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American Marriage


Comedian Sandra Tsing Loh is quite serious about being through with marriage. At 47, she’s recently had an affair. She’s getting divorced. And she’s decided marriage isn’t working for women her age.

It’s all work. No passion. She’s done.

Her friend, essayist and social critic Caitlin Flanagan, is going just the other way. In a time when politicians right and left have been stepping out on their wives, Flanagan is stepping up for marriage. Saying it’s vital. For life. Long term.

This hour, On Point: Two old friends – women – argue two very different views of American marriage.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer, comedian, and a columnist for The Atlantic. Her books include “Mother on Fire” (2008) and “If You Lived Here, You’d be Home by Now” (1998). Her most recent article, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” appears in the most recent issue of The Atlantic.

Caitlin Flanagan is an essayist and social critic, and a contributor at The Atlantic and a regular writer for Time magazine. Her most recent book is called “To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing our Inner Housewife” (2006). She wrote the cover story, “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?” for the July 2 issue of TIME.

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  • kmacjp

    I am loving this segment!! Was married, not any more, will never be again!

  • Tim

    I just wanted to say to all the women who are in 20 year plus relationships and are not having sex with your husbands: Chances are very good they are having sex without you. Either in gay/bisexual relationships or casual encounters or having relations with another woamn. Men as well as women need to have sexual relations and intimacy.

  • Robin

    An important demograph is being ignored here, the large and growing group of women, like me, who decided never to get married. I have a very large group of female friends. As a group we are almost 100% heterosexual, professional, with stable lives, and good incomes. We are happy, fulfilled, and do not need either marriage or men to make us whole.

    Until we get beyond the thought that women must have a marriage and children to be complete, we will never truly be equal.

  • Nina Pratt

    I’m a lesbian, but I’ve been married to men–twice! (some folks take longer to figure it out than others)

    The Cause De Jour of the LGBT movement is Marriage Equality. I keep telling my compatriots, “Trust me, girls, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I know all about the benefits that gays miss out on because we can’t marry everywhere. Those benefits are SO NOT WORTH THE PAIN of marriage!f”

  • Tanya Turner

    My boyfriend of 7 years and I love to talk about this topic. In our twenties, most of our friends are hurrying to get married. We hesitate to say they have anything we don’t beyond a legal bond and a lot of debt. We’ve made our commitment to eachother. We have fidelity, honesty, trust, reliance. But marriage hardly seems to mean even that these days. Kids my age seem to think its a fun party that makes people feel special for a day. My boyfriend agree– we feel that special every day. And if, one day, we decide that we need the legal tie, we can pursue it. And if, one day, we decide to pursue our lives apart, it will be easier and we won’t have to become another divorce statistic. But anyone arguments to get married will fall on our deaf ears. No wedding could make us more committed to eachother than we already are.

  • http://jacesheppard.com Jace Sheppard

    Hey Tom,

    I’ve been married one year, to a man. After years of fighting for the right to do so, we entered the marriage with an understanding that nobody can predict the future. We know we want to be together forever “right now”, but knowing human nature means accepting reality that people change and change can mean growing apart. We both hope that never happens, but we’re not unrealistic and thinking that because we say we’re committed to each other we’re clear ’til death.

    Relationships take work, but people change.

  • Rachel Duffy

    Just this morning I finished an enlightening book about this topic: Mating in Captivity, Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel (HarperCollins 2006). If listeners are interested in this topic, you might invite Perel on and please recommend this book to your two guests today. Perel discusses the inherent challenges of keeping the spark alive in marriage because intimacy and eroticism do not go hand in hand–but we can do some things about this to improve our marriages.

  • Jane

    Recently on On Point a man was saying at the same time that marriage was hard and “we straight men” don’t even like marriage because it’s hard work, but then went on to say that it was a sacrament and gay people couldn’t have it.

    As a married lesbian, marriage means choosing publically and legally to be committed to each other and try as hard as possible to work things out _together_.

  • Rob

    A lot of the failure of marriage is because of the failure of our society;growing economic stress, decreasing job and ecomonic oppurtunity, increasing income disparity… The 50s was not good at home a lot of those couples hated it. Fix society, provide for futures, peoples lives will take care of themselves.

  • Phil

    I am just curious. Why should we care what Sandra Sing Loh thinks. What is she basing her thoughts on.. People say really isn”t valid.

