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'The Better Show'

We were fortunate to have been asked to be on The Better Show to talk about The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels with co-hosts JD Roberto and Kristina Behr.

We spoke with them first, and then had a conversation with Lori Zaslow and Jennifer Zucher, co-owners of the matchmaking service Project Soulmate. We wish we had more time to address some of the old-fashioned thinking of Zaslow and Zucher — the same thinking that we believe is making couples miserable in their marriages — but we feel pretty lucky to have had as much time as we had.

The conversation is broken down into four segments; please watch and then tell us what you think.

Is marriage still about love?

What’s a test drive marriage?

What’s love got to do with it?

Do the kids know if your marriage is a fraud?

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.


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I was honored to be able to present some of the research on how marriage is changing that Susan Pease Gadoua and I unearthed while writing The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels before a group of therapists recently. As has been true in the many years I have been a journalist, the most illuminating moments in mot situations come when you least expect them. And, they often offer more insight into human behavior than expected.  therapy

After the presentation, which was really well received, Susan and I made ourselves available for any extra questions (and, OK, to help spur potential book sales), and so a  therapist and I started talking about consensual non-monogamous marriages.

She had a number of clients who were considering entering polyamorous arrangements and they wanted guidance. And she was a bit at a loss how to help them, not only because she had no experience with that but also because she freely admitted she had a bias.

She just wasn’t sure how comfortable she felt about polyamorous arrangements. And it was reminder of my on experiences with therapy, marital and solo (when I realized marital therapy wasn’t quite getting us where we needed — or at least wanted — to be).

I am not against therapy per se, yet I am aware that therapists are people with their own problems, experiences and beliefs. That impacts how they guide their clients, as Barbara Gerson notes in her book The Therapist as a Person: Life Crises, Life Choices, Life Experiences, and Their Effects on Treatment. Homophobic attitudes may impact a therapist’s ability to help individuals and couples, there may be a gender bias among marital therapists not only when it comes to anger but in general, they may not be able help couples navigate the complicated realities of infidelity nowadays and a lot of other marital issues that are confusing couples, and a therapist’s experience with divorce may flavor his or her advice; as Susan knows all too well, too many therapists believe it’s their job to keep unhappy couples together. Plus, as many frustrated wives will tell you, men typically don’t want to see a therapist. Which begs the question, does marital therapy even work? Well ….

Forget whatever resistance some of us may have; if the therapists we go to for help can’t help us because of their own biases or lack of training, what are we supposed to do?

I don’t have the answer for that.

Still, marital therapy can be incredibly helpful, especially when couples are willing to explore their own stuff. But you don’t always need that; when I delved into my family of origin issues in the weeklong intensive that the Hoffman Process offered (which luminaries such as Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Loggins, Roseanne Cash and others have felt helpful), I was able to focus on the broader issues that were keeping me from having the relationship I wanted. It felt healthier to explore that on my own.

But there are good therapists and bad ones, and therapists who can get past their biases and others who can’t. So it was eye-opening for me to hear a therapist admit that she had a lot to learn when it came to alt relationships. That’s what The New I Do is all about, and while the book is useful for those considering tying the knot, it also is a guide for couples that would like to transform their marriage. Thankfully, the book and the myriad questions it walks people through may be all a couple needs to do that on their own.

Still, those who counsel people on marriage nowadays must be aware of the changing marital landscape if they want to help their clients in creative ways, not the tired “work harder” but “try something different.” If you see a therapist, you might want to give him or her a copy of our book.

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.






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As many have wondered why Camille Cosby continues to stand by her husband, Bill, in the wake of so many allegations of sexual abuse — including me — the comedian recently was defended by the woman who played his TV wife, Phylicia Rashad. And so was Camille. “This is a tough woman, a smart woman,” Rashad said of Cosby’s wife of 50 years. “She’s no pushover.”

Courtesy of Lionsgate Tyler Perry as Madea in 'Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family.'

Courtesy of Lionsgate
Tyler Perry as Madea in ‘Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family.’

Her comment of Camille as a “tough woman” could not have come at a more interesting time, as I had just stumbled upon a study, “Black Marriage Through the Prism of Gender Race, and Class,” by Kecia R. Johnson, an assistant professor at Florida State University, and Karyn Loscocco, a sociologist at the University of Albany. For anyone who thinks and talks about marriage, as I do, it is an illuminating exploration of what it’s like to be a black wife (hint: describing Camille as “tough” is what we expect black women to be), why someone like Oprah — a strong, independent and highly successful woman and, yes, a black woman — might choose not to marry, and why it’s problematic to use a white, middle-class model of marriage as the ideal for all couples.

As Camille herself has said, many of America’s institutions have been shaped by racism and prejudice, and the institution of marriage is — surprise — no different.

That creates unique challenges for black marriages:

When people reason from an unquestioned White model of marriage and relationships, they often end up suggesting that there is something pathological about the marital patterns of Blacks. Yet using the race/gender prism, it is just as easy to construct an argument that these patterns are logical and pioneering.
Slavery, they note, radically altered what work and family roles looked like for black women. Being a wife or mother in an intact family and doing what women were expected to do — caring for “home and hearth” — was not possible for enslaved women, although they were able to accomplish that and more in African societies. Meanwhile, black men were no better able to fulfill their expected marital roles — they were denied even the most basic ways to provide for their family, even after the abolition of slavery.

