The AtlanticThe Atlantic

Marriage isn’t hard work; It’s serious play

By Nina Li Coomes

24 Mar 2023 · 5 min read

Editor's Note

“Marriage is work” is an oft-heard adage. This essay in The Atlantic argues that thinking of marriage in this way changes our relationships for the worse. Instead, marriage should be seen as play.

Marriage is work: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that saying. In my personal life, I heard it from youth pastors at Bible camp, from well-meaning aunts at bridal showers, even from the woman who threaded my eyebrows the week before my wedding. In popular culture, I’ve seen the adage espoused on Martha Stewart’s website and by Ben Affleck on the Oscars stage. The idea has the sheen of a proverb, timeless and true.

So after my wedding a few years ago, I attempted to be the best marriage worker I could be. I scheduled biweekly budget meetings and preached the benefits of the “I” statement in an argument. I analyzed my husband’s working style to optimize how we could divide unloading the dishwasher and vacuuming the kitchen. At its best, this attitude gave our marriage the clean hum of a caffeinated, productive morning at the office—every task checked off, every email replied to. At its worst, I felt resentful, exhausted, and miserly with my affection, like I could dole it out only after one of us had completed a job. Viewing marriage as labor never made me feel more connected to the man I had chosen to partner with.

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