Before you get all “gold-digger” on me (because I’m pretty sure you thought of beautiful women marrying wealthy men as a way to have a lifestyle they want and not beautiful men marrying wealthy women, but OK), let’s explore what’s been in the news recently.
This week, it’s all about Ekaterina Parfenova, an erstwhile actress-socialite in the middle of a multimillion financial battle with her estranged second husband, Richard Fields, to whom she was married for 11 years and with whom she has two children.
“I am a very good wife. I will try to find a husband,” she told the divorce judge when he asked her if she planned to get a job (but stated later online that it was a joke: “I joked that since I am great at being a wife and mother, and if that’s my main skill, as they define it, then perhaps I could look into being a wife again, if they so insist!”)
When she parted from her first husband, she got about $1 million as well as a good hunk of cash from Fields, an American lawyer whom she met when she was still married to husband No. 1. Fields has paid out a lot for his previous divorces, but that hasn’t stopped him from tying the knot five times — and he’s hoping to wed wife No. 6 soon. The future Mrs. Fields us driving around in a Porsche he’s leasing for her and shopping with his platinum AmEx card, causing Parfenova’s attorney to say he “uses money both to attract and demonstrate affection for someone.”
While Parfenova’s “financial strategy” might make some cringe, what are we to think of the way Fields uses his money? Isn’t he dangling his money as bait? If men use money as a way to attract a woman, why do we look down on, judge and shame women who go for the bait? Isn’t the man just as guilty?
Almost all of us can be “bought” — a survey not too long ago indicated both men and women said they would marry an average-looking person they liked, if he/she had money — about $1.5 million. And while men don’t put as much emphasis on a woman’s financial situation, women generally won’t date a broke men for too long, if at all. In The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, we talk about why a safety marriage might make sense for some couples: In this case, Fields traded his wealth for Parfenova’s beauty, mothering and wifely skills.
It’s disturbing that only women are judged negatively for marrying for money while a man who uses his money as a way to attract women is not.
We just celebrated Mother’s Day and even if you believe, as I do, that it’s another Hallmark holiday like Valentine’s Day, it is always nice to reflect on the women who birthed us or raised us or both. Sometimes, they are not one and the same; many of us were raised or mentored by women who were like moms to us.
There’s still a lot of angst about motherhood, whether we’re discussing moms who work outside the home; moms who care for the children at home; moms who breastfeed and moms who don’t; what it means to be a “good” mom; helicoptering moms; why many women are opting out of motherhood … you name it, and it’s causing conflict somewhere on the Internet.
But there often isn’t a lot of discussion about mothers who walk away from motherhood.
Not women who choose to be childfree, but moms who abandon their kids. A good number do.
But every once in a while, we’re reminded that some moms abandon their kids. Few of us, rightly or wrongly, raise an eyebrow when we hear of a dad giving up custodial rights. But, a mom? That goes against everything we believe — or choose to believe — about mothers. Still, it happens, and there are many ways to look at it.
For a child, it isn’t necessarily a happy thing, or so Melissa Cistaro told me as we chatted about her new memoir, Pieces of My Mother, which details her decades-long search to understand why her mother abandoned her and her two brothers when they were all under the age of 5. “I have a great deal of compassion for my mother. I really do. I always loved her, but I longed for her so much,” she says.
But as a mother herself — and one whose third child came unexpectedly many years after the birth of her first two, just when she was about to have some coveted “me” time — she relates to the ambivalence her own mother felt:
“Somewhere deep inside me, I can relate to my mother’s irrepressible desire to be free of everyone, everything. Maybe I have inherited this fleeting nature, too. Though I love my children passionately, I leap at opportunities for time away from them.”
