Is getting married an accomplishment?

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.”

She writes:

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

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?

King continues:

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!

Years before Brooke’s article, Rachel W. Miller said you bet getting engaged is an accomplishment:

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 the best 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.

After her husband cheated, here’s what a mom of six did instead of divorce

Melissa*  was devastated when she learned that her husband, Jon,* had had a tryst with her brother’s wife (and her best friend).

This single act was like an Atomic bomb going off in the middle of the entire family. Nothing would ever be the same. Nothing. But, because they had six children under the age of 15 together, they were inextricably tied to each other for the next decade or so.

Although Jon admitted it was a really stupid thing to do (and, of course, swore he’d never do it again) Melissa felt like she couldn’t let him off the hook that easily.   She was angry, hurt, sad and scared.  She wondered, “How could he be so stupid?” “Why would he have hurt me so deeply?” And, if he did it once and she forgave him, what would stop him from doing it again? After all, they’d see each other at family events.

Melissa’s head was a constant swirl of questions and confusion. She felt tremendous pressure to make a decision. She kicked Jon out for a day but quickly realized that it would be impossible to run the household and get all the kids taken care of without him.  

Although Melissa let Jon back home, she made it clear that she was probably going to ask for a divorce. The mere thought of this sent her into a tailspin of deep depression. There were no good choices. She was facing having to choose between a rock and a hard place.

That is, until she found out about the Parenting Marriage concept.

Suddenly, there was another option on the table. Rather than having to choose solely between staying (being angry and untrusting, or trying desperately to put it all behind her quickly—which she knew she couldn’t), or leaving (which would create a whole new set of challenges), there was another viable alternative.  Melissa described this new concept like a “pause” button.  And, she said, it gave her room to breathe and a renewed sense of dignity. She added that, for the first time since this all happened, she felt like she was on an upward trajectory and she felt better right away.

Melissa reached out to me to let me know what this Parenting Marriage concept gave her:

1) My power back. All the infidelity therapy stuff really encourages you to get the healing done rather quickly and while I forgave him intellectually, my heart just wasn’t there. This buys me time to continue raising my kids in the exact same way while explaining to my husband that I can’t give him my “romantic” heart right now.

I’m pretty introspective and I like to have a long time to think about things and figure out what’s best. This option allows me to say “don’t make any passes at me right now. We are in a parenting marriage which means we are focusing on the kids while I figure out if this is what I want.”

2) If I never fall back in love with him, he is used to living like this and the decision can be his if he wants to or not. It removes the shock of a potential split. It allows us to ease into it.

3) We have a high needs teenager that needs us both right now. It is my stepdaughter and his daughter and she is in and out of alcohol/drug treatment. Splitting right now would not be good for anyone, but especially not her.

This type of situation could work quite well for us. Our marriage has always been very respectful (besides the infidelity), we fight fair, and we put the kids first.

The knee-jerk reaction when someone cheats is to split up and eventually divorce. [Shifting] to a parenting marriage allows time for introspection…I don’t know, maybe it’s not healthy, but I haven’t felt this good since it happened. It removed the shame and the fear of a possible divorce when I’m not even sure that’s what I want. Really, it’s strange, by putting a label on it from romantic marriage to parenting marriage, it removed the pressure I was feeling to just “get over it” and allows me the time I need to heal from this.

Thank you again,

Melissa

Parenting Marriage isn’t right for everyone. Perhaps it isn’t right as a long-term solution.  But, making a decision as big as whether to end your marriage from an overly emotional place doesn’t usually end well. This option is giving Melissa a chance to step back from all the drama, put any decisions on hold, and wait until her head is clearer to decide what’s next.

*(not their real names)

How to stay together ‘for the kids’

It’s January, and we’re in the middle of  Divorce Month.

If you are not among those motivated to file, you may wonder why anyone would split up in the middle of their kids’ school year. It doesn’t seem to make sense.

