You’ve consciously coupled. You and your spouse discussed everything from money to sex to children to in-laws to household chores. Maybe you even read The New I Do (hey, an author can dream, right?). I applaud you and support you. Still, I’ll bet there’s something you didn’t discuss, and it’s not because you’re oblivious. You’re not. Even my co-author and I neglected to address it in The New I Do — who will care for your elderly parents and stepparents and how?
Parental caregiving is huge, especially since people are living longer nowadays, most of us don’t live close to our families — or in multi-generational homes, as in days past — and because most women are working outside the home. It didn’t happen to me until I was divorced so it wasn’t a big part of my romantic reality, even though I had a romantic partner at the time. He and I lived apart and he’d barely met my parents, who lived 3,000 miles from me, so who was going to take care of whom wasn’t part of our discussion; it did, however, impact my relationship with my sister, my only sibling, and let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.
Honey, we need to talk
My “aha” moment about it came when I stumbled upon a post (and the heartbreaking comments) in the wonderful wedding planning website A Practical Wedding. In it, author Stephanie Kaloi wonders if she and her husband will become the caregivers for their families; it’s something they never discussed when they wed years ago even though they have six aging parents and stepparents between them. As she writes:
In our house, we didn’t start having this conversation until two years ago, when my husband started working at a home for patients who have Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. It’s worth noting that his home was one of the “good” ones, and in a state that has far better laws and regulations about elder care than others. But even still, he quickly, and firmly, made a decision that none of our parents would ever end up in a facility like that. Since I have always assumed I would offer my mother a space in our home at any point in her life if she needed it, I agreed. At the time neither of us was thinking about our ever-pressing student loan debt and what that might mean for our financial future (to be honest, we still have no idea) — we just felt like this was the only clear option before us.
And often it is the only clear option. But not necessarily a happy one.
Adult children are doing nearly half of the daily caregiving for their elderly parents, stepparents and in-laws, and — no surprise — the overwhelming majority of those caregivers are women. While the burden of that affects many adult daughters, heterosexual women — married women — suffer the most. Why? Their husbands often aren’t supportive of their parental caregiving, leading to marital stress as well as personal stress. Same-sex couples — particularly women — without the same societal gendered expectations seem to fare better.
Does it suck to be a hetero woman or what?
Well, I’m actually happily hetero — a divorced one at that — and yet I believe it’s wrong that we women are expected to handle the majority of the caregiving, including the emotional caretaking, in our families. Are we responsible for being our elders’ caregivers, too? We pay a huge price for it just as do for caring for our children. As Liz O’Donnell writes in the Atlantic:
There are currently 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the majority are women. And yet there are very few support programs, formal or informal, in place to support these family caregivers, many of whom are struggling at work and at home. Working daughters often find they need to switch to a less demanding job, take time off, or quit work altogether in order to make time for their caregiving duties. As a result, they suffer loss of wages and risk losing job-related benefits such as health insurance, retirement savings, and Social Security benefits. … Caregiving tends to hit women in their mid-40s, just around the time their earning potential starts to wane and dangerously close to the age when they may not be able to reenter the workforce if they leave.
How much do we women lose? About $324,044. But our health and, sometimes, marriages suffer, too.
Making a plan
If parental caregiving isn’t something you want to do or if it’s something you actually want to do but want to create boundaries and realistic expectations — like you only want to do it for your own parents and not your in-laws or vice versa or some variation — please don’t be like Stephanie Kaloi and wait X-number of years into your relationship to have a discussion about it.
Do it now, wherever you are in your romantic relationship (yeah, even if you’ve been dating for a while and things are getting serious). It’s your life. And, of course, have that discussion with your parents first; they may — and probably will — have other ideas than yours. And, have that discussion with them and your siblings, if you have them, because they may have other ideas, too.
It’s true that we can’t plan for everything in our future, but we can at least discuss some of the hard stuff, which will uncover beliefs and values we may not have been aware of, and create a tentative plan with flexible options. That’s the beauty of a marital plan — it forces you to have those tough discussions and gives you a baseline from which you can tweak things. And if your husband is adamant that his mother will never go into a nursing home, but he doesn’t plan to quit or cut back work to care for her, well, that’s probably something you’d want to address ASAP.
It may not be an easy discussion, but I can tell you from experience that few if any rational and satisfying decisions are made in moments of crisis, especially when it comes to our parents.
Interested in having a marital plan that includes parental caregiving? Order “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.
Recently, an old Modern Love piece appeared in my social media feed. It was about consensual non-monogamy so of course I had to click on it. I suppose it was a popular piece, as most Modern Love essays are, but this one — “When an Open Relationship Comes at a Price” — irked me a bit.
