Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Marriage Needs Better PR

Romantic Relationships, MediaAndrew Smiler

Last week’s episode of Top Chef Masters got me thinking about how our culture treats marriage. Not who can get married, but our collective impression(s) about marriage.

The episode’s primary challenge centered around host Curtis Stone’s surprise engagement party. We also learned that contestant (or “cheftestant”) Bryan Voltaggio had recently gotten engaged to his longtime partner. And I do mean long time: they’ve been together 9.5 years. When he shared this with the other chefs, two of them–both men–expressed their condolences; one compared it to re-enlisting for another tour in Vietnam.

People don’t have that kind of reaction to divorce. Can you imagine someone saying “don’t do that, you’re just going to end up getting married again?” News of divorce is met with sympathy or joy, depending on how the marriage was going.

Birth announcements get some level of negativity, but it’s usually about diapers and sleepless nights. It’s also combined with joy and excitement about the birth.

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Top Chef isn’t aired live, so while the responses to Voltaggio’s engagement were spontaneous, the decision to include them was anything but; the producers decided those few seconds of conversation were worth airing.

Despite very public debates about who can get legally married, those instantaneous condolences make it sound like no one in their right mind would choose to do so.

Despite very public debates about who can get legally married, those instantaneous condolences make it sound like no one in their right mind would choose to do so. It’s also noteworthy that we’re talking about Top Chef. The show routinely has openly gay contestants, judges, and guests, and celebrity chefs have competed on behalf of gay rights charities. The show airs on Bravo, where executive vice president Andy Cohen is the first openly gay person to host a late night talk show. If marriage is that awful, why in the world would anyone want to do it? Why would gay people be fighting so hard for the right to marry?

It’s not like getting married is an unusual decision; about 90% of American adults get married. Some people like it so much they get married more than once. Engaged couples usually look ecstatic and very much in love when sharing news of their engagement; Top Chef Masters host Curtis Stone and his sweetie Lindsay Price certainly did. Marriage (and long term cohabitation) has some great benefits:

  • Companionship. You “automatically” have someone to do stuff with, whether that’s eating dinner after work, going to a concert, or attending your boss’s child’s wedding.
  • Emotional intimacy. You can share your deepest hopes, fears, and feelings with your sweetie and you know your partner will be there for you when you need them.
  • Close friendship. Having one helps maintain better physical and mental health, thus creating happier and longer lives. For married heterosexual men, that close friend is almost always their wife.
  • Sex. It’s rarely the reason to get married (see herehere, or here), but it’s usually a pleasant part of the relationship.
  • Greater buying power. It’s not romantic, but in 21st Century America, most people cannot maintain or move up the ladder on a single income.

So why is it ok to openly denigrate marriage? Why is it ok to greet someone’s announcement that they’re going to get married with sympathy, as though they were making a bad choice, instead of excited congratulations?

I think there are a few reasons why marriage bashing is ok.

  • Marriage means an end to individual freedom. Americans have fetishized freedom to the point that anything that limits an individual’s ability to choose is automatically considered bad. Of course, this approach whitewashes the fact that we have social obligations to family, friends, roommates, and sweeties even when we’re not married, as well as to our employers or clients (if self-employed).
  • Focusing on the bad instead of the good. In the US (and much of the West), we spend much more time on what’s going wrong than on what’s going right. The news is almost entirely about problems and rarely about successes. The celebrity news spends hours and hours about who’s separating and who’s cheating. There’s the occasional recognition that some celebrity couple is celebrating a milestone anniversary, but we almost never hear that couple talking in detail about the effort it takes to make their relationship a good one. As a family therapist, I routinely ask families what’s working well and how it got that way.
  • Unmet expectations. Given that 90% of American adults get married at least once, many of us expect to get hitched, even if we don’t start fantasizing about our weddings the day we hit puberty. Our expectations about marriage have become unrealistic. In the early 20th Century, a good marital partner was someone you expected to be a good personality match, good provider, or good homemaker, but not all three. Today, it’s about finding your “soul mate” or “the person that completes you.” Although it sounds nice to say you’re somebody’s soul mate, that’s quite a job to live up to. For the rest of your life. And your partner has to do it for you too. It’s time to dial back on our expectations, individually and culturally.
  • Unresolved heartbreak. Getting dumped or cheated on hurts. A lot. It may be hard to share someone else’s joy when that wound is fresh. And even when it’s not so fresh. Mass media loves the “old flames get back together” storyline. It certainly happens in real life, but most of us don’t date our exes and even when we do, it’s usually just one of our exes, not all of them.

In some ways, heartbreak may be harder for guys to cope with because our cultural standards of masculinity tell dudes they shouldn’t show their feelings, shouldn’t acknowledge they’re hurt, and should be able to solve any problem by themselves, including “problems” related to their own feelings. That’s a difficult set of standards to live up to when it feels like your heart has been ripped out. Add in the fact that being male typically means relatively little training in handling emotion or understanding how romantic relationships work, and coping gets that much more difficult. And while a guy’s buddies might be sympathetic at first, they’ll probably get tired of hearing about it pretty quickly.

I think it’s time for marriage to hire a good PR firm to improve its image. Imagine what our country would be like if marriage, were the hip, cool, and “in” thing.

–Photo by Kovapete