If, however, you are considering divorce, you would likely say that the holidays were more than you could stand in a loveless (and likely sexless) relationship; you may have wanted out months ago but, as fall approached, decided you didn’t want to ruin the kids’ holidays, or have to share the news with your extended family. Now, however, you feel like enough is enough. With the turning of the calendar page, many people’s first resolution is to move forward with a filing, determined to make this the year to be true to themselves and take charge of living the life they want to lead. Waiting much longer, they’re afraid, might do them in completely.  

With fingers perched on the button that will change the fate of their marriage (and their life), the last thing they want is for someone to come along and talk them out of it or try to make them feel awful or ashamed about wanting to make a break.

We have no agenda on whether people stay or leave their relationship. In fact, Susan has a saying: “The world doesn’t need more married people. The world needs more authentic and happy people.” But as we discuss in our book and as we have discussed before, there is a little-known but growing alternative to divorce.

Divorce does not harm kids, per se. There’s ample research that divorce isn’t the worst thing parents can do to kids: Fighting terribly and subjecting them to your vitriolic hatred toward each other is the worst; staying married in such a state is actually worse for kids than if you actually got divorced. There are many people who divorce and, because they handled their emotions well, the children also did well. There are also many couples that do significant damage to their kids by staying in an unhealthy relationship and trying to “make it work.”

But, because it is also true that a two-parent households typically have some significant advantages over two separate, single-parent homes, it’s worth asking: What if you could stay for the kids and lead your own life — possibly even having outside romantic relationships?

We know what you’re thinking: People do this already; it’s called an affair. We’re well aware that romantic affairs go on illicitly, but what we’re suggesting is that this can also happen in an above-board, respectful kind of way. It’s called a Parenting Marriage and more and more couples are turning to this option as a way to “stay for the kids” without staying stuck in a bad relationship. As spouses, you basically change your job description from lover, best friend and co-parent to co-parent, friends maybe, and lovers no longer.

During the past six years, dozens of couples across the U.S.have  transitioned from their traditional marriage to this non-traditional model. Many find it surprisingly workable. Of course, it’s complicated and the need for having clear agreements in place is paramount, but it can be done if you both want the same things and you have a “good enough” relationship.

To learn about couples who’ve made this option work, read more here.

Want to have a parenting marriage? 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.

 

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”

Why you need a marital plan

You’ve finally met someone special, someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. Congratulations.

Perhaps you are one of the thousands of couples who said “I do” this wedding season. Whether you end up making it “until death” or not, the intention to spend decades with someone — no matter how well you may know him or her — can be daunting. Few of us would go on an extended journey without at least some planning, yet that’s how we typically embark on our marital future.

Many people ask, “Where is this relationship going?” after several months of dating or living together. The end goal seems to be marriage, with little thought to what happens after that. And, as you know, there is a lot that happens after the wedding day.

While no one can guarantee that your marriage will be as happy and healthy as you hope — or expect — it to be, wouldn’t you feel better committing to all those years together if you had a better idea of where your marriage was going?

Believe it or not, you can; it’s called a marital plan, a framework for your marriage that you and your spouse-to-be create together so you can define and agree to what will make your marriage a success. It’s like a road map for your combined goals and dreams, with specifics on how you plan to accomplish them, and when. It holds each of you accountable. Marital planAnd it’s a way to measure your marriage’s success by something other than longevity — the only way we currently consider a marriage successful.

If you truly believe your partner is special — and I’m presuming you wouldn’t be marrying him or her otherwise — then you don’t want to just create a life with him or her; you want to create a specific kind of life. Your kind of life.

That’s what we  present in our book The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. But, we are not alone in believing that marital plans are the way of the future for anyone considering marriage, or even renegotiating an existing marriage. I chatted with two family and divorce attorneys who are big proponents of marital plans — Mark Ressa, who practices in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Michael Boulette, who practices in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They see couples at the opposite end of the happy wedding day, when all those dreams and expectations have been dashed with hard and unanticipated reality. While no can predict everything that will happen in a marriage — it’s understandable that Kris Jenner may have had no idea her husband of 23 years, Bruce, would transition into Caitlyn — there are many familiar and contentious issues in a marital arc, such as chores, kids, finances and sex, that can and should be discussed early and often as couples move from childfree dual-earners to (perhaps) dual-earners with kids to empty-nesters and all the variations in between.

