If you have love, do you need commitment, too?

Recently there were two stories that addressed the “happily-ever-after” version of marriage many of us expect, or at least want to believe.

Actress Drew Barrymore and her third husband, art consultant Will Kopelman, are divorcing after two children and three years of marriage. At the same time, a Maine couple were being honored for their 77-year marriage and, as nursing home residents, for “their achievements and contributions to the community” until the wife passed away last month.

According to the vice president and director of communications for the Maine Health Care Association: “It was pretty obvious that in everything they were a team. Who’s married that long now? I mean, really. That was really impressive.”

Dos commitment matter?It’s only later in the article that we learn why they might have lasted that long — the wife’s “tolerance for the things (her husband) did” was the secret to their long marriage, which was not without its struggles: “He was very headstrong. If there was something he wanted to do, he was going to do it.”

Hmm, should we actually celebrate that?

When people are asked why they want to get married, an overwhelming number (88 percent) say love is a “very important” reason to get married. A close second is making a lifelong commitment (81 percent).

Yet, we are often fuzzy on defining commitment — a number of people say commitment is very important in their marriage yet if their spouse has an affair, well, bye-bye commitment and hello divorce. Clearly, commitment will only go so far.

Still, society tends to emphasize how important commitment is in marriage and if someone divorces, especially for seemingly “trivial” issues, his or her character often comes into doubt. Thus, commitment takes on a moral value: the more committed you are, the more you love your spouse.

But is that true?

Love should be enough

Anca Gheaus, a philosophy professor whose work I’ve come to admire, questions those assumptions. In fact, she questions if love shouldn’t matter more than commitment in a marriage.

There are two types of commitment, she notes — the promises and the behaviors, and attitudinal. Marriage has both; it’s a contract, with spouses-to-be promising each other certain things over the course of the marriage as well as the daily negotiations that build trust, but it also indicates that spouses think about “each other and their relationship as central to their idea of a good life, and, in least in love-based marriages, to their identity.”

But, she questions, why is it important for people to commit to other people and a relationship just because it’s part of how they see themselves and their life?

“It may be true that most of the things that give meaning to people’s lives are those to which they are usually committed. But commitment does not seem to be necessary for meaning; being engaged with people and activities about which one cares is enough.”

Is commitment, then, really important in a marriage? True, commitment may keep spouses from splitting if more tempting partners or activities that would take time and energy away from the relationship suddenly appear. But, she notes, a more likely reason commitment matters is because it’s hard to live with someone else day in and day out, and commitment keeps a couple going and working toward a life plan together even when things are tough and they may not want to.

Does that mean we really need commitment? With all due respect to the Beatles, wouldn’t all we need is love? If someone loved us, wouldn’t he or she be kind to us and do nice things for us and hang around because of that love? And wouldn’t we do the same?

“As long as love, understood minimally as the inclination to seek another’s companionship and advance her well-being, exists, commitment is not necessary. One need not be committed to one’s beloved in order to suspend any cost-benefit analysis of the relationship … the appearance of more desirable partners will not be a reason to leave the marriage if one loves one’s spouse. … A world where the goods of marriage were achieved without commitment, out of love alone, would therefore be a better world; marital commitment seems to be a second-best solution to securing the goods of marriage.”

Of course, love is fragile and can disappear, too; that’s in part why spouses commit to each other — to kind of “lock in” some future love. But, is that what we really want — someone to be with us out of commitment than out of a deliberate decision to be with us because they love us? Does it really build character to keep staying with someone we no longer love? Love may be a better way to be with someone because “love is a direct reaction to the reality of the beloved” and is in the moment and has nothing to do with the promise you made three, 10 or 77 years ago to stick together “until death.”

Again, this speaks to the beauty of a renewable marital contract, in which spouses would have to react to “the reality of the beloved” every so often and decide — are we still in because we want to be here or not? Are we loving each other in the way we want to be loved?

Why stay together?

Barrymore and Kopelman evidently are no longer in love. Would commitment be reason enough for them to stay together? “Well, they have young kids,” you might be thinking, “and they should stick it out for them.” But, does their romantic and sexual relationship have anything at all to do with their ability to parent their children? No. If anything we’ve seen how love and sex — or the lack thereof — make spouses miserable.