  • http://www.husbanduniversity.com Aristotle Reich

    As a happily married father of 5, I’m putting a strong check in the “YES” box for marriage. Yes, the 70 year marriage of today is very different from marriage of the 8th century; but it is still very possible to have a long-term successful marriage.

    My discovery is that it takes effort. Every day one needs to woo one’s spouse and find the reasons why you chose to get together in the first place. Every day one needs to choose to work together as a partnership and forgive the small moods and tempers.

    Having found someone with whom I can laugh and enjoy life, I believe it is my choice to continue to laugh and enjoy life with my beloved wife.

    In my opinion, a challenge of marriage is that men often live an 17th Century mentality but expect a 21st Century partner. Men simply need to catch up to women in terms of emotional maturity and connectedness. Men need to be willing to risk themselves in pursuit of a strong and growing relationship.

  • http://onanov.com Donald Baxter

    Fantastic show, and I love hearing Sandra talk about anything.

    Gore Vidal was asked about the longevity (over 50 years) of his same-sex partnership and he said that “we didn’t confused love and sex.” Why can’t heterosexuals learn something from this?

  • BHA

    Perhaps Ms. Loh might want to consider that she chose to marry someone who would be on the road. OK, she worked on it for 20 years, but I gather she knew what she was getting from the get go. That doesn’t mean marriage is bad for all women or men.

    Personally, my wife used to make more money than I before she got laid off 2 years ago. I have ALWAYS done 95% of the shopping and cooking, she has ALWAYS done 95% of the laundry and none of that has changed even though she has not been employed for 2 years. The benefit to me is that we don’t have to figure out who takes off work to get the kids to appointments or stay home when they are sick.

  • Benjamin

    A caller suggested that, historically, marriage has been the foundation of an orderly society.

    This argument was popular at the end of the Middle Ages and in the Protestant Reformation, when religious and political leaders argued that the patriarchal family provided the structural model and foundation of social and political organization in Europe. Theologians and political philosophers contended that kings were analogous to fathers and subjects to children. They further insisted that the moral conduct of families and individuals played an integral role in the stability of the state. The German Lutheran theologian Justus Menius published his Oeconomia christiana in 1529 on this very subject.

    For those who are interested in the historical roots of our modern conceptions regarding marriage, I encourage them to look up the work of the historians Susanna Burghartz and Susan Karant-Nunn, among others.

  • Ellen

    The problem is not with the institution of marriage, but so often with the commitment of the people in the marriage. So, therefore, you are right, it is not for everyone. Today most people can’t make much of a commitment to anything. For me marriage and a child, or children is part of the picture as is career and indepdence. As the old saying goes, something like, anything worth having is hard work.

  • http://www.onpointradio.org/2009/07/marriage Liz

    I caught most of the show this morning…been married almost as long as Sandra and I want to say from married woman’s perspective my husband and I both agree…this is the part that sucks. The Globe last weekend had an article on how parents in the 40′s we so much more prepared and one I suppose could argue better parents than people like me who got married in their 20′s and had children in their 20/ 30′s…I suppose the same could go for those who marry later but I think marriage is not for wimps and I am grateful for voices like Flanagan and Loh who tell the truth. I think we need to be careful with the accusations on this page about Loh…I did not expect I would be fully running a household mostly on my own due to my husbands demanding travel obligations for work when we took our vows all those years ago. Listen to the truth of her life without the accusations of her failures.

  • Robert

    I have followed the life and humor of Sandra Tsing Loh and her world for 10 years. She is exactly the age of my wife and I, lived and ranted about the same Valley neighborhood we lived in, had her kids at the exact same time we had ours (boys for us, though), and joked about a similar immigrant scientist dad similar to my own.

    While my life has paralleled Sandra’s, her exhibitionist radio program and books show how hard modern life is for most of us. When we marry we tend to have simple lives with manageable commitments. Our values and our lives turn upside down, and our paths and needs change. At the same time, we tend to put all our time and energy to huge parenting obligations and massive financial weight. Pressure and unmet expectations lead to resentments, unraveled commitments, lost intimacy, and misery.

    The flood of publicized high profile affairs should be less an indicator of moral decay and hypocrisy, and more an indicator of how dysfunctional old cultural norms fit in our increasingly toxic Western culture.