When Rahna Reiko Rizzuto wrote about leaving her husband and two small children in her 2010 memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, she was vilified — even receiving death threats — for her decision:
We want our mothers to be long-suffering, to put their children’s needs first and their own well-being last if there is time left. We need her to get dinner on the table and the laundry done and the kids to school and the homework finished and the house clean and the cookies for the bake sale made and the school clothes purchased. Our society is hurting, schools are bankrupt, family finances are squeezed, drugs and guns and sex in the media and international terror are all bombarding our children and the person we designate to help kids negotiate all of this is their mother. It’s a big job, too big for one person. Especially when she also has to work, and when she also has a life of her own to care for. But to say that, to act on it, is too much of a threat.
For whatever reason, society seems to think that dads don’t have to be there for dinner, laundry, homework, cookies for the bake sale, etc. to still be a good dad. He’s either working really hard supporting his family or he’s divorced and so the kids are most likely with Mom (why?). But if Mom isn’t there for the typical “mom things,” well, not only is she not a good mom but she’s obviously selfish, too, putting her needs — career, schooling, her sanity, whatever — before her kids’ needs (although women who don’t have kids are evidently just as selfish, according to the Pope and others).
What’s a woman to do?
Perhaps there’s another way to look at the mothers abandoning their kids phenomena (if it can indeed be called that). What if it means we are at a point in society when we believe dads are just as capable as moms in caring for their kids 24/7?
That’s how some would like to frame it.
“People are recognizing that fathers can be amazing primary caregivers, and we shouldn’t sell men short,” says Rebekah Spicuglia, one of the three moms who gave up custody of their kids profiled in Marie Claire in 2009. “It’s increasingly a trend, especially as society becomes less judgmental of men who want to step into that role,” Joanna Coles, the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief, told the Today show.
Wouldn’t that be a positive thing?
There are 2 million stay-at-home dads today, although that wasn’t necessarily their choice. Are we as a society able to accept that men can be as good, perhaps even better, caregivers than moms?
I would hope that we could embrace that.
But sometimes, it isn’t quite about that. Sometimes it’s a recognition that staying would do more damage than leaving. As Cistaro herself says:
“Actually not growing up with her, we were protected from a lot of her behavior. I would have been a very different person had my mother raised me, maybe not better. As hard as it was having her absent, my father was the more reliable parent.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter which parent walks away as long as it’s done for the kids’ benefit, because staying would subject them to bad parental behaviors; children who grow up with an alcoholic or mentally ill parent often suffer. Maybe that’s the conversation we should be having. I’m not sure that it is, but I’m sure of this: vilifying moms who abandon their kids more than we vilify dads says a lot about who we value more as a parent, mom or dad.
A few friends and I were talking about the affairs we either experienced in our own relationships or that we knew of among other friends. And that’s the context in which a married former neighbor’s one-night, tequila-fueled fling while on a gals get-away in Cabo San Lucas was brought up.
“I think we’d all forgive a one-night stand,” I said, perhaps a tad too confidently as my friends nodded and mumbled in agreement.
A quick Google search indicated that there are a lot of couple who wrestle with this. Still, many tend to fall in line with this woman’s thinking on Wedding Bee:
I’d be more likely to forgive a moment of weakness one night stand situation that he immediately admitted to, than say an ongoing sexual and emotional affair. If my SO went through great lengths to hide his infidelity and lie to me about it I could not forgive that.
A one-night fling is not the same as a long-term affair, or multiple one-night stands.
So, it’s clear that there are many gradations of infidelity. Which is why listening to so-called experts on infidelity makes me nervous and should make anyone trying to sort out infidelity nervous. I always want to question, well, what makes this person an expert in X, Y or Z? Because a lot of “experts” have nothing else to offer but their personal experience and the stories of people who flock to them because they, too, have a tale of sexual woe.
I have nothing against personal experience; however one person’s experience cannot possibly speak for the numerous shades of gray that infidelity encompasses, nor can it be used to guide someone through infidelity. I would appreciate a more broad-minded approach.
