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When I said “I do” the second time, at age 32, I knew what this marriage was about — kids. We both said we wanted to have a child, maybe two (my preference), and we talked about what that might mean for us financially.  Children change everything

We were both journalists at the time — not big income kind of careers, but each of us had been able to support ourselves. But the question facing us was, could we make it financially as a couple with a child, especially since we both wanted one of us to be home with our child and we didn’t have family around who would help? Because my then-husband was more established in his career, we decided that I would stay at home and work part time as a freelance writer, and he would continue his full time career and be the breadwinner.

All of this sounded great in theory, and some of it actually worked in practice; what was not so great were the massive changes for me despite our best intentions.

The good

First, what worked: I would never trade my time home with my son. Yes, I felt that rush of mother love. He was perfect, and I couldn’t imagine missing his first steps, his first words, seeing the world through his eyes. The vision I had of the joys of parenting — playing, exploring and reading together — were exactly what happened.

And because we lived modestly, we could make it on just one salary. This was a sacrifice we were willing to make, and it it didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice — we lived in a beautiful community with great weather, wonderful parks and schools, and easy access to the beach, mountains, snow.

The not-so good

The things that didn’t work was, well, everything else, and I was not prepared for that at all. There’s so much more to a baby than how it impacts a couple’s finances. I was an independent woman with a budding career who came and went as she pleased (well, within the confines of a committed relationship). Now, I couldn’t do anything unless someone helped me — a baby-sitter (which we couldn’t afford too often), a neighbor, a friend. My freelance writing career was short-lived; who can make business calls with a baby, newly awakened from his nap, screaming in the background? I felt an incredible loss of freedom.

And parenting felt so isolating. My son and I spent hours alone even though there were other moms (or nannies) at the nearby park, which we frequented a lot. I joined a mothers’ group that met once or twice a week, but for the most part the only thing we had in common was that we were mothers, we lived in the same town and we were all about the same age. Still, they provided some sort of a connection and our shared experiences, ambivalence and mothering concerns (“Oh, your baby does that, too?”) made me feel somewhat normal.

Still, it was an isolating and exhausting existence. When my then-husband would arrive home from work, all I wanted to do was hand our son over to him and say, “Here, your turn,” so I could have a break. Except, he’d had a long day, too, and dinner needed to be made and …

I was not prepared for the psychological and physiological impacts of having a baby, even though people told me what it was like and even though I read probably every parenting book that had ever been written (which, of course, created unnecessary anxiety).

By the time our son turned 18 months, I thought I was going to lose my mind.

“I need help,” I said to my husband.

And so we put him in a sweet in-home day care near our home for a few hours two mornings a week just so I could have a break — if you want to call cleaning and catching up on household things I couldn’t get done when my toddler was awake a “break.”

For whatever reason, our sex life did not suffer as much as it often does for many couples — a small blessing. Which, of course led to son No. 2.

Although I originally thought I wanted two children, by the time our son was almost 3, potty-trained and beginning preschool, I started to feel like I was finally gaining some sort of life back. That’s when my then-husband said we should go for another. I hesitated at first, but then we did; I started working part time just when I got pregnant. (After I abandoned freelancing, I had a small home-based business that probably earned me less than minimum wage but at least I was being creative, and that mattered much more than money at the time.)

The temporary solution

My mom moved into our studio apartment for the first six months of our second son’s life, enabling me to head to work without worrying about the boys (and allowing us to take our first vacation as a couple that, sadly and humorously, had to end after just one day.). She returned home to Florida just about the time my then-husband won a grant and worked a flex schedule for six months, which, I am convinced, is why he and our youngest son have such a close relationship.

When life returned to normal, me at home and working part time and my then-husband working full time, I was back to where I was — juggling everything by myself, now with two young kids, and again relying on baby-sitters to make it all work. It was clear to me what I really needed — others who cared for and were as engaged with my children as I was.

I needed a tribe.

Which is why Bunmi Laditan’s article, I Miss the Tribe, resonated with me. She writes about mourning an imagined community of women:

You’d know me and I’d know you. I’d know your children, and you’d know mine. Not just on a surface level — favorite foods, games and such — but real, true knowledge of the soul that flickers behind their eyes. I’d trust them in your arms just as much as I’d trust them in mine. They’d respect you and heed your “no.” … I miss that village of mothers that I’ve never had. The one we traded for homes that, despite being a stone’s throw, feel miles apart from each other. The one we traded for locked front doors, blinking devices and afternoons alone on the floor playing one-on-one with our little ones.

So much of the advice parents get on life after baby has to do with maintaining sex and intimacy between the couple, or how to raise healthy, happy kids. There’s also been more attention, finally, on mothers’ (and increasingly fathers’) postpartum depression. And there has been much discussion about parental leave in the U.S., which is essential but will only help parents for a few months at most — what happens after that?

Because after parental leave ends comes the hardest part, and we don’t have any good solutions to our changing world of dual-working families. All we hear is about moms leaning in or opting out — or just resigning themselves to being overwhelmed — in their quest for that ever-elusive work-life balance (which more dads are struggling with, too). And make no mistake — this a discussion typically among middle- to upper-middle educated women. Poorer women and single/divorced/widowed moms do not have those options; they just have the overwhelm. And when I was divorced in my 40s with two children young children and working full time again, I didn’t have any choices, either. (Thankfully, we had 50-50 physical custody and when my kids were with their dad I had blessed time to myself.)

Something is terribly wrong.

Time to reevaluate

In light of the exhaustive research my co-author and I did on the parenting marriage model in The New I Do, I’ve come to appreciate the many ways people arrive to parenthood and the many creative ways couples are parenting once their romantic and sexual relationship is over — like actress Maria Bello’s thoroughly modern take on co-parenting. And I was encouraged to learn about the marital contracts a handful of couples created back in the ’60s to keep their egalitarian partnership from gravitating to old gendered patterns once they had kids (I sure wish I had a contract when my kids were young!)

So it’s encouraging, yes, but it isn’t quite enough.