A shorter version of our conversation ran in the Huffington Post; here’s our chat in its entirety.

Q: Why do you like the idea of a marital plan?

Ressa: Most couples contemplating marriage are focused on spending their lives together without fully considering what that means. Before they exchange “I do’s,” rarely do couples articulate in a meaningful way what their expectations are for the marriage. What do they want to see happen in the first three to five years? Are they on the same page about having children? What about intimacy issues; what are their expectations? Marital planning provides an opportunity to discuss these issues beforehand, see if both parties are on the same page and, more importantly, set expectations and plan how to address expectations that are not met. If the marriage does not last, at least a marital plan can be a reference that gives insight into what they had originally intended.

Boulette: I began representing clients in divorces in 2010. One year later, I got married.  With that kind of juxtaposition, you almost can’t help but start drawing parallels, look at the cases you’re working on and think, what would happen if my marriage broke up? I started discussing them with my wife. The more we talked about our “future divorce” the more I learned about what she values, what she wants out of our marriage, and what she wants out of me as a partner and as a parent to our daughter.

I’ve started to see marriage planning as an innovative solution for a number of the problems plaguing modern relationships (and the law that governs them). It’s a way to:

  •  increase marriage rates among couples that may not feel ready for marriage (in its current form) but who want to create a relationship that’s more than just roommates
  •  incorporate changing social norms around what marriage means and to embrace a variety of different “meanings” of marriage without writing any one meaning into our laws
  •  help reduce the conflict in divorce by allowing couples to create their own ideas of fairness when they still have each other’s best interests at heart

Q: How do you see a marital plan differing from a prenup?

Ressa: Pre- and post-nuptial agreements, if enforceable, dictate what happens in the event of a divorce. Marital plans document the parties’ intent and expectations about how they will move through life as a married couple. A prenuptial agreement largely deals with financial issues; a marital plan, instead, focuses on lifestyle choices.

Boulette: Marriage planning is a paradigm shift. If prenups are about protecting yourself from your spouse, marriage planning is about creating a life together and deliberately choosing the sort of relationship you want to have over any number of alternatives. Prenups are often a work-around for state divorce laws that might put one partner’s wealth at risk. Marriage plans reach beyond the financial into questions of what you want from your spouse as a partner, as a friend, as a co-parent, what you’re seeking from the marriage emotionally, physically, even professionally. And also what you’re willing to give — what you’re committed to investing to make the relationship and the family work.

Q: From your perspective as a family lawyer, what do couples ignore or misunderstand when they tie the knot?

Ressa: Most couples do not consider what happens in the event of a divorce, how the standard-one-size-fits-all divorce laws would apply in their circumstance. Rarely do I hear of couples who are about to marry — other than the small percentage who actually enter into a prenuptial agreement — contemplate financial, wealth acquisition or parenting issues.

Boulette: In first-time marriages, no couple really has any idea of what laws would govern their relationships in the event of divorce. But I don’t think that antiquated divorce laws are necessarily driving divorces or reducing relationship quality. Because getting married is so easy, at least from a legal standpoint, many couples avoid hard questions: “What if the marriage doesn’t work out?” “What if I (or you) fall in love with someone else?” “Should we prioritize both our careers equally or the one with the greatest earning potential?” Ignoring these questions can create conflict later on, and in the most extreme scenario could lead couples to question whether the relationship is right for them.

Q: In what ways could a marital plan help them?

Ressa: A marital plan forces couples entering into marriage to openly discuss issues that might create points of conflict in the future. Additionally, couples should contemplate, discuss and agree on what happens in the event an agreed-to expectation is not met. For instance, what if the parties’ intimacy expectations deviate from the marital plan? Should that trigger a requirement to discuss the issue through counseling?

Additionally, as divorce lawyers we see increases in divorce filings at multiples of seven years. You have heard of the seven-year-itch? It is real. There are also reports indicating marriages begin to come undone approximately six years prior to either party actually filing for divorce. Putting those two observations together, what if marriage plans required a therapeutic, marital counseling wellness check approximately five to six years before the aforementioned divorce-filing bumps? So a marital plan could provide the opportunity to apply some preventive medicine to maintain the health of the marriage.

