Is there a ‘secret’ to a happy marriage?

The funny thing about marriage (well, there are many, but let’s narrow it down) is that lots of people seem to have a “secret” that will magically transform everyone’s marriage into a manageable, doable and supposedly happy union. Like this week’s Modern Love written by Gabrielle Zevin — except her secret to marriage isn’t necessarily what you might expect:  The Secret to Marriage Is Never Getting Married. 

Zevin, a novelist and screenwriter, describes the 21-year relationship she has with her partner, Hans:

I have had four dogs with the man I am not married to. I have dedicated several of my books to him, but really, they all could be. He is my most important reader and creative collaborator. We have traveled the world with one suitcase. We have cooked more than 100 Blue Apron meals without killing each other. We have shared a dozen different addresses. We have built a life.

But, they’re not married.

And that’s where Zevin reveals the complications of committing to someone without actually tying the knot, even though, given a complicated and unfair debt Hans brought into the relationship two decades ago, it made sense not to co-mingle expenses — then. Still, she had found herself unable to explain that to people — many often don’t understand the financial realities of a marriage license. It isn’t just about love, it’s about money and property and a lot of other stuff, too.

Which is why her longtime accountant is advising that they now get married. Why?

To read more, click here.

Why your partner can’t fulfill all your needs, and that’s OK

Should your spouse be your everything and fulfill all your needs — be your best friend; passionate lover; devoted parent; soul mate; great communicator; romantic, and intellectual and professional equal who provides you with happiness, fulfillment, financial stability, intimacy, social status, fidelity … ? That’s what marriage has become, as my co-author and I detail in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, and what Eli J. Finkel addresses in his just-released book, The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.

That’s a lot to ask from a relationship. Can we do it?

Yes and no. But the better question is why do we want marriage to do that? It’s certainly not how marriages were throughout history, and while I’d be the last person to get all rose-colored glasses nostalgic over the way marriage was, there were historically some things that actually worked for couples —  they relied on people other than their spouse to fulfill some of their needs.

I think it’s time to revisit that.

As we write in The New I Do:

Rather than expecting one person to meet all your needs, you might ask a spouse to meet a few, and you’d be encouraged to get other needs met in other ways or with other people or in some combination. Maybe you want to partner for the sole reason of having children and co-parenting, and have passion and sex outside the marriage. Maybe you prefer to partner for companionship instead of expecting a spouse to support you financially. Maybe you want to partner solely for financial security and enjoy social activities and vacations with family or friends.

Claire Dederer does, too. As the author of Love and Trouble writes in a recent Modern Love  column:

The world is divided into two places: home and away. At home, I’m married to my husband, Bruce. Away, I am married to Victoria. She’s my travel wife. … My husband and my travel wife are both generous: He lets me go; she lets me come along. I’m not sure I could have had one marriage without the other. There’s a lot of talk about open marriage and polyamory lately, but marriage can be customizable and nontraditional in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Marriages can include other spouses who provide other functions. Maybe they need to.

Wow — “Marriages can include other spouses who provide other functions. Maybe they need to.” That’s exactly what we propose in the book (although we don’t call them “spouses”); it takes the pressure off your spouse — and you — to be the everything. And, by viewing a partnership that way, more people might see each other as marriage material; we just won’t have as many demands on each other as we do now.

Still, what about our needs? How can we get what we want while offering the same to our loved ones? To learn more about what needs can be met by whom, click here.

Men are not avoiding marriage because of casual sex

It’s an old saying but most of us have heard it — “Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?” That’s a phrase that’s both dated and sexist, so to hear it re-branded as “cheap sex” — aka casual sex — and purported to be the reason why men aren’t committing and marrying is something I would have thought we wouldn’t be discussing in 2017. And yet, here we are, thanks to sociologist Mark Regnerus and his new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.

Regnerus (the same sociologist behind a controversial study of how children of same-sex couples fare) says cheap sex — sex with little cost as far as time or emotional investment — is behind a host of societal ills, from fewer people marrying to the rise of unmarriageable men to more people living together to more children being born outside of marriage — well, you get the idea. And it’s all because women are giving men sex too easily and quickly, thanks in part to the Pill, and without demanding anything in return. Like putting a ring on it, or least some sort of promise that they’ll stick around.

It’s true that fewer young people are marrying nowadays. It’s true that more young people are cohabiting nowadays than ever before, which sometimes leads to marriage and sometimes doesn’t. It’s true that the pervasiveness of porn has changed the way men and women think about and engage in sex. And it’s true that there’s a lot more sex outside of marriage. But to say that the only reason men are avoiding committed relationships and marriage is because women are spreading their legs and giving it up too soon (bad, women, bad!) is shaming, blaming, judgmental and — as it happens — not even accurate.

