Book Club Questions
“Marriage! Are you for or against it?”
This was the most common question I got when people found out that I was writing a book on marriage.
After finishing the book I came to the conclusion that I was neither. I’m more like marriage’s “loyal opposition.” I think that marriage today is in a brainstorming phase. It’s trying to find its footing in the new realities of the 21st century.
In Marriage Confidential, I was interested in doing two things: First, I wanted to figure out what goes on behind the closed door of a thoroughly modern marriage. I wanted to explore how marriages end up in a “semi-happy” state. The semi-happy marriage, basically, is one that’s not bad enough to leave and not good enough to fulfill.
This aspect of my book is trying to understand the culture of marriage today in the “post-feminist” era. I wanted to enlarge our sympathies and reduce judgments toward those who struggle in marriage, get divorced, decide not to marry, or simply find themselves less happy than they “should” be, on paper.
Second, I wanted to stretch my imagination about what was possible in marriage. How is marriage changing today? What are the major trends? My argument is that marriage is moving out of the romantic era of the 20th century and into a “post-romantic” era that’s defined more by a dream of the stable over the sublime, by ideals of friendship and less by expectations of monogamy, for example, and where the romantic, traditional views of breadwinning and childrearing are being dramatically revised. I was curious about couples who are secretly doing things differently, and who might be a vanguard of marriage in the 21st century.
Here are conversation-starter questions:
1. Is Marriage “Becoming Obsolete?” Pew research from late 2011 found that 40 percent of Americans overall, and half of younger Americans, now believe that marriage is “becoming obsolete.”
What do you think? And, to ask a bold question: If marriage is becoming obsolete, should we worry about that?
2. “A real marriage.” Do you have a (maybe secret) standard of a “real marriage?” That’s a phrase I talk about in Marriage Confidential. I heard it a lot—but with different definitions. For some—those who oppose same-sex marriage—a real marriage is only between “a man and a woman.” For others, a real marriage means sexual monogamy for life. For others, it means sex, period, of some kind. For still others, it means living in the same place, not a commuter or weekend marriage. Often, we’ve got privately-held standards.
For you, is there some litmus test for what counts as a “real” marriage that just can’t be changed, past which a marriage becomes a charade or an on-paper marriage only?
3. Eccentric marriages or vanguard marriages? My book presents a range of marriages, some of which are pushing the envelope. Which ones resonate with your own marriage fantasies? One of my friends loves the idea of “going RV,” simplifying the marital lifestyle, and taking the marriage on the road. She might not do it, but reading about it and knowing that she could do something like this makes her feel better.
4. “My marriage is good, but…” I heard this phrase a lot. And, often, the concern or longing following the “but” was a rather large one, or so it seemed to me.
If you could change one thing about your own marriage, or about marriage expectations in general, what would it be? My husband was always intrigued by the idea that maybe marriage should be a renewable contract. It’s good for seven years, and then it must be renewed.
5. Children: The New Spouses? Recent research finds that childfree marriages are significantly happier than marriage with children. I’m not sure if “happiness” is really the best way to assess what children add to our lives but, nonetheless, the finding is quite interesting.
I argue in Marriage Confidential that marriage is a forgotten bond in family life, and that parenting styles and fashions today have made it harder to have a family in which each member gets to have some prerogatives and priorities, and where adults get to do things that they care about, too—including guilt-free dedication to their careers, and work ethic! I talk about the demise of the “children’s table” to illustrate the ways that marital and adult life have been colonized by parenthood.
“It’s as if once you’re a parent, you can only be a parent,” I argue. Agree? Disagree? How do you see children affecting marriage? What do you think of the parenting styles for women who are in their 30s and 40s today, and how do they differ, or not, from your own upbringing? Why are childfree marriages happier and is there anything to do about it?
6.Should this marriage be saved? A thought experiment: How far would you bend the rules, or how much would you forgive, or overlook, to save a semi-happy marriage? Could you ever imagine having a marital contract that allowed for some form of non-monogamy, or for other intimate attachments? Why or why not?
7. What’s coming next for marriage—or, as I call it, Marriage v. 3.0? I’m interested in where marriage might be headed. I think we’re already outgrowing the romantic marriage ideals. What do you think? What parts of marriage do you see surviving, and which parts might be changed? Do you think that the next generation still has romantic ideals about marriage?
8. “Marriage Envy” Are there any marriages in your generation that you reallyadmire? I’m not talking about decent, functioning marriages that you see every day, but ones that really wow you and elicit admiration.
In an online survey, I was surprised to learn that 30% think that other marriages are “neither happy nor unhappy.” I also found that women had Marriage Envy most often for older marriages of their parents’ generation. Of course, there’s a “survivor” bias at work there, because by definition, older marriages have survived long enough to become older marriages, but I also think that the women I spoke to felt, to their surprise, that the earlier generations extracted more emotionally out of marriage than they did.
9. Best Thing/Worst Thing. I write in Marriage Confidential that few things are as susceptible to grass is greener thinking and fantasy than marital status. Married people look longingly on the unmarried; single people look enviously upon the married and settled. What do you consider the best and the worst thing about your marriage, or about your single life, or about your divorced life?
10. Marriage giveth and marriage taketh away…Have you given up something really important to get married, to be married or to stay married? If so, how have you handled it? Is there something that you really thought marriage would “solve” in your life, whether you’re single or married, that simply hasn’t proven true?
For example, I talked to women who were surprised at how lonely they felt—within a marriage. They thought that once they were married, at least they wouldn’t be “alone” anymore, only to discover that when a marriage stumbles, we can feel very alone indeed, even within it.