Boulette: Marriage plans promote exactly the sort of “hard conversations” I mentioned before. But more than that, they provide a touch point to channel these discussions to a productive end. If you create a marriage plan and, for whatever reason, the relationship does end, you, as a couple, have created a road map for how to leave the relationship with dignity, mutual respect and exactly the sort of fairness so many divorcing couples aspire to.

A plan also comes with the added benefit of being able to revisit and revise as needed, rather than relying on shadowy recollections of a conversation you had years ago. Say two years into the marriage, life has thrown you a curve ball. That’s OK. Have a new conversation. Make a new plan.

Q: Could couples just create these marital plans by themselves?

Ressa: Couples can always DIY; most divorces are resolved by litigants who are self-represented. There is nothing to prevent a couple from creating their own marital plan.

Boulette: Of course. Nothing about a marriage plan has to be legally binding. No one would bother to get a prenup if they didn’t think it could be enforced in court, but a marriage plan can be valuable for any number of reasons even if its completely unenforceable in the event of divorce.

But if the goal is a legally binding agreement that you’ll be held to should one of you want to end the relationship, a lawyer is an important part of the equation. Prenup laws (which are inevitably the legal avenue through which marriage plans will be enforced) are such a patchwork from state to state, not just in how the law is actually written, but also in how courts interpret them. Add to that the wrinkle that marriage plans reach well beyond established law to touch on parts of couples’ lives where prenups are not traditionally enforced, and this isn’t a DIY project.

Interested in creating a specific kind of marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us onFacebook.

What the Ashley Madison hack tells us about monogamy

The Ashley Madison hack is still topic No. 1 in the media — from divorce attorneys predicting a “Christmas in July” boon to their business, to potential extortion threats and suicides because of the sensitive information leaked, to continued shaming of those whose names were found on the site’s database — and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon.  Ashley Madison

Our heart goes out to every spouse who has just discovered that his or her wife or husband had been using the site — no one is ever prepared to discover a spouse’s infidelity. Although all infidelity isn’t the same a one-night fling is not the same as a long-term affair, or multiple one-night stands — the discovery is the same.

But even if you are, thankfully, one of the many people whose partner is not part of the leak, it doesn’t mean that you can ignore the Ashley Madison hack and its fallout. In fact, rather than ignore it, you should embrace it. It’s the perfect time for you to sit your partner down, look him or her straight in the eye, and start a discussion — not about infidelity but about monogamy. Yeah, monogamy. Before you do that, however, you need to have a heart-to-heart with yourself and figure out how you feel about monogamy.

  • Are you good at it?
  • Have you ever been bad at it?
  • How many times have you been bad at it?
  • Do you like it?
  • Has it been hard? When and why?
  • Do you willingly choose it?
  • If you could have an open or monogamish partnership, would you want it?

Granted, these are hard conversations to have with ourselves let alone our partner. And, let’s face it — we lie to ourselves, too.  But it may be among the most important conversations you will ever have if you want or already have a romantic relationship.

When Vicki spoke with The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating author Eric Anderson a few years back on why monogamy is failing men, he told her that the assumption of monogamy puts everyone, men and women, into a sexual straitjacket:

The way cheating men see it, it’s either cheat or don’t cheat, but telling their partners they want sex outside the relationship, or telling their partners that they actually cheated, is viewed as a surefire way of achieving relationship termination. It’s very important to remember that when men cheat for recreational sex (I’m not talking about affairs here) they do love their partners. If they didn’t love their partners, they would break up with them.”

Which is why you often hear professions of love from people who have been caught cheating. Many of us want commitment and a safe, loving place to come home to and still have some wild sex on the side.