Affairs have a lot to teach us about relationships — what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. They open the door to a deeper conversation about values, human nature and the fragility of eros, and force us to grapple with some of the most unsettling questions: How do we negotiate the elusive balance between our emotional and our erotic needs? Is possessiveness intrinsic to love or an arcane vestige of patriarchy? Is it really so that what we don’t know doesn’t hurt? How do we learn to trust again? Can love ever be plural? … Infidelity is still such a taboo, but we need to create a safe space for productive conversation, where the multiplicity of experiences can be explored with compassion. It might be uncomfortable, but ultimately that will strengthen relationships by making them more honest and more resilient.
Yes, we do need to create a safe space, where compassion — not judgment and shame — has a place in our conversations about our experiences of infidelity. Only then will be able to have more open and honest partnerships. And isn’t that what we all want?
OK, I will admit it — I grew up a bit of a sci-fi geek. I loved Twilight Zone,Outer Limits and Star Trek and read books by Asimov and Bradbury. But I lost my passion somewhere along the way to adulthood with the occasional lapse when movies such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind came along.
But two recent movies have made me think about one aspect of sci-fi — artificial intelligence — in a different light, given my focus in this blog on relationships, love and sex: Her and, now, Ex Machina.
I wrote about Her last year, when the movie, in which a divorced man falls in love and has a relationship — and sex — with his operating system, first came out.
I find a different discussion in what transpires in Ex Machina, but one just as fascinating. Again, it says more about us as humans than it does about robots: how easily we are deceived and deceive, and how our primal instincts of desire make us stupid.
I must issue a spoiler alert — if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, stop here. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t plan to, stop here — and reconsider; it’s worth it.
There are many fascinating issues brought up in Ex Machina (the dude-bro relationship between Nathan, an eccentric billionaire, and Caleb, a peach-fuzzed coder, as well as how we are literally selling our souls to companies like Google), as well as the deception humans are capable of (to ourselves most importantly). It’s too much to talk about all that here, so I will limit my discussion to how Ava, the robot, seduces and basically destroys Caleb, who was chosen by Nathan, his employer, to interact with her to see if she passes the Turing test, which examines if a machine has consciousness and is indistinguishable from a human.
Part of the problem is that Caleb has been sort of set up — Nathan tells Caleb that Ava has a vagina-like opening “with a concentration of sensors.” Meaning, yeah, sex with her will feel pretty damn good for both of them. That matters because Ava’s appearance has been modeled on Caleb’s online porn history. Basically Ava is his fantasy come true (and what man doesn’t want that?)
So of course he falls for her, of course he foolishly trusts her and of course his desire for her makes him stupid. He lies, loses reason, chooses sides without considering all possibilities (even when presented with a reasonable one, that Ava may be playing him, and she does), and he makes rash decisions.
How human! Especially when it comes to love, or at least lust.
But while we may meet many beautiful people who leave us stupid, what does it mean to meet our perfect person — The One or our soul mate? While Ava may be the woman Caleb wants to masturbate to in the privacy of his home, does he really want to have a relationship with her — perhaps until death do they part?
Because people are messy, we have needs and we cause drama; a robotic woman wouldn’t be (although most of the robotic women of sci-fi movies don’t stick to the program and more often than not lead to chaos and destruction, which is what many men might say in-the-flesh women do, too. AI cannot be programed to have a sense of morality).
But is easy and perfect what we really want?
Maybe. A recent poll of American heterosexual men indicates they’d prefer a wife who is “intelligent,” “attractive” and “sweet,” with “attractive” being more important to men in the prime marrying years, 18- to 49-years-old.
Enrique Iglesias, son of popular Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, was in the news recently — not because he came out with a new album or because he’s on a world tour. No, it’s because Iglesias was asked — again — whether he was ever going to marry his girlfriend, former tennis pro Anna Kournikova.
Never mind that they’ve been together for 13 years and living together since 2013. Obviously something’s wrong with them otherwise they would have done what everyone else does and tied the knot by now.
“I didn’t say that I don’t want to get married. I don’t know if I maybe came out the wrong way. What I said is that, ‘We are extremely happy the way we are.’ I’m not against marriage by any means. … But when you’ve been with someone for such a long time, I don’t think it’s going to make — bring us closer together. I don’t think it’s going to … make us any happier.”
