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)

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

There’s an image we have about marriage, about “two becoming one.”

Anyone who’s been married for length of time realizes that’s a bit of a lie. We’re still people with our own needs. In fact, many believe what hetero men and women experience is a “his” and a “her” marriage.

Some 50 years ago, sociologist Jessie Bernard noted that marriage is not a single entity; how marriage was experienced depended a lot on whether you’re the wife or the husband. In general, she noted, marriage generally benefits the guys more than the gals. His and her marriage

True, marriage was a lot different in the early 1970s, when women had fewer options (although Bernard herself bucked a lot of trends back then). It’s now 2016, the age of stay-at-home dads and breadwinning moms, the age of equal partnerships.

Well, not quite.

Heterosexual marriage, especially among white, educated and well-off couples, is still a gendered social reality and a gendered institution, or so argue sociologists Karyn Loscocco and Susan Walzer in Gender and the Culture of Heterosexual Marriage in the United States. The two explore the work of Andrew Cherlin in his book The Marriage-Go-Round, which attempts to  explain the high rate of divorce in the U.S. While he does not take gender into account, Loscocco and Walzer argue we must:

“The role expectations  associated with being a husband or wife intersect with those to which men and women may more generally be accountable. … people tend to be accountable to dominant gender beliefs whether or not they act on them and to treat them as shared cultural knowledge whether or not they endorse them.”

Which means even in the most equal of marriages, there’s an incredible awareness of gender and how a wife and a husband “should” act. And that continues to drive “contemporary heterosexual marriage and its discontents.”

And boy, are we discontented.

What does that look like? They cite studies pointing out that:

So, what’s making women so miserable in their marriages? For one, women are still in charge of the emotional caretaking:

“Typical studies of the household division of labor do not begin to capture all the unpaid caring work — for friends, extended family, schools, and religious and other community organizations — that women disproportionately do. Nor do they capture wives’ planning, organizing, and structuring of family life.”

It’s exhausting being the one who always has to be on top of the emotional temperature of a relationship, and keep the ties to family and community going. Plus, that kind of work often goes unnoticed or undervalued — and sometimes even resented — which, they note, “can lead to marital tension.”

What about in so-called equal marriages? Nope; the wives still “tended to be the ones who monitored their own and their partners’ contributions to their relationships.” Even when the imbalance was duly acknowledged, nothing changed, “leading to feelings of resentment and frustration.”

Of course, self-help books and relationship “experts” — from Steve Harvey (Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man) to John Gray (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus) and others — tend to encourage women to “accept imbalances in their relationships with men to attract and keep them.”

The message is always the same; if a wife just worked hard enough she could save her marriage, if not from unhappiness than at least from divorce. Yet studies show that when husbands take greater ownership of the emotional work — beyond just household chores and child care — wives are happier and healthier. So by continuing to advise women to “act like ladies or girls and to accept their ‘cavemen’” sets couples up for “reproducing the very patterns that are implicated in marital stress.” There’s a bit of craziness to that!

Why can’t men and women have an “our marriage”? Clearly, there’s some huge disconnect in what a husband and wife know how each is experiencing the marriage. Can that change? Maybe; their paper cites studies that indicate ‘‘unrealistic expectations’’ and ‘‘inadequate preparation’’ for marriage are keeping many couples from having an “our” marriage (which is why we believe our book is so important because it raises essential questions couples need to address).

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

Want to have an “our” marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do:Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

How 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.