You’ve probably had this experience thousands of times. You’re Googling, and you start typing in a question. Google, like a jittery, over-zealous waiter, fills in the blank for you.
Google provides the phrases that, statistically, you’re most likely about to ask, based on an archive of over 3 billion searches per day.
So they/it (which is Google—an “it” or a “they”?) should know what you’re thinking. You’ve got to forgive Google its cocky claim to foresight.
As an informal sociological tool, these Google fill-ins fascinate me. They’re a kind of spontaneous, collectively-written survey of our worries, curiosities, and fears. Usefully, they’re untainted by the biases of the sociologist-interviewer. In interviews and polls, people tend to give inoffensive, “pro-social” answers, as sociologists call them.
But Google is truly private. Except, of course, that it’s not. Because your query becomes one pixel in the collective portrait that forms into clarity out of a billion queries entered individually.
So what can Google the Oracle tell us about marriage?
I started with the “Why” question. I typed, “Why do husbands…,”and got the following answers, in order:
- Ignore their Wives
- Leave their Wives
“Why do wives…” was similar:
- Have Affairs
- Cheat on their Husbands
- Yell at Their Husbands
While husbands “cheat,” the wife more delicately or sentimentally “has an affair.” That fits with prevailing, if dubious, stereotypes. Wives are thought to stray because they want intimacy, emotion and love; husbands are assumed, bluntly, to want more or different kinds of sex.
The question’s popularity most likely reflects the paradox that extramarital sex is both frequent (for husbands and wives) and mysterious. Infidelity is a shocking banality. It happens all the time, and we’re shocked by it all the time, driven to Google for insight and explanation.
Even scarier, type in only the words, “Why Do…” and the very top WHY question in all the universe of mysteries is: Why Do Men Cheat?
Given how common the problem is, as I suggest in Marriage Confidential, maybe we’ve got it backwards. Might as well ask, why don’t spouses cheat.
This question edges out compelling mysteries such as, Why do we exist? Why do empires fall? Why do people kill? Bully? Love?
Incidentally, the other top Why Do questions involve feline habits of "purring" and "kneading," which supports my hunch that cats are advancing on men as the preferred domestic companions. Or, so many men cheat that they drive us into the paws of felines.
We can have fun here. Maybe husbands “ignore their wives” because wives yell at them, or that their wives yell at their husbands because husbands ignore them. Maybe discontent implodes more with husbands (who ignore) and explodes more with wives (who yell).
Some variant of “cheating” is by far the most common query posed to Google. It completes no less than 33 percent of my stem phrases. For example, “What percentage of…” is a syntax preoccupied with cheating (“cheat, cheat on their wives, cheat their wives;” and “cheat, cheat on husbands,” respectively).
Likewise, “How do…” husbands and wives yields mostly versions of, “have an affair.”
In the non-cheating vein, however, we wonder How Do Husbands… “show their love,” which suggests that their emotional engagement isn’t being shown in transparent, obvious ways. Meanwhile, we wonder How Do Wives… “fall out of love,” which suggests that their emotional dis-engagement isn’t being shown in transparent, obvious ways.
Potentially, the two fragments answer each other. Wives fall out of love because husbands don’t show their love. Or, while husbands have trouble expressing affection, wives have trouble expressing disaffection, or discontent.
With, How Do Married Couples…, however, an entirely new topic emerges: Money. The top three questions are:
- handle finances
- share money
Extramarital sex is worded as the individual marital issue or failing, but money is the shared issue. One could imagine it otherwise. Both money and sex, and their discontents, are usually problems of individual spouses and of the marriage as a partnership.
Next I learn that the question Freud posed over a century ago: “what do women want?” persists as a marital enigma. I prompted Google first with, “What do husbands…” and got:
- Want for their Birthday (a cozy expression of the bigger “want”),
- Want to Hear (a variation of want)
That last one’s funny. I didn’t know that husbands did anything. And how come the parallel question doesn’t appear with “wives?” I guess our “utility” is more obvious!
Wives and their desires are equally baffling. “What do Wives…” yields
- Want from their Husbands
- Need From (a cognate of want)
- Have affairs (The typists probably meant, “why” and ended up with “what” instead. Even as a type-o, cheating makes the top four!)
- Really Want
We just don’t know. Google reveals the enigma and opacity we can sense in our most intimate relationship.
The extramarital life of cheating confuses us the most, and sends us seeking insight. But the intra-marital life confuses us, too. We can spend hours, years, lifetimes, with a sense that feelings are still unknowable and unarticulated, and their surfaces misleading. Basic stuff, like wants, desires, styles of emotional expression. There’s some deeper reality, one or a hundred layers down from the banal everyday of a marriage.
Do we ever really know a spouse, or how much? Maybe we don’t know them “better” or “more” than other people--but only differently?
Better ask Google.