One of the two grand ironic jests in the movie “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is that this bored suburban couple–who drip utter contempt for each other while inhabiting a sterile home worthy of an Architectural Digest reader’s wet dream–find renewed appreciation, rekindle their regard, and rediscover their erotic frisson when they realize the other is actually a high-paid covert assassin and they must cooperate and combine their skills to overcome a passel of bad-guys/fellow assassins.
There’s a great line in another–in my opinion, much better–movie that gets to the heart of marital ennui. In Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset,” the male protagonist, having just encountered his long lost-love ten years after last seeing her, describes his marriage as, “I feel like I’m running a small nursery with someone I used to date.”
In any longer marriage, especially a marriage in which the raising of children is a dominant preoccupation, one constantly struggles against a view of marriage as an endless series of domestic chores. Great swaths of our culture–how we work; where we live; how we handle domestic responsibilities–provide minimal support or opportunity for erotic, or even romantic, engagement with one’s spouse. It’s easy to spontaneously take the kids to the beach; when there are young children in the house, it’s hard to spontaneously go to the beach alone with one’s spouse. Thus, it’s not surprising that rates of marital unhappiness increase with each additional child in the household and begin decreasing only when these children move out. Yet if our culture (reasonably) prefers child rearing to take place within marriage shouldn’t we have a culture in which children increase, rather than decrease, marital happiness?
I often envy my friends who work with their spouses as equals (as opposed to one spouse working for the other). While I am sure there are tensions in carrying over work arguments into the home and domestic arguments into the workplace, I know I enjoy the feeling of mutually accomplishing something with my wife that doesn’t involve taking care of children or a house, and suspect that they enjoy that feeling regularly. The few times I have been able to comediate with my wife, Karen, I have had the same sense of excitement that Mr. Smith seemed to have as he and his wife worked together to neutralize the swarms of assassins coming at them.
I have no idea what our culture could do to allow spouses with children greater opportunity to interact as adults, without the responsibilities of home and children. There’s an excellent argument that such support is none of the government’s business. However, if we want to stabilize marriage–which, ultimately, benefits the children created by such marriages–it might help if we figured out ways for spouses to be less overrun with domestic minutia and freer to recreate the feelings that convinced them to wed in the first place.
The other grand ironic jest is that Mrs. Smith (Angelina Jolie) is better regarded and better paid in this traditionally masculine line of work than is Mr. Smith (Brad Pitt).