You’re in a long-term happy, sexually active marriage and one day you discover that your spouse has been cheating on you — basically since Day 1.
How do you feel?
You’d probably feel heart-broken and devastated, which is how a man writing to author, LGBTQ activist and columnist Dan Savage signed off as in his latest Savage Love column.
We are huge fans of Savage — we turned to his writings and used his term monogamish in The New I Do — so we were not surprised by how he answered “HAD”:
A long-term relationship is a myth two people create together. … You thought your marriage was a loving, committed, and “completely loyal” one, but it’s not — it can’t be, and it never was, because she was cheating on you from the beginning. But loyalty isn’t something we demonstrate with our genitals alone. Your wife wasn’t loyal to you sexually, HAD, and that’s painful. And the conventional “wisdom” is that people don’t cheat on partners they love. But you were married to this woman, and you describe your marriage as good, loving, and wonderful. And it somehow managed to be all those things despite your wife’s betrayals. She must have been loyal to you in other ways or you would’ve divorced her long before you discovered her infidelities.
“You have a good relationship, from everything you tell me, and the question is always, does one discovery topple an entire relationship, an entire history? … With so many marital tasks in your hands, this does not necessarily redefine an entire relationship. This doesn’t say, ‘Everything else was a lie and this is the truth.’ This says, ‘There was a lot of truth and then there was a whole other closet in which stuff took place that I had no idea about and now I need to find a way to understand it, cry over it, experience acute pain, but also make meaning of it, and potentially integrate it — and in the end, I may choose that it is too big for me to integrate and then let go.’
One thing we love about Perel is the way she matter-of-factly acknowledges that there are many ways to betray a spouse that have nothing to do with sex. The nonsexual types of betrayal probably occur a lot more than the sexual ones, although sometimes both occur, and we put up with them — often for years. Where do you draw the line? Is it OK to put up with years of nonsexual betrayal as long as your spouses isn’t cheating?
When non-monogamy’s OK
We have observed with a certain amount of fascination the sexual shenanigans that have gone on in our own lives, our circle of friends and acquaintances, and the world at large. Many of us are serial monogamists, and want our current partner to also be monogamous — even if we began seeing him or her while they or we were still married, a relatively common occurrence. Which means many of us — men and women — are OK with non-monogamy being on the sly as long as it’s something we’re choosing forourselves but not if it’s happening to us. Yet we balk at the idea of consensual non-monogamy — when couples decide for themselves to have an open marriage, be polyamorous, swing, etc. — and consider it to be abnormal.
So non-monogamy of the cheating kind is normal but consensual non-monogamy is not.
Isn’t that kind of crazy?
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According to the vice president and director of communications for the Maine Health Care Association: “It was pretty obvious that in everything they were a team. Who’s married that long now? I mean, really. That was really impressive.”
It’s only later in the article that we learn why they might have lasted that long — the wife’s “tolerance for the things (her husband) did” was the secret to their long marriage, which was not without its struggles: “He was very headstrong. If there was something he wanted to do, he was going to do it.”
Hmm, should we actually celebrate that?
When people are asked why they want to get married, an overwhelming number (88 percent) say love is a “very important” reason to get married. A close second is making a lifelong commitment (81 percent).
Yet, we are often fuzzy on defining commitment — a number of people say commitment is very important in their marriage yet if their spouse has an affair, well, bye-bye commitment and hello divorce. Clearly, commitment will only go so far.
Still, society tends to emphasize how important commitment is in marriage and if someone divorces, especially for seemingly “trivial” issues, his or her character often comes into doubt. Thus, commitment takes on a moral value: the more committed you are, the more you love your spouse.
But is that true?
Love should be enough
Anca Gheaus, a philosophy professor whose work I’ve come to admire, questions those assumptions. In fact, she questions if love shouldn’t matter more than commitment in a marriage.
