Marriage Is Never 50/50
On that Michelle Obama clip, marriage’s bad rap, and why we are so wedded to the patriarchal institution
Marriage has been getting a bad rap these days. From Michelle Obama’s honest reflections during her second book tour about how hard marriage can be, to the second season of “The White Lotus,” which pretty much presumes everybody cheats, to “Fleishman Is In Trouble,” the FX adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s National Book Award Finalist novel, it is hard not to question why this patriarchal institution still has legs.
Let’s start with Michelle Obama. She and Barack have been married for thirty years. But she has actively admitted that she “couldn’t stand” Barack for a decade of their marriage. Here are her words describing why on Revolt x Michelle Obama: The Cross Generational Conversation where she is interviewed by a panel of women including Kelly Rowland, Her, and Winnie Harlow. This particular part of the conversation has been posted all over TikTok with 25k comments like: The best description of marriage ever!
There were ten years that I couldn’t stand my husband. And guess when it happened? When those kids were little. Because you can be all great, individually, when you’re just married; you’ve got your life, he’s got his; you come together and it’s all “oooh, good to see you. Bye. Take it easy.” And then you have kids.
[Before you are parents] You’re traveling? Great, that’s good, I get to hang out and watch the TV I want to watch. But the minute we had kids, it was like “Where are you going? And how far?” And you start measuring. “How many diapers did you change?” And “Oh, you’re golfing?” You have time to golf? How are you at the gym all the time?” That’s when all the measuring starts because you got this project and guess what? Little kids? They’re terrorists. They are. They have demands. They don’t talk; they’re poor communicators. They cry all the time. They’re irrational. They’re needy. And you love them more than anything. So you can’t blame them… so you turn that ire on each other. And for ten years, when we’re trying to build our careers and worrying about school and who's doing what, I'm like argh. This isn’t even.
Guess what? Marriage isn’t 50/50. Ever. There are times I’m 70, he’s 30, times it is 60/40. But guess what? Ten years. We’ve been married thirty. I would take ten bad years over 30. It’s just how you look at it, right? And people give up for the five years of: I can’t take it.”
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Yes, people do give up! A decade is a really long time to be unhappy with your spouse! And it is hard not to wonder what decisions Obama might have made if she hadn’t been married to a man who was very much in the public eye, in the midst of becoming the most powerful man in America, and an icon for the black community, during that time. Were there times she wanted to divorce him but recognized what it would do to his chances and his dreams? So she swallowed her discontent and told herself she could take it?
Another celebrity recently owned up to the difficulty of these years as well. Gwyneth Paltrow on her Goop podcast conversation with Katy Perry says: “I look back on the data set of parents with young kids and it ruins the relationship! It’s really hard!” She announced her separation from Chris Martin when her oldest was, you guessed it, ten.
Now, it isn’t like Obama isn’t offering solutions, but her solutions feel primed for a different generation. When she was interviewed on “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” a viewer wrote in with the following question.
“Before we had kids, my husband and I agreed to share the work of parenting 50/50. Both of us have careers. Let me tell you: it is 70/30 on a good day! I’ve realized this man will probably never change, which is frustrating because he’s truly a good dad and husband. What is your advice for how to manage my feelings about this?”
Neither Clarkson nor Obama could get through the question without laughing. Clarkson introduces the idea that we should just tell her to mimic Elsa and “Let It Go.” Obama suggests that it equals out over time “When I stopped resenting my husband for that was when I started prioritizing myself and I didn’t wait for him. The help I learned didn’t have to come from him but I needed it. So I relied on my mom and my girlfriends and a broader community of people to give me that break so that I’m not so mad at him all the time.”
Listen, good for her for reaching out for help, but I think Millennials no longer willing to just give men a pass. They no longer want to let it go. They want to demand more equality in the household. Perhaps the insanity of what the pandemic did to mothers is what created this new line in the sand. Do we really have to hate our husbands for 10 years? Must we really drown in the onslaught of early parenting demands and then finally come up for air and wonder why we’d just ghosted ourselves for the last decade?
Of course Laura Danger, of That Darn Chat, had something to say about this. “Don’t wait around for your partner to show up for you is not a message we need to be hearing,” she says. And I agree. For so long, the messaging has just been: Oh honey, what do you expect? Ha ha, men are helpless with this stuff, let’s just pour ourselves some wine on girls night and complain about it. Bite our tongues. Be grateful for what they do provide for us.
But the reality is, marriages that are not 50/50 are holding women back. I wrote about this recently in my most popular post to date titled: “Is Marriage Bad for Mothers?”.
One of the reasons Obama’s clips are getting so much traction is that usually PEOPLE DO NOT SAY THIS. There is an unspoken rule that you don’t pull back the curtain on the intricacies of your marriage. You must stay loyal, put on a happy face, which is why so many divorces come as such a shock to all but a few trusted confidantes.
Author Heather Havrilesky has experienced firsthand the ire that comes when women are honest about what marriage entails. She wrote a book called Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage which was excerpted in The New York Times. But her honesty was turned against her, in particular on a segment of The View, in which they eviscerate her while not once even mentioning her name.
The furor started thanks to an excerpt in The New York Times: Why Marriage Requires Amnesia, it was titled. I laughed when I read it because I had made that same argument in my very first piece of published writing in Scary Mommy. I remember when I showed the piece to my husband, he objected to that part. Didn’t think it was relatable. Thought it was just me. But I knew that part was the MOST relatable. I stood my ground on including it. Now here was a piece that validated that I wasn’t alone. News flash: Amnesia required for a happy marriage!