  • Jersee

    If young people contemplating marriage could see how difficult divorce is, they would really think hard about the person they decide to marry! I wish there was a way to confront people with the realities of marriage and committment before they get into a very tight legal agreement. No one can really get ready for all of the eventualities of married life and family life, but it would be great if people stopped to think about some of the big topics that quite likely will appear in an average marriage: illness, lack of income, career changes, financial challenges, substance abuse and addictions of all kinds, sexual dysfunction, infertility, mental illness, problems with members of the extended family, and infidelity!

    It’s great that love propels us into thoughts of a committed relationship. Few people, however, stop to think that this person they are in love with may NOT be the person with whom to build a lasting marriage! More people should face this before they even think about marriage!

  • http:cheyannescampsite.blogspot.com k.a.m.


    WOW ! Could you get any more real? What you wrote hit about every topic under the marriage sun anyone could imagine. Very well said. Very good advice.

  • Muhajira

    So, we are listening for an hour to some woman who cheated on her husband, he promptly asked for divorce and now she is complaining about marriage institution?
    While she and her girlfriend are giggling in the background?
    I wonder if she will be still giggling after the divorce meat grinder…
    Rather poor choice of programming for Monday, Mr Ashbrook.

  • http://www.tools-for-togetherness.com Glori Zeltzer, MA, MFT

    When I listened to the program today about marriage and it’s questionable value for women, I felt a giant piece was missing. There was no question about where the “spark” went when it disappeared, and how this happens. I am a psychotherapist, licensed 28 years, who has specialized, for the past 10 years, in helping couples achieve intimate, healthy relationships . The conversation reminded me of building a camp fire. First you start with a spark. If you turn your back on the fire, the spark goes out. It can’t be left to grow on it’s own. Unfortunately couples are not taught how to grow that spark into an enduring flame. Our collective image of marriage focuses on what our partners can do for, or give us. So we have gone from man as “provider”, and woman as “nester” to man and woman as both “provider” and “nester”. Nothing in the program, that I heard, addressed what couples can do to grow their emotional connection. Unfortunately your last caller, Richard, a marriage therapist, was getting to this important fact. In essence, we are looking for a partner to bond with when we marry. We are looking for someone to understand us, to listen. Most arguments occur because both people want to be listened to, and nobody is listening. We tend to retreat from the other when we feel wounded or scared. Power struggles for control erupt, then fighting or silence and distance. Relationships require both individuals to work on their personal emotional growth rather than expect their partners to provide whatever is missing. Marriage is a wonderful place for this growth to occur. The fuel to keep that initial spark alive is a new attitude. The new attitude is a marriage of hearts. So the new question is, “What do we need?” Rather than “What do I need?” Neither person’s individual growth must be sacrificed, rather it is encouraged. The greatest gift I received from my partner was something he said to me early in our relationship. “I want you to be the best ‘you’ that you can be.”
    Sorry I missed the opportunity to bring this on the air—I’m on the west coast and missed the live broadcast because of the time difference. Visit my website http://www.tools-for-togetherness.com. My partner and I teach these tools to couples in our couples workshop.

  • Harry

    Marriage, like democracy, is hard work, but unlike democracy, there are alternatives that are attractive alternatives. But hard work can pay off. I would say that it’s like many other situations as well – if you’ve given it your best shot and it’s still not satisfying, move on.

    For an amusing take on this question, see the lyrics to “We don’t need the men” by Malvina Reynolds


  • Jerry Simon

    I am happily, happily married and could not imagine otherwise, and intend to stay married until death. People often go into marriage having the wrong concept of it. Part of the problem lies with the fact that people are inherently selfish and therefore are not willing to give themselves completely to one another. Marriage is not only about the good times, pleasure, being together, passion and living a life happily ever after, which is why people should think long and hard before they take vows that are sacred before God and bind us together.
    Marriage provides stability for children, society,and whether or not one believes it takes us out of our selfish cocoon. Marriage brings out the best in us, it sure does in me, happily married for almost 13 years.
    My wife and I do have our moments but at the end of the day, we understand that the marriage has to be nurtured financially, physically, socially and spiritually.We understand that there are times when one must be willing to give and take. Everyday is not the same, and as the years come and go we find new ways to rediscover each other, have fun with each other, laugh with each other, enjoy life to the fullest with each other, share the responsibilities of running the home with each other.
    Marriage is what one makes of it.
    Nothing is wrong with the institution, it is the individuals that keep changing. Remember marriage must be worked at and on or it will fail. It is still a miracle that two different individuals can come to together and live under the same roof wtihout killing each other. It takes a God to keep it together.
    Jerry. New Jersey

  • Dave

    What concerns me is hearing Sandra and others talking about their marriage the way people talk about their jobs. I recognize that a relationship is work, but it’s also a relationship, a very intimate way of communication with someone, and if you are treating that like a job, then clearly you are not interested in a relationship. If you view marriage as a utilitarian institution, then from my perspective, you are missing the point.
    Married 10 years for what it’s worth. Perfect? No, but I’m still in love so what do I know.