I am not consensually non-monogamous, and I am neither for or against it; that’s for couples to decide. But the author, Eliza Kennedy, makes a few assumptions, perhaps misunderstands consensual non-monogamy as well as marriage, but ends up beautifully describing the terror that we call romantic love.
As a college student, she moved in with her boyfriend who “was committed to living his life according to strict intellectual principles, and for him, personal freedom was paramount. Love could not require constraint, foreclosure or deprivation.”
And so, he demanded that they have an open relationship. She agreed because, “If an open relationship was necessary to prove how well I loved my boyfriend, I was happy to comply.”
‘Complying’ isn’t choosing
I am no expert on relationships, monogamous or not, but if you are doing something for your romantic partner that goes against your own principles, or demanding that your partner do something for you that goes against his or her own principles, there’s a problem right there. That’s not how one “proves” ones love (and why should you have to do that anyway?). But, she was 18. Everyone makes mistakes at 18.
Kennedy indulged in consensual non-monogamy with gusto while her intellectual boyfriend didn’t — and, instead of supporting her in following his own dictate, became critical, dismissive and judgmental of her choices. There are names for people like that.
Eventually, he moved out and Kennedy observes that being non-monogamous “was a complete disaster.” Not because there was something inherently wrong with non-monogamy, but because they weren’t good at it:
The weight of other people hadn’t caused our bough to break, but it certainly hadn’t helped. No longer in thrall to his supremely persuasive rationale for open relationships, I understood why he reacted as he had. He was jealous. He feared losing me. I’d thought I was living his principle, but I had really experienced only one side of being in an open relationship — the fun and easy side. How would I have responded if he had been the one making out and messing around? Not well, I suspected.
Hmm. If she would have responded poorly if “he had been the one making out and messing around,” it’s pretty clear that she wasn’t willingly choosing an open relationship because it’s what she wanted and fundamentally spoke to who she is. And when you do something you don’t fundamentally believe in, there will be problems.
Not surprisingly, it’s pretty much the same for people who are in monogamous relationships … except because monogamy is culturally compelled, most of us aren’t really actively and willingly choosing it. It’s the societal assumption, the default, and because we have few models of healthy open relationships, monogamy “wins” even though it isn’t always good for men or for women.
But her boyfriend wasn’t really committed to having an open relationship either; if he was, he probably wouldn’t have acted the way he did. So why did he want one? Maybe he thought he should have an open relationship but wasn’t really committed to the practice of it, just the idea of it. Maybe he thought she wouldn’t actually indulge, especially since it was his idea and not hers or theirs. Maybe, once it became a reality, he couldn’t handle his own insecurities. Who the heck knows?
Maybe her open relationship was a “complete disaster,” but we shouldn’t diss open relationships per se.
All relationships come at a price
As an editor, I know it’s likely Kennedy didn’t write her own headline, which feels a bit misleading. It isn’t just open relationships that come at a price; all relationships come at a price. No matter the arrangement, we always give something up (and gain other, better, things — one hopes). Thankfully, she acknowledges that at her essay’s end. Observing her friends who coupled up — monogamously — as she did, there’s a sober reality:
I have watched and listened as some of those friends learned how fascination fades. How reality can dull the bliss. Their eyes began to wander, or their hearts did. They cheated. Or split up. Or cheated, then split up. Or stayed faithful and married, but now feel hemmed in and hamstrung. They’re all around me, these people who said “you, and no other,” and meant it. Until they didn’t. … I had fled an open relationship, opting for the safety of a closed circle. But the wreckage of monogamous relationships lies all around us. The notion that they’re somehow more stable than open ones is an illusion. Not because monogamy is unsafe, but because all romantic love is. It’s powerful and thrilling. It’s also terrifying.
Yes, romantic love is powerful, thrilling, terrifying, unsafe. Yes, monogamous relationships are no more or less stable than open relationships. It’s all one big gamble, one most of us seem to be willing to take, often repeatedly. Because we believe the rewards are worth it.
That should be the takeaway of the essay.
But then, she disappoints me. “Marriage isn’t the place to sample and explore,” she writes.
Really? Says whom?
Wouldn’t a loving and supportive marriage be exactly the environment in which to sample and explore all sorts of things — whatever the couple chooses, if the couple chooses it? Clearly, that’s how those in open and poly marriages see it. Why marriage? Well, because there are 1,100 financial and legal perks and protections, as well societal expectations that marriage is forever (all of which can be traps, too) that offer a buffer. It’s why in The New I Do, we offer couples ways to reinvent their marriage when they start to feel “hemmed in and hamstrung” and ways to build flexibility into their marriage from the get-go with marital contracts. Marriage isn’t a static thing; it’s ripe for exploration. But so are all relationships.