If commitment matters at all, it should be the commitment to the children, not necessarily to each other. So they could transform their marriage into a parenting marriage until their daughters Olive, 3, and Frankie, 23 months, become 18 since they’ve acknowledged that the girls will bind them together forever. And that is exactly what binds a couple — kids, more than a desire to “lock in” a future together and much more than love.

Does their decision to split make them any better or worse than the Maine couple who stayed together for 77 years — seemingly at the expense of the wife’s self-esteem and perhaps happiness? Yet, that marriage is being celebrated for longevity, whether love was still present or not, while Barrymore is seen as a failure because this is her third marriage.

Demanding commitment in a marriage is basically saying we know our partner may stop loving us at some point but we still want him or her to hang around forever. Or, we may stop loving our partner — now what?

Want to learn how to create a marriage based on your values and goals? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and  follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

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.

 

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.

You don’t have to have a ‘gray divorce’

Nothing will make you think more about what marriage is about than a divorce. But there’s divorce and then there’s divorce. When Vicki divorced in her 20s and they had nothing — no property, no savings, no kids — it was emotionally challenging, true, but that’s about it. If someone presented her with a way to make the marriage work, she probably would have said, Why? We made a mistake; it’s over!

But when she divorced at midlife with stuff (a house, a car, a dog and, most important, young kids) it was much more complicated. While many people argue about the stuff and money, the bigger issue is the kids: How will we raise them until they can be self-sufficient? renegotiate marital contract

Now a friend is in the midst of a divorce and her kids, at 21 and 25, are no longer “kids;” they’re self-sufficient adults. What does divorce mean at this point?

Are there alternatives that might be available for midlife couples who are struggling?

Yes.

While divorce is on the decline among younger couples, the so-called gray divorce — among those 50 and older — is growing. While most divorces are initiated by women, it hurts women more than the men — 27 percent of gray divorced women live in poverty compared with 11 percent of gray divorced men, according to a recent Bowling Green State University study.

While boomer women were renegades and feminists, and many of us had full-time careers while raising kids, we are still paid less than men are and many of us still resorted to traditional male breadwinner-female housekeeping roles when we married, which inevitably hurt us in the event of a divorce (a model that, despite all our progress, still seems to be the default for Gen-Yers and millennials). Plus, we live longer than men.

Knowing that, is there something else we could be doing?

In some instances, yes. Even if you didn’t create a contract at the onset of your marriage, you can certainly create one after the fact.

Vicki’s second marriage fell apart after the discovery of a long-term affair as well as other issues. Her initial reaction was to save the marriage because her kids were young, 9 and 12, and she was scared. She’d only worked part time since they were born, and they weren’t a wealthy family to begin with.

They could have transformed their marriage into a parenting marriage, giving their kids the consistency and stability they needed while separating the sexual/romantic aspect of their relationship from their parenting relationship, which is one of the models in The New I Do. Would that have worked? In the aftermath of a long-term affair, Vicki didn’t know. Would she have considered it if it had been presented to her by a marriage counselor? Absolutely.

Sadly, you are not going to hear about parenting marriages from marriage counselors, except from people like Susan, because it’s not in their frame of reference. Same with renegotiating the marital contract. Which is why Susan and Vicki have been presenting before local therapists, helping them help their clients.

A blog post from more than a year ago on this website has hundreds of comments from people in a sexless marriage (by their definition) exploring the many ways they have tried to cope — suffer, divorce or cheat. The option of opening up their marriage will never come up in a therapy session because traditionally, therapists don’t think that way. What we need is therapists who are not only able to consider suggesting an open marriage, but also knowledgeable enough to offer support and information to help those who may see it as an option.

But, let’s say there hasn’t been an affair or any sort of major dysfunction. Let’s consider middle-aged empty-nesters, suddenly staring at each across the breakfast table without the distraction of children for the first time in decades. Many couples might discover they have little in common with their spouse anymore, and any conversation that doesn’t involve the kids or household issues feels strained. This is especially true when husbands retire and they’re around 24/7. Which is why many older couples are willing to call it quits and move on.

Given the economic hit they’ll take, they could find other ways to be connected to each other while also creating space that honors their individual needs and “me” time. They could consider living apart together, again, another model in The New I Do.

None of this is to say we’re for or against divorce or marital longevity; most of us fall in and out of love with several people before we find someone we actually might want to be in love with for the rest of our life — if we even want that — and many people are much happier after divorcing.

But we are for letting people know they have options. Your marriage is yours to create and re-create. Go for it!