There are two types of commitment, she notes — the promises and the behaviors, and attitudinal. Marriage has both; it’s a contract, with spouses-to-be promising each other certain things over the course of the marriage as well as the daily negotiations that build trust, but it also indicates that spouses think about “each other and their relationship as central to their idea of a good life, and, in least in love-based marriages, to their identity.”
But, she questions, why is it important for people to commit to other people and a relationship just because it’s part of how they see themselves and their life?
“It may be true that most of the things that give meaning to people’s lives are those to which they are usually committed. But commitment does not seem to be necessary for meaning; being engaged with people and activities about which one cares is enough.”
Is commitment, then, really important in a marriage? True, commitment may keep spouses from splitting if more tempting partners or activities that would take time and energy away from the relationship suddenly appear. But, she notes, a more likely reason commitment matters is because it’s hard to live with someone else day in and day out, and commitment keeps a couple going and working toward a life plan together even when things are tough and they may not want to.
Does that mean we really need commitment? With all due respect to the Beatles, wouldn’t all we need is love? If someone loved us, wouldn’t he or she be kind to us and do nice things for us and hang around because of that love? And wouldn’t we do the same?
“As long as love, understood minimally as the inclination to seek another’s companionship and advance her well-being, exists, commitment is not necessary. One need not be committed to one’s beloved in order to suspend any cost-benefit analysis of the relationship … the appearance of more desirable partners will not be a reason to leave the marriage if one loves one’s spouse. … A world where the goods of marriage were achieved without commitment, out of love alone, would therefore be a better world; marital commitment seems to be a second-best solution to securing the goods of marriage.”
Of course, love is fragile and can disappear, too; that’s in part why spouses commit to each other — to kind of “lock in” some future love. But, is that what we really want — someone to be with us out of commitment than out of a deliberate decision to be with us because they love us? Does it really build character to keep staying with someone we no longer love? Love may be a better way to be with someone because “love is a direct reaction to the reality of the beloved” and is in the moment and has nothing to do with the promise you made three, 10 or 77 years ago to stick together “until death.”
Again, this speaks to the beauty of a renewable marital contract, in which spouses would have to react to “the reality of the beloved” every so often and decide — are we still in because we want to be here or not? Are we loving each other in the way we want to be loved?
Why stay together?
Barrymore and Kopelman evidently are no longer in love. Would commitment be reason enough for them to stay together? “Well, they have young kids,” you might be thinking, “and they should stick it out for them.” But, does their romantic and sexual relationship have anything at all to do with their ability to parent their children? No. If anything we’ve seen how love and sex — or the lack thereof — make spouses miserable.
If commitment matters at all, it should be the commitment to the children, not necessarily to each other. So they could transform their marriage into a parenting marriage until their daughters Olive, 3, and Frankie, 23 months, become 18 since they’ve acknowledged that the girls will bind them together forever. And that is exactly what binds a couple — kids, more than a desire to “lock in” a future together and much more than love.
Does their decision to split make them any better or worse than the Maine couple who stayed together for 77 years — seemingly at the expense of the wife’s self-esteem and perhaps happiness? Yet, that marriage is being celebrated for longevity, whether love was still present or not, while Barrymore is seen as a failure because this is her third marriage.
Demanding commitment in a marriage is basically saying we know our partner may stop loving us at some point but we still want him or her to hang around forever. Or, we may stop loving our partner — now what?
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Natalie Brooke — who is engaged to be married — bemoans the fact that once she got a ring on her finger, that’s all people wanted to talk about — not the many real accomplishments (her education, career, etc.) she’s had. Marriage isn’t an accomplishment, she says. Getting married is a big deal, she notes, but society might want to “re-evaluate what aspect of women’s lives we put the most value on.”
You don’t have to have a brain, drive or special skill set to get married. You just have to have a willing partner. … That’s not to say that there is no accomplishment related to being married. I believe success comes into play not when the man gets down on one knee or when the couple stands at the altar and says “I do”, but rather when the husband and wife are able to weather through financial woes, illnesses, having kids, and the general stresses of everyday life. Staying together in an era when over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce is certainly an achievement.
