Feed on

We’re in the middle of National Marriage Week, a campaign that seeks to strengthen marriage and that ends on Valentine’s Day. Few would argue against strong marriages, but the truth is more young people are delaying or avoiding  marriage. Meanwhile, more older people are divorcing like crazy and either happily living alone or living together with a new partner. Some do marry again, but it’s mostly men (because many middle-aged women say, been there, done that). Given all that, if you could re-create marriage to make it more attractive to more people — maybe even you — what would you want it to look like? 

This is a question we ask in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (and if you or a friend or loved one get some bling this Valentine’s Day, consider getting a copy of the book — and to make it fun, I will send a free book to one random reader (see details below).

According to Sara McLanahan of Princeton University, the principal investigator of the Fragile Families Study, if we were to design a system from scratch to ensure that a child’s basic needs would be met, it would look remarkably similar to the two-parent family.

Of course, not everyone who marries wants kids but even for those who do, having a two-parent family could take many forms — it could mean the couple doesn’t live together; it could mean the couple is ethically non-monogamous; it could mean the couple are friends, not romantic and sexual partners, and co-parenting the kids together; and any other combination you could imagine.

So, that’s what I’m asking you to imagine.

If you were responsible for building a new model of marriage, what would it look like? What would you do differently? What would you throw out altogether? What would you keep? What kind of marriage do you want?

Society is ready for it.

As Courtney E. Martin writes in Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activist:

Liberating ourselves from the traditional strictures of marriage altogether, and/or transforming those strictures to include all of us — gay, feminist, career-focused, baby crazy, monogamous, non-monogamous, skeptical, romantic, and everyone in between — is the challenge facing this generation. As we consciously opt out or creatively reimagine marriage one loving couple at a time, we’ll be able to shift societal expectations wholesale, freeing younger generations from some of the antiquated assumptions we’ve faced (that women always want to get married and men always shy away from commitment, that gender parity somehow disempowers men, that turning 30 makes an unmarried woman into an old maid).”

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate love, regardless of Valentine’s Day and National Marriage Week, than thinking about how we could make marriage better fit for who we are and how we live today — even if that means there’s no such thing as marriage.

So tell me, where would you like to see romantic partnerships go from here? Instead of my usual poll, tell me in the comment section below and I will send one lucky reader, chosen by random, a free copy of The New I Do. Please answer by Feb. 19, and good luck!

Want to individualize your marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.



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When my marriage was falling apart, my former husband and I went to marital counselors to help us. The first one was useless. The second one patiently listened to our story, one that included infidelity — how common! — and keep saying, “OK, but let’s talk about the drinking.” My former husband didn’t want to go to her anymore (he didn’t want to talk about the drinking, of course!) and so after a few sessions we found someone else. But she gave me an aha moment I hadn’t considered — “let’s talk about the drinking.” Because I knew booze was a thing; I just didn’t know how big a thing it was for my family, and that it had a name — alcoholism. I went to Al-anon at that therapist’s suggestion, and the stories I heard there were scary and eye-opening. I didn’t want to live like that.

So can we talk about the drinking?

Because it’s a much bigger story than my story — it’s a lot of people’s stories. I know we have an opioid crisis in America right now, which is heart-
breaking on so many levels; people are dying,  towns are being devastated, children are being orphaned. At the same time, there are many more people who drink too much. And while that may not kill as many people, it has consequences, too. On relationships and on children.

I recently spoke with Daphne de Marneffe, a therapist whose just-published book on the challenges of midlife marriage, The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together, has a chapter on booze and other “attempted escapes.” Addressing alcohol isn’t something I’ve typically seen in marital advice books even though I’ve known many people who struggled with that in their marriage, so I was delighted to see that she was calling it out.

‘A central problem’

Couples are often leery of addressing a partner’s drinking — or their own — for a number of reasons, de Marneffe says, often because it’s been the way they’ve coped since they were young. And yet, it often works against everything we most likely want with a romantic partner:

It can also function as a way to take the edge off, yet in my model of how you need to actually show up emotionally if you’re going to have an intimate relationship, it usually works against that. I present it in a very nonjudgmental way, but at the same time in a confrontational way, like, don’t think this is kind of a detail; it’s probably kind of a central problem.”

Yeah. It isn’t “kind of a detail.” It’s totally “kind of a central problem.” You can’t show up emotionally when you’re dulling your emotions.

As I’ve written before, there are many families who are bring destroyed by alcohol. There is a lot of shame around it, and so most of us don’t tell anyone; we suffer in silence.

Drinking your way to divorce

Which is why I struggled silently. Alcohol has broken up a few friends’ relationships  in recent years; it’s impacting a few more right now. I’m not surprised that 21 percent of divorced people 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 (because it goes against — ugh — “proper gender roles for women.

So, what to do? I knew that my former husband came from an alcoholic family. I wished I had explored that more, understood the imprints and patterns that come with that. I wished I had talked with him about his relationship to booze — why he drank, why he drank so much, what alcohol meant to him, what he was trying to escape from. And I wished I had the curiosity back then to understand why I made excuses for his drinking, why I let it slowly wear away at our life together. And I wish I had the strength much earlier to say what I finally could say after doing lots of personal growth work: “I’m not telling you want to do, but I won’t even consider staying in this marriage if you’re drinking.” I’m happy to say he’s been sober ever since.

