What’s holding couples back from having an egalitarian marriage?

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. His and her marriage

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:

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).

Poet Jill Bialosky once wrote, ‘‘I had wanted to get married, but I realized now that I had never wanted to be ‘a wife.’’’ Oprah Winfrey doesn’t want to be a wife, either. What about you?

Want to have an “our” 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.

How Maria Bello can help you avoid Divorce Month

It’s January — known among attorneys as Divorce Month because more people file for divorce this month than any other month.

Few people get upset if there are no children involved in a marital breakup, but everyone — friends, family and even people who seemingly have no business in what’s basically a private decision — pays attention if a couple has young children.

Is there an alternative to divorce?

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. Maria_Bello

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?

She writes:

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.

She, Jackson, Dan and Clare spend a lot of time together in what she calls their “modern family” — it certainly doesn’t look like a nuclear family, an image we still want to cling to even though those families barely exist nowadays. She has what The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels would call a parenting marriage (although they’re not technically married); Bello is connected to Dan because they are parents to Jackson, now 14, and that will never change — parenthood connects couples forever, whether they are married or not.

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.

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”

Forget about wedding planners; you need a marital planner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that what you want?

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

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.

Should modern marriage have modern goals?

(This article was inspired by a recent interview Susan had with FoxNews radio personality, Vipp Jaswal that may be heard here)

Marriage-1074x483

Are you happy and fulfilled in your marriage or are you pre-
tending? Do you
fantasize about life as an “independent?” Would friends and family be shocked if you announced that you and your spouse were divorcing?

Of the 60 percent of intact marriages (give or take a few percentages), many are not what we would consider good or healthy relationships. Yet, people stay because they made a commitment, or because they’re afraid to leave the kids with the other parent, or because they would face financial ruin if they split up.

 Given that we now live in a time of so much choice, older people aren’t staying so much any more. Gray divorces (those Americans over 50-years-old) have doubled since 1990.  But what if, rather than change your marital status, you change the status within your  marriage? What if rather than focusing on having the “love of your life,” who fulfills all of your needs, you focus on having a high functioning relationship that fulfills a good portion of the key areas in your life? What if you could preserve your legal union but expand your life from this home base?

Of course, not every marriage could handle these kinds of changes and, before elaborating on this idea, I feel it’s important to distinguish between a “bad” marriage and a “good enough” marriage.

In a “bad” marriage, one or both people feel unsafe in some way or things do not improve despite attempts to help the relationship (or, your partner blocks you from getting help in which case, the marriage is surely doomed).

A “good enough” marriage is one in which you and your spouse have a basic trust of one another as co-parents, for example, or you feel comfortable relying on each other financially, socially or simply as a roommate.

If your marriage is good enough, try talking to your mate about changing your agreements and goals for the marriage.

An example of this is transitioning from a love-based partnership to a purpose-based relationship. One Colorado couple, Cynthia and Dennis, went from having a “traditional” marriage to a Parenting Marriage because they decided that the romantic part of their relationship had expired but their kids were still young enough that they both wanted to be as present as possible. Since they co-parent well together, this arrangement has really worked well.

Some couples have chosen to live in separate homes, while others have agreed that they won’t have children and they’ll focus on creating wealth by being DINKS (double income, no kids). Still others will stay married in order to share experiences, travel, co-exist in the house, or take care of each other. Betsy and Warren Talbot exemplify the couple who at one point were focused on earning to their maximum potential. They are traveling the world and have started a blog/website called Married with Luggage. Last we heard from them, they were in Spain.

In researching our latest book, The New I Do Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, we uncovered seven alternatives to the love-based model we’ve come to equate with conventional marriage.

They are: Starter Marriage, Companionship Marriage, Parenting Marriage, Living Alone Together, Safety Marriage, Covenant Marriage and Open Marriage  (link is external).

With the exception of the first model (which is not a legal option because it’s against public policy to plan the demise of a marriage), all of these options are being practiced in one way or another with people throughout the Western world (even in the U.S!).

These alternatives have helped many people remain in their marriages by allowing couples to taper their nuptials to their own needs. If marriage in general is going to survive, it surely needs to change. If you feel your marriage needs some changes in order to survive, you may want to research one of these options.

Tweaking the way we relate within the institution of marriage is truly a way to have your wedding cake and eat it, too.

7 things engaged couples need to talk about right now

This article was written by Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson

You have the ring you wanted, the partner you wanted and you’re planning for the future you wanted. You and your partner have a unique relationship. So why would you want to have the same marriage everyone else has? You don’t want to just create a life with your partner; you want to create a specific kind of life. Here are some questions to ask yourself and your partner before your big day, so you can couple consciously.  engaged couples

1. Why are we tying the knot?
If you’re like many couples, you may have been living together for a while. You could have continued on that way without the stress and expense of planning a wedding. Gone are the days when people had to marry to have kids, have a live-in partner, financial security or sex. So you need to ask yourself and your partner, “Why are we marrying?” Are you feeling pressured by your family or your biological clock? Are all your friends marrying and moving on with their lives? Do you just want to make a formal statement of your commitment? You might be surprised by how much clarity your answers will bring.