Photo by Desiree Fawn
She is wrong about the divorce rate; it’s only 50 percent for those aged 50 and older, the so-called gray divorces, but its between 30 and 40 percent for younger couples. Still, she is right about (some) of what she says. You don’t need a special skill set to tie the knot although you do need some know-how — communication, conflict management, etc. — to stay married (and get through life in general).
Needless to say, her article caused a bit of a kerfuffle, with people arguing that is is indeed an accomplishment because, as one blogger wrote, “marriage is not a private act or just your personal life but a new brick building up society.” We might need to re-evaluate that thinking as fewer people are getting married — now what?
For Claire King, marriage is an accomplishment because, “You win the game of life.”
Pause for a minute and read that again: Marriage equals winning … at life. Hmm, OK … Isn’t staying alive winning the “game” of life?
What marriage means to me is that I get to build the world the way I want it to be by furthering my genes, propagating my values, and propelling them into the future long after I’m gone. I think that’s a hugely important responsibility that one should be proud of and that others should revere.
Of course, one does not need to be married to further genes or propagate values, but let’s not quibble. Do childfree or adoptive couples, who don’t further their genes, win? And honestly, I’m not sure I want to revere furthering her genes and values until I know what they are!
While saying relationships aren’t an accomplishment might be done in an effort to remind women that, despite what rom-coms tell us, there is more to life than whether or not you can snag a husband, I think this sentiment unintentionally reinforces another rom-com trope: that relationships are equal parts magic, luck, and “meeting cute.” We’re told that if we just show up at the right place at the right time, everything will fall into place. Relationships are more than just showing up, and I’m okay with calling anything that requires doing more than just showing up an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Of course, for some the desire would be to snag a spouse of the same sex but, again, quibbles. But Miller says, yes, she worked hard to put a ring on it — she didn’t have casual flings or drunk text, she moved across the country to be closer to a serious prospect (after a month of dating), learned to communicate and negotiate after moving in together, etc. That may or may not be hard work, but it isn’t an accomplishment if you end up engaged after all that because there’s no guaranteed end result. She could have done all that and still not get engaged.
When George H.W. and Barbara Bush celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary recently, many people congratulated them on their “accomplishment” — seven decades of wedded bliss!! (well, we don’t know that for a fact). Writer Kristin Noreen questioned whether accomplishment is the right word:
If after being married 71 years, you’re still in love, that’s fantastic luck, but I wouldn’t call it an accomplishment — that’s like giving adults blue ribbons for perfect attendance. To me, developing a vaccine is an accomplishment. Running a marathon is an accomplishment. Learning to walk again after a brain injury — something I have actually done – is an accomplishment. Raising good people is an accomplishment, I’ll give you that.
I agree with her blue ribbon analogy; if we go into marriage assuming that it’s “until death,” then you can’t call it an accomplishment until you actually make it until death. Isn’t this what you signed up for? You don’t get any kudos for doing your job and keeping your marital vows/promises; you just remain married. It’s not as if evil forces are conspiring against you and your marriage; no, you either wake up every day and say, “I choose to be in this marriage” and act accordingly or you don’t.
Except, and this is a big exception, a number of people don’t. They don’t consciously choose their marriage and their spouse; they stay in sexless, loveless, unhappy marriages that are full of anger and contempt because of the kids or because they’re afraid of what they’ll lose in a divorce or out of lethargy or because they value commitment over their spouse — thus they can treat him or her like crap but still feel proud that they’re keeping their commitment. If those marriages last 50, 60, 70 years, is that really an accomplishment? Screw that!
A few years ago, right before she marked her 10th wedding anniversary to Gavin Rossdale, Grammy award-winning musician, The Voice judge and fashion designer Gwen Stefani called her marriage “my biggest accomplishment.” Of course, we all know how that played out. Despite the ugly way in which that marriage ended, they had three children together — thus furthering her genes. Accomplishment?