Well, OK, that was so long ago. True, but that history has helped shaped the reality of black marriage, even today. Excluding blacks from some of the basics necessary to create what we might consider “normal, healthy” marriages means that their marriages would somehow never measure up. “Black communities are depicted as comprised of ‘weak’ men and women who are ‘too strong,'” the researchers note. Sadly,  many — including black leaders as well as the church — would rectify that by having blacks accept traditional gender ideology, which would strengthen “weak” black men and weaken strong black women (although a strong black woman would be welcome, of course, to use her strength solely to bolster her man). Much of what’s talked about as the “problems of black marriage” can be somehow “solved” by moving black men out of subordinated masculinity, they say. And guess who is expected to do that?

The message to Black women is that their assertiveness is holding back Blacks, especially men. It devalues a history of Black female financial independence from men and the constant, self-sacrificing economic and emotional contributions that women have made to Black families. This message also moves analysis away from the structural causes of Black social problems. An unintended consequence is that Black women’s dominance and strength are interpreted by both Blacks and Whites as pathological, contributing to the oppression of Black women.
That places an extra-heavy burden on black women and puts the focus on gender while ignoring racism and sexism. As I’ve written before, referencing Loscocco, heterosexual marriage is already a gendered social reality and gendered institution, and wives and husbands have “his” and “her” marriages. Throw racism on top of that and, well …

All of which makes Oprah’s decision to reject tying the knot with Stedman Graham, her steady partner of nearly three decades, understandable; she realizes that marriage would change what she and Stedman have, and not necessarily for the better:

(H)e’s a traditional man and this is a very untraditional relationship. I think it’s acceptable as a relationship, but if I had the title ‘wife,’ hmmmm. I think there would be some other expectations of what a wife is and what a wife does. First of all you gotta come home sometimes.

Oprah isn’t the only black woman choosing not to wed, although black women who choose to remain single are judged, and judge themselves, harshly. But as some suggest, black women’s “failure to live up to dominant (White) femininity makes them less marriageable than White and Asian women, and also Black men.” Even in interracial marriages, 73 percent are made up of black men with white women and 86 percent are black men and Asian women.

And as Johnson and Loscocco note, married black couples are at greater risk of divorce; they have lower marital happiness and satisfaction than white spouses; they disagree more than white spouses about such things as sex, kids and money; and black women get less benefits from marriage than white women and even black men do. It would be foolish to think that racism has nothing to do with that; of course it does.

Still, the authors say if we remove the white, middle-class blinders of marriage, we’d see aspects of black marriages that are “egalitarian, empowering and pioneering,” and that could potentially “undo gender.” Black marriages tend to be more egalitarian when it comes to household chores, and marriage for blacks isn’t nearly as “greedy” an institution as it is for whites because black couples, especially black wives, tend to be “weight-bearing arches of their broader communities” in addition to caring for their own family.

But using black marriages as a model to “undo gender” is unlikely to happen. “(R)ather than sanctioning other family forms, American society continues to hold everyone accountable to the norm of gender differentiated marriage.”

Maybe it’s time to rethink that.

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.



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We are not even a week into the new year yet it’s already brought a lot of interesting and important developments (which bodes well for 2015, at least in my eyes).

There was a spirited discussion on Evan Marc Katz’s website about potentially “wrong” ways to marry — albeit it wasn’t presented that way — and then there was a sort of vindication by someone who has been a staunch pro-marriage advocate (she even defended former Vice President Dan Quayle’s attack on the TV character Murphy Brown, an unwed mother, back in 1992) who is rethinking her ways. DCF 1.0

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with reasons why someone might want to marry. Katie wrote to Evan that she and a best friend, who’s a guy, don’t have romantic feeling for each other but they have a lot of other things in synch — lifestyle goals and financial ambitions among them. She wondered if they could make those goals come true if they married or lived together — even if they removed the sexual equation from their partnership:

(W)e are both fine with the idea that there would be other people we would seek for that. Obviously, if we move forward with this arrangement, we would have separate rooms. We also acknowledge that potentially down the road we could fall for other people but can cross that bridge if and when it happens. So my question is, do you think a marriage or a relationship/friendship like that could work if both are open and upfront about the terms and boundaries of the relationship, and both are content to cohabitate (sic) in an arrangement like this because we make each other happy and we love each other in our own way, but we’re not in love with each other?

This is what Susan Pease Gadoua and I call a Companionship Marriage in our book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. Since passion seems to peter out about two years anyway (at which point couples are often advsed how they must create excitement with new toys, positions and lingerie, schedule date nights and sex nights, etc.), most marriages become companionship marriages at some point anyway, no matter how passionate they began. Since few believe that’s problematic, and since people name companionship as the No. 3 reason to marry, why is it “wrong” if a marriage starts off that way?

