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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 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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It’s December, beginning of engagement season. So if you’ve already gotten a ring, or hoping to get one this month, there’s just one thing left to do after you’re told your loved ones and friends, and posted your bling on Facebook and Instagram. No, not start planning your wedding — start planning your marriage.

First stop: your indie bookstore or fave online bookstore.

In my research for The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,  for this blog and freelance writing elsewhere, I have read a lot of books on love, sex, relationships and marriage. Some were pretty good, some were not so good, some were so good that I believe everyone about to tie the knot would greatly benefit from them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are five relatively recent books that are good reads with outside-the-box thinking, in no particular order:

Rewriting the Rules 

I’m not sure how I stumbled upon Meg-John Barker’s Rewriting the Rules, but I’m so glad I did. Barker, a lecturer in psychology at the Open University, who writes extensively about sex, gender and relationships, takes on the many “rules” we hear about love, dating and marriage — that there’s a soul mate or “the one” for us, that relationships must be monogamous and  sexual lifelong, etc. What she gets more than any other book I’ve read is that most people today are living in a state of uncertainty about relationships and so we seek to take comfort in old rules or create new ones. But Barker suggests we might want to not only question these rules — some may be holding us back, making us unhappy or even ruining our relationships — but perhaps even rewrite them, thus creating a more authentic way of living. As she writes, “clinging to the common rules too rigidly, often paradoxically, ends up with us being less likely to get what we were aiming for in the first place.”

How to Fall in Love With Anyone

It’s no surprise that Many Len Catron’s Modern Love essay went viral and led to her getting her first book published this year, How to Fall in Love With Anyone. With charm and solid writing, Catron mixes her personal story of love and marriage with research to tackle the messages we get about love and relationships, and the scrips we follow (not unlike Meg-John Barker’s “rules”). Many of our love stories are problematic, and often set us up to have unreasonable expectations. If we are going to continue to look to love stories to inform us, she says, well, we’d better have access to better, more expansive and more diverse love stories. As she writes, “I wonder what the world would be like if we all consumed more nuanced, diverse stories of love. Maybe we would stop thinking about love as something that happens to us, and start thinking about it as something we get to offer another person, thoughtfully and with generosity. Or maybe we’d just have more interesting stories about what it means to be human.” This book will help you sort out the romantic scripts you may be following and, hopefully, get you to create your own.

The All-or-Nothing Marriage 

Should your spouse be your everything and fulfill all your needs — be your best friend; passionate lover; devoted parent; soul mate; great communicator; romantic, and intellectual and professional equal who provides you with happiness, fulfillment, financial stability, intimacy, social status, fidelity … etc.? Perhaps not, writes Eli J. Finkel in his new book, The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. Finkel, a social psychologist, offers “love hacks” to address the niggling issues that often arise in marriages, as well as strategies that couples can use to better their relationship, like looking to have some needs met outside the marriage. And, he references The New I Do — thank you! — by embracing the idea of asking less of our marriage and re-envisioning new ways to make it work, like living apart together. Lots of thought-provoking, practical and doable suggestions.

Parenting as Partners

It may seem to early to think about kids when you’d rather think about picking out a dress and the perfect wedding venue, but if you’re planning to have children, it’s essential to understand your family-of-origin issues. It’s never too soon. Parenting coach and author Vicki Hoefle’s new book, Parenting as Partners: How to Launch Your Kids Without Ejecting Your Spouse, brings that conversation into the forefront. Her book is designed to help couples create a parenting plan — just as we suggest in The New I Do — to help them get on the same page about their children and to understand what drives our behavior, and our partner’s behavior, when it comes to the childhood we want to give our children. If they don’t agree, she writes, “parents grow further and further apart, until they are either sabotaging each other openly or have entered into a quiet battle of wills, otherwise known as a power struggle. Without a course correction, not only are the children impacted in a negative way; the marriage suffers enough that parents consider divorce their only remedy for an untenable situation.” Yep.