As de Marneffe writes:

So much of marriage, and life, is about sitting with uncomfortable feelings and not reaching for the quick fix that won’t work in the long run. This sometimes means confusion, lack of control, or feeling broken before you feel whole. It means understanding ‘not knowing’ as a positive capacity rather than as failure or ignorance. … Once we relinquish our substances, we’ll have to face ourselves before we can discover what’s possible in our relationships.”

Yes, not knowing, sitting with what’s uncomfortable, is essential. And facing ourselves? That’s powerful and scary. But I highly recommend it.

Want to individualize your marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

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You’re pregnant with your first child. Can’t speak what that’s like for a man but for a woman who has maybe wanted to be a mom for a long time, and who sometimes wondered if that was going to happen, it’s a wonderful, scary, exhausting, overwhelming thing. I’m sure it was for Melania Trump, too, who said the birth of her first child, Barron, at age 35, and her husband’s fifth child, was “very, very easy.”

The birth of my second child was easy-ish — not “very, very easy” — but like Melania, I, too, had an epidural. That certainly changed things! But it isn’t generally what the woman experiences at the birth of a child that impacts a couple so much as the whole pregnancy and postpartum period. As we recently found out, Donald Trump was having an affair with a porn star, Stormy Daniels, while Melania was pregnant with Barron, and allegedly paid Daniels $130,000 right before the 2016 election to keep quiet. And the First Lady is trying to distance herself from the whole thing while also following the “stand by your man” path.

But, interesting — and sadly — Melania would not be the first women to have her husband cheat on her while she’s knocked up with their child (should we forget former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar and his love child, born just days after his son with wife Maria Shriver?).

And it recently happened to It happened to Eniko Parrish, whose husband, comedian Kevin Hart, admitted cheating on her when she was pregnant with their first child together — and who amazingly called her pregnancy, weight gain of just 22 and quick weight loss postpartum stress and drama-free.

She’s clearly among the new “fit moms” on Instagram who are no doubt making new moms anxious about gaining too much weight or having the baby weight linger for too long. Of course, being fit won’t guarantee that your hubby won’t cheat on you anyway — right Eniko?

Ambivalence or affair?

Not that I want to give any props to the creator of Ashley Madison, the website that promotes the idea that life is short so have an affair, but founder Noel Biderman says a lot of men sign on to the site when a baby was on the horizon. They may not have been as crass as Trump, who gave Melania a week to “whip herself back into the pre-baby shape” but they certainly had complicated feelings about how pregnancy, birth and a newborn impacts a relationship.

And for some, that means their ambivalence about the pregnancy or the changes that go with it, or their partner’s diminished sex drive or complicated feelings about her body, desirability and sexuality. Supposedly, 10 percent of dads-to-be have affairs while their partners were like Melania — pregnant with their child, despite the stupid Paul Anka song I grew up with in which he croons having a baby was “a lovely way of saying how much you love me.”

Getting men to open up

OK, 10 percent is hardly the majority of dads-to-be. At the same time, I’d want to know how the man in my life feels about the arrival of our first child. Having a baby is as complicated for men as it is for women — emotionally if not necessarily physically — and while society often focuses on the mom-to-be — the one who’s going through all the physical and hormonal changes, the one who’s going to push out a new being from her vagina — men have feels, too. They need to be encouraged to talk about it.

As ob/gyn Laura Riley writes:

Men worry, even if they don’t tell you. Even if your partner doesn’t mention it, he may be worrying about what pregnancy will do to your lives. He may feel anxious about upcoming expenses, your health insurance coverage, the pain that you’ll feel during pregnancy or delivery, what life will be like with three rather than two, and the effects of pregnancy on your sex life. If you are planning to quit your job to stay home with your baby, he may feel more pressure because he’ll be the sole breadwinner. Men question what type of dad they’ll be. For some men, fatherhood is something they have looked forward to for years and feel well equipped to handle. Others may feel apprehensive.

Melania was supposedly blindsided by the recent infidelity revelations.  Don’t be the same. As a society, we probably need to talk more openly about men’s feelings about fatherhood better, and most certainly as a couple. As if just being pregnant isn’t hard enough on a woman …

Want to individualize your marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

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In the past week we’ve seen the second women’s march and a spirited discussion about an account of “Grace,” a young woman whose date with comedian Aziz Ansari went horribly awry in her eyes, from being “by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had,” to unwanted sex — or what she considers sexual assault. 

The conversations that have arisen from the #MeToo movement and the Cat Person essay are necessary and important. Many women have experienced what “Grace” did. As Anna North writes:

What she describes — a man repeatedly pushing sex without noticing (or without caring about) what she wants — is something many, many women have experienced in encounters with men. And while few men have committed the litany of misdeeds of which (Harvey) Weinstein has been accused, countless men have likely behaved as Grace says Ansari did — focusing on their own desires without recognizing what their partner wants.

The danger of believing men ‘always’ want sex

I have been with men like that, for sure, and had my own #MeToo experience. Still, as the mom of two young men, I wondered if men have ever felt similar pressures from women to have unwanted sex, to have to “perform” and whether the belief that men always want sex has put men and women at a disadvantage.

To a certain extent, that appears to be true.

