marriage: an investigation

What Billy Bob and Angelina, Mary Kate and Sarkozy, and the Pences Taught Me About Marriage

Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie’s Not-Your-Parents’ Marriage

Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage

For someone whose main model of marriage was my college-sweetheart parents, this photo of Angelina Jolie and her then-husband Billy Bob Thornton draped over each other at the 2000 premiere of Gone in 60 Seconds was a revelation. Suddenly, it seemed marriage could be more than you and your best friend wearing khakis and kissing chastely and grocery shopping. It could also be you and an older, soul-patched man tongue-kissing in public and wearing matching leather pants in the summer, probably without underwear.

I imagined Angelina and Billy Bob peeling their sticky bodies off whichever sex swing or bed of nails they happened to fall asleep on the night before, before tucking into a healthy breakfast of cigarettes and screaming obscenities at each other.

In my fantasies, they got naked and held ornately carved daggers at each other’s throats while growling lustily. If by some terrible cosmic accident the pair ended up with a sensible pair of khakis, their first instinct would almost certainly be to tie each other up with them, or perhaps see if they could slide into one leg together and have sex (they would find a way).

Theirs was a chaotic energy that both thrilled and terrified me. Sadly, the couple split in 2003, but I’m still holding out hope for that special someone who will commit to wearing a vial of my blood around his neck.

Madeleine Aggeler

Mary Kate Olsen and Olivier Sarkozy’s Perfect Mismatch

Photo: Elder Ordonez/

Looking at a mismatched celebrity couple unleashes the same serotonin rush in my brain as when I watch a video of a pair of unlikely animal friends. This paparazzi shot of Mary-Kate Olsen and Olivier Sarkozy plus Sarkozy’s preteen daughter? It’s like taking MDMA with a miniature goat and a St. Bernard who are bonded for life.

The photo is from 2012, before the two were married, but it remains the perfect artifact of their relationship: perplexing, slightly disconcerting, and ultimately delightful. At first glance, there appears to be two children present, one of whom is dismissively smoking a cigarette while on an urgent business call. It’s like they all just strolled out of a terrifically awkward and stilted brunch, which the elder Sarkozy has convinced himself went swimmingly. “My two girls!” he keeps exclaiming out loud to no one in particular.

Sarkozy is 17 years Olsen’s senior, but it’s their cultural dissonance that elevates the couple to a source of fascination. She’s one-half of a set of bubbly all-American child-star twins turned luxury fashion designers, he’s a European banker and the half-brother of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. When they married in 2015, it was at a highly private ceremony instantly mythologized by the rumored bowls of cigarettes they laid out at the reception.

I like to imagine they still have bowls of cigarettes littering their townhouse, which they dip into while watching DVDs of Passport to Paris or heatedly discussing the emerging markets. Sometimes they stand in front of a mirror together so she can teach him her trick of whispering “Prune” whenever she’s getting her photo taken. “Prune is how you say ‘prune’ in French,” he tells her. “But prune is also how you say ‘plum.’” “Prune,” she responds, nodding knowingly.

Gabriella Paiella

The Flip-Flop Gender Roles of Mike and Karen Pence

Photo: VP/Twitter

On a Friday afternoon in spring, a man with a notoriously bad marital track record gave his colleague a jocular punch: “I tell you one thing, he has one hell of a good marriage going,” President Trump said of Vice-President Pence before an assembly of White House reporters. His affect was that of a best man toasting the groom at a wedding, where teasing compliments often praise and emasculate simultaneously — and express a bit of awe that praise and emasculation can exist simultaneously at all.

Such is the nature of Mike and Karen Pence’s marriage, which seems to derive strength from the systematic emasculation of one of the most powerful men in America. The extraordinary measures Mr. Pence takes to maintain his chastity are a source of ridicule in the mainstream. He only dines with women outside his family if Karen is available to supervise. He reportedly refers to Karen as “Mother,” a revelation that grossed out many. (For the record, I’m fine with it. The lady wrote a picture book about a bunny; she’s living that Mother Goose fantasy.) When the Access Hollywood tape came out, Trump went out of his way to apologize to Karen.

Many view the Pence relationship as a holdout from the gender roles of yore, and for good reason: Their religion and politics overtly prioritize heteronormative nuclear families and actively discourage and dismantle everything else. And yet it only takes reversing their gender roles to understand how singular and perhaps even subversive their marriage seems to be: A husband who controls his wife’s social life, whom she calls “Father” or “Daddy.” A wife whose boss answers to her husband as much as he answers to her. But I also know that reversing gender roles, in this marriage, is a fool’s errand. The gender roles are why they need those small reversals of power. She may control his day-to-day social life, but he controls the year-to-year arc of hers.

Karen has compared her family to the Obamas and the fictional family on CBS’s Madam Secretary — a show where a female secretary of State and her political husband solve every problem with bleeding-heart solutions. (It’s basically a feminist West Wing.) And perhaps it’s our own limitations that prevent us from seeing in their marriage the partnership that she does. During an interview with Christian Broadcast News, Karen said her marriage’s foundation was “not making him be the end-all for me, but to be my spouse.” This is a sentiment I’ve heard many times from a number of left-leaning hetero feminists. Of course, for them, that means maintaining an identity independent of their husbands. For Karen, it means recognizing that “Jesus needs to be number one.”

Maureen O’Connor

*A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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