Rachel is one of the women I regularly dine with, now that I have a divorced person’s oddly relaxed—oddly civilized, even horribly French?—joint-custody schedule. It has been almost 10 years since I dined with adults on a weekly basis. My domestic evenings have typically revolved around five o’clock mac and cheese under bright lighting and then a slow melt into dishes and SpongeBob … because yet another of my marital failings was that I was never able to commit to a nanny. Even though my husband and I both drew full-time incomes, I, as a writer, worked at home and hence was ambivalent, because if I had daily in-house help, what was my role as a mother? Would I be emotionally displaced? Also, I secretly worried that using domestic help was exploitative—recall Barbara Ehrenreich’s dictum that she’d never let another woman scrub her toilets. Yea, these are the various postfeminist hurdles that stretched before me at 2:00 a.m. as I lay awake in our bed, contorted not just by cats but by two children kicking me from both sides—Exhibit A of lazy, undisciplined attachment parenting.
Imagine driving with me now to Rachel’s house for our new 40-something social hobby—the Girls’ Night dinner. Leap not from my car, even though I realize—given my confessed extramarital affair, avowed childhood desire to see my father explode into flames, and carpet of tattered Happy Meal wrappers—I may not strike you as the most reliable explicator of modern marriage. Still, we forge on, and what I’d like to do now is recant for a moment and not be quite so hard on marriage, which I think is a very good fit for some people. It certainly has been for Judith S. Wallerstein (married more than 48 years, as the jacket flap indicates), co-author with Sandra Blakeslee of the 1995 book The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts. Through close observation of 50 happily married couples, the authors identified four templates for lasting nuptial success. The Romantic Marriage thrives on the spark of love that never dies. (Think of those affectionate 80-somethings in convalescent homes, still holding hands.) The Rescue Marriage features partners who fit each other like lost puzzle pieces, healing each other from mutual childhood traumas. (And then there are those shrieky co-dependent pairs: think of fiercely attached couples whose commitment is cemented by a commitment to unwholesome habits. Said a friend of his 70-something WASP parents, who sally off to their frequent cruises with huge Lavoris bottles filled with gin: “What they share is an enthusiasm for drinking.”) The Traditional Marriage succeeds because the man works while the woman runs the home, a clear and valuable division of labor.
Today, the most common type of marriage is the Companionate Marriage, in which husband and wife each have a career, and they co-parent and co-housekeep according to gender-free norms they negotiate. Three decades ago, in their 1972 runaway best seller, Open Marriage, Nena and George O’Neill suggested that such a modern arrangement might even include sexual freedom. But as we all know, the Sexually Open Marriage fizzled with the lava lamp, because it is just downright icky for most people. How, then, has marriage evolved? In what sorts of partnerships do we find ourselves in the 21st century? Enter with me, finally, the home of my friend Rachel. (To appease the diligent Atlantic fact checkers, I must now pause to announce that I’ve carefully disguised some of the individuals whose lives we’re about to dissect.) Picture a stunning two-story Craftsman—exposed wood, Batchelder tile fireplace, caramel-warm beams, Tiffany lamps on Mission tables—nestled in the historic enclave in Pasadena dubbed Bungalow Heaven. Rachel, 49, an environmental lawyer, is married to Ian, 48, a documentary-film editor. They have two sons, 9 and 11, whom Ian—in every way the model dad—has whisked off this evening to junior soccer camp (or drum lessons or similar; the boys’ impressive whirl of activities is hard to keep track of). Rachel is cooking dinner for three of us: Ellen (a writer, married with children), Renata (violinist, single, lithe, and prowling at 45), and me. Rachel is, more accurately, reheating dinner; the dish is something wonderfully subtle yet complex, like a saffron-infused porcini risotto, that Ian made over the weekend and froze for us, in Tupperware neatly labeled with a Sharpie, because this is the sort of thoughtful thing he does. Ian subscribes to Cook’s Illustrated online and a bevy of other technically advanced gourmet publications—he’s always perfecting some polenta or bouillabaisse. If someone requests a cheeseburger, he will fire back with an über-cheeseburger, a fluffy creation of marbled Angus beef, Stilton, and homemade ketchup. Picture him in bike shorts (he’s a cyclist), hovering over a mandala of pots that are always simmering, quietly simmering. To Ian’s culinary adventurousness, Rachel attributes the boys’ sophisticated taste buds—they eagerly eat everything: curry, paella, seaweed, soba noodles. My own girls are strictly mac-and-cheese-centric (but I’ve been told in therapy not to keep beating myself up over the small things).