For a survey I was conducting some years ago in a woman’s magazine, I asked readers:What do you think the primary purpose of marriage is? Among the options offered were the obvious ones: To have a family. Monetary stability. Settling down. Sharing a life. I offered one, though, that stuck out in this roster of noble reasons for wedlock: “To have fun.” Of the 5,000 respondents, twenty-four percent checked that one.
I’d expected some resistance to the pleasure option, since, if marriage isn’t sobering, sanctified, and serious, what is? Ever since the Puritans turned the pursuit of happiness into a frenzy of righteous self-improvement, Americans have opted for betterment over pleasure. We are suspicious of enjoyment for its own sake (pleasure has to improve our blood sugar levels). It’s as though what’s good for you long ago won out over what feels good. But what was special about these readers who chose what we called “The Pleasure Marriage” is that, when I interviewed them individually some time later, they were still having fun. Their marriages, of the ones I was able to find out about, were the happiest.
Often the busiest couples made fun the highest priority. An Oregon woman wrote, “Yes, we work. Yes, we have a little girl. Yes, we care about her. But yes, we go away together, without her, as long as a week.” The price this wife pays for fun with her husband is the criticism of friends and family. “It’s as if,” wrote another Oregon woman who did the same, “having kids is incompatible with having a terrific time without them. Our friends who have spent the last fifteen years putting their children first every second feel very righteous about it–and outraged at us–but we see they’re not so happy now. We are.”
At the risk of sanctifying fun the way we’ve sanctified marriage itself, let’s face it: people are fleeing marriage. And women are leading this flight. So, if more women married for fun (and risked the family’s and the culture’s censure) is it possible that more women would want to stay married? If more women had a great time with their husbands, would divorce stats—way over half of all divorces are initiated by wives—change? If pleasing wives were put first on a list of Things to Do, would “wife” become a sexier word?