2. What do we want to happen in the first three to five years?
How your marriage begins matters. The early years lay the foundation for the many anniversaries to follow. Map out what you’d like them to look like: Do you want to have kids right away or wait a few years? Do you want to live in the city, the suburbs or on a ranch? Does one of you need to finish earning a degree or do you want to travel? A marriage map keeps you on the same path. Just like in business, it’s a good idea to make short-term goals in addition to long-term goals.

3. What about kids?
If you haven’t talked about kids, now’s the time to do it. Kids are one of the greatest marriage and life game-changers so ask a lot of questions of yourself and your mate. Don’t assume your betrothed wants children just because you do. Talk about your desires openly and honestly. If you both want kids, share what you believe your strengths and weaknesses might be as parents. Will one of you stay home or will you hire a nanny? What will schooling look like? What about discipline? It’s better to know your differences now so you can address them as early as possible.

4. How will we handle our finances?
Money is one of the top subjects couples fight about so it’s important to talk frankly about debt, what each plans to contribute, whether one of you hopes to stop working, if there will be a main breadwinner and who will pay the bills. If you have concerns about your partner’s money matters now, pay attention; you’ll want to resolve any issues before you become fiscally entwined and legally bound.

5. Let’s talk about sex.
No one wants to think about infidelity when you’d rather be searching for the perfect gown, but we all know that cheating happens — a lot. You can’t affair-proof a marriage — it’s impossible to control your partner’s actions — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be talking about monogamy, sex and infidelity anyway. Monogamy is assumed once a couple becomes committed, but it’s actually a choice; are you both willingly choosing it? Are you good at it? Do you like it?

Then there’s sex, a source of conflict for many couples. Do you have different sexual energies and needs? How are you addressing them? What will you do if kids come along (they challenge every marriage’s sex life, especially in the first two years)?

Finally, how do you define infidelity — is it just intercourse or does it include watching porn, sexting, flirting? By agreeing about these things now, you’ll save yourselves a lot of heartache in the future.

6. Will we become our parents?
No matter how you feel about your parents, they were your first marital model — not a fairy tale in which the prince sweeps the princess off to his castle and they live happily ever after. Some of the patterns and behaviors you learned from them may creep into your marital life. You aren’t necessarily doomed to repeat them, but it would wise to explore how they have helped shape your view of relationships, love and marriage as well as your partner’s.

7. Should we get a prenup?
A prenup is to marriage what insurance is to your health and possessions; it provides protections in the event that something goes wrong. But there’s a much better reason to get a prenup than protection in the event of a divorce: It forces you and your partner to talk about expectations around money, work, home, kids, family and lifestyle. Not only do you get to plan married life together, but you also get to see how you each deal with difficult subjects. Given that you each may already have assets of your own, we encourage you to consider whether a prenup makes sense. If you can’t decide, seek advice from a professional.

Why a parenting marriage trumps conscious uncoupling

Many people have been curious about what’s involved in a parenting marriage — how do you tell the kids, what about love, what about sex? Here’s a peek into what’s involved in an article Vicki wrote for The Guardian:

Valerie Tate knew her marriage was over seven years after she’d wed. parenting marriage

She and her husband, Clark, tried therapy but they eventually realized that they wanted different things in an intimate relationship. As a therapist, she’d seen the damage divorce could do, especially to kids. The last thing they wanted to do was to drag their son Jonah, now 11, through an ugly breakup while they all were grieving. So they decided that they’d stop working on their marriage, which wasn’t helping anyway, and try something different.

Whatever you think about Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling”, the San Francisco Bay Area couple did one better; they uncoupled but didn’t divorce. They stayed married and they stayed put. They just removed the romantic and sexual aspect of their marriage, but remained loving and respectful to each other, and focused on co-parenting.

Read the rest of the story here.

Read through the comments, too; many believe, as we do, that it makes sense. Here’s a sampling:

“How will they learn about love” – I would reckon they will grow up with a far better understanding of love than the rest of us. Love is what a parent has for a child. Romantic love is a myth perpetuated by society and does most of us nothing but harm. Platonic parenting sounds a very good idea.”

***

“A great article on a very important topic. Looking around, it seems to me that something along these lines is on many people’s minds. I may not have read each and every comment but so far, have not seen anything on how to work it out with the “other” person outside the marriage. Which is what I happen to be! The only way through any of this is open communication, one step at a time, being honest about where you are at including fears about “how is this going to work”??????? We are writing the book as we go. So far, so good and I pray it stays that way. I am definitely not into wrecking anyones marriage or making a hard time for the child … or the mother. Having grown up in a hell of a family, that would be the last thing I want.”

***

“Love the way this was written! Started out thinking this concept is just odd but after reading the article, i just think it’s interesting and would like to know more! I just wished it was longer.

“Children are love radars; they can feel when there’s love and kindness and they can feel when there’s hurt and cutoff between parents,” says Valerie Tate, who works with couples to bring loving feelings back into their relationship and has helped a handful of couples transform their marriages into similar arrangements. “The way people treat each other makes a huge difference.”

This is so, so true. My parents loathed each even before I was born (how my brother or I were conceived is a complete mystery to me) and didn’t get divorced before I was 15. Our household was nothing but hell – screaming behind closed doors, death/violent threats and both of them trying to us on their side by describing what a shitty person their partner is. I have forgiven my parents but it was utter hell. I don’t think this model would have worked for them (completely opposite parenting styles) but nothing could have been worse than growing up on a psychological battlefield.”

What do you think?

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook.