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Married with Children No Matter What

Should we stay married no matter what?

According to the news today, Maria Shriver has finally filed for a divorce from Arnold Scwarzenegger after public revelations last month that Schwarzenegger had a young son with the maid. Their marriage had lasted for 25 years and the couple has four children together. And that's the reason, according to a variety of experts, including sex columnist Dan Savage and Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin, that Maria should stay with the Gubenator despite his wayward ways.  

The argument goes something like this:

One: Divorce is really really bad for the children. Cherlin, in his book The Marriage-Go-Round, argues that divorce is far worse for children than being raised by a single parent. Furthermore, a parent who marries and divorces and then remarries may create more emotional problems than one who just divorces and remains single. 

Two: Monogamy should not be the measure of a good marriage. In this week's New York Times magazine, Savage, who is perhaps best known for his "It Gets Better Project" encouraging gay youth to believe that life is worth living, makes his case that straight marriage should learn to be a bit more like some gay couples in order to make marriage last. 

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...Savage says a more flexible attitutde within marriage may be just what the straight community needs. Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humor, as the main indicator of a successful marriage gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their parters. And that... destroys more families than it saves."

It's not that these experts are encouraging non-monogamy, but they are saying that parents should stick it out no matter what for the kids because monogamy is too difficult to maintain for a lifetime. 

According to Savage,

Given the rates of infidelity, people who get married should have to swear a blood oath that if it's violated, as traumatic as that would be, the greater good is the relationship. The greater good is the home created for children. If there are children present, they'll get past it. The cultural expectation should be if there's infidelity, the marriage is more important than fidelity."

On the one hand, these arguments make sense. Monogamy is difficult to maintain and even when a couple is "successful" at monogramy they often fail at having fulfilling sex lives. And surely monogamy should not be the measure of a good partnership. Bill and Hillary seem to have a good if far from monogamous partnership. As did Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

On the other hand, I am suspicious of the claim that children are always better off if the parents "stick it out." The data that Cherlin sites is unclear because it is not done in a way that fully accounts for things like "educational attainment of parents" or even those unquantifiable things like "loving and supportive parents." Instead, Cherlin's work does what a lot of people who use statistics to make their argument do: it acts as if the data are self-evident and tell us the whole truth. Statistics are never without a need for interpretation. Or to quote Disraeli on this, "there are lies, damn lies and statistics." With much of the data about marriage, this is certainly the case. For instance, single mothers' children are less likely to go to college than children with two parents. Yes, this is true. But not because they're single mothers. Because single mothers are far more likely to be poor, to not have access to good education for their children, and not have the resources to get them through college. A single mother  who has a good job and a high level of education is just as likely to see her children go to college as her married peers. 

In other words, I think the experts may have this wrong. Savage is trying to gay straight marriage, to transform it into something that allows boys to be boys.  Cherlin is trying to convince parents with children to stick it out or at least not remarry. But perhaps there is a third way to transform marriage that neither man is speaking about? This alternative way would allow that marriages are complicated and people like Maria Shriver may or may not be able to "stick it out" with a husband like Arnold. It would also allow that husbands (and wives) like Arnold happen, the kind who lie and cheat and even sometimes have children with the maid. And that this in and of itself doesn't make him an evil person, just a bad husband. We can fail as spouses and still succeed as co-parents. We can surely decide to put the children first and not necessarily become martyrs to our marriages.  

Because the problem isn't marriage or monogamy, but divorce and post-married parenting as we practice it. If we could allow people to divorce as a family, to make arrangements as a couple in ways that foreground the needs of the children and the practicalities of two households, we would not only put divorce lawyers out of business and save ourselves huge amounts of emotional energy and money, we would be able to be happy within marriage and within post-marriage co-parenting partnerships as well. 

But this is not the lesson that gays like Dan Savage are trying to teach straight couples. Instead, the lesson is cheating happens, especially among men, and the wronged spouse should just grin and bear it. Oddly, this is the same lesson my mother learned about marriage. Sadly, there is so much more about alternative forms of kinship and yes, alternative lifestyles, that gay culture might have to offer straight marriages. If only the gays giving advice could think outside the stay married-no-matter-what box.

 

 

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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