Fathers are much more hands-on than ever before, and many are stay-at-home dads. Yet the bulk of caregiving, including emotional caregiving, is still done by women — whether by moms or paid help — and we pay the price for it. Plus, many of us are in the sandwich generation, trying to care for our children and our aging parents, often unsuccessfully. Despite the essential role caregiving plays in society, it is not given the status it deserves. Until it is, I’m convinced women will never reach equality.

So I have been looking at the problems of modern parenthood and believe that we just may need to reevaluate what we’re doing. I have a few ideas I’d love to share with you … soon.

But I’d rather hear from you now. What do you think we can do better?

Want to learn more about a parenting marriage? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook

 


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Women are more depressed and anxious than men.

Why?

Because we don’t make as much money as men do, researchers say. According to the study:

among women whose income was lower than their male counterparts, the odds of major depression were nearly two-and-a-half times higher, and odds of anxiety were more than four times higher, than men matched for age, education, occupation, family composition, and other factors. Yet when women’s income was greater than their male counterparts, women’s odds for having anxiety or depression was nearly equivalent to men.”Unhappy woman

As a woman who  returned to work full time after divorcing (I’d always worked part time when my two boys were young, an arrangement my then-husband and I agreed to) in an industry that doesn’t pay much to begin with (journalism), and who was sharing child custody 50-50, you bet I was anxious. And my pay was much lower than my male counterparts at the time. I look back at those days and wonder how I did it. Well, I bounced a lot of checks at first. That’s one way to survive, but not one I’d recommend.

Too many choices?

Women tend to be more prone to depression anyway, and according to one study, our happiness level plummets when we turn 48. Still, as Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers wrote a few years ago in their study “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” women have become steadily unhappier since 1972. So, of course many blamed feminism and the fact that women have lots of choices nowadays.

Women ourselves are also questioning whether our choices are truly making us happy. In Jen Doll’s essay “The Burden of Choice: What it Means to Be a Modern American Female” last year, the “wealthy, white, single, heterosexual, childless” 39-year-old fretted about always wanting more — marriage, kids — and having to live with so many gray areas.

I know choice can be paralyzing, but I sure am glad we have choices. In many ways, we have more than men do. Men are still expected to be the breadwinner, or at the very least hold his own, which has set them up for unhealthy lifestyles, including suicide, according to Barbara Ehrenreich in The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment.

But Ehrenreich has some problems with the Stevenson-Wolfers data:

Only by performing an occult statistical manipulation called “ordered probit estimates” do the authors manage to tease out any trend at all, and it is a tiny one: “Women were one percentage point less likely than men to say they were not too happy at the beginning of the sample [1972]; by 2006 women were one percentage more likely to report being in this category.” Differences of that magnitude would be stunning if you were measuring, for example, the speed of light under different physical circumstances, but when the subject is as elusive as happiness — well, we are not talking about paradigm-shifting results.”

Still, the authors point out that “the relative decline in women’s well-being … holds for both working and stay-at-home mothers, for those married and divorced, for the old and the young, and across the education distribution” — as well as for moms and the childfree.

So basically, all of us gals.

Given that, I can see that a huge swath of society would feel a whole lot better if women would just get with the program like their moms did — marry, stay at home and manage the kids while bringing in some income. Look at how they talk about us when we don’t. According to societal stereotypes, single women can’t possibly be happy solo; finding a partner is what we really want. Women who don’t want kids are seen as suspect and somewhat tragic figures. But the stereotypes don’t bode well for married women either — wives withhold sex, marry just because we know if we divorce we’ll get the house and kids, and are just plain miserable no matter what their hubby does.Mothers don’t get off any easier; the exaltation of motherhood shames and blames the ones who realize after the fact that they don’t want to be moms or can’t be good ones. Meanwhile, single moms are just a problem, period.

Still, I have to question — how do we define happiness, does everyone have the same definition of it and is happiness a static thing?

What’s happiness anyway?

Just like we get stuck on defining love, commitment and a “real marriage,” so, too, do we get stuck trying to define happiness, which makes any attempt to study it seem specious.

Then I stumbled upon an old post on the Femagination blog, The Happiness Index. The blogger, referencing the Stevenson-Wolfers study and the resulting op-eds, also questions just what we are talking about when we talk about happiness. So, she created what she calls the Happiness Index. It lists several factors that can contribute to “a sense of well-being (or the reverse)” and asks women to rate each factor on a scale from 1 (very unhappy) to 5 (very happy):

  1. If you are in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  2. If you are not in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  3. How do you feel about your marital status (single, divorced, married)? (Indicate what your status is.)
  4. How do you feel about being a parent, if you are one?
  5. If you are not a parent, how do you feel about being childless?
  6. If you have a career outside of your parenting and household duties, how do you feel about it?
  7. How do you feel about the work you do outside of the home?
  8. How do you feel about the work you do inside of the home?
  9. How do you feel about how appreciated you are (by partner, child(ren), friends, employer, co-workers)? (Answer for each category.)
  10. How do you feel about your economic status?
  11. How do you feel about where you live (the neighborhood, city, country or your actual home)?
  12. If you have a religious affiliation or a spiritual life, how happy are you with either/both?
  13. How happy are you with the part politics and government play in your life?
  14. No matter what you do, how do you feel about the amount of autonomy you have? (Do you wish you had more or less?)
  15. What is your attitude about your looks?
  16. Are you happy with how you are aging?
  17. How do you feel about your health?
  18. How do you feel about your sex life?

Then, add up your scores. The higher the score, she says, the happier you are and vice versa.

At least in this particular moment. It’s all subject to change; if I took the test right before the discovery of my then-husband’s affair, when I sensed something was wrong but couldn’t quite put my finger on it, the answers would look radically different than they would now, 12 years out of a divorce with a career I love, a published book, a great group of longtime friends, a wonderful partner, a good relationship with my kids’ dad and the joy of seeing how my two sons have turned into wonderful young men. I am really happy — well, with an exception.

I’m still not happy about my pay, which is likely still lower than my male counterparts. And, given the shape of journalism, I’ll never see a raise again. This is it.

While I’m no longer bouncing checks, I have had to get creative to find ways to better support myself and my kids until the last one’s out of college.