In a 2011 article in Salon, no doubt the beginnings of his book, Regenerus writes:

(W)hat many young men wish for — access to sex without too many complications or commitments — carries the day. If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we’d be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on.  … while young men’s failures in life are not penalizing them in the bedroom, their sexual success may, ironically, be hindering their drive to achieve in life. Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today’s young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year’s book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.” They’re right. But then try getting men to do anything.

What Regnerus seems to forget or ignores is that some women — not all, but some — would actually like to have casual sex so they can focus on other things besides a romantic relationship, which takes time and energy away from other interests. He also seems to be saying that if men don’t have to work hard for sex, they’re not going to work at anything. Really? I know lots of men who are doing lots of things — working to make the world safer from nuclear weapons, helping poor farmers in developing countries increase their crops so they can feed their families, investigating fraud, fighting for justice  …

Oh, wait, that’s not what he means; he means getting them to woo a woman properly — to commit and marry. Because that’s the only thing that matters — committed romantic relationships and marriage. For men like Regnerus, it’s true: they see marriage as a way to make men become respectable members of society, a way to “tame” them. But do today’s men really need to be tamed? And, if so, is it a wife’s responsibility to do that? Don’t women have enough on their plate?

To read more, click here

Do you want a happy or meaningful marriage?

What do you want out of your marriage — happiness or meaning?

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Eli J. Finkel’s The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, which comes out this September. I’m excited about it for a few reasons, one because The New I Do is mentioned in it — thank you, Eli! — but also because it expands on the Northwestern University professor and head of the Relationships and Motivation Lab’s provocative New York Times op-ed of the same name a few years back.

In that op-ed he wrote:

Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.


I’ll talk much more about Finkel’s book when the book comes out, but one thing stuck me halfway through it — a discussion on research about those who seek happiness, defined as having a life that’s easy and pleasurable, and people who seek meaning, defined as those who think a lot about the future or who have strong tendencies to be a “giver.” It relates to how you view your marriage.

As he writes in his book:

In short, whereas the happy life is characterized by ease and pleasure, the meaningful life is characterized by generosity, deep engagement with difficult pursuits, and a coherent sense of how the self develops across time.

I hadn’t really thought about that before, so when I was on my annual backpacking trip with some of my dearest friends, book in tow, I asked them, “What matters more to you — happiness or meaning?”

I was surprised by what they had to say. Read more here.

What’s more romantic than a renewable marriage contract?

Whether or not you said “until death do us part” in your wedding vows, and an increasing number of couples don’t say it anymore, most of us believe marriage should be lifelong even if they don’t always end up that way.

Of course when the words “until death” were added to the wedding vows, in the 1500s, average life expectancy was 38 years and marriages didn’t last all that long. Interestingly, there were about as many remarriages then (thanks to high mortality rates), one out of every four, as there are now, four in 10 newlyweds in 2013 (thanks to divorce).

Maybe “until death” made sense when marriages lasted an average of 12 years or so, as marriages in colonial days did, according to historian Stephanie Coontz. But do they make sense now?

Would it make more sense to have renewable marriages of certain lengths based on a couple’s needs — say two to five years for 20-somethings who want to experience married life before they start having children or 18 years for couples who have made that leap and wish to raise them to adulthood?

The idea of temporary marriage has been around for a long time, which I document in an article in Aeon, and was even in practice around the world centuries ago. It’s understandable why temporary marriage might have seem attractive to the West in decades past, when sex and having children outside of marriage was shameful, and when women relied on marriage for financial security. That’s not the case anymore, of course. So why have a temporary marriage when cohabitation can serve the purpose of a trial marriage?

Because cohabitation is not the same as marriage, which I’ve already detailed.

Millennials seem to be open to a beta marriage, at least in concept. Still, time-limited renewable marriages won’t necessarily give them what they want unless they know what they hope to achieve in their marriage beside longevity — our only marker of success. That’s why I believe in marital plans.

But a renewable marriage contract is attractive for a number of reasons. To find out, click here.

The romance and danger of our love stories

Perhaps you grew up loving fairy tales, where the beautiful princess ends up living happily ever after with a handsome prince. Maybe you watch rom-coms where the guy and girl end up together despite impossible odds. Maybe you’re addicted to The Bachelor or The Bachelorette and what happens to the lucky couples. When love stories end predictably, how does that make you feel? How do you feel when they end unpredictably, like last year’s La La Land?

