That seems to be the issue behind some of the discussion around allegations that Ben Affleck has been dating — or at least having inappropriate meetings — with Christine Ouzounian, the nanny who has been taking care of the three children he and Jennifer Garner have together.
When Ouzounian was hired to take care of Violet, 9, Seraphina, 6, and Samuel, 3, the couple were supposedly dealing with a trial separation. But, she was released from her duty, allegedly by Garner, while their family spent time together in the Bahamas shortly before the couple announced their split.
And so of course Ouzounian — an attractive 28-year-old — is now being portrayed as the “reason” the couple broke up. Believe what you want to believe — maybe there was something inappropriate, maybe there wasn’t — but what I’m having a hard time with is the “well, duh” attitude some people have about hiring an attractive woman to work for you.
It’s disturbing on a number of levels.
Some people have noted that if you play with fire — ie, hire a hottie when you’re in some sort of marital hell — you get what you deserve (and of course this would be directed at Garner, who probably “should have known better” and hired an “ugly” nanny to care for her kids while she and Affleck were sorting out things. I guess the same could be said for Oma Thurman and Sienna Miller, both of whom had hottie nannies whom their men fell sway to.
I don’t want to pass judgment on anyone, but shall we revisit the whole love child thing between former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mildred Patricia Baena, who worked for his family as a housekeeper for more than 20 years? Baena would probably not be described as a hottie, as Ouzounian has been. Nor would have Marsha Garces, who worked as a nanny for Robin Williams and first wife, Valerie Velardi, and later became Williams’ assistant — then wife.
Clearly looks alone are not enough to make dads want to chase after the hired help.
But, it also may just come down to this — they’re nearby. If you’re frequently around attractive people who might be a good — or perhaps even better — replacement for your current partner and all his/her issues, well, why not?
And, to be fair, it isn’t just men who indulge in such shenanigans — let’s not forget that Heidi Klum got a bit too close with bodyguard Martin Kirsten, whom she eventually had a relationship with, while she was separated but still married to Seal.
Should people “know better” than to hire an attractive nanny? What about a beautiful waitress? Secretary (now there’s a cliche)? Teacher? Manager? Tenure-track college professor? Associate attorney? Journalist (and maybe I should be worried that I’ve never had a hard time getting a job!) Where does it stop?
The sad part of this is that Violet, Seraphina and Samuel have now lost someone they care about at a time when they need all the support and love they can have. A divorce, even one as allegedly mindful as Garner and Affleck’s, is hard on kids.
Some women are attractive. So are some men. But if you can’t trust your spouse or yourself around a beautiful person, that’s not his or her problem. Look in the mirror and act accordingly.
Perhaps you saw the recent Huffington Post article, “I want to be single — but with you.” It’s likely you did because it was shared more than 27,000 times, liked by 168,000 people and garnered almost 900 comments.
The gist of the post by Canadian writer Isabelle Tessier is this — she wants to have all the joys of a com-
ship but without giving up her freedom and her sense of self that being in a relationship often takes away, or at least diminishes, and without the drudgery of being together 24/7. She writes:
I want you to have your life, for you decide on a whim to travel for a few weeks … I don’t always want to be invited for your evenings out and I don’t always want to invite you to mine. Then I can tell you about it and hear you tell me about yours the next day. I want something that will be both simple and at the same time not so simple. … I want to make plans not knowing whether or not they will be realized. To be in a relationship that is anything but clear. I want to be your good friend, the one with whom you love hanging out. I want you to keep your desire to flirt with other girls, but for you to come back to me to finish your evening.
Is Isabelle being selfish, as many of the commentors suggested? Or is she realistically seeing the dark side of couplehood? After all, marriage has been called a greedy institution — it sucks up time you could be spending by yourself, with friends, with relatives, volunteering, exploring and growing.
But, Isabelle doesn’t necessarily mention marriage, so it’s unclear in what context she wants to live her life fully. But live it fully is clearly what she wants.
Can Isabelle have that? Perhaps, especially if she becomes a LAT, Living Alone Together. It’s one of the models we identified as working for many couples in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, and it’s one I know a lot about; my mom up and moved away from my dad for about 10 years to establish a life of her own several states away, making her a marital renegade. And, although it was not some well thought-out plan but rather a slow lifestyle choice, I, too, have chosen to live apart from my partner (with a new partner now, but still …)
As one can expect, Isabelle’s post garnered some flack — everything from she doesn’t know how to commit to her wanting her cake and eating it, too, to being “attachment phobic, juvenile, narcissistic” and everything in between — because a good number of people don’t like alternative views of what something “should” look like. It’s really hard for many people to envision something different than what they know. Worse, they don’t even want to question, well, would this be better? No, even people who probably jump at the latest technological gadget still fall for a relationship that looks like everyone else’s.