I’m not sure why we consider longevity to be the only marker of a successful marriage or lifelong love to be thebest kind of love. As far as I know there isn’t any research that indicates love that lasts forever improves us in any way — makes us smarter, more resilient, more creative, kinder or a better person — or in some way betters society. If it did, then, OK, I’d be more inclined to say that lifelong love — not necessarily lifelong marriage — is an accomplishment.
Until then, I’m happy to congratulate couples on their wedding anniversary. And if they indeed make it until death, then yes — it’s an accomplishment. Someone died, and thus that marriage — by the traditional “until death do us part” requirement — has met its goal. Mission accomplished!
Too bad one of the spouses won’t be around to celebrate it.
Want to define what will make your marriage a success? Learn how by ordering The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.
Hey “Portandia” fans, did you happen to catch us on last week’s episode on breaking up?
We can’t link to the actual show, but here’s a screen grab of us in bed with Candace and Claire — and who wouldn’t want to be in bed with them? We wonder which relationship model they might be thinking about — could it be open?
There’s an image we have about marriage, about “two becoming one.”
Anyone who’s been married for length of time realizes that’s a bit of a lie. We’re still people with our own needs. In fact, many believe what hetero men and women experience is a “his” and a “her” marriage.
Some 50 years ago, sociologist Jessie Bernard noted that marriage is not a single entity; how marriage was experienced depended a lot on whether you’re the wife or the husband. In general, she noted, marriage generally benefits the guys more than the gals.
True, marriage was a lot different in the early 1970s, when women had fewer options (although Bernard herself bucked a lot of trends back then). It’s now 2016, the age of stay-at-home dads and breadwinning moms, the age of equal partnerships.
Well, not quite.
Heterosexual marriage, especially among white, educated and well-off couples, is still a gendered social reality and a gendered institution, or so argue sociologists Karyn Loscocco and Susan Walzer in Gender and the Culture of Heterosexual Marriage in the United States. The two explore the work of Andrew Cherlin in his book The Marriage-Go-Round, which attempts to explain the high rate of divorce in the U.S. While he does not take gender into account, Loscocco and Walzer argue we must:
“The role expectations associated with being a husband or wife intersect with those to which men and women may more generally be accountable. … people tend to be accountable to dominant gender beliefs whether or not they act on them and to treat them as shared cultural knowledge whether or not they endorse them.”
Which means even in the most equal of marriages, there’s an incredible awareness of gender and how a wife and a husband “should” act. And that continues to drive “contemporary heterosexual marriage and its discontents.”
And boy, are we discontented.
What does that look like? They cite studies pointing out that:
Women are less happy in their marriages than men
Women are more likely than men to see problems in their marriages
So, what’s making women so miserable in their marriages? For one, women are still in charge of the emotional caretaking:
“Typical studies of the household division of labor do not begin to capture all the unpaid caring work — for friends, extended family, schools, and religious and other community organizations — that women disproportionately do. Nor do they capture wives’ planning, organizing, and structuring of family life.”
It’s exhausting being the one who always has to be on top of the emotional temperature of a relationship, and keep the ties to family and community going. Plus, that kind of work often goes unnoticed or undervalued — and sometimes even resented — which, they note, “can lead to marital tension.”
What about in so-called equal marriages? Nope; the wives still “tended to be the ones who monitored their own and their partners’ contributions to their relationships.” Even when the imbalance was duly acknowledged, nothing changed, “leading to feelings of resentment and frustration.”
Of course, self-help books and relationship “experts” — from Steve Harvey (Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man) to John Gray (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus) and others — tend to encourage women to “accept imbalances in their relationships with men to attract and keep them.”
The message is always the same; if a wife just worked hard enough she could save her marriage, if not from unhappiness than at least from divorce. Yet studies show that when husbands take greater ownership of the emotional work — beyond just household chores and child care — wives are happier and healthier. So by continuing to advise women to “act like ladies or girls and to accept their ‘cavemen’” sets couples up for “reproducing the very patterns that are implicated in marital stress.” There’s a bit of craziness to that!