Maybe you’ve never thought much about it. Mandy Len Catron has. The English professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., loves love stories. Throughout her life, she especially loved the love story of her parents, a meet cute between the new football coach and a cheerleader asked to interview him for the school newspaper. So when they divorced after three decades of marriage, when Catron was 26, she began to look deeper into her own nearly decade-long relationship, which was faltering, and what she thought she knew about love. In 2015, she wrote a Modern Love essay for The New York Times, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” — one of the most-read of the series — and now has a just-released book, How to Fall in Love With Anyone, part-memoir, part exploration about the love stories that we absorb and perhaps allow to dictate our ideas of what love “looks like.”

As she writes in her charming and engaging book:

For most of my life, I’d conceptualized love as something that happened to me. It isn’t merely the stories we tell about love that encourage this attitude, but the very words themselves. In love, we fall. We are struck, we are crushed. We swoon. We burn with passion. Love makes us crazy or it makes us sick. Our hearts ache and then they break. I wondered if this was how love had to work — or if I could take back some control. Science suggested that I could.

One thing she noticed when her Modern Love story, based on research by psychologist Arthur Aron, went viral was that people were eager to discover a “secret” to finding love:

[W]e prefer the short version of the story. My Modern Love column had become an oversimplified romantic fable suggesting there was an ideal way to experience love. It made love predictable, like a script you could follow.

Even Catron didn’t come to love her current partner until months after they tried Aron’s research themselves, when they’d gotten to know each other better. (As an aside, Catron and her partner used the questions posed in The New I Do to create a relationship contract that, she writes, “gave us a sense of control” as they merged their lives; Thank you, Mandy!)

We do, of course, have a love script of sorts — meet, date, fall in love, live together, marry, buy a house, have kids. It’s an outdated script; nowadays, many couples have kids first, or buy a house first while living together or apart, or never marry, or never have kids. The romantic script isn’t guiding us so well anymore — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is, as Catron beautifully explores in her book, we still buy into it. Our view of love is limited, something that her fellow UBC professor Carrie Jenkins explores in her book, What Love Is and What It Can Be.

To read more, please click here.

 

To stay in love, you need a contract

As a writer, nothing is more satisfying and affirming than when your writing positively impacts another person. Of course, the entire reason for writing The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels was to impact people — to make them think consciously about their romantic decisions. Which is why Mandy Len Catron’s most recent Modern Love essay was so gratifying — the University of British Columbia professor and author of the just-released book How to Fall in Love With Anyone, used our renewable marriage contract when moving in with her romantic partner.

As you can imagine, it got a lot of comments. Many were negative — but I would expect that. Trying something new and different is scary. Nevertheless, that’s what I wanted to address.

The contract reminded some commentors of the Roommate Agreement that Sheldon Cooper, of the popular TV show Big Bang Theory, created with Leonard Hofstadter that detailed their rights and responsibilities as friends and roommates, and that Sheldon attempted to create with his girlfriend, Amy. I never saw the show, but since that episode aired in 2015 and The New I Do was published in 2014, perhaps the show’s writers were inspired by our book as well. No way to know. In any event, the idea of a marriage contract dates back to at least the 1850s and they were always insisted on by the wives (and any woman who has ever lived with a man probably understands why).

Click here to read my responses to a few of the 286 comments her essay gathered that exemplify some of the main reasons people balk at a relationship contract.

An open marriage is just a marriage — not necessarily happier

“Is an open marriage a happier marriage,” a recent New York Times magazine cover story written by Susan Dominus asked. With a headline and topic like that, of course it went viral — as if no one ever considered that consensual nonmonogamy has existed for decades and, yes, it might actually be a good thing for the couples who want it and choose it.

Monogamy is a choice, but admittedly one few of us rarely question — we generally just assume it’s a given once we get serious with someone. Still, isn’t it a bit specious to ask if open relationships are happier? Some may be and others may not, and who defines “define”?

There were more than 1,600 comments, prompting a follow-up story in the Times — “We choose each other over and over because we want to: Readers share their open-marriage stories” — in which numerous people speak of their experiences of engaging in ethical nonmonogamy.

The follow-up article’s intro states:

For nearly a year, Dominus reported on couples engaged in consensual nonmonogamy (what some involved call polyamory), and returned with a collection of fascinating stories about jealousy, love, desire and trust, all within the loose confines of an open relationship.