  • Betty

    First, great show, well said all.
    Did anybody else notice divergence in responces based on those in marriages over 20 years, versus less than 20 years? I think it was 100% predictable on that criteria alone. Since this was the crutial point in Sandra’s argument, letting the discussion wander off to raising small kids, religion, etc. was diversionary. Sandra’s point is the kids are leaving (so societal work of providing stable home for kids is DONE) and spark is gone. Would love to hear a session that stays focused on this very specific subgroup. I think the exhausted + no sex problem among boomer marriages is huge and getting huger. Men that are in their 60′s seem way more content to let the sex go as long as everything else is good. We girls are not so happy about this, but in our mid-50′s+ isn’t the best time to go new partner shopping is it? So many marriages at this stage seem to settle for financial security and emotional reliability. Like one of the callers mentioned, it’s nice to have someone take you to the emergency room in the middle of the night, isn’t it.?

  • http://www.IDCdeposits.com Bill Burdette

    Very good conversation — bringing up many different approaches to understanding the challenges of being married today. As a husband, married for almost 29 years, with 2 grown daughters, I have been feeling the pain of a relationship that is going nowhere — but also a sense of guilt that I don’t feel like making it work anymore. It was interesting to hear from Richard in Newton, MA, about his theory that we want to be understood in our relationship — and I don’t feel understood, which I feel has created a lack of trust. I would love to read his book when it comes out. Richard — tell us you’re close to finishing it.


  • cm

    Could Ms. Tsing Loh and Ms. Flanagan please use the words “you know” more in their speech? The dozens that elapsed before I was forced to lunge at the speaker’s off button seemed a bit too subtle.

  • Tomas

    …caught the podcast…

    Kind of a depressing takeaway – Currently in my 20s, and if I do my best to be a considerate, caring, sensitive guy now, my wife will get bored of me in twenty years and initiate a passionate affair or ask for a divorce at least. Should I be a bad-boy jerk instead?

    Thankfully Sandra Sing Loh doesn’t speak for all women.

  • Tomas

    …caught the podcast…

    Kind of a depressing takeaway. Currently in my 20s…if I do my best to be a caring, considerate, sensitive guy now, will my wife get bored of me in twenty years and initiate an affair or at the least ask for a divorce because the passion is all dried? Should I be a bad-boy jerk instead? It seems I can’t win…

    Thankfully Sandra Sing Loh doesn’t speak for all women.


    I couldn’t agree more with Sandra! At 45, I’ve been married and divorced twice. I’ve been divorced now for almost 10 years, and I finally created the life I’ve always dreamed of: peaceful, happy and simple! Marriage might work for some people- those who find fulfilment and happiness in marital bliss- but certainly does not work for me!

  • Too Late Smart

    I wish I could say the same, Daisy. You know, I keep reading the propaganda pieces about all the wonderful health benefits of being in a marriage. The latest was making the rounds this week, touting the health benefits of marriage and, conversely, all the negative consequences of divorce. Well, just once I would like to see a study reporting on the health detriments of being in a mediocre or bad marriage. The unremitting stress and physical tension, the lack of intimacy of any kinds, the depression and anxiety, the sense of alienation, the elevated blood pressure, etc. Fact is, the propagandists who obsess over the wonders of conjugal bliss would never perform such a study. They might end up talking to someone like me. I envy you for having the courage to get out. I pray that someday I will too. And I’ve lived this way a helluva lot longer than you did. I would never, ever do it again.


