or lonely, or too non-conformist, they’ve decided that being single is a problem that needs to be solved rather than admitting that it simply wasn’t a good fit for them.

I’m not against marriage—I never have been. Like all quirkyalones, I am passionately against settling. Against making convenient choices at the expense of the things that make me truly happy. Against living an unfulfilled life.

As a serial monogamist with long stretches between relationships, I probably look more committed to being single than I really am. But I have those long stretches precisely because I take commitment so seriously. I put a lot of time and emotional energy into my relationships and I don’t give up on them easily. I’m willing to commit to maintaining a strong connection with a man whom I love, and who loves me in return.

And I am utterly unwilling to put even minimal effort into preserving a relationship that has ceased to be a source of happiness in my life.

Like Sandra Tsing Loh, most divorced people consider divorce one of the biggest failures of their lives, but I think that viewpoint misses an essential truth. I would consider a 20-year relationship a success if it had mostly contributed to my happiness, and a failure if I’d spent the majority of that time being unhappy and resentful. Likewise for a six-month relationship. Ditto for six weeks.

We live in a world of opportunity with abundant options. If we’re unhappy for any reason, we have the power to change our circumstances. We have the power to choose happiness.

So instead of arguing over whether it’s “better” to be married or single, let’s embrace happiness as a goal with its own reward—whether we create it as single people, or partnered, or married, or some personal variation that works only for us.


Photo credit: “Happiness Buttons” by Megan Elizabeth Morris via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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I'm an occasional contributor to Zeitgeist: Quirkyalone Pop Culture. Zeitgeist explores how pop culture reflects us back to ourselves—in ways funny, interesting, frivolous and profound. I’m a committed quirkyalone and a pop culture addict who should probably be committed. Pop culture is my hometown, the street where I live, the air that I breathe. It’s where new ideas, fascinating people, trends, and innovation, meet the movies I love (new and classic), the TV I watch (from 30 Rock to Weeds), the Internet I haunt (from Perez Hilton to Salon), and the pile of magazines I read regularly (from The Atlantic to Wired to New York magazine). Professionally, I'm a storyteller, media maven and entrepreneur—the owner of WanderNot, Inc., a Bay Area creative communications company. I also write personal essays, feature articles and profiles, as well as the weekly blog Writer Vixen Explains It All. Quirkyalone Status: Currently happily single and happily open to quirkytogetherness.

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Posted in Books + Movies, Quirkytogether, Relationships, Single Life
15 comments on “Zeitgeist | Defending Marriage . . . and Singledom
  1. Bravo! It seems sad that some people’s distress leads to the feeling that others have to behave as they do. Relationships are complicated and impacted by individual needs. As you say, knowing what you need is key.

  2. Jenn says:

    This is so well put and I just could not agree more! I’m started to get as tired of hearing the single community bash coupledom as I am of hearing the rest of the world bash singledom. Either way, you’re judging someone else’s choice. Maybe I notice it more now because I’m finally in a wonderful relationship that makes me happier than I ever thought I could be – and I find myself almost feeling guilty about it, as if I’m ‘betraying’ the single community. How screwed up is that? So thanks for a great post!

    • Thanks Jenn! Congratulations — it’s no small thing to create the life that you want for yourself. The whole loyalty/betrayal thing IS screwed up, but I think many of us feel the same way.

      Sasha wrote a great post a few weeks ago (“The Truth About Me and Quirkyalone”) which also alluded to those feelings. They’re the result of a false choice — it’s not “single” or “coupled” but rather, “What makes me happy?”

      It’s the whole point of quirkyalone, imho! 😉

      • Lisa says:

        Deborah, excellent post! And Jenn, I agree with your point and struggle, myself, with the line between advocating for singles while not bashing couples/coupledom. Unfortunately, I think the easiest response is one which presents issues such as this as either-or situations. The better, but more difficult, response is one which regularly attempts to articulate the complexity and contradiction inherent to our everyday lives and choices.

        I do think it’s important to recognize that Loh’s piece has likely received this much attention because it is clearly (and intentionally) polemical. I would argue that she’s imitating and exaggerating what we see much more regularly in the news — opinion pieces and ostensibly “factual” or “scientific” reports that praise marriage and coupling unconditionally and uncritically. It’s rare — and therefore all the more powerful — to hear the same rhetorical moves being used for the opposing or unpopular arguments. Laura Kipnis’s book, Against Love (2004), makes a similar argument, but it’s so self-consciously hyperbolic and polemical that it’s clear that she intends for her readers to understand her strategy as just that — a rhetorical strategy.

        — L

      • Thanks Lisa. 😉

        I agree, Sandra’s being intentionally polemical in her piece. The kicker, for me — and maybe for others — is that video she made (posted on the front page of The Atlantic article on the website): she just sounds so, so very bitter and disappointed.

        I don’t know this for a fact, but someone told me that they remember when Sandra first got married. At that time she published “a slew of articles” (not sure what that means, specifically) about how fabulous marriage was and how everyone should be married.

        Maybe she’s just a very enthusiastic person with a big megaphone. 😉

  3. Erika says:

    I read the part of the article that said “people marry too often” and I think that’s definitely true. Marriage can be a wonderful thing (or so I’ve heard) and if both people work at it and see beyond the wedding and honeymoon they’ve got a chance.

    But I think a lot of people don’t really marry that way; they want the wedding and events and attention but don’t really want to commit to years of marriage. Of course the media doesn’t help either, with every other movie having a big wedding, and of course never mind that the wedding industry and everything involved is multi-billion dollar.