I am not in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship nor am I poly nor am I an expert in either. That said, I spent months researching consensual nonmonogamous relationships for The New I Do and spoke to numerous people who opened up their marriage or who chose it from the get-go because they’d never even consider getting married without monogamy being discussed and mutually agreed to, and even I know that being in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship hardly has “loose confines” — most people who mutually agree to choose it have explicit agreements on what’s OK and what’s not OK; even if they don’t, successfully navigating it requires a lot of communication and transparency. It’s hardly “loose.” (I think I would find it exhausting, which is why I prefer to be a serial monogamist.) Finally, consensual nonmonogamy is not exactly the same as being poly, although being poly is most definitely one way to be consensually nonmonogamous.

I have to imagine that irks poly people. You just can’t lump every consensual nonmonogamous person into a little box, nor can you lump poly people into being “in the lifestyle.”

To read the rest of this article, read Vicki’s blog post here.

Is this truly the secret to a happy marriage?

Want to know what the secret to a happy marriage is? According to a recent Wall Street Journal article it may mean living apart together in separate master suites.

That may not be the answer you expected — communication, kindness, more sex, date nights, etc. might be more what you had in mind. No doubt those things matter, but at the same time it’s true that more and more people — especially older people — are interested in having a room, if not an entire apartment or house, of their own.

People who are divorced, widowed or never-married who want romantic relationships later in life are “motivated by the desire to remain independent, maintain their own homes, sustain existing family boundaries, protect the relationship and remain financially independent,” a recent study indicates.

But, as Susan Pease Gadoua and I detail in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, couples can choose a LAT arrangement from the start of their marriage.

Granted, this is a hard concept for many to wrap their heads around. They have questions — many questions. So, naturally I have answers to all of them, but let’s start with the top three myths people have about live apart together (LAT) relationships:

  1. Why even get married if you’re going to live apart?
  2. Living apart together is only for the wealthy.
  3. People who live apart are more likely to cheat.

There’s even a bonus question and answer (perhaps you can guess what it is)

Want to know whether these three beliefs are fact or fiction (or, as of late, alternative facts)? Head here to read more. We’d love to hear back from you.

Want to learn how to live apart together? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.

Donald and Melania Trump: America’s first LAT family

The news that Melania Trump will live apart from her husband, President-elect Donald Trump for a few months until their son Barron, 10, finished school, was shocking to many people.

While it may seem odd that a married couple doesn’t live together, the Trumps’ decision to live apart is actually part of a growing trend  —  living apart together couples, also known as LATs, or apartners.  live_apart

About one-third of U.S. adults who aren’t married or cohabiting are in LAT relationships. While some are young people in long-
distance relation-
ships because of schooling or careers, or couples who want to live together but can’t for various reasons (such as military families), many include middle-aged empty-nester divorcees who want nothing that resembles the married life we knew. In fact, more older divorced and widowed women are choosing live apart together relationships so they can enjoy their romantic relationships without the complications, caretaking and complacency of living together.

But a good portion are married, like the Trumps — who will be the highest-profile example of this demographic trend. Still, the number of couples who are “married, spouse absent,” according to the United States census, is a lot less than the numbers of couples living together — just a little more than 3 percent of the population.

How will they make it work? Does it help or hinder a relationship? What are the benefits? What about the kids?

In researching LATs/apartners for The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels—  which offers a living apart together model as one of many marital options couples can chose from to individualize their marriage  —  Vicki discovered that LATs/apartners feel more committed and less trapped than live-in couples. When you live apart, each person has to actively work on commitment and trust; it’s not taken for granted. Nor is sex — especially since so many couples are dealing with what they consider sexless marriages.

She also learned that many people who are in LAT relationships, or were in them for a while, say that they learned valuable relationship skills, such as trust, patience and better communication. Many also got better at time management, independence, and discovering intimacy that wasn’t just about sex and touch.

Those are the kind of skills can lead to a more satisfying relationship, and relationship satisfaction can make couples feel more committed to each other. Couples who feel committed to each other are motivated to show it; they act in ways that their partner can clearly experience as loving. And they don’t need to be under the same roof to act loving.

Isn’t that exactly what people want in a romantic relationship?

“It’s of particular interest to women, who often get the short end of the stick in marriage and cohabitation. They still end up doing most of the caretaking and household chores, even if they work full time,” says Montreal filmmaker Sharon Hyman, who is working on a documentary called “Apartners: Living Happily Ever Apart.

Read more about why living apart together is a marital model that would work for couples besides the Trumps here.