It’s probably best to get out of the habit of calling things guilty pleasures. Own what you like and all. But it’s hard to drop common phrases so we all understand that maybe people aren’t actually ashamed when they talk about liking The Vampire Diaries, wearing UGGs, or eating a lot of candy corn. One thing that should not be a guilty pleasure even in the most casual sense: participating in the institution of marriage! Yet that seems to be a thing a lot of people feel really embarrassed about being into. The wildest version of this I’ve seen in the recent past is this emotionally confused and long twitter thread:
Threads like Joanna Shroeder’s can be read as particularly zealous examples of heteropessimism, a phrase coined by Asa Seresin in a 2019 essay for The New Inquiry. It caught on quickly even though we still don’t quite know what do about it. Lazy jokes about men mattress one towel PS4s have fallen out of fashion, but I still run across straight women claiming that “nobody would CHOOSE to be straight!!” Well, the implication I guess is that men still would because it’s not strange or stigmatized to talk about the many reasons women are interesting and beautiful. Seresin’s diagnosis of heteropessimism as a fundamentally self-absorbed and self-protective mechanism doesn’t – maybe especially doesn’t – spare straight women. She writes, “A certain strain of heteropessimism assigns 100 percent of the blame for heterosexuality’s malfunction to men, and has thus become one of the myriad ways in which young women—especially white women—have learned to disclaim our own cruelty and power.”
Shroeder’s thread is a strange mix of blame laying and blame shifting. Women are uniqely unprepared for “what marriage is,” yet she is also snide about “fellow miserable wives who self-medicate with affairs, boozey weekends away & ‘wine mom culture.'” The people trapping these women are not only their husband and men in general, but a nebulous they that seems to encompass well, everybody. It’s more like heterofatalism (not my original term) than heteropessimism. Her conclusion is utterly empty: it’s not even that these problems could be solved by greater education and self-awareness. It’s more that the problems can be predicted through a depressing and cynical moderation of expectations. There is this final gesture of giving more support to women in their roles as wives and mothers, but support from who and in what form? Because the only thing Shroeder seems to actually be arguing for is a rejection of any kind of optimism or romance towards marriage. A dour whisper network targeted at the entire institution doesn’t seem like the same thing as support, to me.
So, I was raised at least tangentially to “drowned in wedding culture & expectations.” I grew up in the Southeast, where getting married faily young is still looked at uncritically by plenty of people. I also attended a very conservative, reformed church as an adolescent where marriage was put on a tall, tall pedestal. Dating was looked down on in favor of “courting.” Divorce was discouraged even in cases of abuse and there were a few notable instances of women being pressured to stay in marriages with men who were cheating on them, emotionally abusing them, or even phsyically abandoning them with no plans to return. We were told a lot about marriage while still being squarely what Shroeder’s tweets would call unprepared for its mundanities and difficulties. But, critically, the emphasis and near fetishization of marriage in this religious context was not the same as romance or optimism. “Wedding culture” and its unrealistic expectations have almost nothing to do with trying to create something beautiful and good through a marriage. All of the hard truth type statements in the thread are not actually solutions to the identified problem.
The problem of unpreparedness is also difficult because for men and women both, even people who come from backgrounds where loving marriages were modeled for them are often not “given tools” to deal with their own marital issues. This is less because there’s a wilful ignorance about marriage specifically and more because of a very upsetting constant in life. There are so many lessons that can’t be learned any way other than the hard way. The most rigorous theoretical preparations don’t always prepare you for the reality. And the human tendency to be hopeful anyway isn’t something I think we should be trying to break down in the face of likely future difficulties. My husband and I – second marriage for us both – have talked about how if someone had come to us before our first marriages and “prepared” us in whatever way was most honest, wise, and kind we could think of, we probably still wouldn’t have listened to the warning. The painful things we learned after are part of what makes it possible for us to have what we do with each other.
Some of the thread is just bizarre. Some of the things Shroeder warns with “everything in your life will be entwined” seem like…things that probably should be entwined if you’re married, like “ethics and morality” and “parenting” and “your sex life.” Some of the others, like “what you watch on TV” is just. I’m sorry Joanna you’re widly overblowing weird, specific things. At this very moment my mom is watching Halloween Cookie Challenge and my dad is asleep.
There is the incredible late thread reveal that OP has been happily married for 18 years. She’s not the first person I’ve seen who is, by their own assessment, happily married, to get online and talk about how disappointing, fraught, and bad for women marriage is. There is a piece of misinterpreted data that gets pulled out to prove that women are happier single and only men benefit from marriage. But why would someone who isn’t single, who has decided that they are more fulfilled being married, be so invested in defending that idea? I think in general people should be prepared to enthusiastically support and defend their own major life decisions IDK. It seems related to heteropessism for sure, and I think this kind of overwrought raining on marriage is sticking around in a way jokes about men and their crummy studio apartments haven’t.
The thing Shroeder and I agree on is that many marriages fail, many people feel ashamed of that, and that many people enter into marriages too quickly or without understanding what they really need and are ready to give. My humble solution is not to pave the way to marriage with a controlled burn of cynicism. The protections the thread poses as guard against max misery – preparedness, self-awareness, mismatched expectations, erosion of the self – can be built through mutual faith and respect in your partner and in the project of marriage itself. The worst case scenario that the thread presents as an overwhelming reality is that of two people who I guess basically never talk to each other about their obligations, needs, and dreams. Expecting marriage to be uninspiring isn’t going to inspire that communication. I sound really preachy at this point. I adore my husband. We talk about everything, all the time, and really like each other’s company. In a lot of ways we got lucky and I couldn’t point to some advice to make what we have replicable. We’ve had serious, serious, struggles. But we haven’t stayed in love and devoted to each other by being less idealistic about marriage.
Not all marriages last forever, but-and-maybe-this-sounds-nutty I don’t think expecting them not to will help anything. A lot of couples like to change “til death do us part” even if they use the rest of the standard vows. I hate it. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. If you go so far as to choose to marry someone, you should be so excited about it that you believe yourself capable of meaning it.