Yet Evan, who I believe has been a pretty smart and grounded adviser in all things romantic in general (he was an instrumental voice in Lori Gottlieb’s 2011 book, Marry Him: The Case for Mr. Good Enough), put the kibosh on her idea:

(T)here is a reason that marriage has a sexual component. Not merely because attraction is generally what brings two people together, but because people have sexual needs. And it’s much easier to get your sexual needs met from within the marriage than to have a marriage whose very premise is based on infidelity.

Well, whoa. Yes, sexual attraction often brings people together, but that happens with people who also chose to be in consensually non-monogamous relationships,  too, and there are quite a few people who dabble in such things. Researchers estimate 1.2 million to 2.4 million people are exploring consensual non-monogamy, and about 9.8 million allow “satellite” lovers — like Dan Savage’s monogamish arrangements.

But let’s be clear — consensual non-monogamy is not infidelity. A couple that agrees to have sex with others has an entirely different relationship than couples that don’t agree but experience non-monogamy anyway. In that scenario, one partner doesn’t have a choice, but for couples who mutually agree to be consensually non-monogamous, both do. Big difference!

I’d also argue that not all marriages have a “sexual component” in the way Evan seems to believe they must have. I’m thinking of Crystal Harris and Hugh Hefner. As Harris freely admits, their intimate time is more about cuddling, watching movies and playing games than sex but their marriage is no less a real marriage than anyone else’s. Why? Because they both knew exactly what they were getting into when they tied the knot, and so their expectations are matched. That’s what makes a marriage satisfying and successful.

So, there’s that. And then there’s this — kids. Evan wonders what might happen if kids come into the picture for Katie (and from her letter as published, it’s impossible to know if kids will be in the picture at all):

You start a family under the guise that you’re best friends/business partners. You both keep dating, seeing other people, having sex with strangers, friends-with-benefits. That means that each of you is either going to have to leave the house (and your little kids) in order to pull off these sexual shenanigans, OR bring your various sex partners to your house (and your little kids). How’s that for a normal, healthy, stable family environment? Finally, if it’s not just random sex partners, but you actually find someone you care about, you will then be torn between spending time with your lover and your family. Either way, you’re neglecting the other, while both of them deserve a full-time commitment from you.

I am a monogamous woman by choice (monogamy is a choice, you know), and even I have problems with such thinking! It is totally dismissive of anyone who is in or interested in an open or polyamorous arrangement and has or wants kids. It also ignore the fact that many single and divorced parents are engaging in “sexual shenanigans” (we like to just call it sex) while their kids are around or not. Divorced parents who share custody quite thankfully have time to themselves while their former spouse is doing what he/she needs to do — parenting — so there’s nothing wrong with that scenario. But even a parent who doesn’t have that arrangement has other options — a baby-sitter or sleepovers. Why can’t a parent take care of his or her needs, sexual or not, and be a good parent, too? It isn’t “sexual shenanigans” that are causing problems for kids, it’s conflict and that occurs in intact families as well as divorce ones (although yes, subjecting kids to a parade of lovers is not a good idea, but most single/divorced parents don’t do that). Still, Katie didn’t mention kids nor was she asked how kids might fit into the picture (and really, not every woman wants to be a mom, and even those who do have found ways to co-parent without having to have a sexual relationship with the father of her kids).

I found all of that upsetting. But then there was the kicker:

So how about you do what everybody else does and marry for love?

I am reminded of the saying, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.'” Considering that love wasn’t part of the marital equation until recently (assuming we even agree on what love is) and that love’s introduction into the marital equation has made the whole institution crumble, I’m not sure this is the best message to send to people who want to think outside the one-size-fits-all marital box. And clearly Katie does. And so do others. Still, why should Katie have to marry like “everybody else does” — couldn’t she marry like Katie wants to, and define a successful marriage in her own terms?

Of course she can, which is the message behind The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. And it’s what even unmarried but committed couples like economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson understand:

“Marriage is a contract between two people about how to organize their lives together. But modern marriage is a one-size-fits-all contract — a default written by the state legislatures. It makes no sense to me that I would want to sign the same contract with Justin that you sign with your partner. So we didn’t take the standard off-the-shelf contract that we call marriage. Instead, we’ve talked at length about what is important to each of us, and it’s that Betsey-and-Justin-specific agreement that guides our lives together. And as anyone who has studied divorce knows, the formal marriage contract doesn’t actually bind our future selves. But I have something far more enduring with Justin than a wedding certificate: We have an amazing daughter, who will bind us together for, well, until death do us part.