I’m not depressed about it nor am I anxious anymore. But I’m not happy about it, and — crap — that’s going to skew my whole Happiness Index!

Want to define what will make your marriage happy? Learn how by ordering The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

 


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Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has failed as a wife. She enabled her husband’s infidelities, according to GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Then GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina chimed in; while questioning if the Clintons have a real marriage, she stated, “If my husband had done some of the things Bill Clinton had done, I would have left him long ago.”  The Clintons

Well, OK. If Fiorina or anyone wishes to end a marriage based on his or her spouse’s behavior, so be it; some people can and want to do that and others don’t. But isn’t it odd to judge another person’s marriage based on what you would do in your marriage in the case of marital infidelity, especially when most of us are incredibly fluid about how we define infidelity.

Fiorina seems to think that leaving a marriage in such cases would be normal, expected and, most important, right — and coming from the “family values” party, isn’t that interesting?

Infidelity doesn’t always end a marriage, even if it would end Fiorina’s.

But the bigger discussion is about Hillary’s “enabling.” Is a wife somehow responsible for the inappropriate sexual shenanigans of her spouse?

Standing by her man

There’s a long history of women standing by their sexually unfaithful men, most recently Bill Cosby’s wife, Camille.

But there’s a difference between infidelity and sexual assault; both Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton have been accused of sexual assault. Which begs the question, what did Camille and Hillary know?

If the two Bills are anything like the typical adulterer, probably not much — spouses who cheat go to extraordinary lengths to hide their infidelity. The lying and deception are often much more damaging than the actual sex act, but all of us lie.

There are other accusations against Hillary, that she humiliated and threatened the women who claim to have been victims of Bill’s philandering. But that goes beyond what I’m addressing here. Trump, Carson and Fiorina blame her for enabling her husband’s affairs and then staying with him.

That’s nothing new. As Slate notes, “It’s common for people to attribute men’s affairs to the inadequacy of their wives.”

Like their physical beauty, or lack thereof; when Gen. David Petraeus had an affair with a much younger woman, his wife, Holly, was scorned for being an “utterly ordinary looking middle-aged woman.”

Well of course a man would cheat on a dumpy wife!

Hillary has also repeatedly been accused of being a lesbian (horrors!), therefore using Bill for her own agenda. And she never quite fit our idea of what a wife  and mom “should” be and do — she didn’t bake cookies, after all — even though she’s been the equal partner most women today say we want to be.

But let’s not ignore the fact that if Hillary actually had left Bill she would have then been seen as the problem — yet another middle-aged woman breaking up her family for her own selfish needs and then living off her former husband’s hard-earned pay.

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

Who’s responsible for an affair?

Is a wife (or husband) ever responsible for her/his spouse’s infidelity?

Women have certainly blamed themselves; when Josh Duggar came under fire a while back for lying and cheating, his wife, Anna, initially said she was partially to blame for not providing sex whenever he wanted it. When the husband of British Baroness Shirley Williams — daughter of author and feminist Vera Brittain — left her for a younger women, Williams blamed herself as much as him, saying he “was always a bit … vulnerable, put it that way.”

Hmm …

While I don’t believe a wife or husband can “make” his or her spouse cheat, I do believe we can enable a dysfunction in which a spouse doesn’t respect us by not setting up healthy boundaries. But that does not make us responsible for our spouse’s bad behavior; that we can not control.

Still, I kind of doubt that was what was going on in the Clinton household.

But, who are we to judge what goes on in anyone’s household?

On The View, host Michelle Collins applauded Hillary for committing to her marriage no matter what (again, a typically conservative viewpoint) — “For me, Hillary staying with Bill is a major selling point for Hillary. Because it shows me that she can commit. She is a woman — she will commit to her man and she will commit to her country. … Bi*ch commits.”

I don’t know about you but I really don’t want to be known as the woman who commits to a marriage no matter what, nor do I want to be called a “Bi*ch” for doing so.

But while people debate whether Hillary’s decision to stay in her marriage for whatever reason — does it really matter if she stayed because of love or commitment or political gain? — can we talk about what the candidates pointing the finger at Hillary bring to the table? Fiorina was a controversial boss who oversaw the layoffs of 30,000 and may have cheated on her first husband while Trump was cheating on wife No. 1, Ivana, with model Marla Maples, who became wife No. 2; he’s now on his third marriage and admits in his recent book that he “was a much better father than I was a husband, always working too much to be the husband my wives wanted me to be.”

But sexual infidelity isn’t the only way, or even the worst way, spouses can betray each other — spouses can be neglectful, indifferent, contemptuous, asexual, demeaning and insulting, which is often as damaging, according to Mating in Captivity author Esther Perel.

Who’s enabling what in the GOP presidential hopefuls’ marriages? Because if Hillary’s “enabling” infidelity is fair game, so is every other candidate’s marital behavior.

Want to define what will make your marriage a success? Learn how by ordering The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.


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Amy Schumer has a boyfriend, and evidently the world is ecstatic that the 34-year-old comedian finally has love!!!

Not just a man, but a hot man, not only because the furniture designer, Ben Hanisch, 29, of Chicago, is cute, but, according to The Cut, he’s desirable because of his profession. Carpenters are hot: “If we really break it down, I think the appreciation all boils down to this: The Carpenter/Furniture-Maker probably built the bed he’s about to do you on. Good work, Amy.” Amy Schumer boyfriend

Before we get all crazy on that, a carpenter, for the record, is not quite the same as the owner of a high-end furniture design company.

Regardless, calling Hanisch a carpenter and celebrating his ability to make things and use his, ahem, hands is, well, sexy. Many women are drawn to a man:

who operates a little bit outside of the status quo, because he’s chosen to make money in an unconventional, self-employed way, which, again, very hot, as is the fact that he is ostensibly making a steady income by making things. And even if nobody is buying that beautiful $12,000 raw-edged walnut dining-room table yet, we’ve evolved past the point where we need the alpha male to provide financially, hence, the rise of the trophy hipster boyfriend. This boyfriend can provide in other, more primitive ways, like providing shelter, because all furniture-makers can also build houses, right? This is a definite shift from previous Ideal Boyfriends, which pretty much consisted of Architects, as Mindy Kaling noted in a New Yorker essay. Now we’ve come to accept that a creative who only makes money sometimes more attractive than a suit who always makes money.