And, that may be more of us than we think. Just look at how infidelity has impacted your life — have you experienced it with a partner or within your family or among your friends or co-workers? Despite a certain number of duplicate accounts and fake accounts, there were 33-plus million people on Ashley Madison — that’s an awful lot of people. And there are many people who are cheating the old-fashioned way, with co-workers or one-night stands while out of town, without the help of AM. What does this  tell us about monogamy, sexual fidelity and traditional marriage? According to a recent study, the chance of someone getting some on the side while in a committed relationship ranges between 46 percent and 76 percent. As study author Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier says, “These numbers indicate that even if we get married with the best of intentions, things don’t always turn out the way we plan.”

Exactly.

So, what to do, what to?

To us, it seems pretty clear — talk about monogamy. Talk about what you like about it and what you don’t. Talk about what scares you about consensual nonmonogamy. Read about people who have explored consensual nonmonogamy or, if you can, talk to them. Question your own beliefs about monogamy. How many people do that?

While doing research for The New I Do, one of the couples that opened up their marriage told us:

For a lot of people, it doesn’t even occur to them that they can be anything other than monogamous, and they get into a situation and then realize they maybe feel differently. I also feel monogamy can be dangerous even without sleeping with other people. Just having a sense of your own sexuality, being attracted to other people, being able to flirt with other people; when you can’t do that, it just shuts down a part of you. It changes who you are in your marriage and so long-term, that can be really damaging.

That’s true. It’s really hard for some people to talk openly and honestly about their attractions to others, about desire and fantasies, sex and pleasure. Yet because we can’t do that, we cause each other and ourselves a lot of pain — as much pain as those who are cheating, maybe even more. We are saddened by the continuing comments to our post on sexless marriages that’s more than a year old. Suffer, cheat or divorce are their only options — they think. Who will help them realize, no, there’s another option — consensual nonmonogamy? Why is that not even being presented to them? Why isn’t it accepted if they choose it?

So as the painful fallout from the Ashley Madison hack continues, think what would happen if more of us admitted, openly and loudly, that we struggle with monogamy. There would be less pain — whether from acting on desires or not acting on desires — and  a lot less shame. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Interested in learning how to have an open marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

 

Can you be single but with someone, too?

Perhaps you saw the recent Huffington Post article, “I want to be single — but with you.” It’s likely you did because it was shared more than 27,000 times, liked by 168,000 people and garnered almost 900 comments. Being single together

The gist of the post by Canadian writer Isabelle Tessier is this — she wants to have all the joys of a committed relationship but without giving up her freedom and her sense of self that being in a relationship often takes away, or at least diminishes, and without the drudgery of being together 24/7. She writes:

I want you to have your life, for you decide on a whim to travel for a few weeks … I don’t always want to be invited for your evenings out and I don’t always want to invite you to mine. Then I can tell you about it and hear you tell me about yours the next day. I want something that will be both simple and at the same time not so simple. … I want to make plans not knowing whether or not they will be realized. To be in a relationship that is anything but clear. I want to be your good friend, the one with whom you love hanging out. I want you to keep your desire to flirt with other girls, but for you to come back to me to finish your evening.

Is Isabelle being selfish, as many of the commentors suggested? Or is she realistically seeing the dark side of couplehood? After all, marriage has been called a greedy institution — it sucks up time you could be spending by yourself, with friends, with relatives, volunteering, exploring and growing.

When Vicki wrote “Want to stay married? Act like you’re divorced” a few years ago, she distinguished the difference between acting single within a relationship — single people have a lot of expectations, typically unrealistic, about marriage, and that does more damage than good — versus acting divorced, with all the benefits of expectation-busting hindsight. I firmly believe the latter makes it feasible.

But, Isabelle doesn’t necessarily mention marriage, so it’s unclear in what context she wants to live her life fully. But live it fully is clearly what she wants.

Can Isabelle have that? Perhaps, especially if she becomes a LAT, Living Alone Together. It’s one of the models we identified as working for many couples in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, and it’s one Vicki knows a lot about; her mom up and moved away from her dad for about 10 years to establish a life of her own several states away, making her a marital renegade. And, although it was not some well thought-out plan but rather a slow lifestyle choice, Vicki, too, has chosen to live apart from her partner.