What matters more is what happens if things don’t work out — do we see those explorations as failures or as brave, bold actions that challenge us individually and jointly, and disrupt societal expectations and assumptions?
We’ll pay a price either way, but it’s only in the latter case that we’ll come to appreciate that the price was actually worth it.
Interested in learning about other ways to re-create your marriage? Order “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.
You’re in a long-term happy, sexually active marriage and one day you discover that your spouse has been cheating on you — basically since Day 1.
How do you feel?
You’d probably feel heart-broken and devastated, which is how a man writing to author, LGBTQ activist and columnist Dan Savage signed off as in his latest Savage Love column.
I am a huge fan of Savage — I turned to his writings and used his term monogamish in The New I Do — so I was not surprised by how he answered “HAD”:
A long-term relationship is a myth two people create together. … You thought your marriage was a loving, committed, and “completely loyal” one, but it’s not — it can’t be, and it never was, because she was cheating on you from the beginning. But loyalty isn’t something we demonstrate with our genitals alone. Your wife wasn’t loyal to you sexually, HAD, and that’s painful. And the conventional “wisdom” is that people don’t cheat on partners they love. But you were married to this woman, and you describe your marriage as good, loving, and wonderful. And it somehow managed to be all those things despite your wife’s betrayals. She must have been loyal to you in other ways or you would’ve divorced her long before you discovered her infidelities.
“You have a good relationship, from everything you tell me, and the question is always, does one discovery topple an entire relationship, an entire history? … With so many marital tasks in your hands, this does not necessarily redefine an entire relationship. This doesn’t say, ‘Everything else was a lie and this is the truth.’ This says, ‘There was a lot of truth and then there was a whole other closet in which stuff took place that I had no idea about and now I need to find a way to understand it, cry over it, experience acute pain, but also make meaning of it, and potentially integrate it — and in the end, I may choose that it is too big for me to integrate and then let go.’
That’s a LOT to think about or integrate. I’m not sure I could do that. Many people are forgiving of a one-night stand, but serial cheating? Hmm. And yet …
One thing I love about Perel is the way she matter-of-factly acknowledges that there are many ways to betray a spouse that have nothing to do with sex. The nonsexual types of betrayal probably occur a lot more than the sexual ones, although sometimes both occur, and we put up with them — often for years. Where do you draw the line? Is it OK to put up with years of nonsexual betrayal as long as your spouses isn’t cheating?
When non-monogamy’s OK
I have observed with a certain amount of fascination the sexual shenanigans that have gone on in my own life, my circle of friends and acquaintances, and the world at large. I have engaged in all sorts of sexual shenanigans yet I am, at heart, a monogamous woman (albeit, a serial monogamist). I, like many other serial monogamists, seem to want our current partner to also be monogamous — even if we began seeing him or her while they or we were still married, a relatively common occurrence. Which means many of us — men and women — are OK with non-monogamy being on the sly as long as it’s something we’re choosing for ourselves but not if it’s happening to us. Yet we balk at the idea of consensual non-monogamy — when couples decide for themselves to have an open marriage, be polyamorous, swing, etc. — and consider it to be abnormal.
So non-monogamy of the cheating kind is normal but consensual non-monogamy is not.
Isn’t that kind of crazy?
Interested in opening up your marriage? Order “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.
Fans far and wide reacted to Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s announcement last week that she and her companion of 12 years and husband of 9 years, Jose Nunes (aka Felipe in her best-selling book), are separating.
It’s never an easy decision, even for a woman who so publicly wrote about the demise of her first marriage in a book and then addressed her reluctance to tie the knot again in her 2010 follow-up book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, but ultimately did in order to keep him in the States.
In a long post on Facebook, Gilbert, who’ll be 47 this month, wrote, in part:
Our split is very amicable. Our reasons are very personal. At this time of transition, I hope you will respect our privacy. In my heart, I know that you will do so, because I trust that you understand how this is a story that I am living — not a story that I am telling.
I am not a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, but I am a huge fan of Gilbert herself. I was lucky to have interviewed her twice — when Committed was published and when she republished her great-grandmother’s cookbook, a benefit for Dave Egger’s program that helps under-resourced students go to college — and saw her talk locally once. Each time, she came across as genuine, grounded, generous and self-effacing.
And so I understand her request to respect their privacy because, as she writes, the reasons for their split are “very personal.” Honestly, what split is not “very personal”? Every split is. Although I can imagine a time when there will be an “exclusive” (perhaps with Oprah) in which Gilbert “finally opens up” about what went “wrong.”
Looking for reasons
Because we believe the only reason people split is because something’s wrong, even if the split means there was growth or the relationship accomplished what the couple wanted from it. For some reason, we see longevity as the only way to measure a relationship’s success. So when a relationship ends, we look for reasons we can understand because it’s scary to think that the people we look up to as getting it right — whatever the it is — are no better at it than we are.
