Jordan: So, you know how we’ve spent a lot of time these past few months talking about everything that COVID-19 has changed. Well, there’s one big thing that we haven’t covered yet. It’s sensitive. It’s intimate. It’s not easy to talk about even when there is no pandemic. It’s just messy.
It’s marriage, and living together, and partnership for life. With kids or without.
If you’re married or partnered, you haven’t been alone throughout all this, and you’re lucky. But you’ve also likely spent the last few months navigating an entirely different landscape, adjusting to a new daily life and probably fighting. At least sometimes.
Today we’ll talk about the unique stresses that these, and I’m sorry here, unprecedented times have placed on couples who pledged to spend their lives together.
Just maybe not this close together for this long. We’ll talk about how to fight and how to divide household labor, how to survive till death do us part and beyond. And I will try not to get myself in trouble at home by saying something dumb. Can I do it? We will find out.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Stephen Marche is a writer and a podcaster and his new show is called, and I’m just going to say it and we’ll see if the producers bleep me, How Not To **** Up Your Marriage Too Bad. Hi, Stephen.
Stephen: Hey, how you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing well, thank you. I’m going to start because we’re going to talk about relationships today.
I’m just going to start by asking you how has being together with two kids homeschooling and working 24/7 impacted your partnership?
Stephen: You know, to be honest, I kind of love it. I mean, I’m a freelance writer, so I’m used to being at home alone. And so for me, it’s sort of like, the kids are home from school.
There’s a lot of activity in the house and I’m less lonely. That’s really, the big change. I think it’s a little harder for my wife to be stuck with me the whole time. And certainly it’s certainly, to be my 14 year old son and be stuck with your parents for the indefinite future without being able to go to camp or anything like that, is a bit of a nightmare.
You know, I think we’re kind of lucky because wherever COVID goes, like divorce rates spike. Like in Wuhan, the bureaucracy is just totally overwhelmed with divorce applications. The same is happening in Italy. It’s a classic relationship accelerator. So single people who are at home, confronting death by themselves, unable to touch anyone, are like desperate to get married.
And people who are married are like, I need to get the hell out of here. It kind of works both ways on people.
Jordan: Do you remember at the beginning of this people were saying, ‘oh, there’s going to be a COVID baby boom’? And then everybody with kids said, ‘well, if there is, it’s going to be all only children’.
Stephen: Yeah, it’s like, the hormonal effect of COVID I don’t think has really been written about, but I mean, I knew there would not be a COVID baby boom. There were stories, you heard stories, the early days of like people who’d been on three dates shacking up. That cannot work out well.
Jordan: So tell me about this podcast, which you recorded pre pandemic, but is being released now in the middle of one. What has COVID done to the subjects you discuss on the podcast? Because it seems like it must have just put more pressure on all of them.
Stephen: Well, yeah, I mean, it’s very interesting, because not to be too glib about it, but the timing of the release could not be better because the questions that we deal with in the show, like the physiological basis of fighting, how do you fight better? Suddenly this becomes very, very important to people who are jammed together all the time. How do you deal with money together? This is also about going to become very, very important for a huge number of marriages. How to deal with death, how to think through divorce should you schedule sex? How do you deal with housework? I mean, suddenly all of these questions which matter in the best of times, suddenly they’ve all come very much to the fore. It’s the old questions. I don’t think the questions have really changed just the urgency has.
Jordan: I’m going to get you to give me some of the advice you get to in the podcast and the listeners too, cause I’m sure we could all use it right now.
But first you mentioned at the very beginning that you think it’s been great for you to be at home and also have company. My honest question to you is, would your wife, would Sarah say the same thing?
Stephen: No, I don’t think so. I think she’s a more social person. It’s not really a marriage question.
She likes being in an office. She likes being with other people. She likes that space quite a bit and to be denied it I think is actually pretty rough. You know, also there’s the question of like, we have to educate our children and do our jobs at the same time, which is hugely stressful and really frankly not possible.
I think for me, a freelance writer, where you find me in my office where I’ve been every day for 15 years, like tied to this table in the tower of song. It’s not really that different for me, but for her it’s huge.