Iglesias isn’t the only one who thinks that way; there are numerous couples that are choosing to live together rather than marry.
Lest anyone think cohabitors don’t know how to commit, Hatch found the opposite. And they are not merely “trying marriage on” either, which doesn’t work anyway, as Susan Pease Gadoua and I detail in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels; cohabitation is viewed as second-tier to the “real thing” so you can’t live together and experience what being married is like.
So what did Hatch discover? There are two big themes on why couples reject marriage — what marriage means and what marriage does:
“First, many of the stated reasons to resist marriage stem from the participants’ concerns about the meaning of marriage. In other words, some do not want to marry because they do not agree with what marriage, as an institution or a ritual, means in today’s society. These respondents were concerned with issues of civil liberties, and equality and religious freedom, and they felt as though marriage conflicted with those ideals. In addition to concerns about the meanings associated with marriage, respondents also indicated trepidation about what marriage does to the relationship. Thus, the second larger category of responses comprised fears about the consequences of marriage and the belief that the perceived risks associated with marriage outweigh the perceived benefits.”
Included in the above are a few prevalent beliefs about marriage: that it creates a sense of ownership (well, it’s true — women were the property of their husband for many, many, many years); that it stifles freedom and independence (it has been called a “greedy institution“); it enables couples to become “too comfortable,” and the label “wife” and the expectations that come with being a wife are troublesome for some women — especially woman who have been married before.
I’ve talked about the problems of being a wife before (something Oprah seems to understand), and how instead of having the egalitarian marriage couples say they want, they still end up with a “his” and “hers” marriage (and for black couples, it’s even more challenging). And I’ve talked about how couples can get “too comfortable” in a marriage — except, it happens with long-term cohabiting couples, too, as Susan Sarandon discovered. Some of the problems may not be marriage per se, but living together, which is why I prefer being a LAT. Still, society understands and expects marriage, despite the fact that some see it as becoming more irrelevant at the same time same-sex couples are continuin fighting for the right to have it. Clearly, marriage still means something.
As Hatch notes, the cohabiting couples she interviewed look and act a lot like married couples, with the same concerns and arguments, shared responsibilities (including in some cases children) and yes, even commitment. The difference — and this is a big one — is what they’ve given up by rejecting a marriage license:
“This decision often comes at a price, as many faced legal obstacles in their attempts to secure the rights and privileges given automatically to married couples (e.g., the right to coverage by a spouse’s health insurance). Additionally, most to some degree faced social pressure to marry, which reflects Andrew Cherlin’s (2004) argument that despite the increase in cohabitation and ‘deinstitutionalization’ of marriage, the symbolic significance of marriage remains high within the culture.”
This is what Susan and I discovered while researching for our book — once you live together as romantic partners, being unmarried creates as many complications as being married does, except you have legal protections once you tie the knot. So whichever way you choose to be partnered, married or not, there is a strong case to be made for individualizing your partnership, either in a marital plan or a cohabiting plan. Recently, I’ve stumbled upon two good sources for the latter — Cohab Monkey (which, like The New I Do, asks important questions about why the couple is moving in together, what are the union’s goals, the scope of commitments, financial and non-financial, etc.) and Living Together Agreement. I just can’t see anyone moving in together for the long haul without a cohabitation plan. I would suggest a cohabiting plan even if you’re living together for convenience/financial issues (if you’re moving in together and already talking about and/or planning marriage, you need The New I Do).
“Marriage is a contract between two people about how to organize their lives together. But modern marriage is a one-size-fits-all contract — a default written by the state legislatures. It makes no sense to me that I would want to sign the same contract with Justin that you sign with your partner. So we didn’t take the standard off-the-shelf contract that we call marriage. Instead, we’ve talked at length about what is important to each of us, and it’s that Betsey-and-Justin-specific agreement that guides our lives together. And as anyone who has studied divorce knows, the formal marriage contract doesn’t actually bind our future selves. But I have something far more enduring with Justin than a wedding certificate: We have an amazing daughter, who will bind us together for, well, until death do us part.”