As one can expect, Isabelle’s post garnered some flack — everything from she doesn’t know how to commit to her wanting her cake and eating it, too, to being “attachment phobic, juvenile, narcissistic” and everything in between — because a good number of people don’t like alternative views of what something “should” look like. It’s really hard for many people to envision something different than what they know. Worse, they don’t even want to question, well, would this be better? No, even people who probably jump at the latest technological gadget still fall for a relationship that looks like everyone else’s.

Standing up for her vision of freedom is Salon writer Rachel Kramer Bussel, who says:

What I see is a woman being practical, both about what she wants, and what’s realistic. … She’s talking about trusting someone enough to not need to monitor them or your relationship status. … she wants to know that her partner can handle themselves while they’re away, and that she can too, and that maybe in their separateness, they will learn things about themselves they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, in the same room.

And according to recent research, that’s likely true; couples that live apart feel happier in their relationship than couples that live together, and feel more committed and less trapped. When you live apart, you actively work on that commitment and trust; it’s never taken for granted. That’s the kind of work relationships need — not “date nights.”

And there are a lot more of us than one might think.

Sharon Hyman, who is making a documentary about people who choose that lifestyle, wonderfully named Apartners: Living Happily Ever After Apart, has started a Facebook page for like-minded people to share stories, discuss issues and research, and explore out-of-the box approaches to love, whether unmarried or married. Please join us.

Maybe Living Apart Together isn’t quite what Isabelle wants; after all, she says “I will want to go home with you. I want to be the one with whom you love to make love and fall asleep.” Ah, but that happens in LAT partnerships, too. Just not every night.

Interested in individualizing your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

Redefining love and marriage in the 21st century

Valentine’s Day is upon us, and while many still struggle with the perfect way to celebrate the day, most will follow some sort of tradition — roses, chocolates, a fancy dinner out, jewelry, lingerie (and perhaps some handcuffs, given this weekend’s opening of the much-awaited film Fifty Shades of Grey). tnid_flowchart_val

Despite that, there are some major shifts afoot in the way we love, partner, become parents and indulge our sexual passions. Given that, here’s what we predict, based on current trends and research, love and marriage will look like in the years ahead.

Experiments in non-monogamy

Monogamy has long been assumed to be the default if you’re in a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, few have questioned that — until recently. More Millennials are exploring, or at least interested in exploring, the idea of ethical non-monogamy.

Take Chris Messina, the 30-something entrepreneur who brought the concept of hashtags to Twitter. He declared that he is in a monogamish relationship, a term coined by sex columnist and author Dan Savage to define romantic partnerships that are mostly monogamous, but that can openly accommodate sexual relationships outside the partnership. He certainly isn’t the only one who is questioning monogamy’s stronghold, but he identifies the reality for young people navigating today’s technology-driven world:

We’re now living in a period of great (though unequally distributed) abundance where our basic needs are sufficiently met, and reproduction is a choice. As a result, the reasons to be with a single mate for life are less urgent. And with the advent of connected mobile devices and the internet, we’ve entered into the era I’ve dubbed Big Dating. Big Dating unbundles monogamy and sex. … But fear not: just because a viable alternative to “happily ever after” is in ascendancy doesn’t mean monogamy is irrelevant. To the contrary, it just means that there’s now more than one option for building meaningful and satisfying relationships.

They are also taking a new look at infidelity. While in days past many of us might assume infidelity is a ticket straight to divorce court, soon-to-be-wed couples we spoke with said they wouldn’t necessarily jump ship. In fact, one study found that half of the newlywed women surveyed said they expected infidelity would be part of their marriage while other studies found that a good percentage of newlyweds under the age of 35 have already had affairs.

All of which means sexual fidelity may not be as essential to a successful marriage as it was in the past.

 Co-parenting without love

First comes love, then come marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage, the old song went. But not for Millennials; 52 percent say being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life while a mere 30 percent say the same about having a successful marriage, according to a recent Pew study.

Fertility clinics are full of 30- and 40-something professional single women who are freezing their eggs as an insurance policy while they weigh the possibilities of becoming choice mothers, as Jillian Dunham detailed recently. That may skew younger as companies like Google and Facebook helping to pay for the costs of egg freezing for their female employees, many of whom are young.