Some might question whether the 17-year age difference was the problem. (“Sometimes I feel sorry for him; my energy is so tiresome for him,” she told me.) Some might question the fact that they wed for the most part to keep him in the States — not quite a green card marriage but he most definitely needed the green card if they were going to live in the same country. Some might question whether their childfree relationship led to a split — childfree couples tend to divorce more than those with children. They don’t have children together — Gilbert has famously said she was never interested in having children — but Nunes is a dad. Some might question if the problem was the fact that it’s a second marriage for both, which often has a more dismal divorce record than a first marriage but not always; some second marriages struggle because blending families with young children can be a challenge more than anything else. Others might question if it’s because she’s admitted to being a seduction addict. Well …
When I spoke to Gilbert, she was very clear that she was doing things differently in her second marriage — a prenup for one (her first divorce cost her a lot of money). She also said she was a different person and was marrying a partner who was better suited to her. Sharing that she and fellow author and friend Ann Patchett both had older husbands who absolutely adored them (Patchett’s second husband is 16 years older than she), she said they often joked that if they couldn’t make their marriages work, well, no marriage would work.
Marriage is a strange combination of dream and reality, and we spend our lives as couples trying to negotiate that divide. I will say this, because I think it is the single most important piece of information in the whole story: Marriage is not a game for the young. … Maturity brings — among other things — the ability to sustain and survive enormous contradictions and disappointments. Marriage is — among other things — a study in contradiction and disappointment, and inside that reality there is space for us to truly learn how to love. But it is wise to check at least a few of our most idealistic youthful dreams at the door before entering.
I agree with her, to a point. Ultimately, to me, the “single most important piece of information” is this: There are no guarantees, maturity or not. Marry young, marry old, marry for love, marry for kids, marry once, marry twice — nothing’s a given. But that doesn’t mean the relationship was for naught — we may have experienced wonderful love and growth and happiness within it.
A good friend tied the knot again last year, another is about to do so in a few weeks. Both are in their 50s with grown children, older for sure and presumably wiser this time around. Neither has questioned the institution, as Gilbert has; they just want to spend the rest of their lives with their respective partners and believe marriage is the best way to do that. They may not have “idealistic youthful dreams” anymore, but they have dreams nonetheless. Maybe that’s the most we can hope for.
Interested in re-creating your marriage? Order “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.
You’ve gone on a few dates, you’re starting to like each other and then, the question — “So, how many people have you slept with?”
It’s more than just a number, of course — it’s a peek into your sexual beliefs and practices, and, sometimes, a source of shame or pride.
According to a 2015 study, almost 30 percent of men and women disclosed their sexual histories once they became an exclusive couple; about 22 percent never shared it.
Does it matter? Disclosing it may or may not matter; after all, few of us are truly honest about it. Men tend to skew higher while women tend to skew lower, thanks to the slut factor sexual women face. Hopefully, whomever you end up with not only accepts your number but also embraces it as part of your journey into being the sexual god or goddess that you are. If not, it’s might be a good idea to ditch him or her!
But a new study indicates that the number of your sexual partners and marital bliss may have nothing to do with your partner at all; it may — just this one time — actually be about you.
Is saving yourself worth it?
Most of us are not virgins when we tie the knot. In fact, about 95 percent of us aren’t; the few who are are also are typically religious. That has its own problems.
I innocently assumed that all of that work on both our parts to remain chaste would pay off with a hot, passionate sex life after we had finally said “I do.” I assumed this because no one had ever told me differently.
It didn’t work as planned, and although she still would have saved herself for marriage, she worries about the message repeatedly told in the Christian church: “We spend so much time teaching teenagers to avoid intimate interactions, that by the time they’re married they’ve been conditioned to react against intimacy.”
Which is not healthy for a marriage.
Religious men don’t fare much better. According to a recent study by Sarah Diefendorf, men, too, are taught that sex outside of marriage is animalistic and but sex within marriage will be special and sacred. But they struggled after marriage nonetheless because sex still felt dirty — and not in the good way.
There isn’t a “right” or “wrong” number of sexual partners if you want to wed with any hope of having a happily-ever-after, but there are some numbers that are better than others for relatively recent marriers, and having just two partners isn’t it — if you’re a woman — he writes. It’s better to have just one or more — just not too many. Between six and nine ought to keep your marriage intact.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know how I feel about keeping a marriage intact — it only matters if both partners believe the marriage is worth keeping intact and then actually act that way (yeah, you actually have to follow it up with action). Otherwise, it’s fine to part ways, but if you have young kids at least get your crap together, learn to be good co-parents and always put the kids first.
