science of us

What We Mean When We Say Marriage Is ‘Work’

“Why are you being so nice to me lately?” my husband asked, a little suspiciously. I guess I had been acting strangely, listening to his long stories with genuine interest rather than saying “uh-uh,” “yeah,” and “wow” at plausible intervals while looking at my phone. When he’d complained about my messy putting away of some groceries, I’d said I was sorry rather than responding that when he gets the groceries he can put them away however he wants, but that I’d gone out in the rain and gotten them even though I was very tired, so I could put them in the washing machine if I felt like it. But no: “Sorry,” I said, looking him in the eye.

I’d like to take full credit for these personal improvements, but I confess: it was all The Rough Patch, Daphne de Marneffe’s insightful, provocative new book about marriage and midlife, her first since 2004’s Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life. Among many revolutionary suggestions in Rough Patch is that we’ve been misled by the cliché that marriage is “work.”

When Ben Affleck accepted an Academy Award for Argo in 2013, he said, “I’d like to thank my wife [Jennifer Garner], who I don’t normally associate with Iran. I want to thank you for working on our marriage for ten Christmases. It’s good. It is work, but it’s the best kind of work. And there’s no one I’d rather work with.” Two years later, when they announced their separation (amid rumors he had an affair with the nanny), Garner told an interviewer, “I’m a pretty hard worker. It’s one of the pains in my life that something I believe in so strongly I’ve completely failed at twice.”

Marriage, by this popular analogy, is a job. You work at it. If you succeed, you reap rewards. If you fail, you are fired or quit. This model makes sense to our capitalist brains. We like to be set a chore and to be paid for its completion. But de Marneffe argues that this is a terrible way to think about the actual work required by marriage.

“The work isn’t drudgery,” she says. “The work is staying vulnerable.” A key challenge of any long-term relationship is finding the strength to engage emotionally while getting through the day: I have to go to work, and then I have to cook, and then I have to care about you too? Ugh. Who among us has not had a grueling 3 a.m. conversation with a partner that they would gladly trade for 40 hours of manual labor? I would rather clean the bathroom. I would rather paint a house. And yet, de Marneffe says, if you want to be a good partner you really should listen when your husband objects to your booby-trapping the freezer.

“I think people are shocked that they actually have to keep caring about this person, about how they feel,” de Marneffe says. And she often sees clients failing to make time and space to remember who they are and what they want — and then off-loading their disappointments in life onto their partners: I’d be doing great/rich/having so much fun if it weren’t for you. While projection is common at any age, de Marneffe says this approach’s fallout can become more toxic as the years pass, with midlife a common crisis point. “All of life has limits,” she says. “Every decision has trade-offs. Every gain has a loss. I need to construct a life that’s meaningful and works for me. And that’s always going to involve loss, and there are always going to be things I give up. It’s not just that marriage makes you give things up. Life makes you give things up.”

Close relationships are hard, she says, maybe even especially when they’re good: “I can tell you, as someone who has raised three children to adulthood, that every week we’re talking about hard things, things that aren’t easy to talk about. We wish we could watch TV instead. When you’re able to collaborate, and move forward with your lives and solve problems and hear each other, and make accommodations, that’s when it’s working. … People have the illusion sometimes that the goal is to have a smooth time with no ripples, when in fact, in my view, relationships are healthiest when both people are able to deal with the emotional stress of having the hard conversations to solve the real problems in front of them.”

That The Rough Patch feels so radical suggests that hashing things out is not as on-trend right now as the pursuit of inner peace — what de Marneffe calls the “commercialized aura of pseudo-enlightenment.” Marital self-help books often prioritize calmness and order. Troubleshooting. Making lists. Learning tricks like that old standard: “I” statements instead of accusations. (Instead of, “You suck!” try, “When you forget to pick the kids up, I feel that you suck.”) Optimizing output. Being a better employee. “I do feel that so much of psychological writing now — and a lot of it comes out of academic studies of happiness — really does make people feel sort of inadequate: Why aren’t I adopting better habits?” she says. “As if it’s that straightforward … My goal is to give people the permission to be complicated.”

To be emotionally integrated adults, much less happily married people, we must stop believing that the “work” is buckling down. De Marneffe tells us to reject the notion that midlife is a “pale, mediocre stretch of decades” during which “you just put one foot in front of the other” and “suck it up.” It turns what should be a joyful, intimate experience into a slog — and it doesn’t always work for long. Repressed emotions tend to reassert themselves, usually at the worst possible times.

What feels perhaps most radical is de Marneffe’s reclamation of the work involved in marriage as creative and worthy. With the stigma gone from sex, cohabiting, and child-rearing outside marriage, plenty of people wonder why they should even bother making a lifetime commitment. De Marneffe has an answer: “Marriage,” she writes in The Rough Patch, “is the crucible for becoming a more mature, compassionate person.”

Still, she doesn’t believe divorce is always a bad decision. “I do not want to come down on the side of marriage at all costs,” she says. “Some divorces are better marriages than marriages are.” She does, however, encourage couples in crisis not to indulge in the sort of “I gotta be free!” hero stories that so often lead to divorce via clichéd off-ramps (e.g., a patient in The Rough Patch who could have traded “her boiled-wool coat for some love beads, and ended up living with her mediations teacher in a yurt”). “We don’t develop ourselves,” de Marneffe writes, “by casting off relationships we’ve done little to change.”

Reading The Rough Patch, I was reminded of these lines from a 1945 book called The Happy Family: “Acceptance of the relationship is the big thing — not careful adjustment of money and interests and in-laws. A man and woman who are sure of their marriage, of each other, can fight openly about the other problems and work through to some sort of solution… We don’t expect life to be all sunshine and roses, or even beer and skittles [an old term for bowling]. But somehow we do expect marriage to be that way.”

What if those things we think are the tough part of the job — navigating holidays and finances and child-rearing, using “I” statements, buying flowers — aren’t the job? What if de Marneffe’s right, and the work of marriage isn’t the strategic deployment of date nights and chore lists, but rather a far greater challenge: continuing to care about the other person’s feelings?

Ada Calhoun is the author of Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give (W.W. Norton & Co., 2017).

What We Mean When We Say Marriage Is ‘Work’