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.

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.

Is sex really essential for marriage?

Back when my Susan and I were doing research for our book and interviewing engaged couples about why they wanted to wed (most were already living together), one groom-to-be mentioned sex among the many reasons.

“You want to marry for sex?” his fiancee asked, somewhat horrified.

He immediately got sheepish as he defended himself: “Well, they asked us to check off all the reasons, so, um, yeah …”

I’m with him; most of do expect sex with some sort of regularity to be among the many perks of tying the knot — or any monogamous romantic relationship for that matter. Unless you have an open relationship or an adulterous one, monogamy typically limits who we can sleep with.

But is sex a marital requirement? Does sex really matter all that much?

It clearly does to those spouses who want it and don’t get it, or not enough of it, as so many have written to my personal blog and The New I Do blog. And marital expert after marital expert, and couples counselor after couples counselor will likely tell you the same thing. According to the National Marriage Project, sexual satisfaction is even more important than kind words and acts in a marriage. When I reported on its findings, I basically agreed: “This is a no-brainer, too.

But, what if sex doesn’t matter?

For one couple, it actually doesn’t. Married for 25 years, the couple hasn’t had sex for 20 years — and they’re OK with it, or at least that’s what they told the Guardian.

According to the husband, “we’re very cuddly and close to each other and still as interested in each other and do as much together as we ever did.”

Well, OK — who doesn’t appreciate “cuddly” and “close”?

The wife, however, as content as she was with the arrangement, had moments of wondering if she was missing out on something, but not because she believed she was; she was just concerned about what others thought.

To read the rest of this post, go 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.

What Emmanuel Macron’s unconventional marriage can teach us

Emmanuel Macron made history recently  — at 39, he’s the youngest man to be elected president of France. While many might applaud that, as well as his centrist policies over the nationalistic views of his former opponent, Marine Le Pen, others were astonished by the 25-year age gap between Macron and his wife, Brigitte Trogneux. True, it’s the same age difference between Donald and Melania Trump, but in this case it’s Trogneux who’s older. That has some people celebrating his win as a win for feminism.

At the same time, the couple has sometimes been teased and taunted; some have circulated rumors that he’s gay. Others have labeled Trogneux a “cougar.” To Macron’s credit, he has stated that this sort of language just illustrates the “rampant homophobia” in French society and the “rampant misogyny” against older women in general.

“They both had to face hostile looks, even the reluctance of their respective families and also the view of our society about the age difference,” Philippe Besson, a friend of theirs, has said. “Especially when the woman is older, (people are) always suspicious.”

To which Macron has replied, “We do not have a classic family, it’s undeniable. But do we have less love in this family? I do not think so. Maybe there’s even more than conventional families.”

Read the rest of this article 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.

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.