What if everything we believe about marriage and divorce is wrong?

Marriage is hard work but worth it. If you end up divorced, it means you didn’t try hard enough, you don’t know what commitment means and you’re putting you own happiness before your family’s — or all of the above — and that’s why you have a failed marriage.

What divorced person hasn’t heard that — or some variation — before? Sacred Cows

As a twice married and divorced woman, Vicki sure did. So did Astro and Danielle Teller. Despite their best intentions when they said their “I dos,” each of their marriages ended, and when they started dating and then married, blending families and many marital years behind them (14 for Astro, eight for Danielle), they began to question a lot of the messages they’d been told about marriage and divorce, as well as the one-size-fits-all answers “experts” and the self-help industry had for struggling couples.

As scientists — Astro is a computer scientist who oversees Google[x] and Danielle is a physician — they tried to remove the emotional responses we all have about divorce so they could focus on the logic. The result of their inquiry is a book that came out right about the time The New I Do was published, Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage (Diversion Books).

Both books question the status quo when it comes to marriage and divorce, and offer outside-the-box thinking.  It’s the book Vicki wished she read when she was contemplating divorce, and sorting through the inevitable messy emotions she was feeling while also weighing the co-parenting, financial and everyday realities of divorcing with kids without crumbling under the shame and judgment that basically well-meaning people thrust upon her.

Their book presents the false cultural assumptions about divorce as Sacred Cows, illustrated as, well, cows, and if you have been divorced or are contemplating it, you have likely heard what the cows spew as “truth”:

  • Holy Cow: Marriage is always good and divorce is always bad.
  • Expert Cow: All marital problems can be fixed with help.
  • Selfish Cow: People who divorce are selfish, people who stay married are selfless.
  • Defective Cow: If you can’t make your marriage happy, or if you divorce, you must be defective.
  • Innocent Victim Cow: Children’s lives are ruined by divorce.
  • One True Cow: True love is why you marry but if you become unhappy in your marriage, you should stop believing in true love.
  • Other Cow: It’s not OK to leave a marriage to be with a new partner.

Except, as the Tellers point out, the research doesn’t back up any of what we’ve been told and thus believe.

The New I Do asks you to question your assumptions about marriage; the Tellers ask you to question your assumptions about divorce.

If you’re struggling in your marriage or thinking about divorce, we highly suggest you read Sacred Cows. It won’t give you any answers and it isn’t going make some things about divorce — the grief, pain, financial impacts, etc. — any easier. It will, however, help you be aware of society’s damaging messages that clutter rational thinking.

Just as you have permission to have a marriage based on your values and goals, you have permission to examine your marital situation without shame or guilt.

Q: Your book originated from your own divorces. You mention how people tried to help while others made you feel shame. How did you sort through all those conflicting messages to look at the bigger picture of how we marry and divorce?

Danielle: Quite painfully. I spent a good year feeling horrible before I started getting a new perspective. Society’s giving you these messages that don’t make a lot of sense.

Astro: We didn’t come to any truths, but we did uncover some deep inconsistencies in society. That’s what the book turned into; neither an argument for marriage or divorce, but simply that we felt we had uncovered some sufficiently large hypocrisies in those narratives. We felt freed from a lot of the narrative pressure once we recognized how much hypocrisy was baked into those narratives.

Q: One divorce is often enough to scare people away from any sort of relationship, let alone another marriage. What was the path each of you followed that led you to the decision to tie the knot again?

Astro: We were just madly in love, there was no way we weren’t going to get married. … but, importantly, we made sure from the very beginning that there wasn’t going to be any guilt or the overhang of those sacred cows. Instead of promising that we were going to be together, which neither of us believes, it’s a desire to be together. If she decides tomorrow she’s no longer into me, she’s not a bad person. I’ll be sad, but she’s not a bad person. It sounds like a really small change, but it’s not.

Q: What makes a second, third, fourth or 10th marriage different than the first — is it just having a new partner, is it wisdom or personal growth, is it doing things differently or something completely different?

Astro: We went into our marriage even more romantically than into our first. … Everyone who goes into a second marriage has to understand, at least conceptually, that marriages don’t last because they have this abject lesson in their lives. What they do about that is very different.

Danielle: We have this narrative that all marriages are equal. If you’re unhappy in your marriage, then being married to someone else isn’t going to make things better. … I don’t know why as a culture we don’t admit who you marry makes a difference.

Astro: I think we do know why, because if the narrative of who you choose matters and choosing differently could be a successful way to get yourself happier, it would allow people a legitimate reason to end their marriage and try again. Society is not OK with that. Society starts from the perspective that it doesn’t want people to get divorced, and then it comes up with stories and reasons that cut off all the avenues of escape.

Q: The Holy Cow’s message is that married people are “better than divorced people.” Lots of people who prefer to be single or cohabit hear that, too. Why do you think so many of us believe that’s true?

Astro: I think it’s the other way around. It’s, how are the sacred cows tricking us into it? The reason is society, which we are personifying as these cows, wants us to get married and stay married, not to make you happier or your spouse happier or your kids happier, but because society, rightly or wrongly, believes it will get what it wants if it gets people to get married and stay married. (It’s) a mob mentality where no one of us is puppeteering this but we collectively talk ourselves into it.