What I see is a woman being practical, both about what she wants, and what’s realistic. … She’s talking about trusting someone enough to not need to monitor them or your relationship status. … she wants to know that her partner can handle themselves while they’re away, and that she can too, and that maybe in their separateness, they will learn things about themselves they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, in the same room.
And according to recent research, that’s likely true; couples that live apart feel happier in their relationship than couples that live together, and feel more committed and less trapped. When you live apart, you actively work on that commitment and trust; it’s never taken for granted. That’s the kind of work relationships need — not “date nights.”
And there are a lot more of us than one might think.
My friend Sharon Hyman, who is making a documentary about people who choose that lifestyle, wonderfully named Apartners: Living Happily Ever After Apart, has started a Facebook page for like-minded people to share stories, discuss issues and research, and explore out-of-the box approaches to love, whether unmarried or married. Please join us.
Maybe Living Apart Together isn’t quite what Isabelle wants; after all, she says “I will want to go home with you. I want to be the one with whom you love to make love and fall asleep.” Ah, but that happens in LAT partnerships, too. Just not every night.
I imagine this week’s news — that AshleyMadison.com, the website that encourages affairs, was hacked — has caused a certain amount of angst among the website’s 37 million-plus subscribers, many of whom are married or in committed relationships. Infidelity relies on secrecy, and with hackers demanding that the website and and its partner site, Established Men, be shut down or they will release “all customer records, profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies, nude pictures, and conversations and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses, and employee documents and emails,” secrets are about to be spilled — although shutting down the lucrative website is not likely to happen.
On social media, some called the hack karmic justice; others gleefully celebrated what they see as shaky morals. One tweet— “Praying for all the victims of the Ashley Madison hack. This must feel like a total betrayal of their trust.” — was retweeted 769 times and favorited 1,353 times.
The truth is, nobody deserves to be lied to, and being cheated on by a trusted partner can be a genuinely traumatic experience. … But one thing that’s also becoming more and more universally agreed upon is that cheating is complicated, and it reflects all sorts of private realities that anyone outside the relationship can never truly understand.
Publicly shaming people for getting some on the side “is both cruel and unnecessary,” he says. Plus it’s likely that a percentage of AshleyMadison.com members are in consensually non-monogamous partnerships — do they deserve to be outed to relatives, co-workers, neighbors, employers for what is essentially an extremely private matter and happily agreed-to arrangement?
Yes, cheating is complicated. Just ask Mating in Captivity author Esther Perel, who asks us to reconsider infidelity.
I look at affairs from a dual perspective: hurt and betrayal on one side, growth and self-discovery on the other—what it did to you, and what it meant for me. And so when a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair that has been revealed, I will often tell them this: Today in the West, most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?
I have a lot of people who come to my office who think that they are the virtuous people because they haven’t cheated. They have just been neglectful, indifferent, contemptuous, asexual, demeaning, insulting, but they haven’t cheated. But betrayal comes in many forms.
What if we actually were a gender-neutral society? Would women still earn less than men in the workplace? Would we still expect men to be breadwinners and women caretakers (and as much as we say we want that, we still fall back into gendered roles)? Would work-life issues still be seen as a woman’s issue and not a family issue?
I recently stumbled upon the name of woman I’d never heard of, Shulamith Firestone, a futurist who was instrumental in the 1970s cyberfeminist movement (I didn’t even know there was one). Firestone believed artificial wombs and other reproductive technologies, including gender selection and IVF — both of which are in use today — were a way to free from the burden of being baby makers. While there’s nothing quite like holding and smelling your baby straight from labor — and I’ve done it twice — in some ways, that makes sense. Pregnancy and childbirth are still incredibly dangerous for women, and not just in developing countries. And let’s not forget the incredible dictates women are under when pregnant — from what they eat and drink and do (including the rise of the personhood movement (shudders) — and the postpartum depression many suffer from. There are also many things than can go wrong for the baby, too, beyond premature birth.
I just can’t help but wonder if this is what it will take to finally free us from the gendered roles many heteros gravitate toward once they wed, but especially once they become parents. I am much messier than the two men I married, yet I was the one who was expected to keep everything clean and tidy. And when I became a mom, well, guess who took time off from work when the boys were sick or needed to get to the doctor or dentist.