Why can’t men and women have an “our marriage”? Clearly, there’s some huge disconnect in what a husband and wife know how each is experiencing the marriage. Can that change? Maybe; their paper cites studies that indicate ‘‘unrealistic expectations’’ and ‘‘inadequate preparation’’ for marriage are keeping many couples from having an “our” marriage (which is why we believe our book is so important because it raises essential questions couples need to address).
We all “know” that women aren’t good at casual sex, “only” have affairs for love, are biologically disinterested in sex, and that, more so than men, “need” and thrive in a monogamous relationship.
Maybe that’s been your experience, maybe not. Maybe you believe it, maybe you don’t. But have you ever questioned if this is just what women are told to believe is the truth, and thus internalize that message?
For a large number of women diagnosed with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, the loss of desire and sexual fantasies is often the result of mismatched sexual desire between monogamous partners, not just her problem
Women’s desire fades faster than men’s in long-term monogamous romantic relationships
Women have a greater need than men for novelty in order to maintain sexual arousal; without it, their sexual arousal is likely to diminish
Women are more likely to suffer for their male partner’s jealousy, including domestic violence and sexual assault
Despite that, the study authors — who suggest polyamory may provide more benefits for women, including sexual satisfaction, agency and gender role flexibility — illustrate why many women still opt for monogamy:
From a sociocultural perspective, women are lead to believe that their successes are a result of their romances, and thus can only be accessed through their relations with men. … Not only are women socialized to believe that marriage is an important lifetime achievement, but we argue that women are also taught that their identity as a woman is dependent on their ability to fulfill these relational roles. Thus, by not engaging in traditional monogamous relationships, women fail to fulfill essential components of their womanly role.
In an entertaining and provocatively titled TEDx talk, “Your Mother is Not a Whore” (watch it below) economics professor Marina Adshade, author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex, debunks the myth that women can’t have sex just for pleasure, or because they want something in exchange, and bemoans the fact that women are “shamed for behaving in a way that society believes is contrary to their nature.”
Which sounds a lot like what Daniel Bergner writes about in his book What Do Women Want? (read this book. Really!) Women are not better suited to monogamy than men are, he says. Except society has long repressed female sexuality — after all, who had to wear chastity belts? — which has twisted the way we view women’s desires and sexuality. Sadly, many women have bought into that myth as well.
In an article Vicki wrote for the Washington Post’s Solo-ish section, she spoke to a few sexuality experts about what happens to a middle-aged woman’s sexuality once she divorces. Their answers were quite revealing, but nothing that many divorcees haven’t experienced for themselves — quite honestly, their sexuality gets kick-started.
Sex therapist and author Tammy Nelson said that of the “sexless marriage” couples who see her, she questions if it’s “really low desire or relationship issues.”
Married couples often stop being flirty and playful with each other, says Stella Resnick, a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and author; that is a sexual killer for women.
“In a lot of middle-aged marriages, sex has become victim to whatever the relationship’s issues are,” says sexologist and author Pepper Schwartz, AARP’s relationship expert. “They’re not necessarily tumultuous, but often they’ve lost their vitality and the sexual urge is lost.”
Long-term monogamy is good for women? Perhaps not …
For some, yes, and actress Maria Bello is leading the way.
In her Modern Love essay in 2013 and her book, Whatever … Love Is Love: Questioning The Labels We Give Ourselves, which came out in 2015, Bello explores the many labels we place upon ourselves and each other and what we consider a partner.
Two years ago, Bello began a romantic, sexual relationship with a longtime family friend, Clare, and ended her romantic, sexual relationship with Dan, the father of her son Jackson. She questions, why do we consider the person we have sex with as the most important partner in our life? And if we stop having sex with that person, but still remain married or in a relationship with him or her, does that change anything — even the ability to parent?
