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The Thoroughly Modern “Frenemy Marriage”

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One of the more important facets of our post-romantic age is that for perhaps the first time in history, you stand a good chance of marrying someone with precisely the same education and career path as you. This “assortative mating” trend by education and earning potential has been well documented in the research.

Married couples not infrequently have the same degrees, educational backgrounds, and earning potential, and the same careers. Like marries like. In a sort of post-modern Noah’s Ark, doctors pair with doctors; academics with academics, and so on.

Husbands and wives who pursue exactly the same career pose all sorts of newfangled, post-romantic challenges for marriage. For one thing, the spouses are the most intimate of partners and allies, but they’re also professional rivals, and competitors, whether they want to be or not.

I call this the “Frenemy Marriage.” It’s one in which the husband and wife are personal confidants, and professional competitors. The most entertaining example from politics must surely be James Carville and Mary Matalin, who are married, but barely able to look at each other civilly when they appear on the Sunday morning talk shows.

In many cases the Frenemy marriage works out fine. The couple redirects their competitive professional instincts in the domestic space, so that one partner’s success becomes a joyfully shared success. They can also function as true collaborators professionally, rather than competitors. A friend of mine wrote to me that she was “a bit envious of these power politico couples/spouses in Washington, or those combo journalist/political type couples,” as she abbreviated, because they have so much in common. “But I’m sure the grass is greener on the other side and that they have their own issues and problems.”

Indeed, they do.

“Joann” was an aspiring Humanities scholar, in graduate school, pursuing a Ph.D. in English. She had been dating “Jerry” for some time, at least two years. They were both very successful and they both wanted to be English professors. How come? Don’t ask–just, don’t ask.

Being in their late 20s and early 30s, they might have considered marriage. When last I knew them, that seemed a possibility. They were also building their careers, in precisely the same over-crowded, fiercely competitive field.

Years later, I ran into Joann again, and asked after Jerry.  “It didn’t work out,” she said. The relationship had turned Frenemy. It seems that Joann had had some modest success. She’d had a research article accepted at a fairly but not outrageously prestigious, peer-reviewed journal in her field. These modest successes can get very over-blown in graduate school.

“I was so happy and rushed back to the apartment,” she said, which she shared with Jerry, as they were living together in what she assumed was a pre-marital trial run. She had the letter in her hand (this was the pre-Internet day). “I was so excited, and wanted to celebrate, naturally, with Jerry.”

That’s not what happened. Instead, Jerry barely mustered a devastated “congratulations,” and tried as quickly as he could to change the topic. He could barely talk to Joann. Although he attempted to put on a sunny face about things, he was clearly more disturbed at that moment that his rival had had a success than delighted that his girlfriendhad had a success.

“It hit me with the force of an epiphany,” Joann recounted memorably. It was such a small thing, a gesture, almost, but in that moment, she realized, “this man does not want me to succeed.”Doubtless he would have had a pure, unalloyed reaction to Joann’s success if she had been, say, a juggler, but instead he was another example of Gore Vidal’s brilliant insight, “Each time a friend of mine succeeds, a part of me dies.” But, this was her lover who felt that way!

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Later in the day, Jerry engaged in subtle tactics to undermine Joann’s good vibe. In front of a mutual friend he mentioned an ex-girlfriend, fondly, and suggested that perhaps he’d visit her over the summer. Subtle, but, to the habituated ears of a long-term relationship, the message was prickly clear.

These tactics are typical, apparently. Therapist Robin Stern wrote a book called The Gaslight Effect. Some of the “gaslighting” manipulations and head games describe Frenemy marriages perfectly. She touches on just these subtle but devastating micro-tactics of anger against intimate rivals. The jealous spouses have affairs that are intended to wound, they snipe, they whine galore, they refuse to clean the dishes as a makeshift, symbolic rebellion against the partner’s professional triumphs, they complain about career-related expenses or travel time, they shirk their own breadwinning or parental responsibilities.

Others criticize or downplay their wives’ accomplishments and new successes, withhold affection, or force ultimatums between career and job. The same thing might happen against husbands, by wives, just as easily today.

Anyway, Joann and Jerry didn’t make it. The relationship went on for a while, of course, in the familiar Dead Man Walking twilight between bliss and a break up. She wasn’t going to break up over evidence that wouldn’t stand up in a court of law, but in her soul it came down to this: “I couldn’t sleep in the same bed with someone who didn’t really and truly wish me well” professionally.


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