Do we need marriage? The answer to that question might be found in Iceland.
For much of history, marriage mattered. It was a way to make sure property could be passed to heirs, alliances could be forged (often to avoid wars), children could be reared, society could be assured that caregiving would be taken care of and a lot of other practical matters, as historian and Marriage, a History author Stephanie Coontz has extensively detailed. And it’s true that marriage matters today in the U.S., because it grants those who tie the know more than 1,100 perks and protections — and that’s just at the federal level. But what if marriage didn’t matter — people could be romantically partnered or not, have children as part of a couple or not, and still be accepted by society and set up to succeed. Enter Iceland, where more than two-thirds of babies — 67 percent — are born to parents who aren’t married. And no one is freaking out about it. Would we still need marriage? Good question.
I recently stumbled upon the setup for an episode of CNN’s The Wonder List, which sent reporter Bill Weir to the country to explore its many charms. Among them was the progressive way of thinking about how people can raise children without being married to each other.
OK, marriage is not just about having kids, so we need to be clear about that. But the belief that marriage is exactly about that — which means marriage must involve sex — creates a very narrow view of marriage, and thus a very narrow view of family. Which is probably why, in the U.S., single moms are blamed and shamed, and seen as a problem to be fixed.
But in Iceland? As one woman who has has three kids with two partners “and not a drop of shame or regret” tells Weir:
You have this horrible term in English, ‘broken families,’ which basically means just if you get divorced, then something’s broken. But that’s not the way it is in Iceland at all. We live in such a small and secure environment, and the women have so much freedom. So you can just, you can choose your life.”
Women having freedom to choose their life. Boy, doesn’t that sound good?
Since few Icelanders are religious, “there is no moral stigma attached to unwed pregnancy,” he writes. And that’s a huge difference between Iceland and the U.S. — as well as the fact that Iceland guarantees some of the most generous parental leave in the world. To read more, click here.
The conventions are over and there were a few speeches that will never be forgotten, Melania Trump‘s for one and Michelle Obama‘s for another. And then there was Bill Clinton’s about his wife and Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Of course Bill praised his wife. But as he did, many couldn’t help but wonder about their marriage, given his many public scandals over his indiscretions (and who knows how many private ones), and the fact that Hillary has continually stood by her man.
In fact, Bill addressed that directly: “She’ll never quit on you.”
The harder the Clintons have worked to preserve their marriage, the less easily that marriage has fit into easy stories about what true love should look like. … If I hated the choices Clinton’s husband, other politicians, the media and the American public forced her to make in the 1990s, the Clintons’ marriage also taught me that marriage is a mystery — not merely in that it’s perplexing, but that its power lies in part in the fact that any given marriage is not comprehensible to outsiders.
Thank you! Because it’s true — not every marriage fits into what we think, or have been told, “true love should look like” and, yes, relationships are often incomprehensible to those outside them. The problem isn’t with marriage and relationships per se; it’s more about the collective belief that there’s any “should” when it comes to love and marriage. Love is complicated and hard to define, so how can it look like one thing for all of us? And that means living with a partner’s sexual transgressions isn’t all that bad for some people as long as they’re getting other things from the marriage.
According to the vice president and director of communications for the Maine Health Care Association: “It was pretty obvious that in everything they were a team. Who’s married that long now? I mean, really. That was really impressive.”
It’s only later in the article that we learn why they might have lasted that long — the wife’s “tolerance for the things (her husband) did” was the secret to their long marriage, which was not without its struggles: “He was very headstrong. If there was something he wanted to do, he was going to do it.”
Hmm, should we actually celebrate that?
When people are asked why they want to get married, an overwhelming number (88 percent) say love is a “very important” reason to get married. A close second is making a lifelong commitment (81 percent).
Yet, we are often fuzzy on defining commitment — a number of people say commitment is very important in their marriage yet if their spouse has an affair, well, bye-bye commitment and hello divorce. Clearly, commitment will only go so far.
Still, society tends to emphasize how important commitment is in marriage and if someone divorces, especially for seemingly “trivial” issues, his or her character often comes into doubt. Thus, commitment takes on a moral value: the more committed you are, the more you love your spouse.
But is that true?