It’s hard for me even to define the term “partner.” For five years I considered my partner to be a friend then in his 70s, John Calley, with whom I talked daily. He was the one who picked me up each time I had a breakdown about another failed romance. Because we were platonic, did that make him any less of a partner? … Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters who have lived together for 15 years and raised a daughter. Are they not partners because they don’t have sex? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. Are they any less partners?
Those are interesting questions to ask, questions we probably don’t ask ourselves.
As any divorced co-parenting couple will tell you, it’s challenging. She says:
(I)t’s so complicated for a family to shift around. And you know, the truth is, life is fluid. Relationships are fluid. They are not static. And as much as we want to hold onto an idea of what they’re supposed to be, people grow and change and often in different directions. And then what do we do with that? Some people just throw out the love, and some people can make it work. … And I’m not saying it’s easy for us, you know? Some days, like, we can’t stand each other — all of us, and then some days, it’s different. But we communicate as much as we can. We talk about it. It’s certainly not easy, but the only other option is throwing out what we have. And what we have is something very special.
Her comment about throwing out the love reminds Vicki of the conversation she had with San Francisco Bay Area therapist Valerie Tate, whose uncoupling ceremony with her husband, Clark, before their son and loved ones was featured on ABC’s Nightline. Rather than throw out what they had — a rich history that once included romantic love for each other — they shifted the nature of the relationship and what they were fighting for; instead of struggling to maintain their intimate relationship, they just focus on raising their child together.
Look at how most of us end romantic relationships — with anger, hurt, accusations, resentments, vengeful thoughts and more days than not when people “can’t stand each other.”And that is often how we divorce as well, with kids stuck miserably in the middle. We know from studies that it’s conflict, not divorce per se, that hurts children. What can we do that lessens that conflict (besides conscious uncoupling)?
Would it be better to not throw away what you already have with the parent of your child, accept that “people grow and change and often in different directions,” and challenge yourself to do things differently? Would you still value the father or mother of your child as a parenting partner even if you were not having sex with him or her?
It’s a new year, when many people make resolutions to be better or do things differently. If you’re a parent and have been contemplating divorce, it’s a good time to consider following Maria Bello’s lead.
Nothing will make you think more about what marriage is about than a divorce. But there’s divorce and then there’s divorce. When Vicki divorced in her 20s and they had nothing — no property, no savings, no kids — it was emotionally challenging, true, but that’s about it. If someone presented her with a way to make the marriage work, she probably would have said, Why? We made a mistake; it’s over!
But when she divorced at midlife with stuff (a house, a car, a dog and, most important, young kids) it was much more complicated. While many people argue about the stuff and money, the bigger issue is the kids: How will we raise them until they can be self-sufficient?
Now a friend is in the midst of a divorce and her kids, at 21 and 25, are no longer “kids;” they’re self-sufficient adults. What does divorce mean at this point?
Are there alternatives that might be available for midlife couples who are struggling?
While boomer women were renegades and feminists, and many of us had full-time careers while raising kids, we are still paid less than men are and many of us still resorted to traditional male breadwinner-female housekeeping roles when we married, which inevitably hurt us in the event of a divorce (a model that, despite all our progress, still seems to be the default for Gen-Yers and millennials). Plus, we live longer than men.
Knowing that, is there something else we could be doing?
In some instances, yes. Even if you didn’t create a contract at the onset of your marriage, you can certainly create one after the fact.
Vicki’s second marriage fell apart after the discovery of a long-term affair as well as other issues. Her initial reaction was to save the marriage because her kids were young, 9 and 12, and she was scared. She’d only worked part time since they were born, and they weren’t a wealthy family to begin with.
They could have transformed their marriage into a parenting marriage, giving their kids the consistency and stability they needed while separating the sexual/romantic aspect of their relationship from their parenting relationship, which is one of the models in The New I Do. Would that have worked? In the aftermath of a long-term affair, Vicki didn’t know. Would she have considered it if it had been presented to her by a marriage counselor? Absolutely.