For the record, I am not promoting ectogenesis, and the transhumanist movement is, well, scary and unappealing to me. I am loath to think that we might have to rely on technology to create a world that’s more equitable for women while also freeing men from the shackles of our narrow views of masculinity. But in many ways — from our thinking, choices, actions and science — we are already moving toward gender neutrality. The question is, how far do we want to take it and what are willing to do to achieve it?
With all the fake divorce alerts certain media want to put out there — everyone from Brad and Angelina to Ellen and Portia to George and Amal to the seemingly forever-divorcing Will and Jada — it was hard to give any weight to rumors of Ben and Jen splitting until they announced it last week, a day after their 10th wedding anniversary (financial reasons? Perhaps).
And while no one wishes a divorce on anyone — unless it’s a dangerous situation — divorce is sometimes the right thing to do, even if there are young kids involved. But not all divorces are equal; there are some acrimonious divorces that last for years, damaging everyone in their path but mostly the kids (the attorneys are usually happy, though). Then there are divorcing couples that should be applauded in how they’re handling their split. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner are one such couple.
Here’s what they are doing right:
They allegedly nearly split three years ago and since then have been doing whatever they could to make the marriage work, including marital therapy. Therapy can only go so far, however. Still, they are proof that most couples with kids try really hard before divorcing, which is why the movement to make divorce harder in this country is wrong headed, shaming and potentially damaging. If California had passed such a law that was now in place, Ben and Jennifer would be required to go to counseling again — what are the chances that would make them change their minds and stay together? Oh, I’d bet between zilch and zilch.
They say they are sharing joint custody and will co-parent their children — Violet, 9, Seraphina, 6, and Samuel, 3. There’s lots of research that points to how beneficial this is for children. There are many divorcing couples that say they are putting their children first, but if they’re not giving Dad (and it’s usually Dad) equal access to his kids (assuming there’s no addiction, incarceration, abuse, etc. issues) and letting him father his kids, then, sorry, they aren’t.
They are not the first couple to part kindly. A year ago Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin famously uncoupled consciously, and despite the snark and sneers from people who were clueless about the concept (and perhaps about a lot of things pertaining to divorce when you have kids), they, too, have put their kids first. Now divorced, Gwen and Chris live across the street from each other so their kids, Apple, 10, and Moses, 8, also can see their parents easily.
While Ben and Jennifer could have just as easily transformed to marriage into a parenting marriage, it’s unlikely they needed to stay married to lessen divorce’s financial impact given their multimillion incomes. That isn’t always the case for unhappy couples. But that doesn’t mean those couples have to stay miserably together “for the kids.”
When parents transform a marriage into a parenting marriagethe form of the relationship changes but they are still able to do their No. 1 job well — raise their kids. San Francisco psychologist Valerie Tate and her husband no longer have a sexual or romantic relationship anymore, but they remain married and in the same home with their 11-year-old son, who benefits by not having his life upended.
“It was like a shift in what we were fighting for,” she told me. Rather than to keep fighting for their romantic lives — not that they didn’t try — their focus switched. Now they’re truly putting their son’s needs first by still giving him the stability, consistency and relatively conflict-free home he needs to thrive, as well as their love.
I am not a fan of our celebrity-driven culture. I don’t know what most celebrities can teach us about a healthy, meaningful life, including Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner. But this time, we can learn a lot.
It’s been a monumental week. If you have one of the masses who welcomed allowing same-sex couples to marry, then the Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday was a blessed decision. Coming right before Pride celebrations across the country, it made the yearly event even that much more proud and colorful.
So it was hard for heteros who welcomed our LGBTQ friends and family into this new era of marriage equality to even think about raining on their long-awaited and well-deserved parade. But as we read Justice Anthony Kennedy’s writings, it was equally hard for some of us — the unmarried — to ignore the thick lump that grew in our throats. According to Kennedy:
“No union is more profound than marriage for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. … Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness.”
Whoa. Where do we even begin with that?