Love should be enough
Anca Gheaus, a philosophy professor whose work I’ve come to admire, questions those assumptions. In fact, she questions if love shouldn’t matter more than commitment in a marriage.
There are two types of commitment, she notes — the promises and the behaviors, and attitudinal. Marriage has both; it’s a contract, with spouses-to-be promising each other certain things over the course of the marriage as well as the daily negotiations that build trust, but it also indicates that spouses think about “each other and their relationship as central to their idea of a good life, and, in least in love-based marriages, to their identity.”
But, she questions, why is it important for people to commit to other people and a relationship just because it’s part of how they see themselves and their life?
“It may be true that most of the things that give meaning to people’s lives are those to which they are usually committed. But commitment does not seem to be necessary for meaning; being engaged with people and activities about which one cares is enough.”
Is commitment, then, really important in a marriage? True, commitment may keep spouses from splitting if more tempting partners or activities that would take time and energy away from the relationship suddenly appear. But, she notes, a more likely reason commitment matters is because it’s hard to live with someone else day in and day out, and commitment keeps a couple going and working toward a life plan together even when things are tough and they may not want to.
Does that mean we really need commitment? With all due respect to the Beatles, wouldn’t all we need is love? If someone loved us, wouldn’t he or she be kind to us and do nice things for us and hang around because of that love? And wouldn’t we do the same?
“As long as love, understood minimally as the inclination to seek another’s companionship and advance her well-being, exists, commitment is not necessary. One need not be committed to one’s beloved in order to suspend any cost-benefit analysis of the relationship … the appearance of more desirable partners will not be a reason to leave the marriage if one loves one’s spouse. … A world where the goods of marriage were achieved without commitment, out of love alone, would therefore be a better world; marital commitment seems to be a second-best solution to securing the goods of marriage.”
Of course, love is fragile and can disappear, too; that’s in part why spouses commit to each other — to kind of “lock in” some future love. But, is that what we really want — someone to be with us out of commitment than out of a deliberate decision to be with us because they love us? Does it really build character to keep staying with someone we no longer love? Love may be a better way to be with someone because “love is a direct reaction to the reality of the beloved” and is in the moment and has nothing to do with the promise you made three, 10 or 77 years ago to stick together “until death.”
Again, this speaks to the beauty of a renewable marital contract, in which spouses would have to react to “the reality of the beloved” every so often and decide — are we still in because we want to be here or not? Are we loving each other in the way we want to be loved?
Why stay together?
Barrymore and Kopelman evidently are no longer in love. Would commitment be reason enough for them to stay together? “Well, they have young kids,” you might be thinking, “and they should stick it out for them.” But, does their romantic and sexual relationship have anything at all to do with their ability to parent their children? No. If anything we’ve seen how love and sex — or the lack thereof — make spouses miserable.
If commitment matters at all, it should be the commitment to the children, not necessarily to each other. So they could transform their marriage into a parenting marriage until their daughters Olive, 3, and Frankie, 23 months, become 18 since they’ve acknowledged that the girls will bind them together forever. And that is exactly what binds a couple — kids, more than a desire to “lock in” a future together and much more than love.
Does their decision to split make them any better or worse than the Maine couple who stayed together for 77 years — seemingly at the expense of the wife’s self-esteem and perhaps happiness? Yet, that marriage is being celebrated for longevity, whether love was still present or not, while Barrymore is seen as a failure because this is her third marriage.
Demanding commitment in a marriage is basically saying we know our partner may stop loving us at some point but we still want him or her to hang around forever. Or, we may stop loving our partner — now what?
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.
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.
Marriage is hard work but worth it. If you end up divorced, it means you didn’t try hard enough, you don’t know what commitment means and you’re putting you own happiness before your family’s — or all of the above — and that’s why you have a failed marriage.
What divorced person hasn’t heard that — or some variation — before?
As a twice married and divorced woman, Vicki sure did. So did Astro and Danielle Teller. Despite their best intentions when they said their “I dos,” each of their marriages ended, and when they started dating and then married, blending families and many marital years behind them (14 for Astro, eight for Danielle), they began to question a lot of the messages they’d been told about marriage and divorce, as well as the one-size-fits-all answers “experts” and the self-help industry had for struggling couples.