Which brings me to the staunch pro-marriage advocate, Isabel Sawhill, an economist and former Clinton administration official who now works with the Brookings Institution. In an long article about her last Saturday in the Washington Post, Sawhill is rethinking her pro-marriage message. Rather than try to revive traditional marriage, she suggests we may need to figure out what might relationships might evolve into, and some of what she suggests is already happening:

“Maybe some people will be married, or have some kind of commitment to each other, but they’ll live in separate places. Or maybe there will be marriages with upfront time limits. Not, ‘We thought we were going to be married forever and decided in the middle to get divorced.’ But marriages where you say to the other person upfront, ‘How about a five-year contract to be committed to each other, and then reassess?’ ”

More than the decrease in couples choosing marriage, Sawhill’s big concern is the rise in single parenting (because let’s face it — society doesn’t care too much about what childfree couples are doing; it cares about the kids). She’s interested in an “ethic of responsible parenthood,” which sounds good on surface but borders on elitism once you start exploring what that may mean: George Lucas adopted two children as a single man and I will bet that Sawhill would not insist that he have a partner first and wait until they are “ready to be parents” — he was wealthy enough to hire surrogate moms until he married again and, last year, became a biological dad at age 69. But at least she is looking at the marital landscape and acknowledging that it is changing. Those who care about marriage or advise couples who wish to marry need to understand those changes, and let people know there are options.

This week Susan and I will address a local group of marriage and family therapists — they are on the front lines of unhappily married couples. I’m hopeful that our research will be useful to them as they seek to guide their clients. We’re all searching for the same thing — healthy and happy relationships, romantic or not. Rather than accept the standard off-the-shelf marital contract, it’s time for couples to realize they can create the marriage they want by how they define a successful marriage.

So yes, Katie — as long as you and your best friend set out and mutually agree on the goals of your marriage and define its structure, you can happily marry. If you decide to have kids, then you may want to tweak your contract to become a Parenting Marriage to better provide a stable home for your kids. Please don’t do what everybody else does; the only person who knows what’s best for you is you.

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.


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The year is almost over and a new one is upon us. I’m not big on the belief that a year can be a good or bad one — “2014 sucked so 2015 must be better!” It’s an artificial construct. Nor am I big on making resolutions; most of the time we just set ourselves up for failure. And I am not big on advice — there are far too many “experts” telling us what we should or shouldn’t do, especially when it comes to love. Sadly, many of them are Internet experts, people who have found a platform because of their life experience — they endured infidelity and now advise devout followers what to do if they are cheated on, too, or they had an acrimonious divorce and are suddenly self-described divorce counselors. The problem with Internet experts is that they tend to see the world in black and white — there is rarely any gray. Well, life, love and relationships are messy and full of gray, and there’s no right or wrong way to be; there’s just a right and a wrong way for you once you’ve identified what that is. The future is an open road

That’s why I’m incredibly proud that The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels is not an advice book. While my co-author is a therapist, I am not and so I am not comfortable telling anyone what to do or not do (well, besides my kids, of course!); all we have done is looked at research, our own and others (peer-reviewed), talked to people who are living alt marriages, and culled from all of that the pros and cons of various marital models. Then we offer a list of questions readers might want to ask themselves to help them clarify what they want out of a relationship and whether a particular marital model might work for them.

And it’s also why I enjoy the work of Esther Perel, the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity. She quite explicitly admits that she doesn’t have the “right” answers for people when it comes to reconciling intimacy and eroticism over the long haul or reviving a flatlined sex life — a common problem in long-term relationships. As she says:

Americans fundamentally believe there is not a problem that does not have a solution — it’s the Nike approach: Just do it. But try to apply that to eroticism? I don’t have answers, as in ‘This is what you do.’ I do say, ‘This how I think it works.’

From all my research, here’s what I’ve discovered — there really are no easy or fool-proof or guaranteed tips that will ensure you will have the love or the sex or the marriage that you want. There are no guarantees, so don’t expect them. As Perel says, “On some level we trade passion for security, that’s trading one illusion for another.” But that doesn’t mean living in fear — he’ll leave, she’ll find someone else, this won’t last etc. — will make things better. Embracing the ambivalence and impermanence of life and relationships might, something psychology lecturer and writer Meg Jo Barker suggests.

While I don’t necessarily believe New Year’s resolutions matter all that much, I do believe that striving to be the best person we can be — for ourselves — matters, and that isn’t restricted to a certain time of year; it’s ongoing. And when we do that, we are also — surprise! — able to be the best person we can be for others.

So, no, I’m not going to offer you advice for the new year. But I do have a wish or two for you in 2015 — please consider getting rid of the script in your head of what love, relationships or marriage should look like and instead ask yourself what you want them to look like; that you stop looking to others to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do and question, question, question any advice you read or hear from Internet experts or, for that matter, even credentialed experts (some are just not very good or have their own biases); and, finally, to stop giving credence to articles in women’s magazines that often fuel anxiety and chip away at self-esteem because the emphasis always seems to be that you’re doing something wrong and if you just did X, Y and Z, you’d have what you want and live happily ever after. Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way.

2015 is an open road, just as 2014 was and every year before. This is how I think it works: You’re the driver. Don’t worry about the detours and breakdowns, just focus on the journey. May it be a great one.

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook.


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I am a big fan of Grammy-award-winning musician Marc Cohn and usually catch his shows whenever he’s in the Bay Area. So I was saddened to hear that after his wife of 12 years, TV news anchor Elizabeth Vargas, had entered rehab — again — late last year the couple, parents to two boys, 11 and 8, are divorcing.