But, why one sexual partner? Typically, he says, that means the bride has only slept with the man who became her husband and therefore has no other person to compare him with. Same with having zero partners although, as I write above, that may lead to an unhappy sexual life even if you stay married.
Having two partners, hubby-to-be and that other guy — perhaps the “bad boy” who may have rocked her sexual world but was not husband material or who split, or wasn’t “all that” or perhaps didn’t want to have have kids, etc. — is more likely to make her look at her sex life after the $20k wedding and Maui honeymoon are over — when many newlyweds wonder, “WTF have I just done?” — and realize she might have made a mistake. A big one. Bring on the divorce attorneys and the XOJane confessionals.
Better to have slept around a bit.
As Wolfinger writes:
Having two partners may lead to uncertainty, but having a few more apparently leads to greater clarity about the right man to marry. The odds of divorce are lowest with zero or one premarital partners, but otherwise sowing one’s oats seems compatible with having a lasting marriage.
Except, other things than sex factor into choosing the “right man to marry.” If a woman had a deliciously exciting sexual time in her 20s, or a few long-term committed relationships or perhaps a combo, and then had a dearth of partners in her mid- to late-30s, when she may be thinking about having a child, the definition of the “right man to marry” may change, clarity be damned.
Ultimately, Wolfinger writes, “this research brief paints a fairly complicated picture of the association between sex and marital stability that ultimately raises more questions than it answers.”
Right. Because who really knows if how many people we slept with — or confessed to sleeping with (which is not always the same) — is why we decide to split or stay? There’s also no way to know if this holds true with lesbians or bisexual women (the data is for heteros only).
I can understand why having one partner might make someone stay in a marriage. There might be different expectations. Who knows if there’s anything better? Maybe the sex is decent enough. Or maybe you think this is just how sex is. Maybe you’re not particularly sexual. Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who has mind-blowing sex with your one and only sexual partner. I’m not religious but, hey, God bless them if that’s so!
I don’t know too many people who had just one partner when they wed; one friend who’s religious turned to porn when his wife lost interest after the babies came and, then, after he’d developed a full-on porn addiction, was shut out sexually for good. No surprise that they divorced. The few women who married as virgins that I interviewed for The New I Do were instrumental in opening up their marriage; they saw that as an alternative to divorce — and it is.
Still, there’s nothing wrong in divorcing, no matter how many partners you may or may not have had before marrying. If your sexual needs aren’t being fulfilled by your spouse, or you’re sexually incompatible in the long-term, or your spouse isn’t interested in learning how to be a better lover or becoming more creative or adventurous and you want more — and maybe even had more once or twice — why wouldn’t you get divorced instead of making yourself, and most likely your spouse, miserable? It’s the same if you’ve never slept with someone before marriage and you’re not even sure better sex exists. Because the best reason to divorce is not because you believe there’s better sex or a better someone “out there” for you; it’s because you’d rather face being alone than stay in your marriage.
And if you do find someone better and marry again, the upside is the number of sexual partners probably won’t matter. You’ll just have other, perhaps bigger issues, than sex.
Interested in re-creating your marriage? Order “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.
The cover of a recent Time magazine declared, “How to stay married (and why).” As you probably know, I am not against marriage or for it either despite the fact that I co-wrote a book about marriage.
OK, yes, my co-author and I did say in the book that we were for marriage, but — and this is a big but — only because it offers the best legal protections and benefits for couples right now. That may change in the future, and personally I hope it does; why should the government decide who gets what based on his or her love life? That mattered when there were few options, but now there are many. It no longer makes sense, and it also leaves a lot of caregiving unprotected.
And for cohabiting couple like economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, who are not married but have a child together and have drawn up a contract, marriage isn’t all that necessary — they’ve done the essential work of detailing what they want their partnership to look like. If everyone did that — and I have no idea why committed couples don’t — we really wouldn’t need marriage, although couples still might be missing out on certain government perks, especially tax breaks. Which gets us back to the financial aspect of marriage that few want to address — even Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, divorcing after just 15 months of marriage and no prenup: marriage is, at its heart, a financial arrangement. Yes, it’s about the money and stuff, even if we really want it to be about love.
The pressure to marry
But, getting back to the Time article, journalist Belinda Luscombe gives a somewhat relatively balanced view of the studies indicating the pluses and minuses of marriage. Still, the end result is the same (evidenced by the title) — you probably should marry, as long as you learn how to be properly married, and probably should stay married.
Tireless singles advocate Bella DePaulo, whom I know and greatly respect, and other singletons saw the article as shaming singles; I don’t. Still, what concerns me about such articles, as seemingly balanced as they are, is that there isn’t full transparency about the studies (which DePaulo rightfully continues to address, to often deaf ears) and, perhaps more important, many of them don’t full address the many options available to us now that might indicate similar results. There are scant longitudinal studies on independent men and women who prefer to live alone, live apart together for the long term or cohabit, and until there are, we really won’t know whether marriage is still the best arrangement for couples. As I wrote recently, if you love someone, do you really need a legal arrangement binding your commitment?