As scientists — Astro is a computer scientist who oversees Google[x] and Danielle is a physician — they tried to remove the emotional responses we all have about divorce so they could focus on the logic. The result of their inquiry is a book that came out right about the time The New I Do was published, Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage(Diversion Books).
Both books question the status quo when it comes to marriage and divorce, and offer outside-the-box thinking. It’s the book Vicki wished she read when she was contemplating divorce, and sorting through the inevitable messy emotions she was feeling while also weighing the co-parenting, financial and everyday realities of divorcing with kids without crumbling under the shame and judgment that basically well-meaning people thrust upon her.
Their book presents the false cultural assumptions about divorce as Sacred Cows, illustrated as, well, cows, and if you have been divorced or are contemplating it, you have likely heard what the cows spew as “truth”:
Holy Cow: Marriage is always good and divorce is always bad.
Expert Cow: All marital problems can be fixed with help.
Selfish Cow: People who divorce are selfish, people who stay married are selfless.
Defective Cow: If you can’t make your marriage happy, or if you divorce, you must be defective.
Innocent Victim Cow: Children’s lives are ruined by divorce.
One True Cow: True love is why you marry but if you become unhappy in your marriage, you should stop believing in true love.
Other Cow: It’s not OK to leave a marriage to be with a new partner.
The New I Do asks you to question your assumptions about marriage; the Tellers ask you to question your assumptions about divorce.
If you’re struggling in your marriage or thinking about divorce, we highly suggest you read Sacred Cows. It won’t give you any answers and it isn’t going make some things about divorce — the grief, pain, financial impacts, etc. — any easier. It will, however, help you be aware of society’s damaging messages that clutter rational thinking.
Just as you have permission to have a marriage based on your values and goals, you have permission to examine your marital situation without shame or guilt.
Q: Your book originated from your own divorces. You mention how people tried to help while others made you feel shame. How did you sort through all those conflicting messages to look at the bigger picture of how we marry and divorce?
Danielle: Quite painfully. I spent a good year feeling horrible before I started getting a new perspective. Society’s giving you these messages that don’t make a lot of sense.
Astro: We didn’t come to any truths, but we did uncover some deep inconsistencies in society. That’s what the book turned into; neither an argument for marriage or divorce, but simply that we felt we had uncovered some sufficiently large hypocrisies in those narratives. We felt freed from a lot of the narrative pressure once we recognized how much hypocrisy was baked into those narratives.
Q: One divorce is often enough to scare people away from any sort of relationship, let alone another marriage. What was the path each of you followed that led you to the decision to tie the knot again?
Astro: We were just madly in love, there was no way we weren’t going to get married. … but, importantly, we made sure from the very beginning that there wasn’t going to be any guilt or the overhang of those sacred cows. Instead of promising that we were going to be together, which neither of us believes, it’s a desire to be together. If she decides tomorrow she’s no longer into me, she’s not a bad person. I’ll be sad, but she’s not a bad person. It sounds like a really small change, but it’s not.
Q: What makes a second, third, fourth or 10th marriage different than the first — is it just having a new partner, is it wisdom or personal growth, is it doing things differently or something completely different?
Astro: We went into our marriage even more romantically than into our first. … Everyone who goes into a second marriage has to understand, at least conceptually, that marriages don’t last because they have this abject lesson in their lives. What they do about that is very different.
Danielle: We have this narrative that all marriages are equal. If you’re unhappy in your marriage, then being married to someone else isn’t going to make things better. … I don’t know why as a culture we don’t admit who you marry makes a difference.
Astro: I think we do know why, because if the narrative of who you choose matters and choosing differently could be a successful way to get yourself happier, it would allow people a legitimate reason to end their marriage and try again. Society is not OK with that. Society starts from the perspective that it doesn’t want people to get divorced, and then it comes up with stories and reasons that cut off all the avenues of escape.
Q: The Holy Cow’s message is that married people are “better than divorced people.” Lots of people who prefer to be single or cohabit hear that, too. Why do you think so many of us believe that’s true?
Astro: I think it’s the other way around. It’s, how are the sacred cows tricking us into it? The reason is society, which we are personifying as these cows, wants us to get married and stay married, not to make you happier or your spouse happier or your kids happier, but because society, rightly or wrongly, believes it will get what it wants if it gets people to get married and stay married. (It’s) a mob mentality where no one of us is puppeteering this but we collectively talk ourselves into it.