OK, so some women like men who go against the status quo. I sure do. But what does that mean?

We like looking at him? Yes.

We want to sleep with him? Probably.

We’d love to call him boyfriend? Maybe.

We’d marry him? Well …

And that’s where the fun stops.

Can a woman make more?

Maybe a woman like Schumer, who is worth at least $1 million and on her way to earn much more, would find a man who makes things other than money a marriageable man. After all, there are many high-earning women who have married men who don’t make as much as they do, such as Bethenny Frankel, worth $22 million at the time she divorced former hubby Jason Hoppy, worth $475,000. (But just look at what happened when they split; she was not too willing to share the wealth or their child). Wealthy women tend to be a bit more cautious when it comes to marrying than wealthy men are; more insist on prenups (or learn the hard way, like Jessica Simpson and Cheryl Fernandez-Versini).

But would other women, successful but worth a lot less than $1 million, be willing to be with a man who “only makes money sometimes” versus someone who “always makes money”?

Based on the men I know who who are not high earners, despite having steady jobs and supporting themselves quite nicely (like teachers and musicians), and based on the responses to my previous post on dating broke men, I would say probably not. Some women would prefer to work part time, especially when kids come along, which means someone would have to be working full time, or be independently wealthy, or be doing something other than just “providing shelter,” to support that lifestyle unless they were a couple who lived small, and there are some who can and do live that way.

What does marriageability mean?

So what, exactly, makes a man marriageable — a topic addressed by sociologist Tristan Bridges in a new study that I found illuminating. We often talk about “marriageable man” as a man’s ability to have a steady job and a decent income. Indeed, women overwhelmingly (78 percent, according to the Pew Research Center) want a future partner to have a study job. But as his study notes, “women under different types of socioeconomic constraints are assessing marriageability in class-specific ways.” For lower socioeconomic women and often black women, yes, a marriageable man is one who has a job, but drug use and trafficking, under- or unemployment, the high rates of men in jail and the higher mortality rates for black men in their community put them at marital disadvantage — there are fewer men in their dating pool (And as I addressed previously, strong black women are often seen as being a detriment to black men’s masculinity.)

So low-income men are “redefining fatherhood to de-emphasize the breadwinner model and augment what they do bring to the table — ‘relational fathering.'”

Which sounds a lot like what middle- and upper-class hetero women who want kids say they want — a hands-on dad. Their expectations in a husband involve much more than just an income — they want an equal partner who brings more to the table than just money, like sharing childcare and chores. But, as he notes,

educated women’s egalitarian ideals confront institutionalized gendered courtship scripts that often reproduce the very gender relations they desire to avoid. … Increasingly, women want men who prefer egalitarian marriages, who will prioritize family and share the workload of household responsibilities, and who will be present and available for romantic and family life. Yet, the workforce encourages and rewards the opposite of these qualities and facilitates placing work before all else. If men want to be successful in the workplace (achieving the “gainfully employed” criterion of the traditional definition of marriageability), they are working themselves out of being considered marriageable by the women in their lives. “

Having an egalitarian marriage isn’t easy, despite our best intentions, and “whether men will be able and willing to adapt to these changes is an unanswered question.”

And all of this, of course, assumes a woman actually wants children. What determines a “marriageable man” is probably very different if she doesn’t; as I’ve written before, no one really worries about child-free couples.

What’s a marriageable woman?

Whenever I hear the term “marriageable man” I shudder a bit because there really isn’t a similar discussion for women. What makes a woman marriageable? It still speaks to a gendered reality — a man’s ability to provide economically and a woman’s ability to provide … what? Sex? Caretaking? Housekeeping? A nice personality? No drama? Some income? Beauty? Being a “cool” girl? All of the above? It seems to come down to a few desirable traits — warmth, affection, thoughtfulness, being nurturing — and, as the Pew notes, similar child-rearing views versus being a woman who has a steady job.

Since four out of 10 newlyweds in 2013 were married at least once before, I have to ask what’s a “marriageable man” when women already have teens or are empty-nesters or childfree? The gray divorce rate is almost 50 percent — there are more single people 50 and older than ever before, and they’re dating. For older people, a “marriageable” partner is often something much different than what we wanted when we were younger. Women often want a companion and a sexual partner, while older men often want a younger wife to start new families with while others want a caretaker — aka a nurse with a purse.

But what his study addresses for the first time is that we shouldn’t view all “never married” people as the same; some unmarried men and women are unable to find a partner and some are actually choosing to be “marriage-free,” as single mom Shonda Rhimes and Oprah have.

So defining a marriageable man, he says, is more of “a moving target.”

For Schumer, her ideal man “has to be funny, he has to be nice, and he has to have a normal relationship with his mother.” The comedian has said she wants to have kids, but doubts babies and marriage are in her future. But that may have been her thinking before she got serious with Hanisch.

Is Hanisch a marriageable man for every woman, or is he doomed to remain a “trophy hipster boyfriend”? Hot only goes so far …

Want to define what will make your marriage a success? Learn how by ordering The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.


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We all “know” that women aren’t good at casual sex, “only” have affairs for love, are biologically disinterested in sex, and that, more so than men, “need” and thrive in a monogamous relationship.

Maybe that’s been your experience, maybe not. Maybe you believe it, maybe you don’t. But have you ever questioned if this is just what women are told to believe is the truth, and thus internalize that message? 

I will admit that for many years I believed it even though my lived experience proved otherwise.

When I look back on my romantic/
sexual life, I realize I have been a serial monogamist, which may mean I’ve been pretty good at monogamy (minus one episode of cheating decades ago) or pretty bad at it if we’re talking lifelong monogamy (and making longevity the only way we measure a relationship’s success really disturbs me).

I’d agree with the latter if I didn’t see a familiar pattern in the majority of the women I know, which would seem to suggest that lifelong monogamy just may not be a gal’s thing (and many argue it’s not a guy’s thing, either). And I may have some research on my side.

