The Maximum Marriage

Man did I hit a wall a third of the way through David Brooks’s Second Mountain. Despite it weighing two pounds, I could not pick it up. Instead I watched The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, Billions, and went full New Yorker.

But since I keep thinking I may use a chapter of it in my writing seminar this fall, I have begun reading it again, Part III in particular, titled Marriage. The first of the five marriage chapters is “The Maximum Marriage”. At the risk of creating cliche-i-cide, this is the idea that you should never settle in marriage, instead you should go ALL IN with a soul mate who completes you.

I have several problems with Brook’s marriage advice. The first is that he failed at his. Of course this doesn’t disqualify him, assuming a greater degree of reflection and vulnerability than he shows. He alludes to being the problem and explains that his ex-wife and him have an agreement not to talk about the dissolution of their marriage, perfectly understandable, but then it’s probably best not to present oneself as an authority.

Brooks is newly married to his former research assistant, a much younger woman for what it’s worth. When reading him wax poetic about maximum marriage, I can’t help but wonder what went wrong, why, and what about the references to the “art of recommitment”?

I also have questions if not concerns about the concept of “maximum marriage”. Recently, an acquaintance gave up her will to live a few weeks after her lifelong husband unexpectedly died. That’s an extreme example, but surviving partners of long-term maximum relationships or marriages often struggle with how to live without their “soulmates”. Brooks makes passing references to “autonomy” when that concept, in my opinion, deserves more attention.

Brooks also breaks down the “stages of intimacy” in the manner of someone who gives too much credence to every social science article he reads. He slights the mystery of intimacy and the organic nature of how two people create intimacy and sometimes decide to team up for life. In addition to describing intimacy in too linear a fashion, he doesn’t offer young people any practical advice on how best to answer the innumerable questions he suggests people considering marriage ask themselves.

Sometimes I suggest, based upon my experience backpacking in Southern Mexico in 1986 with who would become the Good Wife on 7/11/87*, that the newly in love backpack together in a developing country. I promise you’ll learn more about one another in a month than you probably would in a year. How do they make decisions? How do they spend money? How do they deal with sketchy hostels? How respectful are they of others? Are they quick to laugh or humor impaired? And most importantly, are they kind and are you a better person as a result of their friendship?

It’s funny isn’t it, the Humble Blogger giving the New York Times writer a hard time about his book. But why quit now. Brooks quotes other people way too much. Half the time the quotes do not have the intended effect, I’m often left thinking “huh” even after a second reading, and the incessant quoting compromises his voice. Of course I’ve already argued he’s not the most credible person on the topic, but his consistent leaning on others doesn’t solve that dilemma, for me, it only adds to it.

Also, despite Brook’s fealty to all things social scientific, a glaring oddity is that he never mentions the role money often plays in failed marriages. I can only speculate that’s because his ex-wife and him never lacked for it and most of his friends and acquaintances are similarly well-to-do. How does he spend fifty pages giving marriage advice without even touching upon financial compatibility?

So why, given my criticisms, is Second Mountain a best seller? In fairness, there’s good mixed in, but I suspect a large part of it is professional reputation. Given his previous writing, and his very high profile, he gets the benefit of the doubt from most readers. Oh, Brooks is often insightful, so this must be too.

Not necessarily.

*don’t feel bad if your “Happy Anniversary” card arrives late