The Hamilton Spectator

The Marriage Portrait

Lyz Lenz opens up about an unhappy union and what she learned from it.

- JUDITH NEWMAN is the author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines.” By JUDITH NEWMAN

WHEN FRIENDS ASKED why I married a man 30 years older who didn’t have any money, I had three answers: 1) I loved him. 2) I’m an idiot. 3) I knew I couldn’t be married forever and this way, nature would take care of that problem for me (which it did).

I always thought getting divorced would be the worst thing to happen. But Lyz Lenz has straighten­ed me out. The worst thing is being married in the first place. At least for her. And, she maintains, for most women on the planet.

“This American Ex-Wife” is a clever, well-argued and thoroughly joyless examinatio­n of what Lenz calls the “commonplac­e horror” of marriage. After growing up in an evangelica­l household, she chose a conservati­ve Christian hardworkin­g man who loved God, “Star Trek” and doing his own home renovation­s. He liked Trump, didn’t like gay people and didn’t like to cook or clean. Did I mention he was bad in bed? Because she did. After reading that, I hoped another thing he doesn’t like to do is read.

To Lenz — who has written books about faith and pregnancy — it was a marriage that made sense. But that was before she had two children, moved into a house she hated and discovered that she didn’t share most of her husband’s values. There was no infidelity, nothing dramatic, just quotidian misery and the impulse to be free. (The words “misery” or “miserable” appear 42 times in this book.)

Why, Lenz wonders, do so many of us assume that we need to “work” at marriage? What is equality in marriage? And what is a good man? Citing claims that 40 percent of marriages fail, Lenz writes: “If 40 percent of Honda CR-Vs had engine failures, Honda would issue a recall.”

Yet in making her case, Lenz sometimes fails to consider counterarg­uments. Are rings a symbol of bondage, as Lenz says, or a symbol of unity? Do comedians “normalize the quiet misery of marriage” or do they make us laugh at our occasional pettiness and ridiculous­ness? She’s dismissive of studies that show divorce can be detrimenta­l to children, and she omits whole bodies of research indicating that married people are happier than unmarried ones.

Lenz is also fairly certain that same-sex couples have “found fuller ways of living” outside of marriage. (Maybe inside it too, since she seems to conclude that samesex marriages are an emotional Shangri-La.) But love is love, and conflict is conflict, no matter the couple.

“This American Ex Wife” ends with a wedding dress burning party, a new house that Lenz finally loves and a pat explanatio­n to her kids: “Sometimes the only way to get to the good things is through hard things.”

With divorce comes lots of sex, which Lenz says is empowering, though she doesn’t seem to be having much fun. I hope I’m very wrong. I hope her happy ending is, indeed, filled with happy endings.

However, there is something I can’t help thinking about. Of course there are many, many times that a marriage is insupporta­ble — and a bad marriage, as Lenz notes, is one of the loneliest states imaginable. Thank God, and the law, that we can be free. But is this really an argument against marriage in general? What if freedom is not most people’s goal? Lots of us need to be needed, even if being needed is sometimes a pain in the neck. Ask a pal whether she prefers freedom or connection. In that choice lies the answer of why so many in less than perfect unions choose to stay.

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