Few benefits to monogamy

According to a recent study, “Does Monogamy Harm Women? Deconstructing Monogamy with a Feminist Lens,” there’s really nothing about monogamy that works for women sexually (although having a partner around to help raise the kids may be desirable):

  • For a large number of women diagnosed with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, the loss of desire and sexual fantasies is often the result of mismatched sexual desire between monogamous partners, not just her problem
  • Womens desire fades faster than men’s in long-term monogamous romantic relationships
  • Women have a greater need than men for novelty in order to maintain sexual arousal; without it, their sexual arousal is likely to diminish
  • Women are more likely to suffer for their male partner’s jealousy, including domestic violence and sexual assault

Despite that, the study authors — who suggest polyamory may provide more benefits for women, including sexual satisfaction, agency and gender role flexibility — illustrate why many women still opt for monogamy:

From a sociocultural perspective, women are lead to believe that their successes are a result of their romances, and thus can only be accessed through their relations with men. … Not only are women socialized to believe that marriage is an important lifetime achievement, but we argue that women are also taught that their identity as a woman is dependent on their ability to fulfill these relational roles. Thus, by not engaging in traditional monogamous relationships, women fail to fulfill essential components of their womanly role.

Well, crap.

I didn’t really understand the impact of monogamy on women until I divorced at midlife, when I already had fulfilled certain womanly roles, like being a wife and mom. What womanly roles are appropriate for me now? The only new role I’m looking forward to taking on one day — not too soon!! — is being a grandma, but that’s out of my control.

Women get bad messages

In an entertaining and provocatively titled TEDx talk, “Your Mother is Not a Whore” (watch it below) economics professor Marina Adshade, author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex, debunks the myth that women can’t have sex just for pleasure, or because they want something in exchange, and bemoans the fact that women are “shamed for behaving in a way that society believes is contrary to their nature.”

Which sounds a lot like what Daniel Bergner writes about in his book What Do Women Want? (read this book. Really!) Women are not better suited to monogamy than men are, he says. Except society has long repressed female sexuality — after all, who had to wear chastity belts? — which has twisted the way we view women’s desires and sexuality. Sadly, many women have bought into that myth as well.

In an article I wrote for the Washington Post’s Solo-ish section, I spoke to a few sexuality experts about what happens to a middle-aged woman’s sexuality once she divorces. Their answers were quite revealing, but nothing that I, and others, haven’t experienced for ourselves — quite honestly, our sexuality gets kick-started.

Sex therapist and author Tammy Nelson told me that of the “sexless marriage” couples who see her, she questions if it’s “really low desire or relationship issues.”

Married couples often stop being flirty and playful with each other, says Stella Resnick, a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and author; that is a sexual killer for women.

“In a lot of middle-aged marriages, sex has become victim to whatever the relationship’s issues are,” says sexologist and author Pepper Schwartz, AARP’s relationship expert. “They’re not necessarily tumultuous, but often they’ve lost their vitality and the sexual urge is lost.”

Long-term monogamy is good for women? Perhaps not …

Many women actually enjoy sex, so perhaps it’s time for us to question whether lifelong monogamy — or monogamy at all — is really what we want. Yes, I have chosen monogamy, serial monogamy, but now it’s with a twist. Like a growing number of couples, I live apart from my partner, which studies say gives us — especially, women — the commitment we may want and the novelty we women need.

What about you?

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There has been a lot of hand-wringing about single mothers and the rise of children being born outside of marriage nowadays. About a third of children in the U.S. live with an unmarried parent, according to the Pew Research Center — 34 percent, up from 9 percent in 1960 and 19 percent in 1980. While many of those parents are single, about 4 percent of children live with two cohabiting parents. In fact, 59 percent of all births outside of marriage occur to parents who are cohabiting. 

All of which worries people. Married couples tend to be more stable and more financially sound, according to some studies, while cohabiting parents are more likely to split up.

But splitting up isn’t always what a couple wants — or expects — when they move in together to raise a child. Parents who live together aren’t necessarily “rejecting” marriage or preferring to raise their kids solo, according to one study; they often consider marriage out of their reach and so see cohabitation as a viable option. In fact, 63 percent of single moms intend to marry one day. Whether that intention proves to be a reality is a different matter.

Long history

All of which made me wonder whether this “having kids outside of marriage” thing is unique to recent generations or not. As it turns out, there’s a long history of children born outside of marriage, often to cohabiting parents. Not surprisingly, it was just as upsetting to society then as it is now. And yet, there are striking similarities on why couples chose not to marry back then and today.

Here’s what University of Minnesota professor Anna Clark writes in Desire: A History of European Sexuality:

From about the middle of the eighteenth century, the number of women who gave birth out-of-wedlock exploded. Historians first blamed rising illegitimacy on a ‘bastardy-prone subculture.’ But closer investigation soon proved that legitimate fertility rose at the same time as illegitimate fertility … Moralists and policy makers were even more concerned about illegitimate children who might become a burden on the state. They often blamed unmarried mothers for leading men astray. … Working-class people did not start having children out-of-wedlock in such great numbers because they were promiscuous or because they followed an alternative morality. Instead, their old courtship customs no longer fit changing times. … Many working people would have liked to marry but could not afford a wedding. In nineteenth-century Paris, one out of every five couples was living together without a marriage license, and almost a third of births took place outside marriage.”

Similarly, historian Ginger S. Frost notes in Living in Sin: Cohabiting as Husband and Wife in Nineteenth-Century England, that while cohabiting couples between 1800 and 1850 were a minority, most “showed a desire for a ritual and a life-long commitment.” For the most part poor, these couples “usually wanted a permanent, stable union, not promiscuity.”

Do you see any similarities to the discussions we have today? I do. Not too long ago, GOP presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul blamed the protests in Baltimore on “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society,” while another GOP presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, blamed single moms for “breeding more criminals” and ruining the country.

As Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas write in their ground-breaking book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, most of today’s single moms want a “permanent, stable union.”

And the single fathers? What do they want? (no one seems to ask).