Sadly, you are not going to hear about parenting marriages from marriage counselors, except from people like Susan, because it’s not in their frame of reference. Same with renegotiating the marital contract. Which is why Susan and Vicki have been presenting before local therapists, helping them help their clients.
A blog post from more than a year ago on this website has hundreds of comments from people in a sexless marriage (by their definition) exploring the many ways they have tried to cope — suffer, divorce or cheat. The option of opening up their marriage will never come up in a therapy session because traditionally, therapists don’t think that way. What we need is therapists who are not only able to consider suggesting an open marriage, but also knowledgeable enough to offer support and information to help those who may see it as an option.
But, let’s say there hasn’t been an affair or any sort of major dysfunction. Let’s consider middle-aged empty-nesters, suddenly staring at each across the breakfast table without the distraction of children for the first time in decades. Many couples might discover they have little in common with their spouse anymore, and any conversation that doesn’t involve the kids or household issues feels strained. This is especially true when husbands retire and they’re around 24/7. Which is why many older couples are willing to call it quits and move on.
Given the economic hit they’ll take, they could find other ways to be connected to each other while also creating space that honors their individual needs and “me” time. They could consider living apart together, again, another model in The New I Do.
None of this is to say we’re for or against divorce or marital longevity; most of us fall in and out of love with several people before we find someone we actually might want to be in love with for the rest of our life — if we even want that — and many people are much happier after divorcing.
But we are for letting people know they have options. Your marriage is yours to create and re-create. Go for it!
Want to re-create your marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.
The idea of a marital contract sounds new, but it actually isn’t.
The debut issue of Ms. magazine, in 1971, which was an insert in New York magazine, included an article on “How to Write Your Own Marriage Contract” by Susan Edmiston, who interviews two couples who created their own marriage contracts.
The other couple started off with a contract, one that dealt with chores, cooking and finances. When their daughter was born, they renegotiated their contract again to include childcare, which the wife, psychologist Barbara Koltuv, admits was a struggle — one that I’ll bet most women can relate to:
The hardest thing was being willing to give up control. What we call responsibility is often control, power, being the boss. When I was really able to recognize that my husband’s relationship with Hannah is his and mine is mine, everything was all right. He’s going to do it differently but he’s going to do it all right. We’ve been teaching her all along that different people are different.”
But marriage contracts between spouses date back farther than the ’60s and ’70s.
So did birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and her second husband, oil billionaire J. Noah H. Slee, whom she married in 1922. She wanted autonomy so they had a LAT, living apart together, arrangement, first in separate homes and then in separate parts of the same house.
Finally, Jackie Kennedy allegedly had a contract when she wed Aristotle Onassis in 1968, in which she declared her independence as well as separate homes and separate bedrooms within their shared homes. (It was also a safety marriage).
OK, we no longer have coverture and we have more egalitarian marriages than ever before, and thankfully women have financial independence. So do we really need individualized marital contracts?
Before you say yes or no, let’s look at what Edmiston includes in her article’s “utopian marriage contract” — agreements about birth control, having/adopting children, how children will be brought up, whose job will determine where and how the couple lives (including separate bedrooms or homes), how child care and housework will be divvied up, how they will handle finances, and sexual rights and freedoms.
Given how many of those are things couples still argue about today, and as women debate if they can have it all or just lean in, why would anyone, especially women, be hesitant to create a plan that honored both spouses’ needs and expectations?
The idea’s limited success is hardly surprising, given the economic, social, and psychological arrangements that continue to impede equality, in marriage and out. Such strains doomed my own marriage, along with half the marriages in America. Probably not until the polity is more child- and woman-friendly, not until men and women are equally valued — economically and otherwise — not until free or low-cost quality childcare is universally available, will the ideal of equality in marriage be other than radical.”
Can we have egalitarian marriages when one spouse works full time and the other works part time, when one spouse is unable or unwilling to give up control? Or does equality even matter as long as both spouses are happy with the arrangement?
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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?
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.
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.