The sexual script for men is just as disturbing — and restricting — as the one for women. As a study headed by N. Tatiana Masters indicates:

traditional sexual scripts for men have them desiring sex, not necessarily being desired, having strong “sex drives,” frequently being the ones to initiate sex and push it to the next level of intimacy, and needing to be sexually skilled.

That puts pressure on men, too, in ways we may not cut them slack for, according to a study headed by Sarah Hunter Murray:

most men indicated that their sexual desire was sometimes feigned in order to appear more masculine or reduce the chance of upsetting their female partner. This was due to a felt social pressure to demonstrate certain actions and behaviours that were consistent with traditional sexual scripts and norms. The findings from this study suggest that men’s sexual desire is more complex and relational than previous theoretical models and past research suggest.”

Pressure to be ‘masculine’

In another study, sociologist Jessie Ford found that men are constrained by a narrow view of masculinity:

men consent to unwanted sex because accepting all opportunities for sexual activity is a widely accepted way to perform masculinity. … There is also a tendency — one that likely applies to women as well as to men — that once a sexual interaction starts with a partner who seems to want sex, the desire to keep the exchange on an even keel eventually facilitates unwanted sex.”

Put all these studies together and it’s hard not to have a broader understanding of what men think they should and shouldn’t be like around women. We tend to think of women as the only ones getting bombarded by messages in the media that focus on their hotness, but men aren’t immune. They, too, are influenced to focus on sex by popular culture such as music videos that portray men surrounded by half-naked women and hearing other men boast about frequent sexual encounters.

Just like “Grace” struggled to  tell Ansari a definitive “No,” Murray’s research indicates that men often fear that if they reject sex with their partner, “she would take it personally. And even if she didn’t take it personally, some men indicated that saying no would still feel like doing something ‘wrong.'”

Author and therapist Jed Diamond says that, beside pleasure, sex offers men a way to feel safe and nurtured:

“Always wanting sex” is part of the male persona we wear to show we’re manly. What we really want is a safe harbor where we can take refuge, relax, and be cared for. In other words, we want the feeling of being nurtured that most of us didn’t get enough of when we were children. But admitting these needs makes us feel like little boys, not big strong men.

How did we get so screwed up?

Many of us see men as being more likely than women to prefer recreational sex, to value sex over relationships, to be “players” wanting no-strings sex and to seek multiple partners — and to a certain extent and in some instances, that may be true. But it’s harmful to lump all men into that narrow sexual script. In fact, researchers found that many young men today “seemed to desire or to enact very different scripts than those they cited as cultural norms.”

Let’s offer men different scripts, too, so they can be freed from the narrow definitions of what it means to “be a man.” And, as a matter of fact, let’s stop worrying about what “real men” and “real women” are, and let’s talk about what it is to be a kind, loving and respectful human — to ourselves and each other.



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Why love hurts

We’re coming up on Valentine’s Day, the day we celebrate romantic love. But what, exactly, is romantic love?  If someone asked you, “What does love mean to you?” how would you answer? Would you say it’s wonderful or would you say love hurts? Or is it some combination?

Most of us have our own definition of love based on our experiences and desires, and pretty much all of share a vague idea of it, but much of that is influenced by society and culture. Which is why love is not easily defined.

In December, at University of British Columbia philosophy professor Carrie Jenkins‘ Metaphysics of Love conference, I met Angela Fama, an interdisciplinary Vancouver-based photographer who spent several months driving across Canada and the U.S. in 2015 asking people, “What does love mean to you?” while taking photos and audio recordings of them as they answered. The result is a film  featuring about 70 of the more than 300 people she interviewed.

It’s powerful with a somewhat startling result — for me and some of the others watching it in the audience that night. While many described love as joyful, ecstatic and mysterious, about as many described it as painful and disappointing. And, interestingly, many more women experienced love as painful than wonderful.


Love, an ‘agonizingly difficult experience’?

I have begun reading sociologist Eva Illouz’s 2012 book Why Love Hurts and while I haven’t gotten too far into it, and thus will likely have a lot more to say about, Illouz says the modern world, with its deregulated of marriage markets and freedom to choose one’s own partner has, made the search for love an “agonizingly difficult experience” that leads to collective misery and disappointment, which is then internalized by people — especially women — as a personal failing. And with the push from “experts” and algorithms to turn love into a science and a rational process, love has become “the object of endless investigation, self-knowledge and self-scrutiny.”

Does that sound familiar? Uh-huh ….

This is not how we went about finding a partner in years past, when there was an understood system of signs that codified and ritualized the beginnings of love, and when one’s social class or village limited your romantic choices. No one wants to necessarily go back to the days of men calling on women (who could choose who could court her or not) under the watchful eye of family and friends, but it made falling love easier and much more intentional. The man had to commit first before a woman would even acknowledge, let alone express, her feelings for him. With no clear system in place for today’s singles, it’s a free-for-all.

As Illouz writes:

Pickiness, which seems to plague the entire field of romantic choice, is not a psychological trait, but rather an effect of the ecology and architecture of choice: that is, it is fundamentally motivated by the desire to maximize choice in conditions where the range of choice has become almost unmanageable.

That leads to a lot of unhappiness.