But most of the women on The View are deeply uncomfortable with what Havrilesky has done. Sunny Hostin takes the most issue with it. She says, of Havrilesky’s description of marriage: “I think that’s all true…but she wrote it down…You don’t say things like that.” Throughout their conversation is this very outdated protection of the male, perhaps a tamer version of what Kate Manne called “himpathy.” They mostly take issue with Havrilesky’s humorous descriptions of her husband, when she refers to him as “a smelly heap of laundry,” or “a snoring heap of meat.” But it is clear that many on that panel think she has committed the ultimate female crime: telling the truth about the man you are supposed to universally uphold. Even though Havrilesky’s husband says he is okay with her writing, Hostin says: “I think he lies.” Even Whoopi Goldberg weighs in with: “You have to measure what funny is.” They seem so desperate to protect this man, when men are allowed to disparage women all the time without anyone taking notice.
So while it is clear that marriage is one of the hardest things to do, ever, we are also not supposed to admit it is hard. Why is that? So that we can keep getting new people to sign up for it. And the fact is, the economics of living on your own are brutal. Anne Helen Petersen wrote an insightful analysis of it here. With inflation today, where it is not unusual to have utilities bills nearing $1k, it is only getting worse. Our society still functions best if you conform to its norms by creating a nuclear family. But it is the very creation and unspoken rules of the nuclear family that leave women hating their husbands. So what exactly are we to do?
Ideally, we would stop buying in to what Obama is saying; that our husbands cannot be the solution and the key to stop hating them is to stop expecting them to step up. This just keeps the cycle going. These kinds of conversations are happening on the internet, and in books like Fair Play and Equal Partners. But how do we get it to trickle down into real change?
I’ve written about the book Fleishman Is in Trouble before. I find it to be one of the most illuminating portraits of marriage and motherhood in the 21st century today. You do have to tolerate a whole 200 pages of Toby first, which believe me, can be insufferable. But then you get to Rachel and Libby, and their shit is fire. Portrayed in the new FX television show by fucking Claire Danes (sorry, I was a “My So-Called Life” uber-geek who recorded the entire season on VHS when it was replayed on MTV after being cancelled after just one season on ABC) and Libby Caplan, you feel their angst and frustration and anger emanating from every pore, even though one is a working mom and one is a stay-at-home mom. They show that no matter path you choose, you are ultimately fucked.
Rachel is a super successful agent who has built her own agency, whose clients feel like children she also must tend. She grew up with financial insecurity so money to her equals stability and she wants a life for her children she never could have dreamed of. The drive to build this big life overwhelms her and her ex-husband often made her feel crazy for how much she works. He asked her for a divorce well before she was willing to grant him one because a) she didn’t have time to get divorced and b) she didn’t feel entitled to happiness while he clearly did.
Libby, meanwhile, takes the other track and quits her job as a writer at a men’s magazine to move to the suburbs to take care of her children. But she feels lost and adrift and rudderless. When she reconnects with Toby, a friend from her early twenties, she sees the version of herself she once was and questions how she got to this place of malaise and discontent. She has a good husband who loves her, she keeps convincing herself. A beautiful house in the suburbs. What is wrong with her? Why can’t she just be happy?
“How could I find my way back to a moment where my life wasn’t a flood of obligations but an endless series of choices…?” she muses. “At some point, I didn’t remember when, I had taken all my freedom and independence, and pushed them across the poker table at Adam and said, “Here, take my jackpot. Take it all. I don’t need it anymore. I won’t miss it, ever.”” Sheesh.
In the show, Toby and Libby watch their third friend in their trio, Seth (played by Adam Brody) get engaged, and they look at him with pity and sadness. Like, bro….what are you doing?
But marriage remains the final mark of adulthood in our society. Both women and men are seen as failures if they don’t buck up and follow the trend of partnering with someone else. While bachelors get more respect than “spinsters,” both are looked down upon. Men who remain unmarried are immature, not willing to grow up, have issues. Women who are unmarried must be too driven to attract a mate. Again, there must be an error in their factory settings if they can’t find someone to love forever.
I first wrote about Fleishman in my post on Maternal Finitude, exploring how Rachel reaches the end of her rope and essentially ghosts her entire life. I wrote about how women are programmed to take it, to overcome, to keep going, to suck it up and stop complaining. I wonder if that applies to marriage as well. We are so used to saying “I can take it,” that it takes a revolution in our consciousness to say: “I don’t have to take it.”
I guess that is what I find so troubling in the discourse of Michelle Obama on marriage. That you have to take it and find ways to make it manageable, which means reaching out to family members and your girlfriends for help. As mentioned, I’ll be discussing the appeal of the mommune in upcoming writings, and how there is this new wave of women trying to find different ways to get the support we need outside of the confines of the heteronormative nuclear family. But when I hear Obama talk about those difficult years, I just hear a woman desperate for help and society has told her she cannot get it from her spouse. And that is the part I want to fight against. We should not be told to let it go. We should be told that we deserve more from a partnership.
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As a young woman in her early 20’s, I find the discourse on motherhood and how much everyone is finally pulling back the curtain fascinating. I saw the strain and struggle in my own mother due to an absent paternal partner, and as I grow older I’ve been trying to figure out how to best navigate the institution of marriage and motherhood through the generations ahead of me, heeding their warnings and absorbing their hard-learned lessons.
This part rang loud and true for me:
“ …I just hear a woman desperate for help and society has told her she cannot get it from her spouse. And that is the part I want to fight against. We should not be told to let it go. We should be told that we deserve more from a partnership.“
Thank you for this article. It was illuminating ❤️
This resonates with me. I found the Michelle Obama clip to be distressing. Maybe esp bc I want to keep thinking Barack is a wonderful partner and father, and this reveals that he was kinda shitty! But also, what the hell are you talking about Michelle? Of COURSE you should leave a one-sided partnership that doesn’t change for a decade and makes you boil w resentment. I did, and I’m grateful every day. Of course not everyone can afford to, which is part of the trap.