It once again speaks to the incredible matrimania — a great word coined by social psychologist, author and tireless singles advocate Bella DePaulo — that’s prevalent in this country. And it also speaks to what society tends to think about the unmarried — we’re somewhat less than. Unmarried because you’re divorced? You have issues and don’t know what commitment means. Unmarried because you haven’t found your “soul mate”? You’re too picky, damaged, high-maintenance or needy, or you’re too obsessed with FOMO (fear of missing out), or you were too selfish focusing on your own needs and career. The only unmarrieds who seem to escape much of society’s wrath are the widowed, but even they are not above judgment — “It’s been two years; shouldn’t she move on already?” “Well, he sure didn’t wait to partner again; his poor wife’s body is still warm!”
But the worrisome part of Kennedy’s wording is the belief that those who are unmarried, by choice or chance, don’t have much going on — we’re just “condemned to live in loneliness.” Never mind that we — and that includes me — have full lives that involve family, friends, neighbors and community, and that involve activities, passions, sex and love. Aren’t we done seeing singles as people to be pitied?
Just as disturbing is Kennedy’s lofty version of marriage. While marriage may — may — hold the promise of “the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family,” it often falls woefully short, especially in fidelity (Ashley Madison anyone?) and, let’s face it, even love. Given the distressing comments by people who are in frustratingly sexless marriages, many marriages may indeed be less about love than sacrifice — sacrifice of one’s sexual needs. I don’t think that’s what Kennedy meant but still …
And then, despite however well-meaning he may be, Kennedy slams single parenthood:
“Marriage also affords the permanency and stability important to children’s best interests … Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life.”
It’s true when she says the numerous social movements have allowed us to “live these full, varied lives without being anyone’s wife or husband.” But, it isn’t about that; we’ve had freedom since the women’s movement.
What the unmarried don’t have, however, are the legal and financial perks and protections married couples, hetero and now same-sex, get — even if we are rising kids, too, or caring for elderly parents or a disabled sibling or lover (and the best person to follow and read on this is Bella DePaulo).
While the Supreme Court and Americans debate whether marriage for same-sex couples is OK, two studies on same-sex couples came out recently that caught my eye and should catch yours, too. Many people are worried that marriage between same-sex couples will change marriage and these new studies indicate, yes, it may — for the better for everyone.
The first looks at what cohabitation and marriage mean to gays and lesbians. Denied marriage for so long, same-sex couples tend to view cohabitation through a different lens than heteros. Few cohabiting heteros live together for the long haul — most break up or marry in about five years, with many seeing it as a cost-saving measure (one apartment is cheaper than two) more than a statement of their commitment to each other. For same-sex couples, though, living together “symbolizes and solidifies their commitment to their relationship,” according to the study.
The commitment already exists; living together means something.
But, the more interesting part of the study was the reasons why same-sex couples say they want to marry, and many of them do. The vast majority — 91 percent — cited legal benefits and financial protections. This is a radically different reason than heteros give for tying the knot; they overwhelmingly say love is the reason to wed (93 percent). Coming right after that is lifelong commitment (87 percent), while same-sex couples say they already feel committed, the study indicates. It isn’t until all that romantic stuff is addressed that heteros admit, at reason No. 5, that yeah, there are some financial benefits, too.
Clearly, same-sex couples understand the importance of marriage’s legal benefits and financial protections much more than heteros do. Why?
Maybe some heteros do. But, let’s face it — if a straight person, let’s say a woman, said she was tying the knot for legal or financial reasons, well, wouldn’t most people call her a gold-digger? The truth, however, is that many heteros do marry for legal and financial reasons — we just don’t like talking about it as it seems to detract from the “sanctity” of marriage. Uh-huh.
The other study is on how same-sex couples divvy up the child care. Unlike different-sex couples, it’s more equally shared by about 74 percent of gay couples versus 38 percent of straight couples. They also more equally shared the responsibility of caring for a sick child, 62 percent versus 32 percent for straight couples.
Many hetero women want that kind of an egalitarian union, and may even have it when they’re newlyweds.But once a baby comes long, hetero couples slide back into gendered patterns. Just as important, same-sex couples were more satisfied with how chores and child care were divvied up than were hetero women. Why? Because — and this is so simple as to be mind-blowing — they talked about it.
Yeah, that’s it. They just, you know, talked about it, and continue to talk about it.
How is this somehow escaping the conversations of hetero couples?
Well, in part because women bite their tongue. According to the survey, 20 percent of coupled hetero women said they hadn’t talked about how to divide chores, but wish they had. At the same time, 15 percent of women in same-sex couples had those conversations. According to study author Ken Matos:
“Perhaps because they can’t default to gender, people in same-sex couples are in more of a position to have these conversations. That’s probably the biggest takeaway of the survey: how important it is to talk and say what you want, rather than stay silent, not wanting to start a fight, making assumptions, and then letting things fester.”