And the media, with all its terms for dating mishaps, from ghosting to breadcrumbing to micro-cheating — which gets beautifully blasted by the Daily Beast’s Mandy Stadtmiller as fabrications and out-and-out lies — just make us feel worse. Most of the media’s romantic advice is geared toward women, forcing us to engage in constant self-scrutiny in search of “real love,” but all that introspection does is create ambivalence and an unsettling sense that we can never truly know or trust what our feelings are.

Hot or not

Just as important, where moral character made one an attractive mate decades ago, nowadays it is one’s sexiness or “hotness” that determines if one is beautiful and desirable or not. And girls understand that at a very young age. Relying on moral character to figure out a good mate made people less vulnerable “to others’ gaze and to their validation, precisely because the actors sentiments did not radiate from the interiority of their self.” Compare that with how we go about finding a mate nowadays, swiping left on those who aren’t hot enough or who have too many spelling errors in their profile, and each rejection makes us increasingly vulnerable — we are being rejected for who we actually are, not our virtues.

And because anyone can be sexy — the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated — there are many more people competing in the “marriage market.”

Which gets us to where we are now, often experiencing love as suffering and a form of powerlessness in which, Illouz warns, “the self — its definition and sense of worth — is directly at stake.”

Has that been your experience of love?

Want to individualize your marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.



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Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, a scathing look at Donald Trump, was just published , and while there are many shocking and horrific revelations in author Michael Wolff’s book, here are two that shouldn’t be: Trump and his wife, Melania, sleep in separate bedrooms, and they don’t spend a lot of time together. 

It’s 2018, a time when people have more choice in the way they live and the way they navigate their romantic relationships than ever before. So why do we judge those who actually act on those choices and create a life that suits their values and goals?

The Mirror, citing the book, calls the Trump marriage a “toxic trophy” marriage and says Trump will “never sleep with his wife.”

On his TV show, Stephen Colbert also made fun of the fact that the Trumps don’t sleep together — “the first first couple to do so since John and Jackie Kennedy,” Wolff writes — joking that, “Donald Trump has had just as much sex as JFK (pause) has had in the past year.”

It’s fascinating that people think that the only way a couple can and do have sex is if they share the same bedroom. Really? It’s also disappointing that so many people still have such a narrow view of what a marriage should look like, that couples must sleep in the same bed and in the same bedroom, and that they even have to have sex — there are some couples for whom that isn’t a priority.

Relatively recent practice

The idea that couples must sleep together is a relatively new belief, as Jennifer Adams, author of  Sleeping Apart Not Falling Apart, writes:

It’s only been since about the 1970s that Western culture has constructed the ideal that a happy couple sleep in the same bed. Prior to that single beds in the same room were the norm, and head back a few more decades and centuries and communal sleeping was the norm for most of us. It was only the rich and the royal who had their own rooms — and they didn’t sleep with their partner! How common!

How many people sleep apart? One in six British couples say they sleep in separate beds — including Prince Charles and Camilla — typically because of snoring or differing bedtime habits, according to the Telegraph.

And there are millions of married and unmarried couples who sleep in separate bedrooms because they don’t even live together! About a third of romantic partners who aren’t married or cohabiting are in Live Apart Together (LAT) partnerships for a variety of reasons, including a desire for commitment and independence or because of the restraints of school or work, or a desire to be close to their adult children. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of spouses whose partner is absent from the household has doubled to 3.6 million since 1991. Some are in so-called commuter marriages, couples separated geographically because of their professional careers.

The Trumps even were a LAT couple briefly so their your son Barron could finish his school year in New York City.

Sleep apart and still have sex? Yes …

And, yes, those couples who don’t sleep together or live together have loving and committed relationships that do indeed include sex.

Now, I can’t speak to the kind of sexual life the Trumps have, nor am I interested. But the Trumps are actually part of a much greater trend of couples seeking to shape their romantic partnerships to fit their values and goals — no one else’s. Rather than shame and ridicule them, we might want to open our minds to the many romantic possibilities available to us rather than a one-size-fits all model.

But this confuses people or, as Wolff writes:

Donald Trump’s marriage was perplexing to almost everybody around him — or it was, anyway, for those without private jets and many homes. He and Melania spent relatively little time together. They could go days at a time without contact, even when they were both in Trump Tower.”

Trump, who has been married twice before, says the way to make a marriage work is to, “Do your own thing.

A room of one’s own

Now, that may not be the kind of marriage you want, but there’s something to be said about having space and time apart from your partner, and looking to others — or yourself — to fulfill your needs instead of your spouse. That’s what professor of social psychology Eli Finkel promotes in his book The All-or-Nothing Marriage, and it’s what we promote in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. We ask a lot from our spouses nowadays; that can feel suffocating.

OK, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to go “days at a time without contact.” I wouldn’t, especially if I was in a LAT relationship; I’d want to connect by phone or Skype or text every day. But others may feel differently. And that’s what we need to know — others may feel differently.

It’s wrong to judge other people’s marriages on what we might want or not want in ours, and it’s wrong to think there’s only one way to be in a marriage. It only has to feel good for the couple themselves, even if the rest of us are, well, perplexed.

Want to individualize your marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

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It’s January, a new year and the beginning of what’s known as “divorce month.” But when you file for divorce doesn’t really matter — what matters is how you divorce, especially if you have young children. Say what you will about Gwyenth Paltrow and her vaginal jade eggs, and Goop’s $290 sweat set, but there’s one thing the actress-entrepreneur really gets — divorce.