Different paths to motherhood

But, it’s easier to shame and blame women even though not everyone arrives to single motherhood the same way. Some escape abusive partners, some are widowed, some get pregnant by rape or sexual abuse, some are abandoned by their partner, some are divorced, some have unplanned pregnancies and, yes, some actively choose it. Doesn’t matter; they’re all treated the same.

According to Robin LeBlanc, a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University and a single mom herself:

Single mothers are still a problem to be fixed. On the left, they’re seen as victims of failed social policy. On the right, a symptom of moral failure. It’s interesting that most of us no longer think of gayness as a problem that needs to be fixed, but single mothers are still viewed that way.”

Society isn’t happy with single moms; according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, nearly seven out of 10 said the trend toward single mothers was bad for society (although writer Tracy Mayor in Brain, Child magazine calls out the actual question asked by Pew researchers — how people felt about “more single women deciding to have children without a male partner to help raise them,” not whether they think single mothers per se are bad for society. Being a single mom by choice is not the same as being a single mom by chance. Really!

In any event, if cohabiting couples suddenly put a ring on it, would their lives improve or would something else help them, like, say, affordable child care, health care and housing, and better pay? And maybe tax breaks for caregiving — how about that? There are more than 1,000 financial perks and legal protections, including tax breaks, for people who are legally married. Cohabiting parents? Nothing.

In South Korea, where 90 percent of children born to single moms are put up for adoption, single moms are becoming activists to fight back against societal prejudice. What about us?

Now that same-sex couples can legally marry in the States, perhaps it’s time to fight for equality for the unmarried.

Is it OK to basically discriminate against unmarried parents? Do we want to protect children or do we want to protect the institution of marriage? And if our concern is truly just about children, then why do we privilege all married couples — even if they choose not to have kids?

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Ben Affleck’s mom is unhappy.

According to news reports, Christine Boldt supports Jennifer Garner’s willingness to reconcile, and is advising her son to get his act together and try counseling as a way to work through their marital problems.

While I’m sure Boldt means well — as a mom myself, we always mean well — she may be forgetting that the couple, who announced their divorce this past July after 10 years of marriage and after having three children together — Violet, 10, Seraphina, 6, and Samuel, 3 — had been in marital therapy since allegedly splitting nearly three years ago. Therapy can only go so far, however, and since then there were allegations of Afflect’s trysts with their nanny, Sienna Miller and Abigail Kuklis. (No word on any of Garner’s “bad” behavior.)  Ben Affleck divorce

But the bigger question is, should parents have a say in their adult child’s marriage or divorce?

When I wed for the first time, a few months before my 21st birthday, my parents had no say whatsoever. In fact, I called them up the day before our wedding (I was living in Colorado at the time and my parents were in New York) and announced, “We’re getting married tomorrow!” And that was that. As much as they liked him, I’m sure they would have preferred that I didn’t marry so young (at least they didn’t have to pay for a wedding). Thankfully, when the marriage ended a few years later, they didn’t say, “We told you so.” And while I’m sure they felt bad for him and me, they didn’t try to talk me out of it. I wouldn’t have listened anyway.

Kids change everything

The second time I divorced, however, was entirely different. By then I had kids, 9 and 12, and my parents were very worried, not only about me but them — their only grandchildren. My dad sent me a long impassioned letter not entirely dismissive of my then-husband’s philandering, but presenting what he thought was a rational decision to stay married for the kids. Of course, my dad had no idea I knew of his own philandering and so I took his advice — which for many years I sought — with an acknowledgement of his agenda (it worked for your mother and me, and so …).

My mother was also extremely worried. But when I allayed many of her fears of how I’d support myself and asked her if she really wanted me to stay with someone who didn’t respect me, she quietly said, “No.”

That was not a choice that was available to her, a Holocaust survivor who never finished high school or went to college, and who had no marketable skills while raising two young girls, but who created a nice career for herself when my sister and I were teens — and then lived apart from my dad for about a decade. Much more than my dad, she understood how economic freedom gives women choices, including leaving a marriage they no longer want to be in, even if they have kids.

Private or public?

We wed in a great public display of love and commitment. Divorce, however, is a totally private and personal event. But, is it really?

Perhaps not, suggests M. Christian Green, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and a former lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. Divorce doesn’t just affect a couple and their immediate family, she says — it has a ripple effect, and friends, neighbors and entire communities are impacted as well, as I’ve written before.

But do they have any say in your marriage or divorce?

They’ll try to, as Astro and Danielle Teller make very clear in their slim but engaging book Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage, which, among other things, addresses the shame and judgment spewed as “truth” that basically well-meaning people thrust upon anyone who’s considering divorce or divorces — marriage is always good and divorce is always bad; all marital problems can be fixed with help; people who divorce are selfish, people who stay married are selfless; if you can’t make your marriage happy, or if you divorce, you must be defective; you ruin your children’s lives; true love is the reason to marry but if you become unhappy in your marriage, you should stop believing in true love; and, finally, it’s not OK to leave a marriage to be with a new partner.

Except, as the Tellers point out, the research doesn’t back up any of what we’ve been told and thus believe.

So where does that leave us when it comes to listening to your parents about your marriage or divorce?

First role models

Our parents are our first role models of marriage; consciously or not we either reject their model or embrace it. Affleck’s parents split shortly after he was born and divorced when he was 11; according to reports, his father’s alcoholism was the reason. Raised primarily by his mom, he allegedly wants to be a present dad. It’s easy to see that Boldt might want to spare her grandkids the pain her divorce may have caused her two sons. Garner’s Southern childhood and close-knit family couldn’t be more different.

The couple will evidently spend Christmas together with their kids, which is what my former husband and I did every every year until, well, this year, by the younger son’s choice. But don’t take that as a sign that they’re going to be a happily married couple again.

They may or they may not. I would pretty much guarantee that it won’t be because of what his mom wants.

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“Whatever, love is love,” actress Maria Bello’s 12-year-old son Jackson said to her when she told him that she had fallen in love with a longtime family friend — and a woman.