Silence, not wanting to start a fight, assumptions, festering issues — are these just women things? No, but society still tends to dump chores and child care into a woman’s domain, and women are particularly good at what Divorce Court judge Lynn Toler calls “The False OK”:
“I think a lot of women tell the very same lie for years on end. They say ‘okay’ when they don’t mean it. They tell their husbands, ‘everything’s fine,’ even when it’s not. ‘Keeping the peace’ is what they call it. They are, they tell me, getting through the day. It is all about the argument they simply do not want to have. … I think there is a whole group of women out there who don’t do well with conflict. “
Same-sex couples don’t deal with those gendered expectations. As writer Andrew Solomon says of his arrangement with his partner, “If there’s one thing same-sex parents could teach is that it’s not that one of us is ‘really’ the mom and one is ‘really’ the Dad. Those are irrelevant concepts. We’re just both in this together.”
Repeat after me — “We’re just both in this together.”
Will this change once more same-sex couples tie the knot? Maybe, or at least that’s what Deborah A. Widiss, an associate law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, told me when we spoke a few years ago about her own study, “Changing the Marriage Equation.” Part of the problem is that society “tends to assume that there’s no great skill involved in taking care of a baby or cleaning a house.” Which means anyone who takes on that role, male or female, is screwed. Unless things change. As she says:
“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.”
And, let’s be honest — we women are going to have to speak up.Really. We’re going to have to find a partner who understands what “We’re both in this together” means, and we’re going to have to talk about our expectations around chores and child care, and we’re going to have to be willing to not fall into gendered divisions of labor once a child comes along, and we’re going to have to commit to talking honestly about our expectations. And, if we’re smart, we’ll write it all down in a marital plan. How hard is that?
And, while we’re at it, let’s stop romanticizing marriage and realize what it really is — a contract that affords a couple legal and financial benefits. You can love and be committed to someone without tying the knot. Really.
There’s been a lot of discussion about “sexless” marriages, many focusing on how to define “sexless. Honestly, I don’t want to have to turn to a so-called “expert” or another couples’ definition of sexless — I want to determine if my relationship is sexless based on whether my sexual needs, and those of my partner, are being met. And, for anyone who has watched Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, even couples themselves have radically different definitions of what’s “too much” or “not enough” sex.
Enter the discussion that’s going on over at The New I Do website. The post dates back to 2014, but regardless — the recent comments indicate a certain percentage of wives and husbands are not getting their sexual needs met, even though in many other ways their marriage is comfortable and their husband or wife (and, despite the stereotypes, their are more wives complaining about disinterested husbands than vice-versa) is “wonderful” or a “great father/mother.”
As I’ve written before, there are many ways spouses can betray each other beyond just affairs or denying the other sex — being “neglectful, indifferent, contemptuous, asexual, demeaning, insulting, as Esther Perel says — often is as — and sometimes more — damaging as physical abuse. In my poll, people overwhelming thought those behaviors were just as much of a betrayal as infidelity
Still, tell people that you sexual needs aren’t being met, and you’ll no likely hear about how you only “need” sex X times a week or month to be “normal,” or that you should focus on the other great qualities your hubby or wife has. Great, but it’s little consolation for those who are literally starved for sexual contact.
Just listen to the comments. From Katrina:
We have not had successful sex in 19 years. He has no interest in rectifying his problem. Wonderful man in all other ways, but I am very depressed over this.
To me, it’s not merely the act of sex. What I’m missing is being desired, having the intimacy and spontaneity that we had before. Breathing each other’s air, cuddling up, caressing faces, shoulders, derrieres, all of it. Secret looks, anticipation. Where did it go and do I have to go the rest of my life without it? This is not the relationship that I was “promised” when I bought the idea that we would be lifelong partners. I am in no way interested now in him. It is, in fact, a betrayal.
it is so hard to go without any physical connection. I feel cheated and misled. I didn’t sign up for this and don’t know what to do. I get where I am very angry with him and don’t want to even be near him. It helps to know I am not alone.
From Sally Jones:
Doctors often ask if one is “experiencing a lot of stress”. For me, living in a sexless marriage is very stressful. Is that a normal reaction?