Since she and Chris Martin consciously uncoupled in 2014 and divorced in 2016, the two have worked hard to maintain a good and close relationship for their kids, Apple, 13, and Moses, 11.

“I honestly think Chris and I have contributed something positive to the culture of divorce,” she said last year.

I do, too,

Recently, the couple and their kids vacationed in the Caribbean. According to what a source tells E! News:

They always keep it very amicable around the holidays and they have remained good friends. Gwyneth and Chris try to keep things as normal as possible for their children, and always have a good time together as a family unit. They try to plan at least one family vacation together per year for the sake of the kids. The children are used to the family dynamic now and love when they are all able to be together.”

According to another source:

They only want the best for one another and are very supportive,. They have moved on from being married into this new phase of their life. It’s unconventional, but it works. They made a commitment to always put their kids first and do what’s best for them and that’s exactly what they are doing. That means spending the holidays together, traveling together, and being a family. A lot of Gwyneth’s divorced friends go to her for advice because she has made this transition look so easy. She says it’s not easy, but you just do it because you want what’s best for your kids.”

Children tie parents together

Divorce, of course, is a new phase of a couple’s life. But, if they have kids together, here’s one thing that doesn’t change — they are still parents and that ties them together forever, and their kids still want love, time and attention from both of them. That doesn’t mean you have to take vacations together, but why not?

As law professor Patrick Parkinson says, “The experience of the last forty years has shown that whereas marriage may be freely dissoluble, parenthood is not.” Divorce is no longer the end of a relationship; it’s a “restructuring of a continuing relationship.”

Why is spending time together as a family so “unconventional”? OK, my former husband and I haven’t done that. But we have celebrated holidays and birthdays and graduations together with our boys. Not only do our kids appreciate that, but it has shown them that there are many ways to be a loving family, even if Mom and Dad no longer love each other.

The new modern family

Canadian journalist Brandie Weikle, founder of the The New Family website and podcast, found a way to make her divorce work: her former husband, Derek DeCloet, moved out of the family house and moved in next door. They share meals and holidays together with their two children, and now that DeCloet’s married again, his new wife is part of their family time together. “We are still very much enjoying raising the kids together,” Weikle says.

You can bet the kids enjoy it, too.

So, yes, Gwyneth — you and Chris have “contributed something positive to the culture of divorce,” influencing a number of other newly divorced celebrity parents like Sienna Miller, who admits to doing the nightly bedtime routine together with former partner and father of her daughter, Tom Sturridge, and Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, who also take vacations together with the kids.

This past Thanksgiving, Gwyneth posted an Instagram of Chris and her fiance, Brad Falchuk, around the dining table with the hashtag “#modernfamily.”

Modern families are not as “unconventional” as you think, and that’s a good thing.

Most of us end romantic relationships with anger, hurt, accusations, resentments and often vengeful thoughts, with kids stuck miserably in the middle. We know from studies that it’s conflict, not divorce per se that hurts children. If you’re divorced and hope to have a new romantic relationship one day, wouldn’t it be better to make it as peaceful and loving and conflict-free as possible for you and your kids?

Want to know how to have a parenting marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

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You know the drill — men want to date and marry a younger, beautiful woman and women want to date and marry men who have money and status. Is that still true today? Well, yes and no. In an article originally published at Aeon that has been republished under Creative Commons, professor of psychology Marcel Zentner writes that attaining true gender equality might change all of that. Might.

Here’s what he has to say:

On their first date, Mia and Josh talked as if they’d known each other for years. Josh loved Mia’s wit; Mia delighted in Josh’s warmth and ready smile. Their relationship blossomed, but doubts crept up on both of them now and again. Josh was the primary caregiver for a child from a previous marriage, and his financial prospects were dim. That didn’t really bother Mia, since Josh’s personality more than made up for it. Still, he wasn’t her usual ‘type’ – the type that was much younger than her, plus athletic and handsome to boot. Josh, meanwhile, had been dreaming of a cashed-up woman with high ambitions, status and education, ideally with a PhD (or two). Mia’s mere MA was a bit of a sticking point. It was the norm, after all, for men to be the ones to ‘marry up’.

This scenario probably sounds strange, and it should: I’ve invented an anecdote about how the heterosexual dating scene might look 100 years in the future. Currently, the desire for a young, attractive partner of the opposite sex tends to be more prevalent in men than in women. Women, meanwhile, are more likely to prioritise money and status over youth and beauty. Why?

Many evolutionary psychologists put this trend down to the power of innate biological drives. Their argument is that women have a primeval urge to hang on to wealthy men to provide for their children during the long period of pregnancy and childrearing. Men, meanwhile, are mostly concerned about a woman’s fertility, for which beauty and youth serve as helpful cues. In the distant past, this behaviour was adaptive, and so evolution selected and encoded it in our genes, forever. Sure, the rituals of modern mating look very different to those of our ancestors. ‘Nevertheless, the same sexual strategies used by our ancestors operate today with unbridled force,’ as the psychologist David Buss put it in The Evolution of Desire (2003). ‘Our evolved psychology of mating, after all, plays out in the modern world because it is the only mating psychology we mortals possess.’ (There’s little historical or intercultural research on LGBT mate preferences; such questions are clearly important, but sadly there isn’t yet sufficient data to examine them properly.)

