Every Woman Needs at Least Three Group Texts: A Conversation with Lyz Lenz


This American Ex-Wife is a book about the end of a marriage, and the end of the institution of marriage. Lyz Lenz mixes memoir and reporting to lay bare the inequities entrenched within heterosexual marriages and the inequities that marriage helps to entrench—70% of divorces are initiated by women, many of them caused not by one catastrophic precipitating event but by an accumulation of uneven domestic labor and childcare, deferred ambitions, and pressure to squeeze into narrow ideas of what it means to be a wife and a mother. Increasingly, heterosexual marriage is a raw deal for many of its participants. To rethink marriage is to rethink love, economic and social policy, gender politics, community, and how we organize society. It won’t be easy, but This American Ex-Wife illuminates the path forward.

This is Lyz Lenz’s third book, and she writes a regular newsletter called Men Yell At Me. One of the first pieces of her writing I encountered and one of my favorites is her 2020 essay “It Took Divorce to Make My Marriage Equal.” In it, you can see both the beginnings of this book and the satisfying levity and honesty that characterize her writing.

I had the privilege of chatting with Lyz about how the personal and political collide in marriage and divorce, marriage contagion, and what hard-earned intentional community looks and feels like.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Anson Tong

What do you think makes heterosexual marriage both an enduring and also really under-questioned institution?

Lyz Lenz

I don’t think this happened by accident. Once American society started to market marriage as an institution of love, it became far more personal. As I write in the book, I think marriage was a lot more honest when we were honest that it was an economic institution. Because right now we’re trying to have it both ways. We say it’s about love and choice and it’s this beautiful thing that’s open to anybody but, one, it’s not because of racism, classism, the way we stratified our society. And two, it also is very much an economic institution because of the way that politicians use it instead of funding a social safety net.

I heard from so many women quietly who would say, “My husband thinks we’re so equal, but he doesn’t do any of this work, but I can’t talk about it because if I do it will wreck my marriage.” And I identify with that because that’s the way I felt for so long. I was like, I have to walk this tightrope of managing the feelings of my partner with the weight of my responsibilities and if I tip one way or the other something’s gonna break. People get defensive about that.

And I hear from so many older women who are like, “Well, my husband did nothing, when we first got married, but now he wipes the counters because I trained him.” And I realized they want me to congratulate them. But I’m like, “Great. You spent 20 years training a man to wipe the counters. You could have like solved cold fusion with that time.” 

Questioning marriage gets to the heart of it—it gets to personal decisions. It gets to the way we’ve structured things and questioning marriage is going for the jugular.

Anson Tong

A lot of people imagine not getting married as being alone with no money, unhappy. But as you point out, it’s not actually marriage that saves from those issues. Can you elaborate on how social inequality and marriage interact with each other?

Lyz Lenz

Women are more likely to be hourly wage earners. Those are jobs that don’t come with healthcare. In America, healthcare is very tied to the institution of marriage. There’s that Greek chorus of men, and a couple of women out there because the patriarchy always gets carried by women. There’s that group of people out there who say you’ll be happier and healthier if you’re married and it’s like, no, you’re not happier and healthier because you’re married.

It’s because you have access to a tax break. You have access to healthcare. Where you might not have had that before. You’re paying one rent instead of two in a time where housing is ridiculously unaffordable. It’s an economic incentive.

The way that marriage is so intricately entwined with our economic systems is a big problem and also it’s an institution that’s really easy to get into and really hard to get out of. So the way that this institution is set up is inherently unequal and then once you’re in it and you start building a family unit, the expectations of the family unit are completely unequal.

Anson Tong

Your chapter on last name changes got at this tension between people’s ability to recognize the historical context of marriage while perceiving their own experience as “making their own choices.” You wrote, “The way that last names are still a powerful and personal grip of patriarchy and that we refuse to let go of it is so revealing of how deeply ingrained our own loss of self is.” Could you expand on this idea of loss of self for women in marriage and how the personal ends up feeling so different, so divorced from the political?

Lyz Lenz

You raise a bunch of girls in America told that the world is their oyster. You can do anything, but concurrently, you’re also raising them to believe that marriage is the ultimate goal. It’s so endemic, it’s the cultural water we swim in. You have these competing messages where you have freedom and choice.

But also in order to make your life good, beautiful, and wonderful, you have to give up everything, you have to sacrifice everything, you have to work hard, and if you’re not finding love, it’s because you’re being a picky and entitled bitch, work harder, compromise more. All those messages are not getting told to men.

So you raise these girls to believe they can have everything, but also having everything means basically martyr yourself, on your career, your children, your marriage. Then what’s left of you, of the woman who had all these hopes and dreams?

That’s why I think names make people so uncomfortable, because it’s where the politics and the personal hit home. It’s where you have to admit to yourself, I made a compromise here, I lost part of myself here. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about it because I wanted to be honest. I went into that partnership thinking, oh, we were gonna be enlightened and equal and the complete opposite happened and it started with these tiny little compromises I made with my sense of self.

I really want women, especially upper-middle-class white women, to take a long, hard look at themselves and not say, because they chose it, it’s somehow empowering. Just be honest, do you benefit from this institution in a way that other people do not so that you’re more likely to be ok with those compromises because it keeps you in your McMansion? At what cost to yourself?

Anson Tong

Something intriguing in your book is the interludes between chapters about other people’s divorces or, I guess, their divorce potential. What made you decide to arrange it like that?

Lyz Lenz

When I set out to write this book, I was like, I’m going to interview all these women and put all their stories in this book. I write about this phenomenon a lot, I call them Liliths, the people standing outside Eden waiting for an Eve to defect and be like, “Girl, let me tell you what I learned and who my divorce lawyer is.” That’s the way women talk. Then at the end of our conversation, they’d be like, but you cannot put that in the book.