From Lonely Wife:
I live in a sexless marriage where my husband thinks it’s ok to brush over this because he loves me and we’re otherwise happy. Well I’m not. I don’t want to leave him because I love my kids, I have nowhere to go, I gave up my career for his etc. I cannot stand being trapped here for 20 years wasting my life away with a friend when I want a lover too. I feel so disgusted in myself and hate myself so much. I used to feel attractive but not I just feel worthless.
And from the guys, including Bern:
It’s been three and a half months since we have been together and I’m starting to consider other alternatives. This isn’t what I signed on for, but the phrase for better or worse still means something to me. If we can’t improve things I’m afraid I’ll be someone who will cheat, and that isn’t who I want to be.
My wife, who is 7 year older than I and I love deeply, has fallen into a not uncommon phase where she has no desire for sex. She attests to find me attractive still, but she just doesn’t feel the desire for sex anymore. Waxing a little selfish, this leaves me in the lurch as a healthy 40 year old male who loves his wife, finds her completely desirable and desperately wants to consumate that love… Two wrongs don’t make a right, but the hole created lends to such other problems as blocks in communciation, unconscious distancing, wandering eye syndrome and the desire for the intimate touch even if it’s from another person/lover. It’s a terrible place in an otherwise very happy marriage.
And, finally, from Sam:
My wife tells me she cant decide if she wants to be in the marriage anymore. And she has no energy for sex. We have kids. She has asked me to be patient with her, but its two years now. I really want my marriage to work, but I am feeling frustrated and confused. Some woman do not understand how damaging withholding sex in a marriage can be.
Actually, Sam, I think many men and women realize just how damaging withholding sex can be, if they’re the ones who are victims to the withholding.
So some of those commenting said they felt justified in cheating. But while that solves their problem temporarily, it creates its own new problems.
If medical issues have been ruled out and your spouse won’t make any effort to help bring desire and sex back into the marriage when you lovingly and honestly express your needs, well, that’s telling you a lot.
There’s no easy answer for the unhappy and sexless masses if they don’t want to divorce except to turn their marriage into a parenting marriage, if there are young kids at home, or an open or monogamish marriage.
You’ve finally met someone special, someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. Congratulations.
Perhaps you are one of the thousands of couples who will say “I do” this month — the most popular month to tie the knot. Whether you end up making it “until death” or not, the intention to spend decades with someone — no matter how well you may know him or her — can be daunting. Few of us would go on an extended journey without at least some planning, yet that’s how we typically embark on our marital future.
Many people ask, “Where is this relationship going?” after several months of dating or living together. The end goal seems to be marriage, with little thought to what happens after that. And, as you know, there is a lot that happens after the wedding day.
While no one can guarantee that your marriage will be as happy and healthy as you hope — or expect — it to be, wouldn’t you feel better committing to all those years together if you had a better idea of where your marriage was going?
Believe it or not, you can; it’s called a marital plan, a framework for your marriage that you and your spouse-to-be create together so you can define and agree to what will make your marriage a success. It’s like a road map for your combined goals and dreams, with specifics on how you plan to accomplish them, and when. It holds each of you accountable. And it’s a way to measure your marriage’s success by something other than longevity — the only way we currently consider a marriage successful.
If you truly believe your partner is special — and I’m presuming you wouldn’t be marrying him or her otherwise — then you don’t want to just create a life with him or her; you want to create a specific kind of life. Your kind of life.
That’s what Susan Pease Gadoua and I present in our book The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. But, we are not alone in believing that marital plans are the way of the future for anyone considering marriage, or even renegotiating an existing marriage. I chatted with two family and divorce attorneys who are big proponents of marital plans — Mark Ressa, who practices in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Michael Boulette, who practices in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They see couples at the opposite end of the happy wedding day, when all those dreams and expectations have been dashed with hard and unanticipated reality. While no can predict everything that will happen in a marriage — it’s understandable that Kris Jenner may have had no idea her husband of 23 years, Bruce, would transition into Caitlyn — there are many familiar and contentious issues in a marital arc, such as chores, kids, finances and sex, that can and should be discussed early and often as couples move from childfree dual-earners to (perhaps) dual-earners with kids to empty-nesters and all the variations in between.
A shorter version of our conversation ran in the Huffington Post; here’s our chat in its entirety.
Q: Why do you like the idea of a marital plan?
Ressa: Most couples contemplating marriage are focused on spending their lives together without fully considering what that means. Before they exchange “I do’s,” rarely do couples articulate in a meaningful way what their expectations are for the marriage. What do they want to see happen in the first three to five years? Are they on the same page about having children? What about intimacy issues; what are their expectations? Marital planning provides an opportunity to discuss these issues beforehand, see if both parties are on the same page and, more importantly, set expectations and plan how to address expectations that are not met. If the marriage does not last, at least a marital plan can be a reference that gives insight into what they had originally intended.
