Divorced From Reality?

REVIEW: ‘This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life’ by Lyz Lenz

June 2, 2024

The divorce memoir is a curious subgenre. It’s a survival narrative with a twist. The author is alive but the marriage is dead. This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life by Lyz Lenz is something else as well: a diatribe against the whole institution of heterosexual marriage. But whether it can bear the weight of its own ambition, whether Lenz’s own failed marriage can become the foundation for a compelling case against marriage in general, is a question that stalks this book like a deranged ex-spouse.

Lenz was a good wife, a point made abundantly clear. The young couple had little money, so their wedding was modestly but charmingly staged through the bride’s own frantic efforts. Newly married, she made lunch for her husband and included love notes with his sandwiches to make him look forward to coming home. While looking for work herself, she tackled many home cooking challenges, becoming accomplished in the kitchen.

She was and is a creative, exuberant spirit. The husband was a boring young fart, an engineer, socially conservative, kind of judgy and, well, it has to be mentioned, a Trump voter. Maybe the worst that can be said against this dependable breadwinner was that he didn’t approve of his wife’s ambitions to become a writer. Which is, indeed, unfortunate because a committed writer whose spouse takes no pleasure in her literary work must be at least halfway to divorce.

In Lenz’s book, the biographical details are sparingly arranged so as not to detract from the larger complaint, which is that the author bought into the big American dream of marriage and family and it sucked. Yet the critical reader can’t help rearranging the parts in his own mind to tell a very different story. It would describe a bright young woman who, after a somewhat sheltered upbringing—homeschooled, one of many children in a big, strict Baptist family—marries young and discovers in herself too late a great desire to write and fight and explore life to the fullest in a big city with a wide circle of friends. In a book that complains at length against the "cultural script" of marriage, it seems more than a little unfair not to acknowledge that this more independent, cosmopolitan life is also a well-known cultural script, but it doesn’t serve Lenz’s purposes to allow that more than one version of the American dream is on offer.

The argument side of This American Ex-Wife has a taped-together quality as if much of the research were conducted on social media. "A woman could not take out a line of credit on her own until the 1970s," writes Lenz, citing a rather brief magazine article that is not quite as categorical about the supposed impossibility of women having a line of credit without a cosigner before the 1970s.

The author is especially critical of the idea that couples should stay together for the sake of the children, citing an article on Slate that blames negative outcomes for children of divorce on extramarital factors such as poverty, racism, homophobia, and the lack of government programs. Lenz does little to confront all the social science literature that says otherwise. And she shows a frustrating, maybe even insulting, lack of interest in the details of the studies she cites, which, when I checked, sometimes even provided equivocating evidence for the points she wants to make. For example, Lenz quotes an article from the Census Bureau linking a decline in domestic abuse and female suicide to the liberalization of divorce law, touching on important reasons to avoid full-on prohibitions against divorce. But this same article concedes the other point about negative outcomes for children. In its opening paragraphs, it links to an academic paper that says, "Adults who were exposed to unilateral divorce regulations as children are less well educated, have lower family incomes, marry earlier but separate more often, and have higher odds of adult suicide."

This book devotes a fair amount of attention to sex. Oral sex, in particular, is, for Lenz, an issue fraught with implications for equality between men and women, yet more evidence, on top of all the cooking and cleaning that they refuse to help with, that men are not doing their part. Lenz summarizes survey results showing that 95 percent of straight men achieved orgasm during their last sexual encounter compared with 65 percent for women. "This pleasure gap means that generations of women are working hard for men’s pleasure, while the men rarely reciprocate."

I wondered about this, and was a little surprised that Lenz didn’t include any reporting on differing levels of giving and receiving since differing levels of orgasm is related but not the same thing. Women’s Health Interactive, a website that summarizes research findings on sex, identifies several studies indicating that men receive oral sex more often than women, but the gap is not extreme. One study of Canadian university students found that men were, indeed, more often on the receiving end but almost twice as likely as women to say they enjoyed giving oral sex. Do these young men sound like enemies of the female orgasm?

Lenz often seems a little too ready to believe the worst about men and this may be the fatal flaw of her book. "One study found that women in Australia," she writes, "who out-earn their husbands are thirty-five times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than wives who earn less." This seems truly incredible and, indeed, turns out to be false.

In their paper, which Lenz includes in an endnote as her source, "Gender Norms and Domestic Abuse: Evidence from Australia," coauthors Yinjunjie Zhang and Robert V. Breunig write, "Violating the male breadwinning norm results in a 35 per cent increase in the likelihood of partner violence and a 20 per cent increase in emotional abuse against women."

A 35 percent increase—though notable and regrettable—is much, much smaller than an increase of "thirty-five times more likely." Errors of fact happen in books and should not be exaggerated to condemn all of an author’s work, but it is troubling when misreporting goes to the very heart of an argument. When you go around saying, "marriage is due for a reckoning" and make men out to be, oh, 35 times worse than they are, it’s not a good look.

Where Lenz is nevertheless persuasive is on the simple question of: Do men do enough to support the household, to raise their children, and to be a worthy partner to their wives in the common work of being a family? One can accept vast differences among individual marriages and still tremble to read report after report of major imbalances in the division of labor at home and even greater imbalances in perceptions of who is doing their fair share. Part of the problem may be, among middle-class families especially, in the amount of work both parents are doing as income-producers and as parents, gunning for promotions while acting as if every child were an only child, to be pampered, shuttled about, tutored, and treated as an Olympian on Tuesdays and a rock star on Wednesdays. Who can keep up?

As Lenz points out, men benefit greatly from marriage. It is good for them, for their health, for their hearts, for their sex lives. It is to a man’s credit that he consider the criticisms of Lenz and others while asking himself, Am I making the sacrifices necessary to support my wife and our family? Am I deserving of all this?

This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life
by Lyz Lenz
Crown, 270 pp., $28

David Skinner writes about language and culture. He is the author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.

Published under: Book reviews , Family