While the conversation lately has been about how many socioeconomically disadvantaged women are having children outside of marriage as well as the rise in choice motherhood, don’t be surprised if we start talking instead about how more young couples are finding that it’s a much better deal — and a heck of a lot easier — to find someone who’ll be a good person to co-parent with than it is finding a soul mate.

Websites like Modamily.com and Coparents.com, which help match men who are interested in being dads with women who are interested In being moms, are making it easier to enable couples, romantic or not, to come together for one purpose — have kids and co-parent. It’s a model that’s worked well for many years for same-sex couples, but is now also becoming attractive to heteros. As one child psychologist noted, “Compared with conventional parenting where the mother and father have to constantly be ‘in love’ in front of their child, co-parenting doesn’t include the ‘strain’ of marriage. Also, a child conceived in a co-parenting scenario has access to two loving parents, who have made a conscious effort to conceive this child and may be more financially ready.”

For a generation that values good parenting, non-romantic co-parenting may offer their kids the stability they need to thrive.

Multiple partnering

Forget marriage where “until death do us part” is the marker of its success. Many of us aren’t marrying that way, according to a recent Pew study that found that 40 percent of newlyweds in 2013 had already tied the knot before. It’s clear we aren’t living up to that ideal, if forever actually was an ideal.

Millennials are open to short-term marriages, or “beta marriages,” after which their union could be formalized or dissolved without a lot of drama or expense. It’s a step above living together because, let’s face it, the government gives married couples about 1,000 perks. Beyond that, people don’t know what to make of people who cohabit while we all understand what it means to be a wife and a husband. Cohabiting couples just don’t get treated the same, nor do they see themselves as the same as married couples.

As Helen Fisher notes, that’s how we used to do it: in hunting-gathering societies, men and women paired two or three times in their short lives. “Across prehistory, serial pairing was probably the norm — as it is becoming once again,” she says. Given that we are living longer than ever before, with some predicting that we may live to 150 years or more, multiple partnerships are almost a given, especially since more than half of Millennial men and women believe a marriage can be successful even if it doesn’t last forever.

But don’t worry — despite all these changes, you can still celebrate Valentine’s Day the traditional way.

Want to win a free copy of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels? Seal Press is running a contest on Goodreads through Feb. 23. Enter here and good luck! You can also download an eBook  for just $1.99 though March 15.

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

 

Love, sex, kids and marriage

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We were fortunate to have been asked to be on The Better Show to talk about The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels with co-hosts JD Roberto and Kristina Behr

We spoke with them first, and then had a conversation with Lori Zaslow and Jennifer Zucher, co-owners of the matchmaking service Project Soulmate. We wish we had more time to address some of the old-fashioned thinking of Zaslow and Zucher — the same thinking that is making couples miserable in their marriages — but we feel pretty lucky to have had as much time as we had.

The conversation is broken down into four segments; watch and then tell us what you think.

Is marriage still about love?

What’s a test drive marriage?

What’s love got to do with it?

Do the kids know if your marriage is a fraud?

What marriage offers that living together doesn’t

Family-leaving-house

For the first time in literally thousands of years, marriage in our Western culture has viable, socially acceptable, competition while the pressures (and necessitation) of marriage have diminished greatly.

In the past 50 years, the marriage rate in the U.S. has fallen dramatically. In 2008, a mere 26% (one quarter) of people in their 20’s were married as compared to 68% (two thirds) in 1960.

We have not stopped coupling in our culture (although staying single is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice for younger adults). Instead, increasing numbers of up-and-comers have rejected tradition not legalizing their unions; even when they go on to have children.

Having lived with serious boyfriends at different points in their lives, Susan and Vicki understand this choice and believe in many ways, it makes sense. There are things you learn about togetherness in general and your partner in particular that you might not learn any other way. There is also a stronger sense of commitment (albeit unspoken in most cases) in a relationship when you live together.

