It sounds absurd, but the most compelling display of the collapse of modern American marriage in 2023 is happening on a show about Mormon polygamists.

For 18 seasons, TLC’s Sister Wives has followed Kody Brown and his four loudly Caucasian wives, who share 18 children and several houses in Arizona. The show started as a saccharine docu-soap about an unorthodox family trying to fit into an increasingly modern world. Now, I watch with rapt interest, practically foaming at the mouth, as one by one Kody’s wives leave him.

Christine went first, dumping Kody mid-pandemic when he refused to travel with their teenage daughter for her scoliosis surgery. Then came Janelle, who long seemed uninterested in talking to her husband, a man whose hair looks like limp ramen – she moved into a one-bedroom apartment without his input. Meri called it quits this year as well, after Kody told her he had no real interest in staying married to her anyway. Every week’s episode has shown Kody on the defensive as not one but three disgruntled exes tell him how colossally he failed. Meanwhile, the one wife he still has, Robyn, is often trembling in tears, angry with her husband’s lack of care towards the other wives; she’s also the last one with children under 18.

The musician and actor Teyana Taylor’s divorce filing against Iman Shumpert depicted him as angry about her career developments. Photograph: Michael Tran/AFP/Getty Images

The great Sister Wives schism sits in the canon of very public divorces that shared a theme this year: heterosexual couple ends marriage, seemingly because wife has had enough. Besides Brown v Brown(s), there was Jodie Turner-Smith and Joshua Jackson, Britney Spears and Sam Asghari, Tina Knowles and Richard Lawson – even Kellyanne and George Conway fit the mold. Overwhelmingly, the public narratives are ones in which the woman has grown tired of dragging along a husband who can’t keep up. Anecdotally, I see this too. All the most interesting women I know have divorced in the last few years. For example, my divorce was finalized in February.

So, while it’s too early to decide definitively that heterosexual marriage is dead – the post-pandemic wedding boom was just last year, and the anti-brides of 2023 are brides nonetheless – 2023 seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Marriage 3.0.

The evolution of marriage

Every few decades, women reconsider the value of heterosexual marriage. And though the world remains built for couples (have you ever tried to eat an entire sushi boat on your own?), we’re at those crossroads yet again.

The dawn of Marriage 1.0 was our most brutal form of union: an arrangement based on family, wealth and property. It was designed with female subjugation in mind and was often a woman’s only way to escape poverty or death – you can go watch Six on Broadway if you need to learn more about why this form of marriage sucked. After that, Marriage 2.0 came with color TVs and martinis at lunch, a more dignified version but still reductive. The 1950s-onward housewife was comparatively happier, tolerating her husband’s indifference (at best) or abuse (at worst). My mother, and women like her, have had marriages like this for decades, their only path towards economic security, cultural power and social safety. The orthodoxy of marriage was often women’s best option; the most heartbreaking parts of Mad Men were always more of a documentary.

Marriage 3.0, then, was rife with the kinds of marriages that women of my generation were hoping to have. Gen Xers and millennials started their relationships using big words like “equal partnership” and “co-parenting”. The men we married promised they were more emotionally mature than our fathers, more willing to change diapers and cooperate with our work schedules. Our understanding of commitment is markedly different from that of our parents, too; ethical non-monogamy and polyamory have become more common relationship structures, even within heterosexual marriages. For some women, heterosexual marriage is no longer a need, no longer a must, but something we want to do for love and comfort.

Kyle Richards, of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, separated this year from her husband of 27 years. Photograph: Emma McIntyre/Variety/Getty Images

But these marriages too have been disappointments, as younger gen Xers all the way down to elder gen Zs are finding out. 2023 was our first real post-pandemic year: we went back to work, back to our social lives, back to travel, but all that came following a traumatic collective experience. No wonder women started to rethink their marriages and whether it was worth staying in them. The world reopening reminded some of us that we could have a little more if we asked for it. I sheltered in place for years, just to emerge still stuck with a man who thinks “brown” is an acceptable bed sheet color? Please. I have a sense of propriety. And who would have predicted that Ariana Grande’s pandemic marriage to some realtor would fall apart? Not me! (Her going out with Broadway SpongeBob almost immediately after? Well, that was a twist.)

Men, of course, remain their own worst enemy. On TikTok, women talk about the things killing their marriages, like “weaponized incompetence”, or when one’s husband is somehow unable to wash a dish or find the spare batteries. #Narctok and #narcabusesurvivor tags show millions of videos of women diagnosing their exes as narcissists, talking about their miserable marriages and how they got out. The toughest-to-watch examples are security camera footage of men berating their wives, sometimes physically assaulting them. On the r/Marriage forum on Reddit, there’s a steady march of women in their late 20s and early 30s who are inching themselves closer and closer to the reality of divorce as they realize their husbands’ vast limitations. One woman posts about wanting to leave her husband after he slapped her over a disagreement about Thanksgiving plans. Another says her husband wants to leave her after she asked if they could hyphenate their in-utero son’s last name. A third is considering divorce because her husband won’t let their 16-year-old daughter get an abortion. “This isn’t the man I married,” she writes.

