It could have been a chapter right out of the late Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Actually, it was an article in Glamour magazine earlier this summer, written by Kristin Armstrong, ex-wife of cyclist Lance Armstrong. In a piece titled “What I wish I had known about marriage,” Armstrong expresses regret over having lost herself in marriage by forgetting about her own needs and trying to be the perfect wife and mother. She cautions other women not to do the same.
Oprah identified so much with Armstrong’s message that she devoted an entire hour to it on her program
— with Armstrong at her side. Oprah admits that it’s because of a fear of losing her own identity that she never got married, and she wants to join Armstrong in warning women about “the greatest conspiracy in modern history”: marriage.
Having been through a painful divorce myself, I agree with Armstrong that there’s something terribly wrong with our marriage culture. There is a conspiracy of sorts — but it’s not the one Armstrong suggests. She is certainly right that people don’t know what to expect when they marry. And society does encourage newly engaged women to focus on their wedding day and honeymoon rather than on marriage itself. Where Armstrong’s article falls short, however, is in how she defines the conspiracy.
Armstrong concludes that older women who have “been there, done that” fail to warn younger women that marriage “has the potential to erode the very fiber of your identity.” They don’t tell newly engaged women that “if you aren’t careful, [marriage] can tempt you to become a ‘yes woman’ and lure you into a pattern of pleasing that will turn you into someone you hardly recognize.” No doubt her heart is in the right place, and she has at least recognized that something is amiss in modern marriage. Unfortunately, her revelation isn’t revelatory. Today’s wives are not losing their identities in droves. Friedan hit that nerve some forty years ago, and the drum has been beaten to death; it is a danger that women today are quite alert to.
The real conspiracy — though I don’t believe the neglect is sinister, and thus perhaps “conspiracy” isn’t the word — is the silence about how hard marriage is. Not only does being married involve sacrifice that is sometimes overwhelming; it is also not, as we are taught, about being in love. It’s much more about practicality and usefulness than we wish it were.
Armstrong is wise to point out that women spend far too much time planning elaborate weddings and honeymoons. But rather than offer women concrete advice for what they should really be focusing on, she simply warns them about not giving up too much of themselves. This isn’t enough — for many women, it’s not even relevant, since they may not be pleasers by nature, as Armstrong apparently is, or was. What women should be doing during their engagements, instead of planning big parties, is talking with their fiancés about money, children, religion, sex, work, and the expectations they have of one another with respect to the division of labor in the household. As for the mental preparation, the single most important thing to understand is that love is not enough.
What concerns me the most about Armstrong and Oprah’s message is that their response to the sacrifices of marriage appears to be either divorce or avoiding marriage altogether. Rather than trying to help people deal with the reality of married life, they spent the entire hour of the show focused on how easily women fall prey to an institution that seeks to hold them down. I just can’t see how this would resonate with most women today, since we’re not only encouraged to carve out lives of our own, but are supported in our desire to be self-involved.
Modern women understand that marriage involves making sacrifices; they just don’t want to make them. They have a keen awareness that, as wives, they’re supposed to take care of their own needs throughout the journey. And lest they forget, they have plenty of women’s magazines to remind them. What may indeed be revelatory for today’s women is that they’re not the only individuals who make sacrifices in marriage. Men do as well.
Trying to find the right balance between giving to others and giving to ourselves is a tough thing. Many men have dreams of their own that are either put on the back burner or completely forgotten because of their responsibility to provide for their families. Take my husband, for instance. He is a writer, just as I am. Yet he cannot pursue his passion, because it is not generally the type of work that supports a family. I do not have this same burden. As a wife and full-time mother of two, I am able to pursue a writing career precisely because of my husband’s sacrifices. It is his financial contribution from a job that is not his first choice that allows me to do what I want with my life. Why do sacrifices like his so often go unexamined?
We would do better as a society to discuss the sacrifices involved in marriage on the part of both men and women. I agree that women are more susceptible to losing themselves in marriage due to their inherently giving nature. To warn against this is fine. But to belabor this point does a disservice to young women. Men could complain if they wanted to, but they don’t. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from their silence.
Women like Armstrong — who have suffered a great deal because of their poor choices — tend to displace their resentment onto society. Armstrong chose to marry a world-class cyclist; she was destined for a life of sacrifice that the average woman doesn’t experience. She may also have been doomed to fail at marriage, since she never wanted the life she got in the first place. As she writes about her single days, “I treasured my self-sufficiency so much that I scoffed at women who gave up their jobs, stayed home to take care of children or relied on men for anything.” Perhaps this attitude toward marriage and motherhood created a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have no respect for such a life, and then find yourself becoming the very person you never wished to be, it’s unlikely you’ll find happiness.
This doesn’t mean that marriage is the enemy; it means there’s something wrong with our view of it. The real answer for Armstrong and Oprah will not be found in exposing a bogus conspiracy; it will be found only in their own ideas and expectations.
– Suzanne Venker is author of the book 7 Myths of Working Mothers: Why Children and (Most) Careers Just Don’t Mix.