    Dear Too Late Smart, it is NEVER too late! As I read your depiction of married life, I can’t believe how perfectly you described the 12 years I spent with my second husband. The at-the-time untreated anxiety and panic disorder that this relationship costed me, unabled me to take that step that I could only dream about. It wasn’t until my chronic anxiety was medically treated, that I was ready and eager to call it QUITS! I happily embraced all my challenges: Being a foreigner living in the Midwest, raising 2 kids from my 1st marriage, no child support, no family, and only 2 years of work experience, after being a stay-home mom for 10 years. Oh, and I almost forgot, no college education. I made it! I became the independent woman I always wanted to be, and probably one of the happiest. YOU CAN TOO!!! Remember Too Late Smart, it is YOUR LIFE and no one else’s. And it can be beatiful and uncomplicated.

  • Gabriel

    Married 11 years + 5 years together before married. I grew up in Latin America. In the program it was mentioned that the rate of divorce was much higher in the US. One reason could be a more individualistic aspect of the culture, which manifest itself in personal/career success as the first priority.

    During the program it was said that because husband was a musician he had to be out of the home for weeks, and that wife was ok with that because he was pursuing his career. (just an example, I’m not picking on the guest. If they were married for 20 years I’m sure they tried by all means to make it work. Just trying to make a point).

    From my perspective, that’s a personal choice of career more important than marriage/family. I’m not saying it’s a right or wrong choice. All I’m saying is that it’s a choice that puts marriage at more stress and increases the chances of divorce.

    Marriage involves sacrifices. And sometimes you need to slow down your career (by no means stop it, just turn down notch down) in order to focus on marriage, if you care more about marriage than career.

    I think in other countries, family often comes first, therefore there’s less disruptions from career based decisions like in the US.

    One other aspect is the time outside home. The two examples in the program where a musician and politicians. Both spend a lot of time on the road. That’s another reality of the US in comparison with other countries. More people travel in the US for work than in other countries I believe. But I don’t have facts though.

  • marie

    I think it is all very sad. My husband and I had a great desire for one another. So sad that today this is what marriage has come to. Forget about 50′s, 60′s, 70′s role models. The thing is, yes, it is very hard to keep marriage going, but if you have someone who you love and who you and he are continually attracted to one another, then this is what keeps the whole thing going. Troubles, no troubles, whatever, if you are connected and have a meeting of the minds and more than that a meeting of attraction, then this is the wonderful thing that can keep marriage going for a long time and, furthermore, make you love one another more each year. And being friends, best friends, on top of this is also what makes a great relationship. How sad that you think careeers, life in the 21st century, etc. etc. has anything to do with loving someone in a way that does not make it hard. Hard is a sad, sad word to describe what should be such a beautiful relationship that changes, grows and becomes something more than beautiful if you weather all the trials and tribulations of children, life, money, etc. (and, yes, hardness). The key is to liking someone, loving them and having that love grow change and become such a special special thing. And sex is important, and the glue that holds it all together in a special, special way. It takes work, commitment and a determination to weather all that life throws at you. The result–devine.

  • marie

    Just a correction or two. I was so distressed to hear the very cold talk about relationships that I used some incorrect syntax. I do want to say, I was married for 36 years until my husband died–four children. It was a process. But some of the most beautiful moments were the simple, simple things in life that are the truly meaningful ones, not nuts and bolts of who does the dishes, who works more, the cold, cold aspects of life. I have grown children who do not realize that with the hard work of a relationship comes the rewards of a deep love. Those who give up too soon, who begin with weakened sparks, who see life as a ledger of he/she are probably doomed. Sorry to be so pessimistic, but it seems this is the trend and because our society of instant gratification is in full swing, it may continue to march onward in this direction.

  • Ruth Urbach

    Many years ago, not only did I come to one of Sandra’s appearances (here in Seattle), but I heard her compositions for piano. I bought the CD. But I had no luck finding the sheet music. I’d still like to have it. Any suggestions?

  • Dan Andrews, Boston Ma

    I have been married for over 20 years and been with the
    same women for 26 years, it has caused me endless anguish because I was a closeted bisexual with gender conflicts. I didn’t really want to get married but gave in to pressures from my partner. Later on, it all came out by my cheating and her finding out etc, therapy (god what a painful experience) and finally we rebuilt our marriage to some extent. I got married before the internet made sex education easy, the young today can know their needs so much easier than I could in the sixties or seventies. We need a new definition of marriage and new ways without the monogamous model being the only one. The culture forces many into marriage models that will make them miserable and stunt their sexual expression and lives. Who to blame maybe our Christian value or purity and over worldly love for starters….

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