However, there has been a tectonic shift in gender roles over the past 50 years. As recently as the 1980s, female flight attendants in the United States could be fired if they got married, and women’s right to vote wasn’t universally enforced in Switzerland until 1990. Wouldn’t we expect these changing relationship mores to make a dent in the mating preferences of straight men and women? Or are we still at the mercy of our biological destiny, as evolutionary psychologists claim?

The results from the research are clear: mating preferences among men and women look increasingly similar. The trend is directly tied to increasing gender equality, as women gain greater access to resources and opportunities in business, politics and education. In more gender-unequal nations, such as Turkey, women rate the earning potential of partners as twice as important compared with women in the most gender-equal nations, such as Finland. As with Josh and Mia, Finnish men are now more likely than Finnish women to select partners based on their high level of education.

Of course, sexism varies within each society, and a nation’s overall level of gender-equality doesn’t necessarily translate to gender-equal attitudes among individuals. But if mating preferences are biologically predetermined, individual sexism shouldn’t have an impact. However, research carried out in nine nations proves the opposite. The more gender-unequal men’s personal attitudes, the more they prefer qualities in women such as youth and attractiveness; and the more gender-unequal women’s attitudes, the more they prefer qualities in men such as money and status.

This evidence points to some serious flaws in the evolutionary psychologists’ narrative. If genes determine our mating preferences, how is it that these supposedly hardwired instincts erode in line with societies’ and individual’s gender-egalitarianism?

To be fair, evolutionary psychologists acknowledge that cultural factors and local customs can affect how people choose their partners. But gender equality isn’t considered to be one of these factors, since even in relatively gender-equal societies, the gap between men and women’s preferences is only reduced, not eliminated. However, the counter-punch is that evidence of a lingering gap actually supports our case: the difference is only narrowed to the extent that gender equality is attained. Getting rid of it entirely would require complete gender equality, which doesn’t yet exist.

Regrettably, traditional gender roles persist even in very egalitarian societies. In one Danish study, husbands whose wives out-earned them were more likely than other husbands to use erectile dysfunction medication. One interpretation is that the husbands felt under pressure to exhibit their virility, because they couldn’t claim the role of ‘provider’; another view was that the loss of breadwinner status somehow led to impotence. In another study in the US, single women downplayed their career goals and toned down their assertiveness in the hope of making themselves more desirable to men. However, if the importance that men attribute to women’s good education and earning prospects continues to grow, these tactics might eventually cease to be effective.

What if a society actually did achieve perfect gender equality? Would women and men hold essentially identical partner preferences? My hunch is that women’s and men’s choices might never completely converge. The key difference is likely to come down to the demands of breastfeeding following the birth of a child – an activity that’s energy-intensive, time-consuming, and quite difficult to integrate with paid work, at least as work is currently structured. The implication is that women will seek to replace this anticipated loss of income by choosing husbands with good earning prospects. This decision will have little to do to with some primeval urge for a great male protector, however; it will be guided by rational calculations about future needs. Moreover, progressive social policy, changes to the workplace, and greater participation of fathers in childcare could all mitigate such career-compromising pressures.

My students sometimes ask me whether gender-equal partner preferences would be desirable. They seem concerned that such equality could snuff out the spark from our love lives. Another risk is that levelling out mating preferences could lead to more marriages of equals, which could in turn entrench economic inequality. But according to the latest gender-gap report for 2017, there’s little reason for worry. Given the current rate of change, it will be some time before Josh and Mia get together: we have at least another 100 years to wait before gender parity is achieved.Aeon counter – do not remove

Do we really want gender-equal partnerships?

I have a few qualms about his hunch that “The key difference is likely to come down to the demands of breastfeeding following the birth of a child — an activity that’s energy-intensive, time-consuming, and quite difficult to integrate with paid work, at least as work is currently structured” — because that assumes that all women who want a high status-high income partner plan to have children. They don’t always — and sometimes, they already have them.

I also am concerned about his students’ concerns — “whether gender-equal partner preferences would be desirable” and whether it could “snuff out the spark from our love lives.” What “spark” do we get from inequality? Wouldn’t gender equality just force us to readjust what we consider the spark?

I didn’t look for high-status, high-income partners; they never attracted me. I supported my first husband for a while but when he got a union job, he made a lot more than I did. And even though my second husband and I were in the same business, he had many more years of experience than I did and he worked for a union newspaper and I did not. He made more than I did when I met him, but his income wasn’t the reason I decided to marry him — the shared love for journalism played a bigger part in that. But, guess what happened once we had kids? We ended up in a fairly traditional homemaker-breadwinner marriage, although I always worked part time. Maybe that’s truly what men and women want.

Personally, this seems to be the bigger message: “The more gender-unequal men’s personal attitudes, the more they prefer qualities in women such as youth and attractiveness; and the more gender-unequal women’s attitudes, the more they prefer qualities in men such as money and status.”

If you’re looking for a romantic partner, you should definitely pay attention to his or her attitudes!