    • I hear you! Even as a little girl I always thought it was strange that fairy tales ended with the princesses getting married and “living happily ever after.”

      I wondered what that meant. What sorts of things happened to them? How did they deal with it? Did they just stay the same forever and ever? For me, “happily ever after” kind of felt like the start of the real story.

      In hindsight, I have to wonder if those stories kind of brainwash us early-on into believing that our happiness lies in a certain set of circumstances — in this case, marriage — rather than in what we bring with us when we show up for the party.

      Know what I mean? 😉

    • “But I think a lot of people don’t really marry that way; they want the wedding and events and attention but don’t really want to commit to years of marriage.”

      Exactly! The typical wedding has become a day to celebrate the self, not a day to celebrate commitment. Every young girl who dreams of her wedding day wants to “feel like a princess.” How many of us carry that same attitude right into adulthood?

      That’s why I really believe we should all have a coming-of-age ceremony, similar to the quinceanera in the Hispanic community. Perhaps the American version could be at 18 or 21 years. This would give everyone a chance to have that special day to dress up and be the center of attention, stock up on useful gifts for setting up a place of one’s own, and be inducted into the grown-up world. In the absence of a tradition like this, we’ve misused weddings to fulfill this role. The consequence is that young people, especially women, feel undo pressure to marry just to have a wedding, and wedding ceremonies are no longer really about marriage.

      Hopefully, a coming-of-age celebration would fulfill the “princess for a day” fantasy, so weddings could return to the more modest and meaningful ceremonies they once were. Not that this will ever happen, but one can dream…

  4. Sarah Fain says:

    I wish I had discovered quirkyalone years ago! I spent many years unhappily single and wishing for a relationship when I should have been focusing on creating my own happiness. Whoops!

    But I totally fell for the fallacy (taught to me by my mother from the time that I was tiny, and reinforced by… oh, everything, since then) that life is incomplete without a man. Which doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t really, really like a great man in my life. I would. A lot. But I regret that I lost so much time waiting for one who didn’t show up.

    Finally, I’ve realized that, man or not, I have to spend my energy creating the life that I want– which, for me, means becoming a single mom. Of course, some people will judge that choice, just as they judge others for being single, or married, or divorced, or just being whatever they are not… but that’s okay. Because, happily, I’m not listening anymore…

    • I know, Sarah, me too! It’s really hard to feel out of step with most of the rest of society. Even though we live in a wonderful era in history where we can pretty much choose to live any way we want to, it can still sometimes feel incredibly lonely.

      That’s why I was so thrilled to discover quirkyalone. I was like, “You’re my people! Woo hoo!!” 😉

  5. This is a fantastic article! I really do believe that at least some of the smugness we perceive from marrieds results from their own perception, accurate or not, that we quirkyalones look down on them. It must be hurtful for our married friends and family who believe that our decision to be single is somehow a judgment against their lifestyle.

    You articulated what I’ve been trying to express to my friends and family and everyone else who will listen–that there is no perfect life choice. There are positives and negatives about relationships, just as there are positives and negatives about the single life. The trick is deciding which set of positives and negatives you want to deal with at any given point in time. Other than that, your life is your life, whether you have a relationship partner alongside you or a child, a parent, or a best friend. Some of your experiences will be different, but many will also be the same, and you will grow and mature and learn either way.

    Have to say I loved this outlook:

    “I would consider a 20-year relationship a success if it had mostly contributed to my happiness, and a failure if I’d spent the majority of that time being unhappy and resentful. Likewise for a six-month relationship.”

    I’ve truly never thought of defining relationship success in that way! Reading this reminded me that I don’t have to measure my experiences against mainstream society’s yardstick. What a very uplifting way to honor the experiences that have made us who we are!

    • Thanks Elsie. The other day — apropos of a completely different issue — I was thinking that whenever I’m feeling pressured to do anything a certain way just because it’s what everyone else does, that I’m actually being pressured to play someone else’s game instead of my own. And I think that true success and happiness in life inevitably come from playing your own game.

      That’s my current working theory, anyway. 😉

  6. mdlsmith says:

    i feel people should have the right to make their own choices,wher others agree or not. each person ought to figure out what is best for him or her. whether we choose to stay single or decide to get married for the right reasons without being pressured to do so.

  7. Sabrina says:

    I’m not surprised that author wound up divorced. It’s clear she wasn’t happy in her marriage, otherwise she wouldn’t have done something as self-destructive as have an affair. However, I find her comments re: marriage to be on the self-righteous and presumptuous side. How can she say no one else get married, simply because it didn’t work for her? That’s just plain silly. That author strikes me as someone who would be negative and unhappy no matter what her marital status. She needs to take responsibility for her choices, and let’s face it the primary reason that her marriage blew up because she didn’t honor or respect her vows. As for me, I still believe in marriage, but I also believe in being happily single if that’s where one finds themself. Mind you, I’ve been divorced for over 20 years. I’ve not re-married and it’s highly unlikely that I will, but despite that I still believe that marriage is the right thing for some people. I know personally of many happily married people out there. I say just because marriage doesn’t work out for some people doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t work out for others.

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What’s a quirkyalone?

A quirkyalone is a person who enjoys being single (or spending time alone) and so prefers to wait for the right person to come along rather than dating indiscriminately. Quirkyalones prefer to be single rather than settle.
Quirkyalones can also be married or in a committed relationship (quirkytogether). You can be a man or a woman, any age.
Quirkyalone is ultimately a philosophy about finding happiness within yourself whether you’re single or in a relationship.

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