Jordan: What have you guys fought about during this pandemic? I know you’ve fought.
Stephen: You know what? I think I can’t even remember the subject. I mean, I know that sounds like a cop out. We definitely have fought, but the subjects are really irrelevant because when we did the fighting episode, one thing I learned was that fighting is not really about issues.
It’s not about the problems in your marriage and it certainly never helps to solve those problems. It’s really a physiological response to stimuli. It’s about when you’re intimate with someone, your brain naturally looks for threat and naturally responds to threat. And when you do that, it tends to build on itself very, very quickly.
And you know, the conditions of COVID really are the conditions that make us all very intimate suddenly and without escape. And so it’s natural that you’re going to have more fights. It’s just part of your body. It’s just basically a physical reaction. So yeah, we’ve had some ragers, but the subject matter is kind of irrelevant.
Jordan: So, how do you fight better? Cause this is the topic of a whole episode, basically.
Stephen: Yeah, I mean it’s complicated. I don’t want to reduce it to one point because we talked to Stan Tatkin, who’s this very famous neurobiologist. And we talked to Claudia Haase who does lifetime studies of couples and how they fight and how it affects their bodily, reactions over time.
And they have a lot of collective insights into it. But I mean, I think the point, the takeaway for me anyway, was fighting is not an intellectual process. You’re not going to solve any issue that you have through fighting. You’re not even going to address it. So, when you get into a fight, which is natural, it’s inevitable. There’s no escape from that. It’s healthy even to fight. The point is get to safety as quickly as possible.
Jordan: What does that mean?
Stephen: Get to safety, means to make your partner feel like they’re loved rather than threatened. And you know, the simple ways to do that are just to look each other in the eyes for about 30 seconds, or just to leave and run, or do a silly dance or do something physical to get out the energy and just return to a place where you feel like your interests are mutual again.
Just get to that place as quickly as possible because the other way, it just expands forever.
Jordan: Don’t you not fix the issues by doing that though?
Stephen: But you never fix an issue by a fight. That’s what I learned. You talk to these people, and they’re like, ‘well, don’t, you need to have fights in order to solve problems?’
Well, no fight has ever solved a problem. And I thought about it in my own case, I’ve been married for nearly 20 years. And I was like, yeah, you’re right. The way you solve a problem is by sitting down calmly with a glass of wine and talking things through and being frank and honest about it, or talking to a therapist. But that’s not fighting.
The fighting is just response to stimuli.
Jordan: What about just living together in general, which is another topic of one of the episodes. First of all, what did you discover that either you’d been just doing wrong the whole time or wish you’d known before you lived with your partner?
Stephen: Well, I mean, one thing I learned, I sorta knew it already, cause I’d written about it before in the unmade bed, is that there are no solutions to the problems of living together. Like there is no magic bullet. I think when you’re a kid, when I was a kid, I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll draw up contracts and it’ll make it all simple’. We’re reasonable people. We both believe in equality. We both want to do the same things. And we don’t want to fight about dumb stuff like who’s cleaning the toilet and stuff like that. So we’ll make up a list. But that’s not actually how it works at all.
It’s much more emotionally driven and it’s much more about the quest for recognition, and the truth is those matters just like never really get solved. So then you come to the place of like, well, how do you deal with that? Your resolution? That is the one thing that I really learned from doing this show, is that marriage is quite hard.
Like I wasn’t an idiot. I knew people were in pain in their relationships, but I guess I kind of thought that they were screwing things up or they had their own problems or something like that. It’s like, no, actually doing this is actually quite difficult and it requires a lot of endurance and it requires a lot of skill and tenderness and it also requires a lot of luck.
And so that was the kind of the takeaway for me. This is actually a lot harder than you think.
Stephen: You realize now that we’re two men now talking about housework, right? You know how dangerous…
Jordan: Yeah, I’m going to get in trouble for this and so are you.
Stephen: Yeah. Well, and also maybe we shouldn’t be doing it. Let’s also take that into account, but anyway, go on.