The benefits of alternative arrangements
Recently, there have been some interesting studies that show that cohabiting couples — a hugely growing segment of society — often go to couples therapy earlier than married couples and, guess what, they feel more satisfied and committed by the experience. Why? As the study notes, “Without the institutionalized rules of marriage, cohabiting couples may perceive threats to their relationship earlier than married couples.” And some studies indicate that the stigma of cohabiting — versus being married — impacts younger couples, probably feeling the need to follow a normative romantic path, much more than older couples, who seem to fare quite well cohabiting or even as living apart together couples.
All of which means that before we tout the presumptive benefits of marriage for everyone, we should be willing to explore what’s working for those who are happily living alternatively and whether what doesn’t work for them is the actual arrangement or the societal expectation that committed couples marry and live together as well as the judgment they face if they don’t follow the romantic script. And, we need to look at whether marriage matters for couples past the baby-making years or for those who chose to be childfree.
What if those societal expectations didn’t exist? Would Time magazine or other mainstream media still tout the benefits of marriage, especially long-term marriage?
We really don’t know. I just wish that the possibility that it might not make a difference would be acknowledged.
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.
A few years ago a woman wrote to me out of the blue. She had been reading this blog and saw me as a woman who “got” it.
What did I get?
The right for women invest in their own life and not put a husband’s needs and wants over hers.
A successful business-
woman in Manhattan, she observed that successful men are looking for what she called a “mom-
ployee” — a woman who’ll take care of all the home needs — just like Mom — as well as his physical and emotional needs.
She wasn’t interested in that and neither am I — now. I did that in my two marriages, especially the second because we had kids, but I’m pretty much done with that kind of life. I want a little more balance with a partner, and a lot more freedom.
I was reminded of her email when I read an interesting take on Moira Weigel’s book, Labor of Love, which I wrote about last week. Weigel was interviewed by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman and Penny brings up the concept of women’s emotional labor — all the work women do to keep love, marriage and the family going smoothly.
Doing the work of marriage
If marriage is “work” — and we are constantly told it is — society seems to expect women to do the bulk of it. We get to do the chores and the childcare as well as the emotional caretaking that is typically unseen or at least undervalued — the planning, organizing, and structuring of family life. And that’s exhausting.
As Penny writes:
Romantic love can be work, and so can domestic work, childcare, all of it — and the fact that we call so much of it “love” makes the that work invisible. … We have to remember that the work that is done within love and family scenarios, mainly by women, is work that has real, measurable value, work without which capitalism could not continue to exist. And the historical marginalisation of women has been about managing and ensuring the unstinting supply of that work, for free, for a long time. Changing the labour of love will involve changing those conditions — and it will take a lot of imaginative work.
That really struck me. Is domestic work and caregiving “love”? If you removed domestic work and/or caregiving from a romantic partnership, would you still have love?
Well, of course.
Couples who are well off financially typically outsource such work — chefs, personal assistants, nannies and housecleaners.
So if those couples can escape gendered expectations when it comes to free domestic labor masquerading as “love,” then why can’t hetero couples and those of us with kids? Why should the hard work that — typically — women do to keep a family going fall under the requirements of “love”? Certainly we can — and do — love others without being expected to do all the dirty work.
To be fair to the breadwinners, traditionally men, wouldn’t breadwinning also be a type of caregiving under the guise of “love”? Absolutely, although there’s a difference. Breadwinning — having a career, being successful in a career, making a good income — is respected. Childrearing and housecleaning? Not so much. It’s just what people — typically women — do. For “love.”
As Penny says, changing that is going to take a lot of imaginative work. Any ideas?
Why do you date? If you’re like most people, it’s most likely because you’re hoping to never have to date again — which means you find someone special to settle down with and be a committed, loving couple and perhaps even wed.
What other purpose would there be to going through all the time, energy and expense that dating requires?
Dating is work, or so says Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University who explores the history of dating in the new book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. The history of dating is a lot more interesting and complicated than I ever imagined, and her book is especially illuminating when it explores how the process of finding love has turned singles into commodities in order to sell themselves to potential mates.
I spoke with Weigel right before I went to see The Lobster, a quirky, dark new comedy that’s a deliciously scathing examination of the societal pressure to couple and the stigmatization of singles.
But the issues the movie, by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, brings up are worth exploring, especially since so few of us do: Do we really know what we’re doing when we’re looking for love? How much are we influenced by what others say we should or shouldn’t look for in a romantic partner? How far are we willing to change who we fundamentally are in order to be coupled? If we weren’t seen as such societal outliers if we didn’t want a romantic partner — or at least an “until death do we part” kind of partner — would we choose to live differently?