Q: Society seems to hold on to a nostalgic view of marriage, that people who married “back then” understood what marriage is really about. Except “back then,” marriage was more a duty than a choice, and an institution that was often a pretty crappy deal for women but they had few choices. Why do you think we still cling to that vision?

Danielle: We romaticize everything about the past. We really want to believe that marriages can be happily ever after.

Astro: If I’m afraid she’ll leave me, and my main tool in keeping her from leaving me is shame and fear and guilt, which the sacred cows bring to my arsenal.. .. If I want her not to quit, I have to look at people who quit less. If I point to them (and say) that those people were noble, it latches into the general romanticizing of the past and then I can effectively make her feel like shit if she’s thinking of leaving.

Q: What are the most important things you hope people get from reading your book?

Danielle: To give permission to make decisions about marriage and divorce without the piles of guilt society puts on them. … Just because you’re divorced or you want to get divorced, that doesn’t make you a bad person.

Astro: If they go through the process of asking whether marriage is working for them without the fear and shame that the scared cows produce, they’ll still probably have some soul searching to do and maybe a lot of pain to go through, but it would be less than it would be otherwise and they’ll probably end up in a happier place if they can make that decision free of that fear.

Want to individualize your marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

Illustration courtesy of “Sacred Cows”

Forget about wedding planners; you need a marital planner

A month or so ago, Vicki offered to work with a newlywed couple to create a marital plan. She got a polite, thanks but we’re just too busy and [new husband] isn’t too interested anyway.

Susan recently posited a similar question her friend about to marry. “Oh, we’re good,” the bride-to-be told her.  marital planning

Of course. The engaged and the newly married are indeed busy and may indeed be “good,” if not great. It isn’t called the honeymoon phase for nothing.

But one has to wonder why there’s some hesitation — if not outright fear — to sitting down with the person you are promising a lot to — sexuality fidelity, everlasting love, the rest of you life to — and talking about the hard stuff, like money, sex, kids, chores, in-laws.

And that is why we see articles like 8 Things No One Tells You About Marriage (why are they holding back!?) and 5 Things I Wish I Knew About Marriage (Before I Got Married).

Actually, there were lots of people who would have gladly walked brides- and grooms-to-be through some of the challenges most, if not all, marriages face … if they actually were interested.

Sadly, many are not. In fact, between 30 percent and 50 percent of couples who are offered premarital education aren’t interested, and only about 30 percent of couples in general get premarital counseling. In some ways, it makes sense — when you’re newly engaged and planning your wedding and things are going great, talking about the hard stuff seems unnecessary and just one more thing to do. Why bring up problems that don’t exist, especially when “counseling” sounds like something couples need when things aren’t going well? And, in truth, even premarital counseling has its drawbacks.

Except that’s not the only way to approach it. Why frame it as problems? Why not see it as asking questions — what do we want to do in the next three years? Do we want to have kids and, if so, when do we want to start trying? What if we can’t conceive? Should we be freezing eggs or embryos now, or would be adopt? Are we both OK with having to move to further one of our careers? How are we defining infidelity? What does commitment mean to us? At what point would we get outside help, like marital counseling, if one of us asked for it?

Because even if you’re busy and disinterested now, we can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll likely be talking about some of those issues at some point. And lack of commitment, infidelity and conflict are why many couples divorce, even those who have had premarital counseling.

We know, it sounds like a lot of “what ifs.” Life is actually full of a lot of “what ifs,” many of which are out of our control. That said, if you are starting from a marital baseline, it’s a lot easier to revisit and readjust agreements when life throws you curve balls — and it will — without a lot of shock, resentment and disappointment. And in some cases, addressing the tough stuff before saying your “I dos” may make it clear that you aren’t really a good match after all. Yes, that is frightening.

So we get it. Young people often just don’t think like that. I know I didn’t. When Vicki was 20 and about to marry my high school boyfriend, she probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to premarital counseling or marital planning. And when she interviewed Elizabeth Gilbert when CommittedA Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, her follow up book to her best-selling Eat, Pray, Love, came out, she pretty much admitted that she, too, wouldn’t have followed her book’s sage advice when she was in her 20s: “I would have read it with such contempt … it wouldn’t have done me any good. … I’m not sure it will do any good for young people. My place is among people who have awareness.”

So, if you’re in your 20s or 30s and thinking about marrying, do you want awareness, or do you want to spend time reading — or writing — articles on what you wish you knew before you tied the knot?

Just compare it to all the planning that goes into most weddings, as A Practical Wedding’s Meg Keene does:

Wedding planning is fraught with stupid questions. Chairs, for example, or what length your gown should be. Marriage is fraught with things that really do matter. Taking some time in the middle of the planning to talk about the reality of your lives together, and to ask yourselves hard questions? Well, that’s a gift. So if you can, go find someone, and talk.

But while premarital counseling gets you to talk about all that hard stuff, marital planning gives you a road map for what you actually want your marriage to look like. After all, as Vicki says, you’re not just creating a life together — you’re creating a certain kind of life together. Your life.

Isn’t that what you want?

Want to learn how to create a marital plan? Order The New I Do on Amazon, and follow on Twitter or Facebook.