Jordan: One of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you and to talk about this is because I think it often falls on the woman in a marriage to try to fix the marriage and to try to have those emotional discussions and to try to bring those topics up.
So I think yes, obviously there are probably things that we’re going to get wrong and screw up by having this conversation, but it shouldn’t be left to wives to make the husband go to counselling and to initiate these conversations to try to save the marriage.
So that’s what I’d say to that, but I also wanted to ask you about recognition, because I find when there are inequalities, it is the recognition that makes the difference between a fight and no fight. It’s not necessarily the act of, ‘okay, well, you take the garbage out five days a week and I’ll do the dishes five days a week’ and et cetera. It’s the ‘I see you taking that garbage out. That’s awesome.’
Stephen: Well, that’s the getting to safety part of fighting, getting to safety is like that feeling like I’m seen, and you know me and we’re together.
And so you always want to get to that as quickly as possible, but I’m on the record. Housework, my feeling about it is that everyone should do a lot less of it. And that the longterm trend with housework is not men doing more housework, it’s women doing less housework.
And that’s true everywhere in Western Europe and North America, it’s called disinvestment. It’s a well known sociological category. My mother was a full time physician who also vacuumed the drapes of our house. Quickly we’ve realized that’s no longer possible, but that whole debate around what housework is, it’s so fascinating. But it’s also almost impossible to have rationally. It becomes super emotional and super layered with norms so quickly, it’s almost impossible to have those conversations in general. Although I definitely agree with you that men do not do their fair share of trying to make marriages work, or indeed thinking through their marriages.
I mean, I think there’s this thing with men where they don’t want to even consciously try and conceive of these questions. They want to just push them aside and get on with things. And I think that’s really bad and dangerous and just stupid. There’s ways to think through this stuff that can really improve your life and can improve your marriage.
And they’re not hippy nonsense. They’re not snake oil salesman stuff. They’re quite practical.
Jordan: I want to talk to you about a couple of the other episodes that we can maybe cover in somewhat rapid fire succession. So should you schedule sex? What do the experts say?
Stephen: Yes. In this show we take all these questions and we try and get multiple perspectives on them and definitely differing perspectives and see how we feel about them. We literally could not find a single expert who said, don’t schedule sex. They all say schedule sex because you know, the simple truth is if you don’t, you won’t have it.
And the other thing is that if you get to once a week, that is the equivalent in happiness terms of going from making $25,000 a year to making $75,000 a year. So I don’t know about you, but when I went from 25 to 75 K, that was the greatest increase of happiness that I could have.
So yeah, you do absolutely. Most of these things, there’s no AB testing for most of this stuff. So most of the things we don’t have as definitive answers as that, to a lot of these questions, but that one there’s a pretty straight yes.
Jordan: How about deciding who to marry? I haven’t listened to that episode yet.
Stephen: Really fascinating, we talked to a matchmaker, traditional matchmaker, who charges $10,000 for a relationship.
And we also talked to a guy who works at NASA jet propulsion lab, who as a sideline, has developed this algorithm for determining when you should settle essentially. And so we look at the math of, how do you pick, basically. And nothing works. I mean, that’s the sad answer, but ‘trust your gut’ doesn’t make any sense, but also ‘trust the numbers’ doesn’t make any sense.
I think that’s kind of a lesson in itself. When you’re picking this, you’re doing it with a very partial information game. It’s an asymmetrical information game and you have to know that when you get married, you’re taking a big risk.
Jordan: What about, should we just get divorced? How do you make that call?
Stephen: This is the kind of thing that I think that there’s practical solutions to this. Like there’s a whole group of scholars on divorce ideation out there from various different political beliefs and they study how people get divorced.
And I mean about 40% of people in divorce proceedings regret it in court.
Stephen: So the lesson here is, divorce is a wonderful thing. People underrate the power of divorce. Divorce is as key to modern life as democracy and freedom of the press. It’s that important.