Well, let me rephrase that. I am well aware that sometimes divorce is necessary, and feeling sorry for a couple that’s splitting may be the wrong emotion as one too many divorcing person has told me, no it’s a good thing.  Drinking and marriage

And I’m not necessarily saddened because they have kids either, as many parents can coparent beautifully post-divorce, and  let’s face it — nobody really seems to care too much if a couple splits and they have no kids, whether by choice or chance. It’s only when a couple has kids, especially minor kids, that society wants to bully them into staying together although there are a few exemptions. And, guess what — addiction is one of them, and Vargas has admitted that it took her a long time to face up to the fact that she was an alcoholic and to seek treatment for it.

No, I’m saddened because yet another family is destroyed by alcohol. Equally sad is how common it is, yet so few of us are willing to admit it. There is a lot of shame around it, and so most of us don’t tell anyone; we suffer in silence.

I have known several people who have struggled with a partner with alcohol issues, as I once did (along with infidelity, which often go hand in hand). In fact, 21 percent named alcohol or drug abuse as a reason they split in a 2004 AARP study of midlife divorce. More recent studies indicate when one spouse drinks more than the other, the couple is more likely to divorce — especially if the heavy drinker is the wife (it goes against “proper gender roles for women” evidently. Right!).

All of which makes sense in the case of the Cohn-Vargas split. As Cohn said when he was accused of cheating on Vargas with a family friend (and since when is having dinner with a family friend of the opposite sex an “affair”?), “addiction and recovery are serious challenges and it’s been a tough road for all of us,” mentioning “the long-standing issues” between them.

Well, yes. Anyone who has dealt with an alcoholic knows the havoc it causes to everyone close to him or her. As Alanon, the group for friends and families of alcoholics, notes:

Alcoholism is a family disease. The disease affects all those who have a relationship with a problem drinker. Those of us closest to the alcoholic suffer the most, and those who care the most can easily get caught up in the behavior of another person. We react to the alcoholic’s behavior. We focus on them, what they do, where they are, how much they drink. We try to control their drinking for them. We take on the blame, guilt, and shame that really belong to the drinker. We can become as addicted to the alcoholic, as the alcoholic is to alcohol. We, too, can become ill.
Is it any wonder that some spouses — perhaps Marc Cohn — say, enough. There are many ways to betray a spouse, and while infidelity might be the first thing to come to mind, alcoholism might be just as bad. And it isn’t any better for the kids, and almost 29 percent of kids in the United States are affected by alcoholism. When everything was falling apart in my marriage, I made an incredibly hard but bold decision; I did not want to raise my boys in an alcoholic family. Period.

It’s the holidays, when people tend to imbibe a little more than usual (I’m being kind here). But once we’re into the new year, it might be a good time to take an honest look at what role booze plays in your life. And if you don’t like it, what will you do about it?

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook.



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The news certainly seemed disheartening for any woman hoping to have an egalitarian partnership. According to Harvard Business School, which recently released the results of a survey that examined the career paths of 25,000 alumni, the women grads expected that their marriages would be egalitarian. But the men? They seem to have known all along that they would put their careers before their wife’s, and the kids would her responsibility.

Are we back in the 1950s?

Some, like Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post, suggest the men are just being pragmatic:”They spent two years studying how to develop successful careers and businesses, which includes understanding both how real-world companies work and what kind of team (at work, and at home) one needs to thrive financially.”

OK, I can understand that (sort of). But some of those Harvard MBAs surely must be in same-sex partnerships. How do they manage?  same-sex marriage

Better it seems, according to  Deborah A. Widiss, associate law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. It’s just that we heteros apparently are stuck in a gendered past, sadly.

“It never ceases to amaze me how many people will say to us, ‘So, who’s the woman and who’s the man in your marriage?'” Widiss quotes a gay man in her paper, “Changing the Marriage Equation.”

It’s an odd question to ask a couple but a telling one. It means that even today, when couples marry with the desire to have an equal partnership, we still think of marriage in terms of a woman’s role and a man’s role — that’s why we tend to have “his” and “her” marriages. And for the most part, we not only think that way but act that way, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many articles about working women complaining that their husbands don’t do their part around the house or with the kids. Nor would it be assumed that wives should take the day off work to stay home with a sick child.

These are not conversations often heard in same-sex households, Widiss suggests. Same-sex couples, especially lesbians, typically do have more equitable partnerships when it comes to household and parenting responsibilities, making them role models for equality-seeking hetero couples.

If gays and lesbians can do that, why can’t heteros?

“More than 30 years after explicit sex-based classifications in family, employment, and benefits law were held to violate the Constitution or statutory prohibitions on discrimination, the vast majority of different-sex couples still divide responsibilities along gendered lines,” she notes. Clearly, we’re unable to mentally free ourselves from the “Mad Men” model of marriage — she cleans, cooks and caretakes, he brings home the paycheck — even if we are physically doing the opposite.