There’s nothing wrong with choosing to live together and reject marriage or choosing to live together and embrace marriage — or, for that matter, live apart and be committed nonetheless. You just need to choose one of those paths consciously.
The way you put it, marriage is “a pretty simple concept — fall in love and share your life together. Our great grandparents did it, our grandparents followed suit, and for many of us, our parents did it as well.”
Not so fast. In your grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ time, divorce was fault-based and really hard to get, marriage was a duty and women had few options to support themselves. So, they really had no other choice but to stay together. And while it’s nice that you compliment your family on their long marriages, you are 29 so your parents are no doubt baby boomers, and the divorce rate for people in their 50s, 60s and older — the so-called gray divorces — is growing, fast. Before you go romanticizing marriage “back then,” let’s not forget that their expectations from marriage were a lot different than ours are now; your great-grandparents and grandparents didn’t marry a soul mate or look for The One. Your grandmother married a good provider, your grandfather married a good homemaker. That’s about it.
“Our generation isn’t equipped to handle marriages” you say, based on — what? You don’t cite any studies or research to back up your statements, just your observations, but let’s examine a few of your reasons anyway.
You lament the demise of sex. After the crazy can’t-keep-my-hands-off-of-you way most couples begin a relationship wears of — and it does, pretty regularly, in about the second year — couples are faced with a dilemma, now what? Thus the constant advice for couples to spice up things, learn new positions, buy new toys, etc. While all of that is fine, the bigger issue no one talks about is monogamy — did you and your former wife willingly choose it, or did you endure it? Monogamy is a choice and, let’s face it — with infidelity rates between 20 percent and 70 percent, it’s clear many of us don’t do monogamy well. Every couple needs to have have conversations about it, as well as have matched expectations about sexual needs and desires.
Same with money. You are right — many millennials are having a hard time chasing the American dream. But since money is one of the issues couples fight about the most, talking about it can’t be ignored.Marriage tax laws encourage specialization, with breadwinning and caregiving roles, even though most couples nowadays want an equal partnership. No one’s going to get that unless they create a marital plan together that addresses finances — how much do we save, what are our long-term goals, who contributes what, etc. Why does that matter? Because, as you now know as a divorced man, the state already has such a plan for divorcing couples — a default prenup, if you will. Why not create your own?
Still, you are astute in observing that marriage doesn’t work for many people, as you are among the “many people today that have failed at marriage.”
And, that’s the problem right there — it’s actually the institution of marriage that has failed you. The traditional marriage model we have was set up at a time when marriage was about protecting wealth and property and forging alliances. Its roots are in coverture, making women their husband’s property. Thankfully, no one marries like that any more — we marry for romantic love (which has made the whole institution unstable) and companionship. We need new marital models that support us in what we want from marriage now, when marriage is one option of many. And, just as important, we need different ways to measure a marriage’s success than just longevity. You yourself mention the couples that “stay in their relationships, miserably, and live completely phony lives.” Are those marriages a success just because they’re still intact? But, if they divorce, they have a “failed marriage“; it’s a shame-based institution.
“I am a believer in true love and building a beautiful life with someone,” you say. l believe you, and I truly hope you find that special someone one day. But Anthony, you don’t you want to just build “a beautiful life” — you want to build a specific kind of life, one that sets up you and your new wife for success by your definition of success, no one else’s.
You’re not going to find that in traditional marriage, but you’re free to individualize your own marriage — one that’s text- and social-media proof. Oh, and I’ll bet you’ll have all the sex you want, too.
It wasn’t too many years ago that people believed children should be seen and not heard. Now kids have become the center of their parents’ universe. But that hasn’t necessarily been good for the kids whose parents hover over their every thought and action: According to recent studies, college students who have helicopter parents were more likely to be neurotic and dependent, and kids who keep hearing how special they are are likely to turn into narcissists.