What’s the advantage to shacking up over marriage? You can have a lovely relationship, be very committed in the moment, and yet, if or when you break up, you can simply go your separate ways back out into your single worlds. It’s certainly easier and cleaner to split when you don’t have all the legalities to contend with: Maybe just a few dishes, airline points or pieces of furniture to split, but nothing small claims court can’t handle.

But here’s the rub: Big problems emerge when couples make other kinds of long term commitments that do bind them legally—like buying property together or worse, having children together—without having protections in place. As outdated as marriage can be, one thing it does do is provide important protections to both parties if a breakup occurs.

No one knows that better than the one who got the raw end of a real estate deal (with no recourse) or the one who got booted out on the street with a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old.  While there are laws that protect children in those situations, there are not the same protections for partners as there are for spouses.

As the pendulum swings toward a less structured paradigm, we’ll likely start seeing and hearing more about this kind of fallout. And it won’t be pretty.

Why can’t we have more options than risking so much by coupling but avoiding marriage or opting for security by marrying someone we may not want to be with forever? It’s not as if it’s never been done before.

The Romans had three different levels of marriage: Confarreatio, the most formal option had more religious overtones; Coemptio, was a less formal and more business-like union; and Usus, was an informal marriage that occurred by default when a couple lived together for more than a year. (Confarreatio and Coemptio required ceremonies but Usus did not have a marriage ceremony).

Throughout history, people have married for all kinds of reasons that had nothing to do with love—primarily for business and monetary gain, for political gain and to procreate. Love was even seen as an impractical emotion in these relationships. The Greeks, seeing the insanity caused by those in love, coined the phrase “lovesick.” Indeed, some cultures even described love as dangerous when it came to setting up stable family structures.

Having spent the past two years (and more) researching the subject of marriage for our book, we can tell you that informal changes are actually happening to the institution behind closed doors.

Unbeknownst to family, friends, and clergy, young couples tying the knot are agreeing to themselves the conditions they want to see in place. Ryan and Lisa is one such example: These 30-somethings are marrying with a purpose and an end date (rather than out of love “because it’s what you do.”). They agreed to have children together but they also agreed that their marriage would end when the kids are out of the house (the option to stay married was there, but not the expectation).

At the other end of the age spectrum, unapologetic third-time marriers (many of whom are Baby Boomers) are stating unequivocally that they want only the best parts of marriage. How are they doing this? Many are vehement about maintaining their autonomy. Some are choosing to live in separate houses, others are asking for open marriages, and still others are quite frank about needing practical things like someone to grow old with, someone with insurance benefits or someone who has financial security.

Far from breaking from traditional marriage, these seeming rebels are reverting back to ways of old. Yet, because they fear being judged, many of these couples keep these arrangements secret. But why? Are they really doing anything wrong? Are these couples harming themselves? Are they harming anyone else? Are they taking anything away from anyone?

If you think about it, marriages based on love often have the most fallout because love is fragile. Love can easily turn to dashed expectations (especially since expectations are so much higher for lovers than they are for friends), jealousy, betrayal and even hatred. These are the things that crimes of passion are borne out of.

Now, this is not to say that love has absolutely no place in marriage, but perhaps love shouldn’t be in the number one spot. Perhaps we should rethink purpose-driven marriages rather than emotion-driven ones. Perhaps we should give individual couples the right to pick and choose aspects of relationship that they want rather than assuming that monogamy and forever are right for everyone. As things stand now, those who don’t play by the current rules are told they are doing something wrong, or they are looked at as odd, damaged or unlucky.

Whether you agree with this article or not, we hope this topic will get you talking with others about the shame-based all-or-nothing paradigm we have now.

We received a terrific compliment recently from a TV talk-show producer. He said that before he read the book, he was against the concept. He fully expected to disagree with us. But, when he read the book, he realized that what we said made good sense and he thanked us for writing it.

If you’d like to open your mind and read more about these ideas, pick up a copy of The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. If you know someone who’s just about to get married or re-married, do them a favor and get them a copy of The New I Do. And, finally, if you or someone you know is considering ending his or her marriage, tell him or her to read this book first. There may be a creative solution to the marriage’s problem in its pages.