Want to know how to create a marital plan to have a more equitable marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

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If you haven’t read “Cat Person” yet — Kristen Roupenian’s short story in the New Yorker of an ill-fated relationship (aka an uncomfortable one-night stand) between Margot, a 20-year old college student, and Robert, a 34-year-old man whom she met at the movie theater where she works — I’m betting you have at least heard of it. It went viral for all the right reasons, and a debut book has reportedly been sold for about a million dollars.

No matter what you think of “Cat Person,” Roupenian hit a nerve with her story — well, many nerves, from  bad sex to gender power, sexual consent to male aggression. The one I want to explore is why Margot  misrepresents herself and her desires in order to appease a man, how all too often women are raised to be people pleasers, something I’ve written about before because, hey, I am one. Or was one. I got better — maybe sorta kinda.

Roupenian expresses clearly how girls grow up to become Margot in a post-short story interview. She says:

I think that assumption is bigger than Margot and Robert’s specific interaction; it speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy. It’s reflexive and self-protective, and it’s also exhausting, and if you do it long enough you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when you’re making that choice.

I agree. Many women do make that choice, but I’m not sure why.

Why do women feel that we need to take responsibility for other people’s emotions? Why do we believe we need to make everyone happy? Why are we so worried about making people angry? This is in part why we are seeing so many women respond to #MeToo — we have compromised ourselves so that others — men? — don’t have to feel bad, angry or uncomfortable.

It’s distressing.

Clearly, we need to teach our daughters a different message. But how?

Raising girls to be ‘good’

For psychology professor Carol Dweck, the problem is clear — girls are often praised for being “smart” or “good,” while young boys are often praised for “trying hard.” That kind of talk sets up girls to avoid challenges while trying to look smart, she says, making them give up easily if they can’t be perfect on the first try. Meanwhile, boys are told to keep trying, which helps them think that ability can be developed.

In a New York Times op-ed, author and lawyer Jill Filipovic says we’re not benefiting girls by teaching them conflicting messages: Be mighty and be good:

Now-pervasive “Girl power” messaging declares that girls can be anything they want. But in practice, the more subtle rewards for compliant behavior show girls that it pays to be sweet and passive. The sexual harassment revelations that have come to light over the past few months show just how dangerous this model can be. Routinely, victims of harassment and assault didn’t challenge their abusers or immediately file complaints not just because they didn’t want to endanger their own careers (although there was that, too), but because women have been conditioned for acquiescence to authority and male power their whole lives.

So what are parents to do? Filipovic suggests parents raise boys more like girls — “fostering kindness and caretaking, not just by telling them to respect women, but by modeling egalitarianism and male affection and emotional aptitude at home.”

Kindness, respect and modeling are important, and the way to encourage and support that is through having men experience caregiving beyond the breadwinning-provider model, part of what I call carenting.

Can we get past that?

Yes. Because we must.

Believing Taylor Swift

I’m not a big Taylor Swift fan, but I’ll say this — when the pop star recently confronted the man who groped her years before in court, for no monetary gain beyond a dollar, I had to respect her. What was more complicated was what her mom, Andrea Swift, had to say. In her tearful testimony at the trial, she acknowledged just how complicit she’d been when her daughter told her a man grabbed her ass. She wondered what kind of messages she’d passed on — “as a parent it made me question why I taught her to be so polite in that moment.” I’m guessing it’s what she herself had been taught as a young girl.

As a mom, I, too, have to question what kind of messages I’ve passed on to my sons. I’ve taught them to be polite but I wonder if it’s a different kind of polite than I’d teach a daughter. These messages, to girls and boys, have ramifications that go way beyond bad dates in our youth — it impacts the way we approach and maintain our romantic relationships throughout life. Many women try hard to avoid conflict, but, boy, does that not work out well for us.

Nothing speaks more to that than when Margot briefly imagines sharing her bad-sex fling with Robert with a sympathetic boyfriend at some point in life — only to realize that she’ll probably never find a man she’ll feel comfortable being herself around and sharing her past with without facing his judgment: “but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.”

Is that true?

Want to individualize your marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.


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I am a champion of short-term love. That is how I have lived my entire life although, granted, I did say, “I do” twice with the presumption that those marriages would be forever. That’s all I knew, that was the romantic script; I didn’t know that we had choices. But we do.

I have long wondered why we consider lifelong love to be the best kind of love, especially since most of us fall in and out of love with several people before we find someone we actually might want to be in love with for the rest of our life — if we even want that at all and they want the same thing. I don’t know of any research that indicates that love that lasts forever improves us in any way — makes us smarter, more resilient, more creative, kinder or a better person, although there are some dubious claims that it makes us happier and healthier. But this is what we are up against — a belief that only those who find and maintain long-term love will be truly happy.

As philosopher Alain de Botton states,

We should beware of succumbing to the debilitating feeling that because it didn’t last forever, it can have been nothing at all.  … We need to have an account of love which allows that a relationship can end without anyone having viciously or pathologically killed it prematurely, for only against such a backdrop can we reduce the debilitating quantity of bitterness, guilt and blame otherwise in circulation. How we see the endings of love depends to a critical extent on what our societies tell us is ‘normal.’ If it was meant to last forever, every ending will by necessity have to be described as a horrifying failure. But if we allow imaginative space for short-term love, then an ending may signal a deeper loyalty, not to setting up of a home and domestic routines, but to a deep appreciation and admiration one felt for someone for a time; we’ll walk away with a fair and generous sense of all that has been preserved and enhanced by the relationship not being forced to last forever.”