Not to mention the guilt moms — especially moms employed outside the home — have wrestled with about not having enough time with their kids. Relax, moms; new research indicates that the amount of time parents spend with their young kids pretty much makes no difference in how they turn out (there’s a minimal difference when it comes to adolescents). In fact, kids actually suffer when parents — particularly moms — are sleep-deprived, guilty and anxious.
But, forget about the kids; What about the parents?
Those kinds of statistics haven’t gone unnoticed, thus the increasingly vocal group challenging parents to change their ways, among them David Code, an Episcopal minister and family coach, who writes, “To raise healthy kids, simply put your marriage first and your children second.”
Agreeing with him is psychiatrist Michelle Goland who says, “The mistake many moms make is they believe that if they are a good mother, their husband will be fine and he will understand, but in reality, the husband may feel pushed out of the parenting role and begrudgingly gives up trying to have a relationship with his wife.”
Adds author and cognitive behaviorist Judith S. Beck, “Parents need not, and should not, sacrifice their needs (and some of their desires) for the sake of their children. They should be able to make decisions based on what is good for individual family members, including themselves, and what is good for the family as a whole.”
But what if you’re divorced, as I am? What if you have no marriage to work on, no spouse to pamper and put first? What if there’s just you and your kids?Can a divorced person put his or her needs first, before the kids?
That’s what single mom Shoshana Alexander, a founding editor of the Utne Reader, found while doing research for her book In Praise of Single Parents: Mothers and Fathers Embracing the Challenge: “All of the successful single parents I interviewed … had, early on, decided to make their children the central focus of their lives.”
Somehow, that doesn’t seem right — or healthy.
Why would single parents have to go beyond the normal sacrifices that make up good parenting? A single mom who’s frazzled trying to put her kids first isn’t helping her kids; she’s just making herself unhappy and unhealthy. And, as the saying goes, if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
But if we single parents take care of our own needs, we’re seen as, well, selfish. Worse, many of us guilt-trip ourselves, believing that we’re failing as a parent if we take time out for some personal indulgences, dating or even casual sex. It’s worse if our kids don’t see their other parent that much, or at all; it’s easy to overcompensate while trying to take on the role of both parents. And so we fall into the single parent trap, forgetting that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we turn into miserable, stressed-out, crappy parents.
Here’s why we need to re-frame that conversation. In some ways, single parents are poised to raise kids exactly right — they’re able to get their emotional and sexual needs met outside of a romantic love-based co-parenting situation, and often outside of a cohabiting situation, while also focusing on caring for their kids (not unlike the parenting marriage we propose in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels). There’s no romantic drama when you’re raising kids solo (and let’s not forget that it’s conflict that’s damaging to kids). They just need to be sure to create a healthy balance of caring for themselves and their kids, as Beck says, “based on what is good for individual family members, including themselves, and what is good for the family as a whole.”
Believing things between the sexes have gotten tense, Esquire magazine explores the state of men and women today in April’s issue. While I can’t say I understand any better what’s going on now that I’ve read the essays, I was particularly drawn to Jen Doll’s essay, The Burden of Choice: What it Means to Be a Modern American Female. I guess because I, too, am a modern American female, albeit two decades beyond her version (but, hey, let’s not quibble about such things, shall we?). Here’s what she says:
I am a particular kind of woman in America: healthy, white, single, heterosexual, childless, and at thirty-nine, still relatively young (though some may disagree). I feel pretty okay. I’ve been lucky. I have options.
Luck and options asides — Education, check. Career, check. Friends, check — the choices that have been available to her are making a mess of her life. Or, rather, they are forcing her to accept living with mess. And among the messes she’s questioning is, what about marriage? What about motherhood?
“I find I’m always wanting more—including some of what I’d scoffed at as a teen as “unoriginal”: the white dress, the traditional trappings of adult life. … I admire my friends who are freezing their eggs but tell myself, for me, if it’s not to be, it’s not to be, at the same time that I wonder, if I never actively choose to be a mom, have I given up something that I will always regret? (To be a woman now in America is to do battle with some sort of baby panic or another, particularly as you head into your later thirties.)”
