Marriage Isn’t Hard Work; It’s Serious Play

Yes, love requires some labor. But that shouldn’t define the relationship.

A couple dancing at their wedding
Jim Goldberg / Magnum

Marriage is work: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that saying. In my personal life, I heard it from youth pastors at Bible camp, from well-meaning aunts at bridal showers, even from the woman who threaded my eyebrows the week before my wedding. In popular culture, I’ve seen the adage espoused on Martha Stewart’s website and by Ben Affleck on the Oscars stage. The idea has the sheen of a proverb, timeless and true.

So after my wedding a few years ago, I attempted to be the best marriage worker I could be. I scheduled biweekly budget meetings and preached the benefits of the “I” statement in an argument. I analyzed my husband’s working style to optimize how we could divide unloading the dishwasher and vacuuming the kitchen. At its best, this attitude gave our marriage the clean hum of a caffeinated, productive morning at the office—every task checked off, every email replied to. At its worst, I felt resentful, exhausted, and miserly with my affection, like I could dole it out only after one of us had completed a job. Viewing marriage as labor never made me feel more connected to the man I had chosen to partner with.

What do we mean when we say that marriage is work? To me, it’s the idea that entering a long-term union requires essentially becoming an office manager. Partners manage communication, both emotional and logistical. They carve out time from busy social schedules to plan events, such as date nights and sex. They must learn the careful, tricky language of conflict resolution. Perhaps this conceit stems from a desire to make marriages happily long-lasting, and an uncertainty about how to do it. Conceptualizing marriage as work allows us to make happiness legible: Anyone can have a happy relationship, provided they are willing to do the necessary toil. There’s a kind of American bootstrap optimism in this. But thinking of our relationships as labor changes them, too. What if there were a way to think of marriage—the everyday action of it—as something less like work and more like play?

In her book Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States, the historian Kristin Celello writes that the concept of marriage as work was not inevitable. In the 1800s, marriage in the U.S. was driven more by familial duty than by individual choice. But marriage soon became more motivated by love, which meant divorce became more feasible from the lack of it. The result—combined with expanded women’s rights, a changing legal landscape, and other factors—was a rise in divorce.

To address growing societal concerns about this rise and the suddenly fragile-seeming family, experts in the 1920s linked marriage and work to each other, according to Celello. Take Ernest Rutherford Groves, a sociologist who designed marriage-preparation courses for both men and women, first at Boston University in 1922 and then at the University of North Carolina in 1927. They included writing lists of traits for ideal partners, taking personality assessments, and learning how to balance household finances. The courses conceptualized marriage as a job to prepare for, an occupation in which success could be achieved through the perfection of various skills. By 1937, nearly 30 percent of colleges and universities in the United States offered marriage courses similar to Groves’s. The implicit message seemed to be that whereas courtship might be fun and playful, life after the wedding day required labor, not levity.

At times, the connection between work and marriage was made incredibly literal. Consider the Brides’ School, a program put together in 1939 by Good Housekeeping magazine, where Eleanor Roosevelt once addressed a crowd of young women by warning them that newlyweds “should understand that they are undertaking a full-time job which is going to be part of their everyday existence from the time the marriage ceremony is read until ‘death do them part,’ a job which they cannot neglect for a day without being confronted with failure.” In the ’50s, this sentiment was strengthened by a booming marriage-advice industrial complex, replete with expert counselors and books. The implied audience for this advice had long been white and middle class. Still, by the time the final decades of the century rolled around, marriage as work had wormed its way into the American lexicon.

Marriage work isn’t equal, though. The part frequently not said aloud is that marriage is often work for women. In her history of the concept, Celello points out that in the U.S. in the early 20th century, “experts assumed that women needed marriage more than men, for both financial and emotional reasons.” So it was up to women to work for their happy marriage. Even as women joined the workforce in larger numbers and were guaranteed access to bank accounts and credit cards, they still did more domestic labor than their male partner when they got home.

The trope of marriage work persists on bookshelves today. Yet a marriage can go through so many struggles that hard work alone cannot fix, such as family poverty and the United States’ historically racist reluctance to support parents. When I spoke with Celello, we talked about how the idea of marriage as work had barely changed since she published her history of the concept more than 10 years ago. Eventually, I asked her the question I most wanted her to answer: In her opinion, inflected by history and research, is marriage work? She laughed a little. “I think it’s something a lot of people believe and is very much the case, but it doesn’t always have to be,” she said. “It’s something people use as shorthand when they’re unhappy. And that makes me sad.”

Hearing that, I was reminded again how “marriage is work” was conjured in part to dissuade people from seeking a divorce. For some couples, perhaps repeating the adage is just a way to accept the everyday tasks that inevitably accompany a life partnership. But in other relationships, I wonder if the saying reflects how tasks have become a fundamental way that partners relate to each other. A relationship can feel like it entails an eternal to-do list, yet crossing off every item doesn’t guarantee a loving marriage.

As for me, I’ve abandoned the idea of work in marriage. Instead, I’ve begun thinking of the primary action of me and my husband’s marriage as serious play. I know that might sound frivolous, facile, or even frisky. But I mean play in the way that children interact in a sandbox. Together, they’ve set out to build something—a castle, a moat—yet creativity is prioritized over productivity. They learn about communication and collaboration from experimenting, not from textbooks and teachers. Their construction can fall apart, but the failure provides space to start anew. Ultimately, their commitment to the endeavor is serious, but the way they collaborate is playful. That’s what I want to emulate in building my relationship.

I feel most married when my husband and I take meandering walks squeezed between chores, see a bendy tree that looks like a portal, and wonder aloud where it might lead. I feel most married when we intentionally abandon ingrained norms about which partner owns which tasks so that he can be exacting with the vacuum cleaner and I can plan our finances. And I feel most married when our meticulous planning falls apart but we realize we’re flexible and resilient enough to start again—because our relationship is founded on more than the careful dance of logistics. My husband and I of course have the regular drudgery of dishes, taxes, and the like. We still have to take deep breaths and problem solve when figuring out which family to spend the holiday season with. But I now see these as the tasks of our life together, not the essence of our togetherness.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.