But we’re also dealing with laws that still encourage specialization within marriage into breadwinning and caregiving roles, she says. And, because of that, it could be that same-sex couples may decide to specialize along traditional gender lines when more states allow them to marry. Then we’d all be in the same mess together.

But maybe not, since the majority of same-sex couples tying the knot are women.

Widiss spoke with me about the findings:

Q: It seems almost silly to base laws on how much housework and childcare men do versus women. Why does it matter?

A: Families need someone to take care of children and housework. These days, about 70 percent of married women work outside the home. But studies consistently find that wives still spend much more time than their husbands doing domestic work, while men spend more time at paid jobs. If the marriage ends, judges have to decide how much that domestic work “counts” when dividing up property or determining whether to award alimony. Although in most states, caregiving is a factor that judges are instructed to consider, judges often characterize dropping out of the labor force or opting for a job with fewer hours as an individual “choice.” Judges don’t pay enough attention to the ways in which marriage law still encourages one spouse to take on primary breadwinning responsibility and the other spouse to take on caretaking responsibilities.

Q: Your paper indicates that if more states allow same-sex marriage, it’s just as likely that gays and lesbians may specialize and follow gendered division of labor instead of maintaining their more equal partnerships. Why?

A: At one time, husbands were legally responsible to provide economically for their wives, and wives were legally responsible to provide domestic services to their husbands. Now, even though the law no longer specifies which spouse should stay home, it still rewards married couples who specialize into different roles. For example, under federal tax law, a married couple pays less in total taxes if one spouse works outside the house and the other spouse stays home. They get a “marriage bonus” relative to the amount of taxes they would pay if they were single. By contrast, if each spouse earns about the same amount, they often pay a “marriage penalty” relative to the amount they would pay if they were single. As same-sex couples marry — and especially if the law changes so that their marriages are recognized under federal law — I think you might see them begin to specialize more. I don’t know whether they will. I’m hoping researchers will study that question in the future.

Q: If same-sex couples marry and then follow a more gendered division of labor, you indicate that “dismantling the law and benefits that flow from marriage itself” may be necessary. What might be the potential fallout?

A: I’m not necessarily advocating changing marriage law. I’m just suggesting that we should be more honest about the extent to which law still tends to encourage role division. If we as a society really want men and women to share responsibilities equally, then yes, it might make sense to think about reducing the extent to which marriage laws incentivize specialization. It would be equally important to think about how we could change employment laws and workplace norms so that it would be easier for men and women who want to balance work and family responsibilities to do so.

Q: You note that perhaps we shouldn’t “idealize” marriage as an equal partnership and just accept specialization. But that specialization is what upsets many women and hurts them in the event of a divorce. In what way can divorce laws be tweaked to make a marital breakup fairer for all?

A: Divorce law could be changed to provide better protection for women (or men) who stay home or work fewer hours to take care of domestic responsibilities. In 2002, the American Law Institute, an influential group of lawyers, judges, and law professors, recommended that divorce law be changed to compensate caregivers for a “loss in earning capacity.” There are other ways that property distribution or alimony could be restructured so that men and women’s standard of living after divorce would be more equal. The key is recognizing that there is a disconnect in a legal structure that encourages specialization during marriage but then, upon divorce, often treats such specialization as simply an individual “choice” made by the caretaking spouse.

Q: Marriage encourages specialization, but some studies on cohabitation indicate that while it often is more equal than marriage, women still end up doing more household chores than men. What’s going on?

A: It’s not just marriage that encourages specialization. Gender norms do, too. So even without marriage, women living with male partners may feel pressure to conform to expectations — either internal or external — that they take on a greater share of household work.

Q: It isn’t just women who face gender roles — men do, too. So why do women tend to feel more slighted by them than men?

A: It’s important to consider the pressures men feel to conform with gender roles. In fact, new studies show men feel increasing levels of stress as they try to balance home and work responsibilities. And men legitimately worry that they may be penalized at work if they ask to take a paternity leave or for other flexibility to meet children’s needs. But women may feel more slighted by gender roles because “women’s work” is not as respected as “men’s work.” Our society tends to assume that there’s no great skill involved in taking care of a baby or cleaning a house. People who do caretaking work for pay (not coincidently, an almost entirely female workforce) are usually paid poorly.


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We all know the tired stereotype — that older men prefer to marry younger women. Case in point, the newly married George Clooney, 53, and Amal, 36.

But he’s fabulously wealthy and handsome — surely not every man can attract a younger babe. Except, many do. A new Pew study indicates that 20 percent of divorced men who marry again have a wife who is at least 10 years younger, while 18 percent have a wife six to nine years younger. Few have a much older wife. Pew_remarriage

The reverse is not the same: Just 5 percent of divorcees have a hubby 10 or more years younger, and 6 percent have a husband six to nine years their junior.

When Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s marriage exploded a few years (she was 15 years older than he), people said, well, of course — no man is going to stay with a woman as she gets old (although Demi looked pretty good at 48). But the odds may have been stacked against them from the beginning. Marriages in which the woman is much older than her husband often lead to divorce.