Baby panic and “always wanting more.” Just a few decades ago, this was not even a concern for women — it was a duty.
I’ll admit, choice is scary, and having a panoply of choices often doesn’t get us what we want, as Barry Schwartz wrote in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less more than a decade ago but still rings true.
But, it was a lot scarier when we had no choices, when women were limited in their educational and career choices; when they had to marry to survive (and then could be legally beaten and raped by their husbands); when being child-free wasn’t a choice but something to be pitied; when men had to be the provider as Barbara Ehrenreich details so beautifully in The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, creating a bondage of breadwinning that set them up for unhealthy lifestyles, including depression and suicide. And people in unhappy or abusive marriages couldn’t easily divorce, either, until no-fault divorce came along.
Now, all of us finally have choices; we can have sex, kids, a live-in partner and financial security (huge for women) without marrying. We get to choose our career and lifestyle. We can be single, partnered and living together, partnered and living apart, a single parent, single moms alloparenting in shared housing — the list goes on and on.
So, of course that makes us anxious, and makes life messy. How do we create a meaningful life? How do we know how to bring another person into the fold? Why marry when we no longer have to?
That, of course, is the premise of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, but when I read Doll’s essay, I realize that the same consciousness that we promote in the book in deciding whether to marry or not, and how to have the right marriage, can be applied to deciding just about anything. Given that we can’t have everything, what do we actually want? Because our desires change as we age, we need to think short- and long-term. And, let’s be real — just because we have choice doesn’t mean we can always control the outcome. More often than not, we can’t.
Bring on the mess.
As I mentioned above, I, too, am a modern American female — a middle-aged divorced modern white American female. And that has made all sorts of things easier and harder at the same time. Which means I have adjusted my expectations while also being more discriminating. Here’s what drives me: connection. Friends, family, my partner. The rest is icing.
I doubt we’ll go back to a time when we’ll have fewer choices (and I’d be really, really worried if we preferred that). And while Doll talks about the complications of being a modern American female, she fails to consider that she’s a privileged white American female; being poor, white or not, undoubtedly limits many of the choices she’s struggling with.
Choice can be paralyzing, but it also can be liberating. How do you see it?
“No, no, no, no! You can’t do sweatpants. No. Ladies, number one cause of divorce in America? Sweatpants. No. Can’t do that.”
She apologized with good humor on Instagram a few days later, blaming orange crocs instead (I’m with her on that!). Still, you think she had something really controversial about, say same-sex marriage or the Middle East or ISIS or something of real substance, but the world reacted swiftly and snarkily and the 41-year-old actress, who had a baby with boyfriend Ryan Gosling last September, had to tweet — hey, it was joke! Gosling, being the good partner, backed her up on Twitter:
“Obviously sweatpants thing was a joke. Wearing them now. That’s right, tweeting in sweatpants. Rats! Said too much! You win again Twitter.”
Among the brouhaha was an article by Brian Moylan, who gave his own spin in Time magazine. There’s a message behind Eva’s comment, he says, no matter how flippantly she made it — if someone lets him/herself slide, it means trouble for the relationship:
The sweatpants could be anything. … The “sweatpants” are not bringing flowers home or not having sex regularly or gaining 20 pounds or peeing with the door open or buying your partner a present just because. … The sweatpants are familiarity and the contempt that they breed. Familiarity is one of the great things about being in a long-term relationship, the possibility to be so comfortable around another person that you can just be yourself. But it’s also dangerous territory. The problem is when your real self is sometimes a little bit less desirable than the ideal version of you that your partner saw in your first few months of courtship, when the emotion was high and those intoxicating love hormones in your brain were freely flowing. That’s why, sometimes, we have to give up our comfort and do something a little special for our significant other.
