- Ali Wentworth should be applauded for using her platform as a celebrity to share her good fortune in marriage with the rest of us. Tweet This
- The danger of hiding our happy marriages is that the unhealthy relationships in our culture can begin to drown out the good examples of marriage that are all around us. Tweet This
In a recent article published in Town & Country magazine, comedian Ali Wentworth shares what she describes as a “dirty little secret”: she’s been happily married to journalist George Stephanopoulos for 17 years.
“Deep breath. Here goes: I’m happily married. It might be my most boring attribute, and there’s nothing I can do about it!” Wentworth writes in the excerpt from her new book, Go Ask Ali. “I love my husband and he loves me. The end.”
What’s so shocking about a happy marriage? Well, as Wentworth points out, unhappy relationships seem to be the main story our culture tells about marriage these days, making happy marriages, as she puts it, “taboo.” She writes:
Sitcoms depict married life as a bickering couple; he’s usually heavy and not very attractive, and she’s usually too smart and beautiful for him. There’s a lot of eye-rolling. The couple grudgingly put up with each other and a laugh track. Switch to a cable drama: one of them has murdered the other. The best-selling books and records are always slanted toward relationships gone bad. And how would daytime talk shows survive if we couldn’t trawl for signs of infidelity or enforce paternity tests? It's embedded in our culture.
When it comes to her personal life, Wentworth says she only knows a few happily married couples, and that they also feel like they need to “keep it on the down-low,” and “make sure nobody sees us holding hands, giggling, or, God forbid, embracing.” She concludes that “until things in our country change, I will have to become masterful at changing the subject [about marriage] and, in some cases, flat out lying about the state of my union.”
But why should she keep her happy marriage a secret? More importantly, why do so many of us feel like we need to downplay the happiness we’ve found in marriage, while we don’t hesitate to share gritty details about our unhealthy relationships or marital struggles?
“It's harder to go public with marital happiness than with marital misery,” according to University of Minnesota professor Bill Doherty, who directs the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project. Dr. Doherty told me that, “The former seems boastful and insensitive to people who are not married or not so happy. The latter, well, that's being open and vulnerable.”
The danger of hiding our happy marriages is that the unhealthy relationships in our culture can begin to drown out the good examples of marriage that are all around us. When the media bombards us with one unhealthy example after another of love gone wrong, and when the majority of people we know complain about their spouses, it can feel like “happy ever after” no longer exists. This can be especially debilitating to the marriage dreams of young people who are fearful of long-term commitment or who don’t have healthy marriage examples in their own families.
We know that our parents’ marriage relationship, or the breakdown of that relationship, leaves a “marriage imprint” that influences how we view marriage and how we form families of our own, including affecting our risk of divorce. But how do our friends’ and neighbors’ marriages affect us? While research has found that divorce can also spread among friends, we know less from the research about the social network effects of healthy marriages. However, research on the community transmission of happiness provides some insight into the potentially infectious nature of marital happiness. For example, a longitudinal study of about 4,000 individuals followed for 20 years by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis found that happiness is “contagious.” The authors explain:
Happiness, in other words, is not merely a function of individual experience or individual choice but is also a property of groups of people. Indeed, changes in individual happiness can ripple through social networks and generate large scale structure in the network, giving rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals.
It’s reasonable to assume that happy marriages may have similar effects in our social circles—and might actually be as contagious as divorce, as Luma Simms has argued in this space. Spending time with long-married couples in healthy relationships not only gives us hope that true love exists but also gives us a standard to reach for. That’s why we need more happily married individuals and couples who are brave enough to be open about their blissful unions, including celebrities like Wentworth.
But talking about being happily married does not mean we have to brag or make it seem like our marriage is flawless or even easy, a point Wentworth emphasizes. “I said I love my husband,” she writes, “not that our marriage is perfect,” noting that they do fight from time to time.
Often, it seems like we are either overwhelmed with too much negative information about marriage or with picture-perfect portrayals of fairy-tale-like unions that set the bar too high for the rest of us. Nowhere is this more clear than on social media, where people tend to show the best sides of their relationships, and it’s so easy to fall into a comparison trap. Instead of one extreme or the other, what we need are real-life examples of the highs and lows of marriage, especially stories of couples who have made it through some hard times together. For one inspiring example, see Harry and Kate Benson’s love story.
The bottom line is that our marriages need community support to thrive, which is why what we say about marriage in our social circles and the broader culture matters.
Wentworth should be applauded for using her platform as a celebrity to share her good fortune in marriage with the rest of us. And she should not hesitate to do so with her friends, even those who are in less happy unions. We need examples of happy marriages now more than ever. By telling a better story of love, we can help others see the good of marriage and find their own way to a marriage that lasts.
Alysse ElHage is editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.