In her Modern Love essay in 2013 and her book, Whatever … Love Is Love: Questioning The Labels We Give Ourselves, which came out this year, Bello explores the many labels we place upon ourselves and each other and what we consider a partner. Maria_Bello

Bello has a romantic, sexual relationship with Clare and a nonromantic, nonsexual relationship with Dan, the father of Jackson — and a lot of other important people in her life. She questions, why do we consider the person we have sex with as the most important partner in our life? And if we stop having sex with that person, but still remain married or in a relationship with him or her, does that change anything?

She writes:

It’s hard for me even to define the term “partner.” For five years I considered my partner to be a friend then in his 70s, John Calley, with whom I talked daily. He was the one who picked me up each time I had a breakdown about another failed romance. Because we were platonic, did that make him any less of a partner? … Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters who have lived together for 15 years and raised a daughter. Are they not partners because they don’t have sex? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. Are they any less partners?

Those are interesting questions to ask, questions we probably don’t ask ourselves.

She, Jackson, Dan and Clare spend a lot of time together in what she calls their “modern family” — it certainly doesn’t look like a nuclear family, an image we still want to cling to even though those families barely exist nowadays. She has what The New I Do would call a parenting marriage (although they’re not technically married); Bello is connected to Dan because they are parents to Jackson, now 14, and that will never change — parenthood connects couples forever, whether they are married or not.

As any divorced co-parenting couple will tell you, it’s challenging. She says:

(I)t’s so complicated for a family to shift around. And you know, the truth is, life is fluid. Relationships are fluid. They are not static. And as much as we want to hold onto an idea of what they’re supposed to be, people grow and change and often in different directions. And then what do we do with that? Some people just throw out the love, and some people can make it work. … And I’m not saying it’s easy for us, you know? Some days, like, we can’t stand each other — all of us, and then some days, it’s different. But we communicate as much as we can. We talk about it. It’s certainly not easy, but the only other option is throwing out what we have. And what we have is something very special.

Her comment about throwing out the love reminds me of the conversation I had with Bay Area therapist Valerie Tate, whose uncoupling ceremony with her husband, Clark, before their son and loved ones was featured on ABC’s Nightline. Rather than throw out what they had — a rich history that once included romantic love for each other — they shifted the nature of the relationship and what they were fighting for; instead of struggling to maintain  their intimate relationship, they just focus on raising their child together.

I look at how most of us end romantic relationships — with anger, hurt, accusations, resentments, vengeful thoughts and more days than not when people “can’t stand each other.” And that is often how we divorce as well, with kids stuck miserably in the middle. We know from studies that it’s conflict, not divorce per se that hurts children. What can we do that lessens that conflict (besides conscious uncoupling)?

Would it be better to not throw away what you already have with the parent of your child, accept that “people grow and change and often in different directions,” and challenge yourself to do things differently? Would you still value the father/mother of your child as a partner even if you were not having sex with him/her?

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Does divorce really set a child’s life on the path to ruin? Is it better if parents stay “for the kids,” even if they no longer love each other?

This has been much debated by academics, therapists and others. How do we know for sure how divorce impacts a child, if it even does at all?

A study from 2010 acknowledged, yes, “in the short-term, kids go through a one- to two-year crisis period when their parents divorce,” but the idea of staying together for the kids is problematic, especially if it’s a high-conflict family, and that previous research indicating people should stay together “has been plagued by many data problems – reliance on small samples derived from one therapy clinic, retrospective reports, and cross sectional data.” Normal family vs divorced

But, you may say, not all divorces involve high-conflict families. In fact, according to one study that has been used as the study by those who seek to make divorce harder for parents with minor children, between 55 percent and 60 percent of divorces occur in low-conflict marriages, marriages that are considered “good enough marriages” and might be salvaged given enough work, marital therapy and etc.

Then, while sitting in the chair at my hairdresser, where much of my reading on popular culture occurs, I stumbled upon an article by Turkish author Elif Shafak in this month’s Vogue magazine. I’d never heard of Shafak before (I wish I did), but her intellect and engaging writing resonated with me.

Shafak knows about being a child of divorce. Her parents divorced when she was very young (which created all sorts of problems for her mother in a country where women need to be married), and when a college boyfriend she broke up with told her she was incapable of love because she came from a “broken family,” she wondered — was that true? Throughout her life, sometimes she agreed with him, other times not. As she writes:

I have observed, with a critical eye, both myself and others; compared global statistics, and read research papers written on this subject. Children of divorced parents and unusual family structures are more likely to experience emotional turbulence in their own relationships and have a higher risk of going through breakups in their marriages, study after study claims. But while researchers are busy focusing on the repercussions of imperfect marriages, no one knows the extent of damage caused by a “normal” and “perfect” family, if there is such a thing. Is there a method to assess the wear and tear domestic bourgeois life inflicts upon our souls and our imagination and our creativity?

Thank you, Shafak, for your insight and honesty!

Because that is probably the most important question of all to ask, and one that the “good-enough” marriage proponents don’t consider. What’s the damage caused by a “normal” and “perfect” family? Sure, a marriage may be salvageable and be restored to something that resembles a “normal” one, and their kids may benefit from not having to shuffle back and forth between houses or losing contact with one parent (typically dad) or suffering the economic hit that often comes with divorce, but what damage is being done, perhaps emotionally?

I often read stories on how children of divorce love differently, but who knows if they would have been worse off if their parents stayed together?

Who studies the dysfunction of so-called “normal” families?

I think all of us know people — perhaps ourselves — who didn’t grow up with a lot of parental conflict but still suffered other types of dysfunction: a depressed parent, an adulterous parent, an emotionally cold parent, a smothering parent, an absent parent, an angry parent, a passive-aggressive parent, a narcissistic parent, and addicted parent. Not every person seeking therapy or buying self-help books or avoiding romantic commitments or divorcing comes from a “broken family.”

I didn’t, and yet there was enough stuff going on in my intact household — with a Holocaust survivor mother and an adulterous father — to create a certain type of dysfunction that has impacted my sister and me to various degrees. Like many people, I think my parents — and maybe my sister and I — might have been better off if they divorced (although living apart for some 10 years may have saved their marriage or at least their sanity).