The Rough Patch 

Wait — you haven’t even tied the knot yet; why would you want to read a book about midlife marital angst? Because it’s a thing, and if you want to avoid it — or at least lessen it — it might be helpful to know how you might get there in the first place. There’s a lot of wisdom in therapist Daphne de Marneffe‘s upcoming book The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together. “Couples turn away from each other for any number of apparent reasons, but underneath it all, it’s usually because they feel misunderstood, unheard, or unable to agree,” she writes, but it takes many years to get to the crisis stage, starting from your first days together. She has some sound, if not necessarily unique, approaches to dealing with affairs, sexual attraction to and flirtations with others. “The question is, how do we deal creatively and sensitively with the daily reality of encountering other sexual bodies, other sexual minds, when we have chosen to commit ourselves to one other person? This is arguably among the more important life skills for remaining happily married, yet it attracts little in the way of subtle reflection or serious study.” True! I particularly like the way she addresses booze, drugs and other “attempted escapes.” Most of us have a family history or story related to that; we could all benefit by digging a little deeper into it.

Of course, my fave book for all spouses-to-be is my own, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, which was just named by Business Insider one of best five books to help you think differently about love, marriage and relationships (Thanks!). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

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The big news this week was the announcement that Prince Harry and girlfriend Meghan Markle became engaged and are planning to marry in the spring. Although some may say her prince has come, theirs is no fairy-tale romance — Markle is a thoroughly out-of the-box modern bride. bride

At 36, she’s older than her husband-to-be, who’s 33 — a trend that makes sense not only because men often die earlier than women do, but also because older women bring more to the table. As biological anthropologist and adviser to Match.com Helen Fisher says, “Men want a companion, and we are seeing the rise of women as intellectual partners, as sexual partners, as soul partners.”

She had a beta marriage. Markle dated film producer Trevor Engelson for six years, got engaged in 2010, married in 2011 and divorced in August 2013, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

She’s been a live apart together partner. Markle landed her role in Suits shortly after she and Engelson wed. He was based in L.A. while she was based in Toronto, a five-hour flight away. She has been in a LAT relationship with her fiancee, too. “I think we were able to really have so much time just to connect and we never went longer than two weeks without seeing each other, even though were doing a long-distance relationship. We made it work.”

She’s the child of divorce. Markle’s parents — her mother, a clinical therapist, is African-American and her father, a former TV lighting director, is white — divorced when she was 6 years old. Although she lived with her mom, she saw her dad a lot, and her parents put her first. ‘What’s so incredible, you know, is that my parents split up when I was two, [but] I never saw them fight. We would still take vacations together. My dad would come on Sundays to drop me off, and we’d watch Jeopardy! eating dinner on TV trays, the three of us. We were still so close-knit,” she says.

She thinks outside the box. In the seventh grade, Markle had to fill out a census and check one of the boxes to indicate ethnicity — white, black, Hispanic or Asian. She didn’t know which one to choose. “You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other — and one half of myself over the other.” So she chose to not answer.  “When I went home that night, I told my dad what had happened. He said the words that have always stayed with me: ‘If that happens again, you draw your own box,'” she wrote in an Elle essay.

She’s an independent woman and feminist. “I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches — I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works,” Markle once wrote on her now-shuttered blog. Since her early days, Markle has spoken up for women’s causes. “Women need a seat at the table, they need an invitation to be seated there, and in some cases, where this is not available, they need to create their own table,” she said in a speech on International Women’s Day two years ago.

She’s opting for a safety marriage. One can imagine what it’s like marrying into a royal family, so it’s no surprise that Markle is giving up her acting career — she’s starred on the TV show Suits for the past seven years — and is instead ready to delve into groups in the U.K. “that are working on the same causes I’ve always been passionate about” — causes that include human rights and encouraging young leaders to create positive change.