Boulette: I began representing clients in divorces in 2010. One year later, I got married. With that kind of juxtaposition, you almost can’t help but start drawing parallels, look at the cases you’re working on and think, what would happen if my marriage broke up? I started discussing them with my wife. The more we talked about our “future divorce” the more I learned about what she values, what she wants out of our marriage, and what she wants out of me as a partner and as a parent to our daughter.
I’ve started to see marriage planning as an innovative solution for a number of the problems plaguing modern relationships (and the law that governs them). It’s a way to:
increase marriage rates among couples that may not feel ready for marriage (in its current form) but who want to create a relationship that’s more than just roommates
incorporate changing social norms around what marriage means and to embrace a variety of different “meanings” of marriage without writing any one meaning into our laws
help reduce the conflict in divorce by allowing couples to create their own ideas of fairness when they still have each other’s best interests at heart
Q: How do you see a marital plan differing from a prenup?
Ressa: Pre- and post-nuptial agreements, if enforceable, dictate what happens in the event of a divorce. Marital plans document the parties’ intent and expectations about how they will move through life as a married couple. A prenuptial agreement largely deals with financial issues; a marital plan, instead, focuses on lifestyle choices.
Boulette: Marriage planning is a paradigm shift. If prenups are about protecting yourself from your spouse, marriage planning is about creating a life together and deliberately choosing the sort of relationship you want to have over any number of alternatives. Prenups are often a work-around for state divorce laws that might put one partner’s wealth at risk. Marriage plans reach beyond the financial into questions of what you want from your spouse as a partner, as a friend, as a co-parent, what you’re seeking from the marriage emotionally, physically, even professionally. And also what you’re willing to give — what you’re committed to investing to make the relationship and the family work.
Q: From your perspective as a family lawyer, what do couples ignore or misunderstand when they tie the knot?
Ressa: Most couples do not consider what happens in the event of a divorce, how the standard-one-size-fits-all divorce laws would apply in their circumstance. Rarely do I hear of couples who are about to marry — other than the small percentage who actually enter into a prenuptial agreement — contemplate financial, wealth acquisition or parenting issues.
Boulette: In first-time marriages, no couple really has any idea of what laws would govern their relationships in the event of divorce. But I don’t think that antiquated divorce laws are necessarily driving divorces or reducing relationship quality. Because getting married is so easy, at least from a legal standpoint, many couples avoid hard questions: “What if the marriage doesn’t work out?” “What if I (or you) fall in love with someone else?” “Should we prioritize both our careers equally or the one with the greatest earning potential?” Ignoring these questions can create conflict later on, and in the most extreme scenario could lead couples to question whether the relationship is right for them.
Q: In what ways could a marital plan help them?
Ressa: A marital plan forces couples entering into marriage to openly discuss issues that might create points of conflict in the future. Additionally, couples should contemplate, discuss and agree on what happens in the event an agreed-to expectation is not met. For instance, what if the parties’ intimacy expectations deviate from the marital plan? Should that trigger a requirement to discuss the issue through counseling?
Additionally, as divorce lawyers we see increases in divorce filings at multiples of seven years. You have heard of the seven-year-itch? It is real. There are also reports indicating marriages begin to come undone approximately six years prior to either party actually filing for divorce. Putting those two observations together, what if marriage plans required a therapeutic, marital counseling wellness check approximately five to six years before the aforementioned divorce-filing bumps? So a marital plan could provide the opportunity to apply some preventive medicine to maintain the health of the marriage.
Boulette: Marriage plans promote exactly the sort of “hard conversations” I mentioned before. But more than that, they provide a touch point to channel these discussions to a productive end. If you create a marriage plan and, for whatever reason, the relationship does end, you, as a couple, have created a road map for how to leave the relationship with dignity, mutual respect and exactly the sort of fairness so many divorcing couples aspire to.
A plan also comes with the added benefit of being able to revisit and revise as needed, rather than relying on shadowy recollections of a conversation you had years ago. Say two years into the marriage, life has thrown you a curve ball. That’s OK. Have a new conversation. Make a new plan.
Q: Could couples just create these marital plans by themselves?
Ressa: Couples can always DIY; most divorces are resolved by litigants who are self-represented. There is nothing to prevent a couple from creating their own marital plan.