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

Yes, you can write your own marital contract

The idea of a marital contract sounds new, but it actually isn’t.

The debut issue of Ms. magazine, in 1971, which was an insert in New York magazine, included an article on “How to Write Your Own Marriage Contract” by Susan Edmiston, who interviews two couples who created their own marriage contracts.

Why? Despite the cries of today’s men’s rights movement, marriage was not so great for women in the 1960s:

Margaret Sanger and second husband J. Noah H. Slee in 1927. The couple had a marriage contract in which they agreed to live apart.

Margaret Sanger and second husband J. Noah H. Slee had a marriage contract in which they agreed to live apart.

  • We could be fired if we got pregnant (until 1978)
  • Sexually harassed at work? Too bad (until 1977)
  • We couldn’t get our own credit card (until 1972)
  • We couldn’t refuse to have sex with our husband (until the mid-’70s in some states, in all 50 states in 1993)
  • We couldn’t get a divorce without having to prove fault (until 1969)

 

Not surprisingly, it was the wives who insisted on the contracts to deal with what clearly were marital inequities.

One couple, the Shulmans, created a marital contract after they had kids, when their previously egalitarian partnership fell into old gendered patterns, which despite how far we’ve come, baby, since then, still occurs today. (It also was a way to salvage a marriage doomed for divorce, and was roundly mocked by Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and Russell Baker.)

The other couple started off with a contract, one that dealt with chores, cooking and finances. When their daughter was born, they renegotiated their contract again to include childcare, which the wife, psychologist Barbara Koltuv, admits was a struggle — one that I’ll bet most women can relate to:

The hardest thing was being willing to give up control. What we call responsibility is often control, power, being the boss. When I was really able to recognize that my husband’s relationship with Hannah is his and mine is mine, everything was all right. He’s going to do it differently but he’s going to do it all right. We’ve been teaching her all along that different people are different.”

But marriage contracts between spouses date back farther than the ’60s and ’70s.

Social critic Mary Wollstonecraft was philosophically against marriage but married William Godwin in 1796 after they discovered she was pregnant (she died in childbirth six months later), yet they had a “highly unconventional marriage during which they lived far enough apart to permit the continuing exchange of letters.”

Abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone and activist Henry Blackwell created a contract when they wed in 1855, mostly in protest of coverture, in which women lost their legal existence to their husband once they married.

So did birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and her second husband, oil billionaire J. Noah H. Slee, whom she married in 1922. She wanted autonomy so they had a LAT, living apart together, arrangement, first in separate homes and then in separate parts of the same house.

Finally, Jackie Kennedy allegedly had a contract when she wed Aristotle Onassis in 1968, in which she declared her independence as well as separate homes and separate bedrooms within their shared homes. (It was also a safety marriage).

OK, we no longer have coverture and we have more egalitarian marriages than ever before, and thankfully women have financial independence. So do we really need individualized marital contracts?

Before you say yes or no, let’s look at what Edmiston includes in her article’s “utopian marriage contract” — agreements about birth control, having/adopting children, how children will be brought up, whose job will determine where and how the couple lives (including separate bedrooms or homes), how child care and housework will be divvied up, how they will handle finances, and sexual rights and freedoms.

Given how many of those are things couples still argue about today, and as women debate if they can have it all or just lean in, why would anyone, especially women, be hesitant to create a plan that honored both spouses’ needs and expectations?

Unless perhaps the dirty secret is that we really don’t want marital equality. As Alix Kates Shulman, profiled in that 1971 Ms. article, wrote just recently:

The idea’s limited success is hardly surprising, given the economic, social, and psychological arrangements that continue to impede equality, in marriage and out. Such strains doomed my own marriage, along with half the marriages in America. Probably not until the polity is more child- and woman-friendly, not until men and women are equally valued — economically and otherwise — not until free or low-cost quality childcare is universally available, will the ideal of equality in marriage be other than radical.”

Could it be that we women don’t really want an equal partnership? Many married moms have said they’d prefer to work part time, echoing what the rest of society believes is ideal for kids, while the majority of men would just prefer to work outside the home. And maybe, as Koltuv discovered, it’s just too hard for women to give up control.

Can we have egalitarian marriages when one spouse works full time and the other works part time, when one spouse is unable or unwilling to give up control? Or does equality even matter as long as both spouses are happy with the arrangement?

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.

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.