Margaret Mead was right — marriage should be temporary

Recently, sexologist and author Nikki Goldstein suggested that marriage should be a 10-year contract.

It better reflects how people are actually living these days, she says.

Currently, the only way we can determine if a marriage is “successful” is longevity. In other words, if someone dies, success! But we’ve all seen marriages that have lasted “until death” that were pretty miserable — why do we consider that a success?

Enter the idea of a limited-time marital contract.

I’m all for them. But why 10 years? That’s too short a time to raise children to adulthood (about 18 years, give or take) and too long if you just want to see if marriage is a good fit for you before you have kids (assuming you want them), a so-called beta marriage. Those are the two types of time-limited marital contracts suggested in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, 2014). But every couple should be free to determine how often they would consider renewing, renegotiating or ending their marital contract based on their goals and values; 10 years is a rather meaningless number.

Two-step version of marriage

Although suggested by various people throughout history, it was lauded anthropologist Margaret Mead who popularized the idea that a couple only needs to stay together to raise their kids; that’s their “job.” In the late 1960s, Mead suggested a two-step version of marriage — an “individual commitment” for youthful passion and sex (but no children) that could easily be dissolved or, if they wished, converted into a “parental commitment” if they were ready to have kids. She also believed once the children were grown and out of the house, couples might desire to split and find a different person to be a companion in their old age.

Why does this matter? For many reasons, but here’s one couples rarely think about nowadays as they search for a “soulmate” and marry for love (which, as historian Stephanie Coontz has famously written, destroyed the institution of marriage): the traits that you might want in a person to co-parent with may be different than the traits you want someone to spend your romantic life with. Which is why platonic parenting is catching on.

Ancient concept — and practice

The idea of temporary marriage, or a renewable marriage, is hardly new. In fact, temporary marriages have actually been successfully practiced for centuries, among Peruvian Indians in the Andes, in 15th-century Indonesia, in ancient Japan and the Islamic world and elsewhere. And proposals for temporary marriages have popped up in recent years in Mexico City, Germany and the Philippines.

Are we finally ready to actually adopt renewable marriages? I make an argument for it in Aeon. As we approach the wedding season, it’s a timely discussion.

Redefining love and marriage in the 21st century

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

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

Experiments in non-monogamy

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

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

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

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

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

 Co-parenting without love

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

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

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

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

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

Multiple partnering

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Love, sex, kids and marriage

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

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

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

Is marriage still about love?

What’s a test drive marriage?

What’s love got to do with it?

Do the kids know if your marriage is a fraud?

Why a beta marriage is not enough

If you’re to believe a (clearly unscientific) survey conducted by the USA Network in conjunction with Satisfaction, its new TV series, Millennials are open to ditching the “until death do us part” version of marriage for a beta marriage — a limited term marital contract. At least that’s how Jessica Bennett saw it in her Time magazine last week, “The Beta Marriage: How Millennials Approach ‘I Do,'”  which was discussed at Jezebel, Salon, Fox News and a gazillion other media outlets, some of which began wringing their hands over the idea that young people may not be committed to go the distance.   Millennial marriage

Whoa, slow down! It’s not about a lack of commitment; young adults are wisely postponing marriage, and because of that they have more opportunities to have several committed relationships before they tie the knot. In fact, they’re getting better at commitment because they are approaching it consciously. As one Millennial tells Bennett:

“Millennials aren’t scared of commitment — we’re just trying to do commitment more wisely. We rigorously craft our social media and online dating profiles to maximize our chances of getting a first date, and ‘beta testing’ is just an extension of us trying to strategize for future romantic success.”

We love the term beta marriage and wish we had used it in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels instead of using the name that caused a similar kerfuffle a decade or so ago, a starter marriage.

Whatever you call it, the idea of a short-term contractual marriage is not new, as Bennett points out — anthropologist Margaret Mead was talking about such an arrangement back in the 1970s. But as our research for The New I Do uncovered, the idea of a short, childfree (yes, that part is essential) marriage goes, way, way back (you may be surprised to learn how far back, but you’ll have to buy the book).

So much for Millennials creating a new marital model!

Nevertheless, we’re encouraged to read that young adults are looking at our current “traditional” model that bases a successful marriage solely on longevity and sexual fidelity, and deciding, nah, that just isn’t working. That is exactly what we hope people get from The New I Do — an awareness of whether the marital model we know still works for who we are today.

OK, if beta/starter marriages have been around for so long, why aren’t we embracing them? Why aren’t they the norm? Well, more people are having beta marriages although it’s still a pretty small amount — just 17 percent divorce before their fifth wedding anniversary — but there’s still a lot of shame, judgment and sense of failure around short marriages (and divorce in general) and, let’s face it, it’s hard to embrace something that a huge portion of society pooh-poohs.

But Millennials may change that — they may be the first generation to remove the stigma around short marriages, just like they may change expectations about monogamy since the same survey reveals many Gen Xers and Yers believe it’s “a social expectation but not a biological reality.” Because it isn’t biological — monogamy is a choice.

Yet, short contractual marriages will not necessarily give couples what they want from that marriage; why marry for two or five or eight years if you don’t have particular goals in mind? While The New I Do suggests the idea of limited contractual marriages, we believe couples must agree in advance what their responsibilities in the marriage are and what they want the marriage to accomplish. That way, they can determine when the time to renew the contract or not is upon them whether their marriage was successful by their definition of success. And it’s a way to hold themselves accountable. The goals of a starter marriage are going to be a lot different than, say, the goals of a parenting marriage.

None of this means that people won’t be able to marry for lifelong commitment and sexual fidelity; that choice will likely always be available for those who want it. But what’s exciting is how young people are willing to put marriage and all its trappings under the microscope and decide for themselves what a successful marriage “looks like.” That is exactly how you create stable, happy marriages. And isn’t that what the conservatives (many of whom are pushing to make divorce harder) say they want?

What do you think about beta marriages?