Divorce was not a big issue for children in decades past, but they were often abandoned, sold into slavery, indentured into domestic service, orphaned at childbirth by their “normal” families. Even today, in the States and throughout the world, children are still being sold into slavery or married off young or living on the streets or in shelters, yet there’s nowhere nearly the societal outcry and research as there has been over what parental divorce might do to kids. And should we even consider the children whose childhoods are being lost in the Syrian refugee crisis?

That is incredibly disturbing.

But, let’s get back to the original question — what is the extent of damage caused by a “normal” and “perfect” family?

I am reminded of Madeline Levine’s ground-breaking book The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. And I am thinking of Hanna Rosin’s recent article in the Atlantic. Both are about children raised by wealthy, college-educated, involved and hands-on married parents — as close to “normal” and “perfect” as you can get, and the kind of families being lauded as ones more likely to remain married for the long term (20 years) — who are committing suicide at alarming rates.

Now what?

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When I married for the first time in the ’70s, I was still young, not even 21, and admittedly clueless about what I was getting myself into. He was cute, I was cute, we loved each other, we had two dogs, a cat and a snake, and we were happy hippies living (barely, on my Dairy Queen salary) in Colorado.

I knew nothing about marriage except my parents’ marriage, and that didn’t seem like something to model my own after; if anything, I wanted nothing like it. Knowing that, you’d think I would explore what, exactly, I was going to do differently, but like most 20-year-olds, I didn’t give marriage a lot of thought.

Margaret Sanger and second husband J. Noah H. Slee in 1927. The couple lived apart.

Margaret Sanger and second husband J. Noah H. Slee in 1927. The couple had a marriage contract in which they agreed to live apart.

But, other people were not only thinking about it, but creating their own arrangements, which I just learned about thanks to an interview Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross had with Gloria Steinem about her new memoir, My Life on the Road.

In the interview, Steinem mentioned an article in Ms. magazine about marital contracts.

What?

With a little research, I found the article, “How to Write Your Own Marriage Contract” by Susan Edmiston, which ran in the debut issue of Ms. magazine, in 1971, which was an insert in New York magazine (and created a huge kerfluffle). In it, Edmiston interviews two couples who created their own marriage contracts.

Why? Well, despite the cries of today’s men’s rights movement, marriage was not so great for women in the 1960s:

  • We could be fired if we got pregnant (until 1978)
  • Sexually harassed at work? Too bad (until 1977)
  • We couldn’t get our own credit card (until 1972)
  • We couldn’t refuse to have sex with our husband (until the mid-’70s in some states, in all 50 states in 1993)
  • We couldn’t get a divorce without having to prove fault (until 1969)

Not surprisingly, it was the wives who insisted on the contracts to deal with what clearly were marital inequities.

One couple, the Shulmans, created a marital contract after they had kids, when their previously egalitarian partnership fell into old gendered patterns, which despite how far we’ve come, baby, since then, still occurs today. (It also was a way to salvage a marriage doomed for divorce, and was roundly mocked by Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and Russell Baker.)

The other couple started off with a contract, one that dealt with chores, cooking and finances. When their daughter was born, they renegotiated their contract again to include childcare, which the wife, psychologist Barbara Koltuv, admits was a struggle — one that I’ll bet most women can relate to:

The hardest thing was being willing to give up control. What we call responsibility is often control, power, being the boss. When I was really able to recognize that my husband’s relationship with Hannah is his and mine is mine, everything was all right. He’s going to do it differently but he’s going to do it all right. We’ve been teaching her all along that different people are different.”

I love that!

I also learned (too late for The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skepics, Realists and Rebels, sadly) that marriage contracts between spouses date back farther than the ’60s and ’70s.

Social critic Mary Wollstonecraft was philosophically against marriage but married William Godwin in 1796 after they discovered she was pregnant (she died in childbirth six months later), yet they had a “highly unconventional marriage during which they lived far enough apart to permit the continuing exchange of letters.”

Abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone and activist Henry Blackwell created a contract when they wed in 1855, mostly in protest of coverture, in which women lost their legal existence to their husband once they married.

So did birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and her second husband, oil billionaire J. Noah H. Slee, whom she married in 1922. She wanted autonomy so they had a LAT, living apart together, arrangement, first in separate homes and then in separate parts of the same house.

Finally, Jackie Kennedy allegedly had a contract when she wed Aristotle Onassis in 1968, in which she declared her independence as well as separate homes and separate bedrooms within their shared homes. (It was also a safety marriage).

OK, we no longer have coverture and we have more egalitarian marriages than ever before, and thankfully women have financial independence. So do we really need individualized marital contracts?

You probably already know how I’ll answer but before you say yes or no, let’s look at what Edmiston includes in her article’s “utopian marriage contract” — agreements about birth control, having/adopting children, how children will be brought up, whose job will determine where and how the couple lives (including separate bedrooms or homes), how child care and housework will be divvied up, how they will handle finances, and sexual rights and freedoms.

Given how many of those are things couples still argue about today, and as women debate if they can have it all or just lean in, I scratch my head over why anyone, especially women, would be hesitant to create a plan that honored both spouses’ needs and expectations.

Unless perhaps the dirty secret is that we really don’t want marital equality. As Alix Kates Shulman, profiled in that 1971 Ms. article, wrote just recently:

The idea’s limited success is hardly surprising, given the economic, social, and psychological arrangements that continue to impede equality, in marriage and out. Such strains doomed my own marriage, along with half the marriages in America. Probably not until the polity is more child- and woman-friendly, not until men and women are equally valued — economically and otherwise — not until free or low-cost quality childcare is universally available, will the ideal of equality in marriage be other than radical.”

If Google analytics are correct, then the majority of my readers are women, especially young women — 20s to 40s. Could it be that we women don’t really want an equal partnership? Many married moms have said they’d prefer to work part time, echoing what the rest of society believes is ideal for kids, while the majority of men would just prefer to work outside the home. And maybe, as Koltuv discovered, it’s just too hard for women to give up control.

Can we have egalitarian marriages when one spouse works full time and the other works part time, when one spouse is unable or unwilling to give up control? Or does equality even matter as long as both spouses are happy with the arrangement — and society at large accepts it?

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