Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

The author is ending her marriage. Isn’t it time you did the same?
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“When marriage was invented,” Ellen continues, “it was considered to be a kind of trade union for a woman, her protection against the sexually wandering male. But what’s happened to the sexually wandering male?”

In our parents’ era, the guy hit 45, got the toupee, drove the red Porsche, and left his family for the young, hot secretary. We are unable to imagine any of the husbands driving anything with fewer than five seat belts.

“Ron only goes as far as the den,” Ellen says. “He has his Internet porn bookmarked on the computer.”

“Ian has his Cook’s Illustrated,” Rachel adds. “And his—his men’s online fennel club.”

Of the four of us, Renata has the fastest-thrumming engine, as evidenced by her rabid in-the-moment sex-tryst texting (“omg he flyz in 2nite on red i @ 2 am!!!”). One imagines a string of men toppled behind her in ditches like crashed race cars. “My problem is, I’m a dopamine freak!” She waggles her hands in the air. “Dopamine!”

“Helen Fisher!” Ellen exclaims, pointing at her.

Fisher, a women’s cult figure and an anthropologist, has long argued that falling in love—and falling out of love—is part of our evolutionary biology and that humans are programmed not for lifelong monogamy, but for serial monogamy. (In stretches of four years, to be exact, approximately the time it takes to get one kid safely through infancy.)

Why Him? Why Her? explains the hormonal forces that trigger humans to be romantically attracted to some people and not to others (a phenomenon also documented in the animal world). Fisher posits that each of us gets dosed in the womb with different levels of hormones that impel us toward one of four basic personality types:

The Explorer—the libidinous, creative adventurer who acts “on the spur of the moment.” Operative neurochemical: dopamine.

The Builder—the much calmer person who has “traditional values.” The Builder also “would rather have loyal friends than interesting friends,” enjoys routines, and places a high priority on taking care of his or her possessions. Operative neurotransmitter: serotonin.

The Director—the “analytical and logical” thinker who enjoys a good argument. The Director wants to discover all the features of his or her new camera or computer. Operative hormone: testosterone.

The Negotiator—the touchy-feely communicator who imagines “both wonderful and horrible things happening” to him- or herself. Operative hormone: estrogen, then oxytocin.

Fisher reviewed personality data from 39,913 members of Chemistry.com. Explorers made up 26 percent of the sample, Builders 28.6 percent, Directors 16.3 percent, Negotiators 29.1 percent. While Explorers tend to be attracted to Explorers, and Builders tend to be attracted to Builders, Directors are attracted to Negotiators, and vice versa.

Exclaims Ellen, slapping the book: “This is why my marriage has been dead for 15 years. I’m an Explorer married to a Builder!” (Ron literally is a builder—like Ian, he crafts wonderful shelves and also, of course, cooks.) But what can Ellen do? Explorer-Explorer tends to be one of the most unstable combinations, whereas Fisher suspects “most of the world’s fifty-year marriages are made by Builders who marry other Builders.”

While a Rutgers study suggests that only 38 percent of married people in America describe themselves as happy, we stay married for many good reasons. Take, for instance, the otherwise unaffordability of homeownership.

Some of us stay married because we’re in competition with our divorcing 1960s and 1970s parents, who made such a hash of it. What looks appealing to us now, in an increasingly frenetic, digital world, is the 1950s marriage. Writes Karen Karbo, in Generation Ex, reminiscing about her mother’s evening routine of serving old-fashioneds to her dad by the pool:

At the turn of the millennium, our marriages and remarriages bear almost no resemblance to these single-paycheck, cocktail-hour unions. Once considered sexist and monotonous, these staid marriages are emblems of an easier time. What seemed too dull and constricting a mere fifteen years ago now looks luxurious, like those huge gas-guzzling cars with all that chrome and the tuck-and-roll seats.

Some of us stay married because along with fancy schools, tae kwan do lessons, and home-cooked organic food, the two-parent marriage is another impressive—and rare—attainment to bestow on our fragile, gifted children.

Some of us stay married because … what else is there? A lonely apartment and a hot plate?

That said, it’s clear that females are dissatisfied—more and more, divorce seems to be initiated by women. If marriage is the Old World and what lies beyond is the New World, it’s the apparently stable men (comfortable alone in their postfeminist den with their Cook’s Illustrated and their porn) who are Old Worlders, and the Girls’ Night Out, questionnaire-completing women who are the questing New Worlders. They most embody what Tocqueville described as America’s “restless temper,” or l’inquiétude du caractère. (Interestingly, according to EnlightenNext magazine, some northern European women are reportedly eschewing their progressive northern European male counterparts and dating Muslims, who are more like “real men.”)

To work, to parent, to housekeep, to be the ones who schedule “date night,” only to be reprimanded in the home by male kitchen bitches, and then, in the bedroom, to be ignored—it’s a bum deal. And then our women’s magazines exhort us to rekindle the romance. You rarely see men’s magazines exhorting men to rekindle the romance.

So, herewith, some modest proposals. Clearly, research shows that what’s best for children is domestic stability and not having to bond with, and to be left by, ever new stepparent figures. Less important is whether or not their overworked parents are logging “date night” (or feeling the magic). So why don’t we accept marriage as a splitting-the-mortgage arrangement? As Fisher suggests, rekindling the romance is, for many of us, biologically unnatural, particularly after the kids come. (Says another friend of mine, about his wife of 23 years: “My heart doesn’t lift when she walks in the room. It sinks, slightly.”) If high-revving women are sexually frustrated, let them have some sort of French arrangement where they have two men, the postfeminist model dad building shelves, cooking bouillabaise, and ignoring them in the home, and the occasional fun-loving boyfriend the kids never see. Alternately, if both spouses find life already rather exhausting, never mind chasing around for sex. Long-married husbands and wives should pleasantly agree to be friends, to set the bedroom aglow at night by the mute opening of separate laptops and just be done with it. More than anything, aside from providing insulation from the world at large, that kind of arrangement could be the perfect way to be left alone.

As far as the children are concerned, how about the tribal approach (a natural, according to both primate and human evolution)? Let children between the ages of 1 and 5 be raised in a household of mothers and their female kin. Let the men/husbands/boyfriends come in once or twice a week to build shelves, prepare that bouillabaisse, or provide sex.

Or best of all, after the breast-feeding and toddler years are through, let those nurturing superdads be the custodial parents! Let the Type A moms obsessively work, write checks, and forget to feed the dog. Let the dads then, if they wish, kick out those sloppy working mothers and run effective households, hiring the appropriate staff, if need be. To a certain extent, men today may have more clarity about what it takes to raise children in the modern age. They don’t, for instance, have today’s working mother’s ambivalence and emotional stickiness.

In any case, here’s my 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.

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