Because it means that we’re not locked in these terrible relationships. There is a way out, and it’s super important for human Liberty, but at the same time, you want to understand that if you’re thinking about divorce, especially coming out of COVID, I think take it slowly. Take your time to do it, because people get divorced for as bad reasons as they get married.
For emotional reasons that are really temporary. And they don’t really think through and yeah, divorce slowly.
Jordan: The last one I want to ask you about is pretty profound, marriage and death, especially now when you probably a number of longterm marriages have lost a partner. How does marriage survive death? What does that look like?
Stephen: That was a very powerful episode. It was a sign of its success that no one who dealt with it could actually get through the whole thing without stopping and crying. Our executive producer couldn’t edit it, he had to keep stopping. The sound designer couldn’t really get through it. He kept crying.
Jordan: I mean, it’s your worst nightmare. Anybody who’s married.
Stephen: Well, I don’t know. I think there are much worse things that can happen in a marriage actually, certainly after doing the show. We talked to a woman who texts her dead husband, like three years after. The thing that’s so interesting is that the relationship doesn’t really end.
We talked to all these people for whom, including my mother, for whom their dead spouse, the fact of his death was just kinda one more fact in the relationship, and the relationship went right on. It’s just without one person. And so, this show is really about the difficulties of marriage, which can be grueling, like the housework, the money problems, the sex problems, like all this stuff.
But that show really showed, it is worth fighting for. It is actually worth trying to work out, because it can be incredibly powerful and life affirming.
Jordan: What did you learn about marriage as an institution and a concept while making the show?
Stephen: Well it’s very… it’s not natural. When we did the show about parenting, the thing that we kept returning to, that kept coming back, was love your children and express your love for them, which is actually kind of the most natural thing in the world really. That’s not a tall order. But with marriage, even the best couples, even the luckiest couples, the most compatible couples are going to struggle.
Because it is not a natural arrangement. It’s not built into our biology to do this. And that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing, and it doesn’t mean that the institution isn’t powerful, because in some ways it’s never been more powerful than it is right now. But on the other hand, it does require a lot of effort and a lot of endurance.
Jordan: My last question is just did this podcast, did the process of making it, make you a better husband? And as a follow up, like I asked before, would your wife agree with that?
Stephen: I know it did, and I know she would agree with it for sure. I think the fighting episode was a really big one, where you realize, actually there’s no point doing this. If you really want to change things, have a serious conversation about them, don’t get into these screaming matches that you end up just backtracking on and nothing ever happens. And you know, there was something, I mean not very serious, but a medium sized family crisis in the middle of doing this podcast. And, because I did the show, I was really quite a bit calmer than I think I would have been before. I was just like, you know what? I feel threatened, but it’s just physiological. Just, just let it go. Just let it go. And you can think about it when sanity is returned.
Jordan: I’m going to remember that advice when Rosemary gets mad at me, possibly while listening to this episode.
Stephen: Well, I mean, I think one thing that’s really important, you realize how much pop culture and media assumptions about marriage have created this impression like it’s happily ever after or whatever, and it’s just nonsense.
We all know it’s nonsense, but figuring out how this works involves a lot of effort.
Jordan: It’s hard to admit that to yourself that it’s all nonsense.
Stephen: Yeah, I think it’s really shoved down our throats and then we don’t ask ourselves these questions. I actually assumed during this, I mean it’s weird to think, but I’m a 44 old man who thought that married people had sex three times a week. And then I talked to an expert and they’re like, ‘no, what are you joking?’ And it was like, ‘right, of course, of course’, that kind of even basic information is not really available even to married people.
You’re kind of just left alone to deal with it. And there’s no reason not to know. And there’s no reason to be ignorant.
Jordan: Well, Steven, thank you so much for this. And I look forward to listening to the rest of the show.
Stephen: That was pleasure. Give my best to Rosemary.
Jordan: I will do that. You take care.
Stephen Marche, host of How Not To Fuck Up Your Marriage Too Bad, but you can find right now on Audible. That was The Big Story. If you would like more, you can find them thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. You’ll find us in your favourite podcast player, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, doesn’t matter.
If you want to talk to us, you can email us. The address is email@example.com.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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