Boulette: Of course. Nothing about a marriage plan has to be legally binding. No one would bother to get a prenup if they didn’t think it could be enforced in court, but a marriage plan can be valuable for any number of reasons even if its completely unenforceable in the event of divorce.
But if the goal is a legally binding agreement that you’ll be held to should one of you want to end the relationship, a lawyer is an important part of the equation. Prenup laws (which are inevitably the legal avenue through which marriage plans will be enforced) are such a patchwork from state to state, not just in how the law is actually written, but also in how courts interpret them. Add to that the wrinkle that marriage plans reach well beyond established law to touch on parts of couples’ lives where prenups are not traditionally enforced, and this isn’t a DIY project.
I have been enjoying reading Mark Manson, a self-described “author, blogger and entrepreneur.” Recently, he blogged on why people cheat on their partners and I felt compelled to send it to a friend who’d recently gone through an unexpected and painful breakup of an eight-year relationship, albeit unrelated to cheating.
“The one time I told him no,” she lamented, “and he left.”
Our friends and I commiserated with her, convinced that his behavior wasn’t kind or fair, and that she deserved better. Then I read Manson’s post. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything he said — including calling “life-long commitment” the most important thing — I appreciate his assessment of how we often set ourselves up for misbehavior when we “do everything” for our partner (or never tell him “no”):
“The person feels like a goddamn saint and then what happens? They get cheated on. … The reason this is actually a toxic situation is that when you do everything for your partner, when you take care of all of their problems and show them that no matter what happens you will always make it better for them, you show them that there are essentially no repercussions for their actions. … If you had a dog that continuously pissed on your rug and every time you just cleaned up the rug because OMIGOD I LOVE HER, why would the dog ever stop pissing on it? That’s what happens when these people cheat on you. You’re actually surprised when you’ve been tolerating and enabling the exact behavior that led them to cheat all along. No, it’s not your ‘fault,’ but you sure as shit weren’t helping the matter.”
Boy, can I relate! When my marriage was falling apart, I remember telling the marriage counselor that all my former husband basically had to do was show up — although I always worked part time, the household chores, the kids, the hands-on caregiving and the emotional caregiving had somehow been dumped entirely on me. Plus, I wrote winning grants that furthered his career, and never took time away from our family — certainly not for pleasure. I was selfless!Meanwhile, there had been numerous times that he was deceptive, and made other questionable decisions — even once resulting in the need for a restraining order — scary! — that were damaging to us, our family and to me over the years. Of course, I never once asked that we seek counseling or help, never held him accountable. Then, he had a long-term affair. Hmm …
All the times that I let those lies and bad behaviors occur, I basically had been “tolerating and enabling the exact behavior that led (him) to cheat all along.” Indeed, he never suffered a consequence for his actions. No wonder he was shocked — shocked! — when, after first wanting to salvage the marriage, I finally said I wanted a divorce (although women initiate divorce than men, it’s often exactly because of this). It was the first time I had ever set a healthy boundary for myself in our marriage — I will not be lied to or disrespected again — but it also meant that the marriage would have to end. I don’t blame my former husband for my behavior; in fact, I own it. But it sent me on a quest to understand why — why didn’t I believe I deserved better treatment?
Women do this a lot. Many of us have a problem saying “no,” but when that “no” is setting boundaries for ourselves and honoring our needs — and it’s not selfish to have needs — then it’s actually healthier for us and our relationship.
As Manson says, setting healthy boundaries means we’re standing up for ourselves:
“That means declaring what is and is not acceptable in the relationship both for yourself and your partner. That means sticking by those declarations and following through on them. … That means you recognize that you are not responsible for your partner’s happiness nor are they responsible for yours. That you do not have a right to demand certain actions from them nor do they have a right to demand certain actions from you. … That means that they are responsible for their own struggles just as you are responsible for yours. … That means that you realize often the most loving and compassionate thing you can do for a loved one is allow them to deal with their struggles themselves.”
This, of course, is hard. I’m not saying it isn’t hard for men, too; I know men for whom saying “no” has been challenging. Still, women, are typically brought up to be pleasers; I sure was. And that hasn’t worked out well for anyone.
So, I am better at saying “no.” I’m better at identifying my needs and expressing them in a loving, respectful way. It still feels foreign, and, yes, I still make mistakes. But I finally am convinced that, yes, it’s not only OK to look after yourself, but it’s also really healthy. How about you?