Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Thematic: Hope Itself

Is There Hope for Marriage?

On Big Romance and other myths of the modern age.

Mary Harrington

Photograph by Brooke Cagle/Unsplash.

If the last few years tell us anything, it is that we are well beyond Peak Progress. The decades since the turn of the millennium have seen two international financial crises, terrorist attacks, a return of great-power politics, a brutal and potentially catastrophic war in eastern Europe, a global pandemic, and (at the time of writing) rocketing inflation.

Against this backdrop, what hope is there for those who want to build? It is an urgent question: The rolling crises show no signs of abating and promise to make life steadily poorer, tougher, and more uncertain for all but the wealthiest. And if building fundamentally requires families, families require solidarity between the sexes. Throughout much of human history and culture, this has meant marriage.

But what marriage means has varied over time. I have argued elsewhere that the “angel by the hearth” conception of private womanhood that conservatives usually refer to when they talk about “traditional marriage” emerged as a byproduct of industrialization, and that women in fact lost agency in some respects in the transition from productive agrarian households to bourgeois industrial ones. I have also argued that the romantic ideal of marriage emerged alongside that model of private womanhood. That is, women lost economic agency in family life and, in response, came to believe that they should be prized both as the more morally elevated half of the relationship and as an individual in an intimate relationship. These two things together form the core of Big Romance: the “companionate marriage” premised not on economic necessity or transactional exchange but on mutual interpersonal romantic affection.

When that worked, in the industrial era, it worked well enough. But over time, things changed again. The rising tides of prosperity and technological ease eliminated the need for marital fidelity, radically reducing the need for women to grant sexual access only to men who were absolutely trusted. Women’s entry into the high-tech workplace, where physical strength was largely irrelevant, eliminated the need for sharply divided sex roles that left women economically dependent. With this shift came a transition from the “companionate” to the “self-expressive” marriage, in which Big Romance no longer safeguarded women’s interests under conditions of economic dependence but set the bar ever higher for what we deserved as empowered individuals.

For a while, it seemed that we could order things entirely to suit ourselves, whether as members of non-monogamous “polycules,” girlbosses, or self-inseminating economically independent single mothers. Welfare states could mop up any casualties. But while that might have seemed briefly plausible under conditions of steady economic growth and relative political stability, all but the super-rich among us are now troubled by a sense that we are sliding into a radically less stable and prosperous age.

And in this context, radical social liquefaction across the board is an increasingly acute problem for mothers. As Abigail Tucker shows in her 2021 book Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct, those mothers who flourish tend to have good social support networks—a finding that implies relatively stable communities. It follows that if the rest of the world is growing less stable, doing what we can to create stable communities is an urgent feminist priority.

But this cannot just be a case of stuffing women back into some imaginary “traditional” box or seeking the ultimate victory of one sex over the other. Instead, we have to revise again what we understand marriage to mean. Some conservatives suggest that the way we fix this is by returning to the twentieth-century understanding of marriage, and with it somehow to the “traditional” relationship between men and women. The weakness of such solutions is not that they are unworkable, or even that they are traditional. It is that they are not traditional enough. Today there is little prospect of reviving the industrial-era housewife as the principal template for sex roles. Nor is there need. Under twenty-first-century conditions, the sharp split between “home” and “work” that drove the emergence of such roles is blurring again. And the blurring of that divide in turn opens up new possibilities, hinting at a way of viewing lifelong solidarity between the sexes that owes more to the 1450s than the 1950s. It does so by bringing work back into the home, and in the process ramping up the kind of interdependence that can underpin long-term pragmatic solidarity.

Remote work, e-commerce, and the “portfolio career” are not without risks: They can come with increased employer surveillance or economic precarity, for example. But such developments also offer scope for families to carve out lives in which both partners blend family obligations, public-facing economic activity, and rewarding local community activities in productive mixed-economy households.

In a world where absolutely everything is unstable, from geopolitics to money and even the climate, some far-sighted younger millennials and Gen Z-ers are already pioneering a new model. Willow, a twenty-five-year-old writer based in rural Canada, married at twenty-three and is cocreating a domestic economy with her husband, Phil, one that is clearly an update of the premodern “productive household.” In addition to her writing projects, she does carpentry with Phil, roughly dividing the work into “first fix” (which requires more strength, and which Phil does) and finishing (which requires more patience and manual dexterity, at which Willow excels). Because they have a small baby, Willow cannot do much carpentry at present, but she is active in finding Phil clients and sometimes apprentices. Willow also tends a small farm on her and Phil’s property.