That’s just a taste of the provocative questions the movie raises.
A world of couples
In the movie’s future world, being coupled is the most important thing; couples get to live in the city, they get to shop at the malls, they have it all. Singles, meanwhile, aren’t allowed to have contact with couples, and are routinely hunted, shot with tranquilizer guns and humiliated (and worse). Singles are rounded up, taken to a tacky hotel and given 45 days to partner or be transformed into an animal of their choosing (thus the title, based on what Colin Farrell’s Dave says he’d like to be turned into) — even if they’ve just become widowed or divorced. (Just like in real life, the pressure to find a replacement and carry on with our coupled lives is huge.) But singles can’t just pick any partner — it has to be someone who’s their perfect match, based on their professed character flaw. Anyone who has ever tried online dating knows just how real that is; don’t all the dating websites show you what they consider a man or woman — often laughably — to be your perfect match based on your professed likes and dislikes?
The few singles in the movie who couple up based on those tenuous characteristics, struggle — as we’d expect they would and often do in real life. But the powers that be, in one of the film’s most deliciously wicked moments, “solves” it for them: “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children; that usually helps.” So much like real life — how many couples decide to have a baby to salvage the marriage? — that it hurts.
The ‘freedom’ of singles
Being coupled doesn’t seem all that much fun — the scenes in the city and mall are dreary — but being single doesn’t either. In fact, in some ways it seems worse. Considering the stigma singles still face today, as Singled Out author Bella DePaulo relentlessly battles, there’s a price to be paid for their freedom.
The Loners, living ostensibly “free” in the woods, are actually under more restrictive rules than the movie’s couples. They must avoid having or showing any romantic interests in anyone else, or face severe consequences.
Given some of the criticism directed at Weigel as well as All the Single Ladies author Rebecca Traister, both married women writing about the single life, it’s clear that the anti-couple single community can seem just as judgmental and limiting.
Consider, in a Chicago Tribune review of Traister’s book, what the writer says about Traister — no longer “one of us,” aka single (emphasis mine):
A virgin until 24 (this may be one of the book’s more shocking revelations), with a checkered romantic history, and a young adulthood focused on work and strong female friendships, she ultimately got lucky: She met her future husband at the bar of a restaurant where she had stopped to pick up a takeout dinner. She married at 35 — late, but not extraordinarily so for her generation and social class — and managed to have two children before her window of opportunity closed.
She got “lucky” — a word we use for men who get laid — before her eggs shriveled. Weigel’s book addresses the pressure put on women to couple up, marry and start popping out kids, always mindful of their biological clock — a term that has been used to reinforce sexist ideas and strains romantic relationships between women and men.
As Weigel writes:
The role of the biological clock has been to make it seem only natural — indeed inevitable — that the burdens of reproducing the world fall almost entirely on women. There are moral as well as practical implications to this idea: if you do not plan your life just right, you deserve to end up desperate and alone.
Anything but being alone
Ultimately, the film brings up the desperate things we’ll do to avoid loneliness, and how being partnered is the only answer we can envision to avoid loneliness. Do we truly believe that or is that what society tells us?
Except anyone who’s ever been lonely in a romantic relationship knows how misguided that thinking is. Still, the pressure is on and so we forge on — dating and sometimes following oppressive dating “rules” and questionable self-help books — in our search for The One and the happily ever after we’re promised to have if we find him or her. It’s better than being alone … right?
According to New York magazine, women are cheating as men as men. The article cites some studies indicating that in the past two decades, the percentage of hubbys admitting to cheating hasn’t changed, but the percentage of wives fessing up rose almost 40 percent.
Call me cynical, but why is this news to anyone? For many years, women just didn’t have the opportunity. Once more of us began working outside the house, opportunity presented itself. The Internet made it easier, too. And, let’s not forget that up until fairly recently women’s sexuality was repressed by a male-dominated culture.
That’s changing (except, sadly, in certain countries and religions).
So why would anyone be surprised that women wouldn’t be as interested in getting some on the side as men?
I don’t have an answer but here’s what I think; in addition to having our sexuality repressed, we gals have had it beaten into our heads that we need love and romance and monogamy, and we can’t have casual sex.
If you hear messages like that all your life, well, of course you will internalize it — even if it’s not quite how you feel. I wrote about that a few months ago when I questioned if monogamy is good for women. I am monogamous by choice and, yes, many women I know are, too.
But the more we see studies like this, on the uptick of women having affairs, I think we may need to questions our beliefs about women’s sexuality.
Wait, what? Men “have a lot to worry about” if women are equally interested in casual sex? Hmm, that’s a curious thought. So, I guess it’s OK that women have historically had to worry about men? No, sorry, it’s not OK.
