Let’s stop pretending that marriage is hard work

It wasn’t labor of love.
It wasn’t labor of love.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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Every sentient being in America knows that marriage is hard work. We know it in the same way that we know that breakfast is (or was) the most important meal of the day and money doesn’t buy happiness. We have grown up hearing such phrases so often that they have become embedded somewhere deep in our collective subconscious.

While we bandy about the phrase “hard work of marriage,” we seldom pause to wonder what we actually mean by it. Is marriage like paying taxes? Or running a marathon? Or like an unpaid internship? None of these analogies seem to suffice. Marriage can be difficult at times, but it is not the means to an end. Nobody graduates from marriage or receives a medal for being married. Most people don’t get married to avoid adverse consequences either.

The key to understanding the hard work of marriage is to think about when and why we use the phrase. We don’t talk about it when couples are happy, but rather when one or both spouses are unhappy and perhaps considering divorce. We throw our collective societal arm around the poor sufferer’s shoulders and say, “We feel your pain. Marriage is hard work.” If we were to say the same thing about taxes, this would be followed by something like, “But if you don’t file your taxes, you will go to jail.” What is the next phrase about marriage? Interestingly, it rarely gets said aloud, but the implied next thought is, “It’s worth doing the hard work because staying married will make you happier over the long term than getting divorced.” The next phrase could also be, “But you promised to stay married” or, “You owe it to your children,” but it would be disingenuous to claim that future happiness is not implied. Few people would tell friends or family that marriage is hard, but you need to suck it up and suffer until you die because you promised to do so.

Making an assumption about what will make someone else happy is pretty bold, but a second assumption that is built into the “marriage is hard work” comment is bolder still. When we say that to some poor soul, we are implying that divorce and singlehood are the lazy choices. Someone who is considering divorce is facing possible censure from family and friends, lost time with children, guilt about destroying a nuclear family, rejection by church and community, financial insecurity, and the uncertainty of starting life all over again as a single person. It’s a bit ironic to tell such an individual that staying married is even more work than that.

Likewise, single people are not spending time and energy looking for a spouse because they are workaholics and find single life insufficiently challenging. Being single imposes its own emotional challenges, and while some people may find it easier to stay single than to get married, that is certainly not universally true.

Although we all seem to agree that marriage is hard work, there is no strong cultural consensus about what that work entails. Most answers generally fall into one of two buckets: one, marriage requires people to resolve conflict and make compromises; and two, it requires effort to keep romance alive long term.

It is certainly true that most people have their toughest negotiations in the context of marriage. It can be far more exhausting to fight about whether to vacation with the in-laws than to demand a salary raise at work. It can also be far harder to have to capitulate about the vacation than the salary raise. This aspect of marriage is, without a doubt, hard work.

It can also be difficult to make time for romance and to remember to do the thoughtful everyday things that demonstrate affection. Whether date nights and flowers are enough to sustain passion is debatable, but certainly failing to make couple time or show appreciation can put a damper on the flame. This is hard work, perhaps less work than going on lousy dates in search of Mr. or Ms. Right, but work nonetheless.

Logically, then, if a married friend complains about too much conflict or not enough romance, it makes sense to remind him that marriage does take effort. What if the problem lies outside those boundaries, though? What if there is just not enough love to keep the marriage glued together, or what if the friend has decided that his spouse is not a good or admirable person? Does it still make sense to exhort him to work harder? It doesn’t make sense, but we still do it, and that’s a problem.

The real reason we talk about the hard work of marriage is to discourage divorce. We could talk just as reasonably about the hard work of being single or the hard work of getting divorced, but we don’t. Our society encourages the things it likes, such as marriage, by attaching positive rhetoric. This is analogous to calling someone who dies in a terrorist attack a hero, while calling someone who dies of complications of type II diabetes simply unfortunate. They are both just as dead and equally mourned by friends and family, but society does not accord their deaths equal honor.

By talking about the hard work of marriage, we applaud those who are married and create shame for those who are not. We also create shame for those who are unhappily married by telling them that their unhappiness is caused by lack of effort. We imply that happily married people are morally superior, or certainly more industrious, than everyone else.

Instead of extolling the virtues of hard work, what if our society undertook a more rational examination of what can or cannot be achieved by working harder at marriage? This approach would not only remove the unnecessary and unfair burden of shame from the unhappily married and allow them to make better decisions; it would also cause us all to focus on the real and tangible benefits of marriage.

Next time a friend complains of being unhappy in her marriage, instead of sympathizing about hard work, try asking her about the benefits of her marriage that make the work worthwhile. You may be surprised about how much you both discover.