From an industrial-feminist perspective, Willow’s approach is unacceptably in thrall to patriarchy: She married young, views childcare as largely her domain, and is not the main money earner. Yet Willow is sincerely pursuing her interests as an embodied woman, in her relational context, rather than as an atomized, abstract “human” in an inconveniently female body. In what meaningful sense is this not a pro-women approach? Having decided relatively young that she wanted children as well as economic and political agency, though not a conventional career that would compel her to spend long periods away from her children, she set about creating a household in which she could have these things—and could have them in the years of her maximum energy and fertility, her early twenties. As Willow puts it, “Getting married was the foundation of the life I wanted to build.”

Blending work, family, and love in this way necessitates thinking very differently about marriage. Centrally, it means having fewer romantic notions about what marriages are for—that is, retiring the ideal of Big Romance. This is not to say partnerships should be cold and loveless, but they should entail a shift in emphasis, accepting that romance and affection are great but not the chief objective of a thriving marriage.

Ashley, thirty-six, is a decade into building just such a life. Originally from the United States, she and her husband now live in Ecuador. There, they both work part-time teaching English online, while managing a homestead where they teach courses on low-carbon living and care for their three young children. In Ashley’s view, real love gives priority to the work of life in common: “When you’re there day in and day out with a person, working on the project of life, those superficial realities tend to fall away in importance, and working together and making life work together becomes much more important.”

Rather than seek self-fulfillment above all else, she’s interested in creating a legacy and helping to build the wider community. “I see our marriage as an act of production: We’re coproducing a family culture, and are intimately involved in the raising and education of our children,” Ashley says. The supposedly “unromantic” everyday drudgery of managing the homestead, renovating buildings, producing food at home, and involving their children in the work of her and her husband has, she says, profoundly strengthened their partnership. In her view, it is precisely the dull work that is the work of meaning making: “If the drudgery of daily life is in the service of building a resilient relationship, home, and relationship with your children, this is the work of life. It’s much more meaningful overall than just being a slave to a corporation.”

In any case, far from breeding contempt, Ashley finds that the familiarity bred of working closely together all day every day creates a stronger base for navigating difficulties. If all the work of a home is outsourced to daycare, cleaning staff, and paid employment, she suggests, it is possible to treat your marriage purely as a site of mutual status-enhancing consumption. That, in turn, weakens the partnership when challenges arise. “What ends up happening is that when something difficult comes up, they see each other a couple hours before the end of the night and that’s it. They don’t see their kids either. Then they don’t have a strong base from which to handle difficulties because they’re not working together on a daily basis.”

Life is long, and rough patches can take years to work through, but couples engaged in common endeavors find their way back to affection, respect, and intimacy. In the meantime, stoicism and loyalty help. This is, of course, not to claim that anyone should tolerate boundless cruelty, violence, or emotional abuse for the sake of social stability. But it seems unlikely that every single one of the 42 percent of British marriages that end in divorce do so as a result of such extreme factors. And it is far from clear, especially when children are involved, that exiting a marriage that was just so-so is self-evidently superior to sticking with it.

The nineteenth century gave us the companionate marriage as protection for women against abuse in their condition of relative economic dependence. As women gained economic independence in the twentieth century, we grew used to the “self-expressive marriage”: coupledom as a vector for self-fulfillment. In this arrangement, especially when we’re all earning and the culture valorizes self-actualization over duty, the tendency is to treat a rough patch as a reason to exit your commitments and lapse back into atomized individualism.

But those families rejecting Big Romance—and with it the overwhelming economic, cultural, and political pressure to be lone atoms in a market—are turning from an inward-focused romantic vision of marriage toward one that prizes stability and productive households as a foundation for community life. Against a backdrop of escalating chaos, they are reimagining marriage in the twenty-first century to fit a new (old) model of the postindustrial household. The postromantic solidarity this convenes, in the long-term interests of both sexes and of our children, provides a basis for real hope.

In practical terms, households formed on this model can work together both economically and socially on the common business of living, whether the work is agricultural, artisanal, knowledge-based, or a mix of all these. At the very least, such households offer women a sane, healthful, and rewarding alternative to the exploitative, medicated, disembodied, sexually libertine excesses of hypermodernity. And more broadly, moving beyond Big Romance toward a more practical conception of marriage is a crucial first step toward sustainable human societies.