The problem is, these are indeed the men we married. The men have actually not changed all that much since the dawn of marriage’s second act. The difference, in fact, is the women. Even within the celebrity marriages we’ve seen fall apart this year, the prevailing narratives have been that the wife changed. There are rumors that Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner split because of her increased time away from the family to accommodate acting projects, that Grande’s ex-husband was frustrated with her work schedule. Teyana Taylor’s divorce filing against Iman Shumpert described him as abusive and cruel, angry about her career developments that would have outshone him. (Shumpert won Dancing with the Stars in 2021, so he too has had his time in the sun.) More and more, public divorce stories aren’t about jilted ex-wives or clear-cut infidelity; it’s just that she wants more than she’s been getting.

This summer, Kyle Richards and Mauricio Umansky announced they were separating after 27 years of marriage. For anyone who’s ever watched The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, it was both surprising and utterly predictable. For years, Richards played the perfect housewife, clinging to her husband while he was dogged by rumors of cheating. Despite that, their split hasn’t been about infidelity after all. This season of RHOBH shows a woman who has finally lost interest in her traditional marriage.

Disrupting the status quo

More and more women are opting to remain unmarried, and the US marriage rate dropped nearly 60% between 1970 and 2011. But social progress is always met with ambivalence, and so an attempt to reshape marriage comes with more attempts to calcify it. While TikTok is home to a first wives’ club of sorts, it also serves as a catalog of young women eager to prove how reductive their marriages are. “I used to really be into politics but now I just relax while my husband tells me what to think,” one user posted over footage of her wearing a dress in front of a stand mixer. In that same vein, there’s a small army of “tradwives” online, mostly young women who bake bread, rear children and tend to the home, returning to the very family structure that led so many women to distrust marriage in the first place. These women are often white, wealthy enough to rely on one household income, and fiercely Christian. They argue that “the feminine has been replaced by feminism” and that women need to “submit” to their husbands. It’s boring and redundant, but understandable. Whenever any group of women progresses towards their liberation, there’s cultural atrophy in the name of returning to familiar inequities. In this case, the call is coming from inside the house.

The new House speaker, Republican Mike Johnson, who has opposed gay marriage and gender-affirming care, has what he and his wife call a “covenant marriage”. It’s exactly as biblical as it sounds. And since Roe v Wade was overturned in 2022, rightwing loudmouths like Steven Crowder and Tim Pool and conservative politicians have set their sights on ending no-fault divorce. For them, “irreconcilable differences” isn’t a possible path out of a bad relationship, it’s an omen.

Mike Johnson and his wife, Kelly Johnson, last month in Washington. Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

JD Vance, the Republican senator from Ohio, said that people needed to be more willing to stay in violent marriages for the sake of their children. “My grandparents had an incredibly chaotic marriage in a lot of ways, but they never divorced,” he said in 2022. “They were together to the end, till death do us part. That was clearly not true by the 70s or 80s.” Vance, who maybe forgot that he wrote a memoir about the domestic violence that happened in his childhood home, is right: the 1970s marked a shift. That shift was no-fault divorce, which yielded to a woman’s freedom to leave a bad marriage without having to prove to a court her spouse was adulterous or abusive. No-fault divorce wasn’t formally accepted in every state until 2010, when New York adopted it; we’ve only had a legal concept of leaving someone simply because we want to for one full generation.

In their pitiful defense, Republicans should be worried: married men are healthier, live longer, have lower risks for depression, and are more likely to have better cognitive function as they get older than unmarried men. Women, however, don’t see as many tangible benefits. We know the marriages we have – better than our parents’ mediocre marriages but still not that great – are not enough. Changing what marriage looks like would change what families look like, how children are raised into adults, and eventually, how the world runs. And the more women get divorced in the meantime, the more we disrupt the status quo that overwhelmingly favors married men in the first place. The conservatives don’t just want to hang onto Marriage 3.0, but to revert back to Marriage 2.0, the most comfortable time to be a man in control.

Marriage 3.0 will soon be over because it was pretty lousy to begin with. For marriage to survive at all, it has to offer women something worth the work. But first, the girlies must hire a whole whack of divorce attorneys.

My mother had an arranged marriage to my dad, but a modern version – she reassures me she was always allowed to say no. In 2023, my parents celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary, a feat, but largely a testament to my mother’s patience and willingness to raise three children: me, my brother and my dad.

The news of my divorce has been hard on my mom, who has never had a framework for the end of a marriage that didn’t include death (or tax evasion, but that’s a story for another time). My refusal to settle is forcing her to rethink marriage entirely.

Recently, while visiting her over Thanksgiving, I accompanied my mom to her hairdresser, a fellow immigrant who’s been cutting her hair for decades. She’s been married for about as long as my mother. When she asked how my husband was doing, I told her I had been divorced for a while. She put her hand on my mother’s shoulder and turned to face me. “Good,” she said. “Why keep them if they’re no good?”