Q: Society seems to hold on to a nostalgic view of marriage, that people who married “back then” understood what marriage is really about. Except “back then,” marriage was more a duty than a choice, and an institution that was often a pretty crappy deal for women but they had few choices. Why do you think we still cling to that vision?
Danielle: We romaticize everything about the past. We really want to believe that marriages can be happily ever after.
Astro: If I’m afraid she’ll leave me, and my main tool in keeping her from leaving me is shame and fear and guilt, which the sacred cows bring to my arsenal.. .. If I want her not to quit, I have to look at people who quit less. If I point to them (and say) that those people were noble, it latches into the general romanticizing of the past and then I can effectively make her feel like shit if she’s thinking of leaving.
Q: What are the most important things you hope people get from reading your book?
Danielle: To give permission to make decisions about marriage and divorce without the piles of guilt society puts on them. … Just because you’re divorced or you want to get divorced, that doesn’t make you a bad person.
Astro: If they go through the process of asking whether marriage is working for them without the fear and shame that the scared cows produce, they’ll still probably have some soul searching to do and maybe a lot of pain to go through, but it would be less than it would be otherwise and they’ll probably end up in a happier place if they can make that decision free of that fear.
Want to individualize your marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.
We were lucky to be interviewed by Jessica Stepleton Stern, who runs the wonderful j.jane.com website, which she calls “an authentic look at the many faces of sisterhood: mentors & friends.”
Read what Susan has to say about marrying later in life, helping people through divorce and other life transitions, and her idea of living a graceful life here.
Read what Vicki has to say about how she became a journalist, overcoming her greatest life obstacle, and how to face Valentine’s Day and other holidays as a divorced person here.
We are also fortunate to be featured on Maggie Reye’s wonderful Modern Married website; read the interview here.
And, Maggie is offering readers a chance to win a free copy of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. To win a free copy of the book, name one word to describe your marriage. For example, in the book they mention a “parenting marriage” a “companionship” marriage, a “safety” marriage, etc. Choose a word to describe your marriage and enter it in the comments here. Entries will be accepted until midnight Eastern Time Feb. 27. The lucky winner will be notified by email. U.S. entries only.
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.
A few years ago, Brad Pitt rocked the world when he announced that his marriage to Jennifer Aniston was over. When pressed for a reason as to why he was ending their union, he said he simply felt that the relationship was complete. Although rumors abounded that Angelina Jolie was already on the scene with Brad, those suspicions were never proven true.
When Al and Tipper Gore announced that, after 40 years together, their marriage was over, many were shocked. Once again, there were no public scandals, but those close to them said they had subtle cracks in their nuptial foundation.
While there is no shortage of marital dissolutions in this country because of affairs or some other kind of wrongdoing, those that end for no apparent reason, really throw us. It’s as if we need some sort of reason so we can feel a sense of control over our own environment. If there is no person, place or thing that we can point to as the cause of the downfall of a marriage, that means that anybody’s marriage is subject to terminate at any time “just because.” This notion puts all of us on edge a bit.
We are constantly seeking security and permanence. It’s why we make marriage contracts that are legally binding, it’s why we make people take vows that they will stay in their marriage, and it’s why we instill notions of until death do us part and happily ever after.
Is that sense of permanence just an illusion?
What if marriages have life spans just like all living entities do? What if we took away the judgment that a marriage “failed” and saw it as just being complete? After all, we don’t characterize loved ones who die as “failing to stay alive.” Why, then, can’t we step back and accept that it’s OK to accept that unions end sometimes? Rather than setting up people to fail by giving them an unending sentence, why don’t we provide expiration or renewal dates so that those who want or need out, can do so with dignity?
The pros might be:
It could potentially significantly reduce the cost (emotionally, mentally and financially) of divorce
People might put a continued effort into keeping the union healthy and alive knowing that their vow renewal was contingent on this effort;
The institution of marriage might be made stronger in that those who are not marriage material would not stay married.
The cons might be:
As always, the greatest complication of marriages that don’t last is that there are often children involved (but what’s it like now?)
People might not take the commitment of marriage seriously (but do they now?)
Many might say it’s not “marriage” because marriage is meant to be forever (but is it now?)