Still, she’s quitting her paid work to take on her new role — what The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels would call a safety marriage. Markle doesn’t see that as a negative, it’s just something different, she says:

I think what’s been so exciting [transitioning] out of my career and into, as you said, the causes I can focus even more energy on, very early out of the gate, [is that you] have a voice that people listen to, a lot of responsibility. I don’t see it as giving anything up. I just see it as a change. It’s a new chapter. And keep in mind I’ve been working on my show for seven years. We were very fortunate to have that sort of longevity on a series. For me, once we hit the 100 episode marker, I thought, I have ticked this box and I feel really proud of the work we’ve done there and now it’s time to work as a team with [Harry].

One thing they will not do is sign a prenup, following in the footsteps of Harry’s brother, Prince William, and father, Prince Charles. That’s a mistake; while Harry is worth nearly $40 million, Markle is worth about $7 million. But a prenup that goes beyond money and addresses how a couple wants to live, what I call a marital plan, can help them individualize their marriage — especially since they plan to have children.

Princess Diana grew into a strong, vocal woman in her marriage to Prince Charles. Markle is entering her marriage as one. It will be interesting to see what she becomes as a royal.

Want to see if a safety marriage is right for you? (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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Your spouse had an affair — can that benefit your marriage? According to renowned therapist Esther Perel’s new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, maybe.

Perel explores a lot in her book — much more than I can address here — but I was particularly drawn to her exploration of why more women are cheating nowadays, and we are.

Why? When women had few choices, we played it safer. Now that we are often financially secure on our own and expect a lot more from our marriage, we struggle with what domesticity and motherhood does to us — what Perel calls the muting of eros. Hubby thinks that his wife isn’t interested in sex — she keeps rejecting him, after all, or when they finally get around to having sex, she’s hoping it’s over soon — and so he’s stunned when he discovers she’s been having a torrid love affair. What the heck is going on?

Ceasing to feel like women

As Perel writes,

Home, marriage and motherhood have forever been the pursuit of many women, but also the place where women cease to feel like women.

Sound familiar? It does to me. We go from being a desired being to a domestic one.

Perel mentions the work of researcher Marta Meana on the enigma of female desire (Meana’s work is also referenced in Daniel Bergner’s book, What Do Women Want? and if you haven’t read it, put it on your list — now):

She challenges the common assumption that women’s sexuality is primarily dependent on relational connectedness — love, commitment and security. … Meana suggests that women are not just “touchy-feely” but also “saucy-sexy” — in fact, “women may be just as turned on as men by the novel, the illicit, the raw, the anonymous, but the arousal value of these may not be important enough to women to trade in things they value more (i.e., emotional connectedness). … We interpret the lack of sexual interest as proof that women’s sexual drive is inherently less strong. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think that it is a drive that needs to be stoked more intensely and more imaginatively — and first and foremost by her, not only by her partner.

And therein lies part of the problem — the stuff of domestic life doesn’t always make us feel all that sexy. So, even if we have a hubby who is romantic, cooks and cleans and adores us, we need to connect with our erotic self, too, otherwise …

From selfishness to selflessness

She quotes psychotherapist Dalma Heyn in describing the “deadening of pleasure and vitality” that happens to some women after they wed:

“A woman’s sexuality depends on her authenticity and self-nurturance,” she writes. Yet marriage and motherhood demand a level of selflessness that is at odds with the inherent selfishness of desire. Being responsible for others makes it harder for women to focus on their own needs, to feel spontaneous, sexually expressive and carefree. For many, finding at home the kind of self-absorption that is essential to erotic pleasure proves a challenge. The burdens of caretaking are indeed a power anti-aphrodisiac.

Monogamy just may not be a woman’s thing, as I’ve written before, and perhaps marriage and even intimacy — what we’re constantly told we need to have and maintain in a romantic partnership — isn’t working well for us either.