Not to say that they’re not happy for a while — certainly Demi and Ashton appeared to be for many years, as well as the eight couples in a 2006 study by Sandra L. Caron and Nichole R. Proulx in which the wives were a decade or more older than their husbands (an admittedly small sample).

Still, the women in the study admitted to a certain insecurity about aging, which is just never going to be a good thing in a relationship. Plus, the couples felt stigmatized by others, especially the wives — and those judgments may even impact a woman’s mortality. Says Sven Drefahl of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research:

“Couples with younger husbands violate social norms and thus suffer from social sanctions. Since marrying a younger husband deviates from what is regarded as normal, these couples could be regarded as outsiders and receive less social support. This could result in a less joyful and more stressful life, reduced health, and finally, increased mortality.”

Yes, but if she could just not worry about what everyone else was thinking, she’d at least have a huge smile on her face when she kicks off!

Judgment aside, marriages in which the wife is older than her husband are more likely to be troubled — and the age difference doesn’t have to be all that big. In fact, couples in which the wife is just five years older are three times more likely to divorce than couples of the same age. Researchers don’t say why, but perhaps it’s for the reasons researchers Caron, a professor of family relations and human sexuality at the University of Maine, and Proulx, a marriage and family therapist, of the 2006 study discovered — society just isn’t ready to accept December-May marriages as easily as it does May-December marriages. Maybe we just can’t shake the image of Mrs. Robinson out of our mind, or maybe it’s because there just aren’t that many of them. Just 5.4 percent of wives are five years older than their hubbies, and only 1.3 percent are 10 years older, but those numbers are rising; in fact they doubled between 1960 and 2007. Still, despite all the Miss Cougar contests, cougar cruises and cougar how-to dating books, more older women seem to be dating or hooking up with younger men than actually marrying them — most likely because the women are divorced and aren’t too interested in saying “I do” all over again.

Although men still skew much younger when looking for love online, most of us tend to marry someone close to our own age in first marriages — according to the Pew study, 80 percent of men and 78 percent of women marry someone within five years of their age.

Still, some research suggests having a much older husband isn’t so bad; those marriages don’t seem to divorce that much. Some studies say if a wife is five or more years younger than her hubby, they’re much more likely to avoid divorce. Others say she needs to be four to six years younger. According to a Canadian study, “Divorce rates are lowest when the husband is two to 10 years older than the wife or when the magnitude of their age difference is extremely large.” And still others say a man should marry a woman about 15 years younger — at least if he wants to make sure his kids survive. All of which should make boomer and senior men very happy indeed.

But perhaps not the boomer women who are looking for love. A Stanford study confirms what they already know: The older a man is when he marries after age 40, the greater the likelihood his wife will be a lot younger — whether he’s rich and educated or not. Men in their 40s tend to marry women about seven years younger, men in their 50s marry women 11 years younger, and men in their 60s marry women 13 years younger.

Still, the optimistic outlook for May-December marriages may be masking the mortality issue; who knows how many might have ended in divorce if hubby hadn’t died first, notes a 2005 government study of United Kingdom marriages since 1963. Death is a sure way to avoid divorce.

Although more research is called for, a preliminary finding of that same U.K. study may offer a ray of hope — there doesn’t appear to be any strong association between age differences and the probability of divorce.

So, perhaps we shouldn’t give up hope on December-May marriages; if Hugh Jackman, 46, and his 59-year-old wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, can last for 18 years — happily, one presumes — so can the rest of us.

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook.



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Earlier this week, Angelina Jolie said marriage to Brad Pitt has changed her for the better, inspiring her to “be a better wife. I’m going to learn to cook.”

It was a curious thing to say — is being a cook what “good wives” do? Maybe, for Angelina. But I’m not sure it answers the question for the rest of us — what exactly makes a good wife?  Good_wife

Well, people have ideas about that. Thought Catalog recently listed 25 Things Girls Do That Make Guys Realize They’re Wife Material. Sure enough, along with bringing others happiness, being likeable, going with the flow, being the guy’s biggest fan and being low-maintenance, “they can cook.”

I’m not sure I agree with that although I indeed can cook and love to do so. That wasn’t enough to keep my marriage together, so obviously wives need a few more skills than that. (and let’s face it, when it comes to divorce, those desirable wifely attributes often have no monetary worth in court of public sentiment — just ask newly divorced multimillionaire Jamie Cooper-Hohn).

The Telegraph’s Daisy Buchanan, about to become a wife herself, has some thoughts on society’s expectations of wives:

The problem that persists (and my problem with the Thought Catalog piece) is that we place an enormous weight of expectation on women and their behaviour within a marriage — but culturally, that pressure is not forced on men in the same way. We’re still suffering from a hangover of hundreds of years of seeing ourselves as desperate, wannabe wives, hoping to be picked out from the crowd by a choosy potential husband.

Although marriage is a contract between two people, we still cling to the convention in which we wait for someone to ask us to be their wife and then take their name. … Of course, being a good wife shouldn’t be any different from being a good husband. But men aren’t targeted with the same stream of ‘make her marry you!’ articles.

