Marriage Is Hard—Just Ask Tom and Gisele

From a New York Times guest essay by Elizabeth Spiers headlined “Marriage Is Hard. Just Ask Tom and Gisele.”:

The 45-year-old superstar quarterback Tom Brady and the 42-year-old supermodel Gisele Bündchen announced last week that they had gotten a divorce — reports said they disagreed about Mr. Brady’s decision to end his retirement and return to playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In my neck of the woods, Brooklyn, this is not a typical reason to get divorced. Most of us aren’t in relationships where everyone involved can monetize insanely beautiful bodies for millions of dollars.

The contours of it, however, are familiar: One person in the marriage has forfeited a career to enable the other one’s success. Then the beneficiary of that trade-off is supposed to reciprocate, but doesn’t. In heteronormative marriage it is, with disappointing regularity, the woman’s career that suffers.

We never really know what’s going on in anybody else’s marriage, but if you are the kind of person whose every last perfectly photographed move happens to make its way into celebrity tabloids, you can’t exactly blame the public for thinking it does. Mr. Brady, who has seven Super Bowl championship rings, decided that he still had things to accomplish on the field. It’s easy to imagine that Ms. Bündchen, who had overseen matters on the home front, had other things she, too, wanted to accomplish.

My sympathies are with Ms. Bündchen for a lot of reasons, and some of them are about the specific nature of what she’s asking. My husband and I are both 45, and at that age, even if you’re in great shape you still wake up some days having twisted your ankle while sleeping, or forgetting some obvious thing you absolutely knew last week — and neither of us has spent an entire career getting hit in the head by linebackers.

At some point, it seems reasonable to want the father of your children to stop doing that before he suffers an injury he can’t come back from. I’m also a little biased because I grew up in Alabama, where college football is more or less a religion, and I am an apostate. I have brothers who played football, and have seen one too many close calls. Tom Brady may be in a class by himself, but I still can’t think of the sport as anything other than “concussion ball.”

Where my sympathies might lie with Mr. Brady, they revolve around what happens to a marriage when one person loses something he thinks is an important part of his identity. What is retirement compared to the roaring adoration of fans every time you step out onto the field? A lot of athletes find they don’t quite know what to do with themselves when their career begins to dim.

So do a lot of models. Ms. Bündchen hadn’t aged out of her career, however. She put it to the side to enable Mr. Brady’s. (Brady fans who want him on the field dismiss her work as frivolous, unimportant, in the context of his. But let’s be honest: Neither one of them was exactly curing cancer.)

Motherhood can uproot anyone’s sense of who she used to be, even if Gisele’s fortune, fame and cultural power obviously exempt her from many of the practical realities that weigh so heavily on so many mothers. I was lucky enough to have several months of maternity leave when I had my son, and it was surreal to go from having adult conversations about company valuations, during business hours, to replaying indie-rock-ified lullabies 200 times to a small human whose only forms of communication were screeching, giggling and crying. I enjoyed being with my son, but also needed to be the person I am outside of my roles as a mother and wife.

If you’re accustomed to being a supermodel who’s famous enough to go by one name, I’d imagine that the transition is even more of a jolt, and maybe even a little irritating given that “Tom Brady’s wife” is a full two syllables longer than “Gisele.”

These are, of course, non-issues for people in marriages where one person chooses to have a career and the other opts for domesticity, and both are satisfied with that arrangement. But it breaks down when both consider the work they do part of their core identities and the compromises they make fail.

Almost half of U.S. families are two-income households. While some people find work to be soul-sucking, others are lucky enough to have jobs they find fulfilling, more than just bringing home a paycheck. (For most of us, it can be one or both on any given day.) Yet during the pandemic, when a great many people dropped out of the work force to serve as caretakers, the gender skew was extreme, and you can guess which direction.

Marriage, in its modern incarnation, has become less a contract between a couple and their community, and more a promise between two people to single-handedly fulfill each other’s every need. Pop culture narratives venerate marriage as an accomplishment by itself, whereby two people who are perfectly matched are emotionally and economically interdependent, untethered to friends and family and other members of their community — exactly the support network that might provide a sense of validation and worth when you can’t play pro football anymore.

To be fair, it’s difficult to have a consistently equal partnership in marriage. Roles shift. When I was engaged, a friend who’d been married for a while told me something his father had told him. I’ve since repeated variations of it many times myself.

Imagine, he said, all the things that could undergo unforeseeable, drastic changes during your marriage — serious illness, incapacitation, unemployment, financial ruin, the death of loved ones, the death of children, infidelities, and more. No matter how wonderful it all seems right now, some or all of those issues are going to arise. There’s no way around it. Nothing stays the same.

For women like Ms. Bündchen in marriages where both partners have interests outside of the marriage and household, roles often shift based on availability, income, health and whatever they agreed to in the partnership. They also shift according to societal expectations, and even wealthy women like Ms. Bündchen, who can afford child care and outside help and has more control over her time than a lot of working women, are still subject to the old biases — that their role is essentially supportive and their own ambitions secondary.

They are, in video game lingo, “non-player characters,” or characters who have no meaningful narrative or agency outside of the role they play in allowing the players of the game to achieve victory. They cannot meaningfully win themselves.

If it was never going to be her turn, I don’t blame Ms. Bündchen for opting out of the game entirely.

Elizabeth Spiers, a Times contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist. She was the editor in chief of The New York Observer and the founding editor of Gawker.

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