I understand exes are litigious, people have to co-parent, stories are personal and hard, and a lot of the people I spoke to had already had exes hit them with cease-and-desist orders for posting things on Facebook or whatever. But I was also like, how can I tell these stories, in a way that’s honest and true, but also protects their identity. I’m a huge Nora Ephron fan and I was thinking about When Harry Met Sally, how in the middle, there’s all those couples explaining how they met.

Anson Tong

How did you consider the risks for yourself sharing personal stories?

Lyz Lenz

There is always a legal fact check and this is my third book and not the first time I’ve written about my divorce. I also have written an opinion column in a red state, I know libel law. I’ve learned it by fire, the hard way.

When I approached writing, I knew I would have to write the raw draft first and then I would have to go through and edit it. Rawness is not always honesty. Rawness is just the feelings, but you have to get those feelings out before you can edit it back. I was trying to be careful not because I’m afraid to tell the truth, but because I know that there are multiple truths.

It was never my goal to be like, I was married to a monster. I was married to a normal person who by some ways of looking at it is a great man, like great on paper. But he wasn’t great for me. Your happiness is enough of a reason to break apart a marriage, even if he’s not a monster.

Anson Tong

A lot of the issues you highlight that end marriages are not abuse or infidelity. It seems like stuff that arises from entitlement and incompetence rather than someone’s active malice. Obviously, men are so far from the important part of this story but I’m curious what you think about these ex-husbands. Is there also a world for them as well to, as you put it, break everything and find a new life?

Lyz Lenz

See Also

Yes, I think so. One of the things that always surprise me about my newsletter, which is very pointedly feminist, is how many men read it. It’s called Men Yell at Me. We have a Discord [server] where there are so many great conversations that I see with men saying, “Oh wow, you wrote this thing and I never thought about it before.” I see that in the comments all the time. So I do think there are men out there who want to change, who want to have their “burn it down” moment because they love their children, they love their wives. But we also have not had a quality model of equal partnership.

Deep down inside, I do believe in love and happiness and I believe crazy kids in this world can make it. But I think it requires a real honesty and the social safety net.

I also want to be really conscious of framing feminist conversations around women, always around women. I do think one of my frustrations often is that feminist conversations get reframed around men and men’s responses. And that’s not my ministry, to use my old Baptist language.

I want to make the world better for women and I’m not going to sit around and wait for men to get on board. I’m not gonna sit around and negotiate with terrorists for my freedom anymore. I think so often we negotiate and stay in places and in systems that don’t serve us because we’re so afraid of what’s on the other side. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to say: don’t be afraid of the other side.

Anson Tong

I’m in my twenties. So instead of the divorce contagion people fret about, I feel like I’m watching the marriage contagion begin where I have no real urgent desire to be married but I have this musical chairs feeling that if everyone else couples up, I guess I just have to. I feel like that’s the contagion people are not worried enough about. What are your thoughts on that pressure to get married?

Lyz Lenz

People are not worried enough about it, and it’s a hard one too, because when people get married and couple up, they exclude others, not intentionally but those were some of the hard conversations I had with my friends to say you may not realize this, but you’re having couple dinner parties and I used to get invited and now I’m not.

Also when people start coupling up and their weddings are so expensive and you have to go to all these weddings and you put like thousands of dollars into each of these relationships. Meanwhile, you want a new smoothie maker too.

Those are the things I want to challenge, for married women especially, to say, ok, you’re married but think bigger because even if your marriage is happy, none of us is guaranteed not to die alone. None of us is guaranteed romance. There is no guaranteed happiness. You have to go out and build your life in such a way that it can withstand any form of tragedy. And that involves having a community that includes having friendships that involve love in all the ways, especially the bell hooks ways.

Anson Tong

Relatedly, people tend to settle and be defensive of the status quo sometimes because it’s scary and challenging to imagine and pursue a better version of life when there’s no framework for it. The last chapter of your book was so beautiful and inspiring. Could you talk about how you cultivated the community that you write about there?

Lyz Lenz

Thank you for that question. I appreciate it so much. I didn’t set out wanting to write this book or I didn’t actually start my divorce thinking that, you know, it was gonna be me alone. There was part of me that was like, I will find a new man and I don’t know, maybe I will, but I think what I realized is, that’s not the point.

One of the things about going through multiple floods and a derecho and the pandemic with this community is realizing that one relationship is not enough to face the terrors of the world and that we all need big expansive communities, full of love and happiness. Every woman needs at least three group texts. One at minimum, but three if you can swing it.

And so throughout the divorce process I learned to lean on my community and ask for help in ways that I was afraid to. I remember having this conversation with my two best friends from college who make several appearances in the book. I was telling them I was sad eating pasta in my bed alone again, missing someone having dinner with me, and my friend was like, “Then ask a friend to have dinner with you.” And I was like oh, right. I need to ask my community.

I need to be vulnerable and to model what I want out of this world. And I think that takes, like, very intentionally cultivating friendships with people of all different ages and all different walks of life because, God bless my married friends with two-year-olds, they can’t go out for dinner, but maybe my twenty-nine-year-old single, gay friends can tonight. I think that makes life so much richer, but I have had to be very vulnerable. I have had to say I am lonely.

Living in this silly little city in the middle of this state and trying hard to carve out an intentional, inclusive community of hearts in such a raw battered time has been difficult and beautiful, but also one of the greatest things ever; my kids have all these models for the ways that life can be lived. That makes me so happy. We need bigger, more extensive communities and so wherever you are, you have to build that intentionally.

This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life
By Lyz Lenz
Crown Publishing Group
Published February 20, 2024


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