Sadly, she is wrong in believing that “being a good wife shouldn’t be any different than being a good husband”; an overwhelming number of never-married women want a husband who has a steady job (while men say they favor someone who shares their ideas about raising children) and that male-as-provider model most likely perpetuates gendered expectations when it comes to marriage.

When George Clooney proposed to now-wife Amal Alamuddin, some people — and I’m sure some of his former girlfriends — wondered, why her? What does Amal have that the others didn’t? It’s clear the typecast “perpetual bachelor” and purported commitaphobe was neither; he just was waiting for the right woman to commit to. A woman who is wife material.

Again, we are stuck trying to define what that means.

Awhile ago a college senior and a “proud career-driven feminist” wrote an essay about how her peers were questioning if they were marriage material. One friend, an “ambitious girlfriend with a 4.0 GPA,” told her, “I want to be good at domestic tasks. I have this fantasy of being a great wife.”

Domestic tasks? What year are we in?

Mrs. Clooney (yes, Amal took Clooney’s last name) is a top-flight human rights attorney — she may or may not cook and she may or may not know her way around a Swiffer, but somehow I don’t think Clooney married her because of her great domestic tasks. I’m guessing he asked her to marry him because she’s smart, she’s beautiful, she has a kind heart and she has confidence. And, perhaps most important to Clooney, a noted jokester, a sense of humor.

But there are other expectations of being a “good wife” that go beyond our own. Just ask Oprah — despite being smart, beautiful, kind-hearted and confident, she is clear that society’s expectations of being a good wife is not her thing; she’d rather stay a good girlfriend. Which means that perhaps she isn’t good wife material after all. Which means there is no one-size-fits-all definition of what a “good wife” is or does. Or is there?

Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook. Let’s Occupy Marriage!


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Ever since the allegations of sexual abuse by Bill Crosby have been coming fast and furious, I  — and many others — have been thinking about his wife of 50 years, Camille.

We have all seen images of the long-suffering wife standing by her poorly behaved man, from Hillary to Silda to Huma to Dina. And now, once again, it’s Camille’s turn. Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby

I have tried to find the same image of a long-suffering husband standing by his philandering wife as she explains herself or apologizes before the public, but I am hard-pressed to recall a time that happened — are you?

Six of the now 15 sexual-abuse allegations against Bill date to when the comedian’s newfound fame and fortune skyrocketed, offering wealth and a lifestyle that, she admits “changed our lives” and led to Bill’s “selfish” behavior — including an affair that resulted in an extortion attempt by a woman who claimed to be his daughter.

As we watch yet another wronged women stand by her husband’s side, people can’t help but ask, why did she stay?

Camille expressed why in an editorial back in 1997:

“Bill and I were very young when we married; he was 26, I was 19. We had to mature, we had to learn the definition of unselfish love, and we did. When we committed to each other wholeheartedly years ago, our marriage became healthy and solid. Also, we blossomed as individuals. Our marriage encompasses mutual love, respect, trust and communication. Sound relationships must have positive reciprocity; they can’t be one-sided and strong.”

One has to wonder about that “respect” and “trust” thing when one party is cheating on the other. But, OK, it’s what she believes, and it’s clear she came to a place of forgiveness, or maybe takes her vows — for better or for worse — seriously.

As she said in a 2000 interview with Oprah:

“You cleanse yourself of all of that baggage, and you look at each other and determine whether the relationship is worth salvaging, whether you really love each other and want to be together.”

It is one thing to cleanse yourself of baggage when it’s infidelity; it’s quite another when it may be rape. Did she know? Did she know how many times? When did she know? In truth, spouses don’t always know what’s going on with the other. Sometimes they just are incapable of hearing it. And sometimes, as Erin Gloria Ryan writes in Jezebel, spouses chose to believe (it’s kind of the deal we make when we say “I do”):
Maybe Camille Cosby is standing by Bill for a reason entirely different than one considered out here. Maybe she believes him. Not because it’s rational, but because it’s easier to believe the word of a person you know and love than it is to believe the word of a stranger, or 15.
It’s all too easy to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a woman whose husband is cheating and know exactly what we’d do — throw the bastard out! But maybe we wouldn’t. Maybe we’d cleanse ourselves of all of that baggage and determine, yes, the relationship is worth salvaging. And we’d salvage it. Or maybe we’d just chose to believe because we want to.


In discussions with newlyweds about commitment and what they will and won’t tolerate in their marriage, none told me that they would stick with their spouse if there was infidelity — except the times that they might.


Those who consider all infidelity as abuse might consider Camille an abused woman. But, if that’s true, what are we to make of women like Camille, or others who find their husband’s affair(s) transformational in re-creating their marriage? Psychologist and author Esther Perel has said, “An illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be liberating, a source of strength, a healing.” I just can’t imagine anyone calling a physically or emotionally abusive marriage “liberating.” Can you?


So why do women stand by their man? There’s isn’t a universal “right” or “wrong” answer about; there’s just a right and wrong answer for ourselves. Ultimately, we will have to live with our decision. As uncomfortable as it may have just become for her, Camille is.


Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook. Let’s Occupy Marriage!


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