But the problem with both Eva’s comment, no matter how much of a joke it was, and Brian’s assessment of it (because everyone took it seriously, reminding me of the reaction to my tongue-and-cheek Huffington Post article on why women shouldn’t marry hot men) is that one person is responsible for a divorce. That if the wife lets herself go, well, of course her husband is going to want out — or maybe just an affair. Thus we are inundated with well-meaning but misguided articles on how you can divorce- or affair-proof your marriage. Except you can’t — all you can do is be the best person you can be and hope that you married someone who’s also interested in being the best he/she can be. You can’t control another person’s behavior, and if wearing sweats send your partner running, well, that says more about his/her character than your own.
So, does that mean you can wear sweats? I don’t see why not (although I prefer yoga pants, but whatever). There’s a wide spectrum of what “letting yourself go” means, and from my experience as a twice-married and divorced woman, I will say here’s what I’ve observed — most of us are totally capable of losing weight, exercising more and looking better once we’re divorced and perhaps looking for new love, which is why I say we should all act like we’re divorced in our marriage (again, tongue-in-cheek). If we can do that while single, why not do it when we’re married? If you don’t, it does not give your spouse carte blanche to act poorly. And if you do, it doesn’t mean your marriage will be divorce- or affair-proof — there are no guarantees in love — but at least you will feel great about yourself. You do want that, right?
And kids have their feelings about it, no matter how old they are when their parents split. A handful of young children reveal their thoughts in Bay Area filmmaker Ellen Bruno’s wonderful documentary, “Split,” which is, at times, heart-wrenching in its honesty although it’s clear that parental conflict causes them the most stress, not the divorce per se, and not being able to see their father as much as they’d like.
“Not everyone is meant to be monogamous forever and that’s totally OK. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”
“My parents got divorced when I was 21, and I learned that if you hate your spouse, you should not stay together for the sake of your kids because you’re not doing anybody any favors.”
“Looking back on it, the best moments I’ve had with my family happened after my parents got divorced and started co-parenting.”
“I’ve learned that ‘marriage’ doesn’t always mean that everything works out all happily ever after – but it does mean you still have a life together, at least in some way, if you have children together.”
These quotes give me hope.
While no one would promote divorce as being some sort of wonderful event, although it often is the route out of dysfunctional or abusive relationships and can lead to amazing transformations, what these answers illustrate is that perhaps, finally, people are taking off the rose-colored glasses about the institution as well as busting the fairy-tale romantic myths we keep perpetuating about it. Marriage can be great if you’ve married a good partner and are a good partner, or it can be a prison. It’s up to the people in it to make it good or bad; the marriage license doesn’t guarantee anything except access to legal protections.
Yes, monogamy needs to be a discussion. Yes, staying together “for the kids” rarely makes anyone happy, let alone the kids. Yes, once you have kids together you continue to be parents even if things don’t work out “happily ever after” — better learn to deal with that. What’s wrong with those messages? Aren’t they part of a much more real conversation about about what we want and expect from marriage? Who knows if these are the kinds of observations they’d have if they hadn’t been through parental divorce. Maybe the divorce made them pay more attention to their own romantic relationships. Maybe divorce was a positive thing for them.
Of course, no one wants children to be in the crosshairs while parents attempt to figure their stuff out. We want to be able to give kids the stability and consistency they need to thrive (hello, Parenting Marriage!!). But now that we don’t talk about kids being from broken homes, now that much of the stigma about divorce is gone, why are we still perpetuating myths about marriages that fall apart before the so-called perfect time — death (although we haven’t quite gotten rid of the idea of calling a marriage that ends before “death do us part” as a “failed marriage”)?
I’m not trying to put a good spin on divorce; for some people and for some kids it’s devastating, and I want to acknowledge that. I also want to acknowledge that some people who grew up with it have found positives from the experience (although I don’t quite buy into Kate Winslet’s philosophy). Both are true and neither is right or wrong.
Marriage isn’t always the answer and divorce isn’t always the problem, whether you have kids or not. You just want to uncouple as consciously as you can and stop fighting. Really, that’s it.