Until death? Not really

Nowhere is that more apparent than in marriage. It’s “until death do us part,” right? Of course, we know many marriages don’t make it “until death” — in 2013, 4 out of 10 people tying the knot in the United States had been married at least once before, according to the Pew Research Center. And while divorce seems to be decreasing among 30- and 40-somethings — give them time, please — it’s about 50 percent and growing for those aged 50 and older.

In truth, marriage wasn’t always “until death.” The earliest marriages were basically casual agreements between families or clans as a way to foster “peaceful relationships, trading relationships, [and] mutual obligations.” And, let’s be honest, people didn’t live all that long and “until death” relationships rarely lasted 50, 60 or 70 years. But then the church, which was originally vehemently against marriage, got involved — mostly because they realized they couldn’t stop it — and marrying “until death” was thrust into our wedding vows, starting in the mid-1500s.

And that expectation holds true today even if millennials have tweaked their marital vows to avoid that language. Despite the number of divorced people around us, we still believe that love and certainly marriage should last forever, which is why we are inundated with articles and books on the “secrets” of long-lasting love. Because there’s a lot of fear — and shame — if your marriage doesn’t last. As Astro and Danielle Teller write in their book Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage, “the narrative is, true love, if it exists at all, by definition exists with the person you said ‘I do’ to. After that, you are expected to finish what you started, heart’s compass be damned. Your spouse may change, cheat, or cease to love you altogether, but a promise is a promise.”

The “until death” mantra has even expanded now that same-sex couples, who couldn’t legally marry for so many years, increasingly can across the globe, and are thus feeling the pressure to marry — and stay married.

Pressure to stay together

But, there’s just as much pressure for unmarried couples to stay in their romantic relationships. In recent studies, many people said they stayed in a romantic relationship because of social pressure — their parents or friends would disapprove of a breakup, or breaking up would make things awkward with mutual friends. Isn’t that weird that we would worry more about what our friends and loved ones would think, rather than what we know to be best for ourselves?

I have to admit that I have experienced that in the handful of romantic relationship I’ve had since my second divorce. “How are you two doing?” is something I heard a lot from friends, admittedly well-meaning friends who want to see me happy. I never was asked that when I was married, but as a single woman in a romantic relationship, I was. Why? Were my friends gauging where I was and what would become of us — would we stay together, live together, get married, maybe even get married and live together? (not my choice). Whenever I was asked “How are you two doing?” it felt like people were expecting that whatever relationship I was in would go somewhere, like there was a somewhere that we should go to.

Is it time to let go of forever?

For many of us, unless there’s a ring is on it, there’s a lot of relationship uncertainty that makes us feel uncomfortable; we wonder, will this relationship last? But we also know that even rings don’t necessarily mean forever. Maybe forever needs to be removed from the conversation, replaced by, what am I, and what are we, willing to do to make this relationship a happy, healthy, loving one every day?

There are push and pull factors that determine whether couples stay together or not. Push factors are from the couple themselves, the desire to be together. If you care about someone and love that person, you’re going to want to continue to care for and love them. I believe that really should be the only thing that matters. Pull factors are what I mentioned before — the pressures couples feel from parents, friends and society to not only want to be in a long-term stable partnership, but also that once they have a relationship they should stay together. That belief can become internalized and thus reinforce a couple’s own expectations about the relationship and whether it lasts or not.

And now, social media is playing a part in that pressure.

Most of us present the most idealized version of ourselves online so whatever we’re putting out there tends to skew positive and perhaps inauthentic. After all, our romantic partner is checking out what we’re posting as well as our friends and loved ones — who’s going to bitch and moan about our love life online? So there’s no surprise that studies have shown that romantic partners feel pressure to present their relationship positively online, even if that relationship is really troubled.

Longevity alone does not mean success

Now, I have nothing against relationships that last forever, even if they aren’t necessarily happy, healthy relationships. If a couple wants to keep a partnership going no matter their reason, even if it’s just lethargy or complacency, that’s fine. But I don’t think we should celebrate it as a successful union as we often do when we congratulate people on their anniversaries. Longevity alone shouldn’t be the marker of a relationship’s success.

Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that women should have three husbands: one for youthful sex, one to raise children with, and one for companionship in old age. Of course nowadays, you wouldn’t have to have a husband to get that youthful sex or even to raise children with, and, granted, not every woman wants children. Still, what she’s saying is the perfect partner for youthful sex may not be the best person to mother or father your children; why would it be wrong to seek out the right person to love for the “task at hand” at a particular time in our life? Looking at it that way, short-term love makes a lot of sense.

Short-term love and ‘home’

So, to go back to Alain de Botton’s thoughts  — “if we allow imaginative space for short-term love, then an ending may signal a deeper loyalty, not to setting up of a home and domestic routines, but to a deep appreciation and admiration one felt for someone for a time.”

But he’s wrong — you can set up a home and domestic routines with someone for a limited time, and still have a loving partnership. What’s wrong with that?

At this stage of my life, I’m not sure I really want or need a romantic relationship that is all about the “setting up of a home and domestic routines.” I did that, twice. But I would certainly welcome romantic relationships that offer “a deep appreciation and admiration” no matter how long they last. Would you?

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