Maybe Bergner didn’t mean exactly what came out of his mouth; I read What Do Women Want?, and it’s an empowering book for women and our sexuality. And yet, there it is in print — “So we men may have a lot to worry about.”
Years ago, I was a cliche — I was the Other Woman.
I was in my 20s and working with someone whom I liked as a coworker and whom I found attractive. I don’t recall how the conversation started, but somehow he convinced me that he and his wife were only staying together until their daughter went off to college — she was about 14, 15, at the time — and then after that, they planned to divorce.
I wasn’t coupled at the time but I was actively dating; still, I had no illusions of the two of us being romantic partners or spouses one day or even the desire for that. I wasn’t in love with him. I just wanted to have fun with him, and so that’s what we did. Every Wednesday we’d get together to, well, do whatever married men and Other Women do. We did that for a few months until I met the man who became my second husband.
“He played you,” my now former husband said at the time.
“No he didn’t. He and his wife had an agreement,” I insisted with a huff.
It was only recently when I did a Google search and discovered he and his wife are still married — their daughter must be in her 30s by now — and, presumably, do not have an open marriage.
OK, so I most likely was played. I suppose I should have felt foolish, deceived and hurt. Maybe because I wasn’t in love with him and didn’t have any desire to be a couple, I didn’t. Maybe I should have felt bad for his wife, but who knows what she knew. And also it’s decades later — I’m long past obsessing over my youthful indiscretions. So I was intrigued when I stumbled upon a study on how some Other Women feel empowered by being a mistress. This is not a narrative we often hear.
In addition to deception as a form of interpersonal power, a man engaged in relationships with multiple women is empowered by male privilege. He is celebrated for his masculine virility, while Other Women are demonized as narcissist or sadomasochist and deviant others, and wives are pitied, blamed, or shamed.
Except that Utley discovers in her research that the majority of the 35 Other Women she interviewed saw the experience as empowering, even the women had no idea their partners were married or in committed relationships. They saw their affair partner as helping them “recognize and meet unmet emotional and sexual needs.”
Sometimes, the affair was described as an addiction. Few of us might consider that a good thing, but as Utley writes, “An all-consuming desire for sexual pleasure is so foreign to many women that there are few familiar words other than addiction to describe their craving for sexual satisfaction.”
Wives, as usual, were seen somehow at fault: “Wives were disregarded because they never initiated a confrontation, seemed not to care, or were too stupid to notice their man’s attention was divided. Sometimes wives were dismissed because they were trashy, untrustworthy, failed to make their husbands happy, or were suspected of having their own affairs.” This alleviated any feelings of guilt.
Which is why I’m quite intrigued by Maggie’s Plan, a new comedy by director Rebecca Miller in which a man leaves his wife to be with his affair partner who slowly realizes that was all a mistake and she hatches a plan to reconnect him with his wife.
Learning of the plan, the jilted wife (Julianne Moore) tells the mistress-turned wife Maggie (Greta Gerwig): “Have the decency to leave him and face the fact that you poisoned my life and my children’s life and probably John’s life, with your own selfishness. That’s your burden. You earned it.”
To which Maggie responds: “Wait a minute. If you had such a perfect marriage, why was John miserable? You neglected him and you used him, and you didn’t believe in his talents.”
Which is why there isn’t a sisterhood between Other Women and wives!
Although, Utley notes, many of the Other Women felt “stupid, empty, foolish, dumb and ruined” by the experience, their regrets spurred them to action — choosing to end the relationship and seeing it as a learning experience. Ultimately, she writes, “Other Women exemplified personal growth by describing who they were before the affair, defining who they were during the affair, and determining who they intended to be post-affair. Identity construction through self-narration is empowering.”
Abbott does justice to the many lexicographical variants of the term “mistress,” which according to the Oxford American Dictionary, connotes domination, learnedness, authority, and, of course, being beloved. She probes the antic recklessness and wanton secrecy endemic to love affairs, breathing life into mistresses who evince the agency, autonomy, self-direction, and order of this definition — attributes far removed from the type of lasciviousness once meriting containment by legal statute and exile in imperial Rome — as well as to those who, by choice or circumstance, fell prey to their lovers’ manipulation.
Why does this matter — if it even matters? Utley says the experiences of Other Women may “be applicable to other relational power differentials between women and men, particularly relationships where there is exploitation or emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, social and/or financial abuse.” If some women can find empowerment even in painful situations they willingly put themselves into — aka affairs — perhaps they can find the same in relationships that don’t start that way but become painful nonetheless.
I don’t doubt that may indeed be true. But I have to wonder if being involved with a married man is the only — and/or best way — for women to gain personal power.