In again quoting Meana’s work, Perel writes there are three themes that work against women:

First, the institutionalization of the relationship — a passage from freedom and independence to commitment and responsibility. Second, the overfamiliarity that develops when intimacy and closeness replace individuality and mystery. And lastly, the desexualizing nature of certain roles — mother, wife and house manager all promote the de-eroticization of the self.

Managing love and desire

Yep, yep and yep. It sounds bleak, right? But as Perel notes, some couples can integrate the contradictions of love and desire, but first we have to acknowledge that we’ll never eliminate the dilemma — it’s not a “problem to solve; it is a paradox to manage.”

And for the ones who can’t? Is an affair the only way to recharge our erotic selves, and maybe even bring that energy back to our — unknowing but no doubt appreciative — hubby? Maybe.

Want to learn how to create space in your marriage to own your erotic self? (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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Do we need marriage? The answer might be Iceland.

For much of history, marriage mattered. It was a way to make sure property could be passed to heirs, alliances could be forged (often to avoid wars), children could be reared, society could be assured that caregiving would be taken care of and a lot of other practical matters, as historian and Marriage, a History author Stephanie Coontz has extensively detailed. And it’s true that marriage matters today in the U.S., because it grants those who tie the know more than 1,100 perks and protections — and that’s just at the federal level. But what if marriage didn’t matter — people could be romantically partnered or not, have children as part of a couple or not, and still be accepted by society and set up to succeed. Enter Iceland, where more than two-thirds of babies — 67 percent — are born to parents who aren’t married. And no one is freaking out about it. Would we still need marriage? Good question. Iceland

I recently stumbled upon the setup for an episode of CNN’s The Wonder List, which sent reporter Bill Weir to the country to explore its many charms. Among them was the progressive way of thinking about how people can raise children without being married to each other.

Marriage isn’t just about children

OK, marriage is not just about having kids, so we need to be clear about that. But the belief that marriage is exactly about that — which means marriage must involve sex — creates a very narrow view of marriage, and thus a very narrow view of family. Which is probably why, in the U.S., single moms are blamed and shamed, and seen as a problem to be fixed.

But in Iceland? As one woman who has has three kids with two partners “and not a drop of shame or regret” tells Weir:

You have this horrible term in English, ‘broken families,’ which basically means just if you get divorced, then something’s broken. But that’s not the way it is in Iceland at all. We live in such a small and secure environment, and the women have so much freedom. So you can just, you can choose your life.”

Women having freedom to choose their life. Boy, doesn’t that sound good?

Religion may be the problem

Since few Icelanders are religious, “there is no moral stigma attached to unwed pregnancy,” he writes. And that’s a huge difference between Iceland and the U.S. — as well as the fact that Iceland guarantees some of the most generous parental leave in the world. Conservatives in the U.S. who claim to support “family values”  have a simple view of family — the 1950s nuclear model where women know their place,  barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen — are doing everything to put us back there, including attempts to do away with birth control. Nothing will put a woman in her place quicker than taking away the right for her to control her own body.

Women in Iceland benefit from the country’s “it takes a village to raise a child” attitude, as well as how motherhood is perceived — it doesn’t define you as a woman. Nor does your relationship status.

So, really, is it marriage per se that matters most or is it a society that supports all sorts of lifestyles and caregiving without requiring that a woman be in love with — let alone live with or marry — someone to raise children?

Clearly, it isn’t just about marriage despite matter all the hand-wringing in the U.S. about the declining rates of marriage, women having children outside of marriage and the “success sequence.”

Do we need marriage?

So, would we still need marriage if everyone thought like Iceland does?

Would you still be with your loved one if marriage didn’t exist? Would you feel that you were an adult if marriage didn’t exist? Would you have children with him or her as long as you had societal support — or an agreement between the two of you to make sure your child is cared for you both equally no matter what?

What would you do differently if no one treated you differently if you were married or not?

Wondering if you should marry or not? (Of course you are!) 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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