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“Is an open marriage a happier marriage,” a recent New York Times magazine cover story written by Susan Dominus asked. With a headline and topic like that, of course it went viral — as if no one ever considered that consensual nonmonogamy has existed for decades and, yes, it might actually be a good thing for the couples who want it and choose it.

Monogamy is a choice, but admittedly one few of us rarely question — we generally just assume it’s a given once we get serious with someone. Still, isn’t it a bit specious to ask if open relationships are happier? Some may be and others may not, and who defines “define”?

There were more than 1,600 comments, prompting a follow-up story in the Times — “We choose each other over and over because we want to: Readers share their open-marriage stories” — in which numerous people speak of their experiences of engaging in ethical non-monogamy.

The follow-up article’s intro states:

For nearly a year, Dominus reported on couples engaged in consensual nonmonogamy (what some involved call polyamory), and returned with a collection of fascinating stories about jealousy, love, desire and trust, all within the loose confines of an open relationship.

I am not in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship nor am I poly nor am I an expert in either. That said, I spent months researching consensual nonmonogamous relationships for The New I Do and spoke to numerous people who opened up their marriage or who chose it from the get-go because they’d never even consider getting married without monogamy being discussed and mutually agreed to, and even I know that being in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship hardly has “loose confines” — most people who mutually agree to choose it have explicit agreements on what’s OK and what’s not OK; even if they don’t, successfully navigating it requires a lot of communication and transparency. It’s hardly “loose.” (I think I would find it exhausting, which is why I prefer to be a serial monogamist.) Finally, consensual nonmonogamy is not exactly the same as being poly, although being poly is most definitely one way to be consensually nonmonogamous.

The problem with being in ‘the poly lifestyle’

I have to imagine that irks poly people. You just can’t lump every consensual nonmonogamous person into a little box, nor can you lump poly people into being “in the lifestyle.” As my friend Carrie Jenkins — philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia and author of What Love is and What it Can Be and a polyamorous woman — says in a series of tweets:

A quick thought about the phrase ‘the poly lifestyle.’ There’s not one thing that is ‘the’ poly lifestyle. There are infinitely many ways to be a poly person with a life. And a style. Likewise, many poly communities exist. There’s no such thing as ‘the’ poly community.  This matters because depicting us as a homogenous mass can be a way of marking us as ‘those people over there.’ In reality we are all over the place, and many of us look so ‘normal’ that you don’t know who we are.

Dominus veers into that when she writes, “Divorce, or not marrying in the first place, might seem like a more logical response to a desire for openness,” as if openness can’t occur within the confines of a loving, committed relationship! Because, it does.

We do need healthy models of consensual nonmonogamy, because as I’ve written before, everything we think about nonmonogamy has to do with cheating and deception, or promiscuity. While Dominus’ article certainly brings the conversation to the forefront — it is the New York Times Magazine, after all — the people she hooks the article on are, as Patterson notes, basically telling “a sad story of floundering marriages.” True, that’s part of the story of how some people decide to open up their marriage but it’s a limited discussion. That said, maybe that’s most people’s reality — it’s certainly an ongoing discussion on this blog.

The monogamy conversation

In The New I Do we detail just how important it is for people to have the monogamy conversation, and continue to have it as circumstances change. That would be ideal.

At the same time, I acknowledge many of us don’t stick to our ideals and beliefs, or get scared or complacent or … well, you know. Hey, I’m guilty, too. So, maybe Dominus’ article — like the Ashley Madison hack almost two years ago — will get those conversations going.

It seems like we need to be reminded of that every once and a while, which often occurs through a high-profile infidelity scandal or a controversial new book or article. Consider yourself woke.

The best thing that could happen would be that the article has made you think about monogamy right now and  you’re asking yourself, how could you live your most authentic sexual life — not the life you think you should have.

Is an open marriage or relationship a happier one? Only you can figure that out for yourself.

Want to explore consensual nonmonogamy? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon.

 


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Your spouse mentions that you haven’t had sex in weeks. You’re not really in the mood but, hey, it has been a long time and you just don’t want to get into a thing about sex — again — so you give in. The person you’ve been seeing for a few weeks asks you to do a certain sex act; you’re uncomfortable with it, but you reluctantly agree to go along because you really want this relationship to work out. You got drunk at a college party and can’t make it home but you’re not sure you really want to sleep on the couch that you saw someone spill beer on earlier that night, so you cozy into the host’s bed thinking you might owe some action for “providing shelter.” 

Are you a man or a woman?

I’m thinking you answered correctly; most women would recognize themselves in those situations at least once, if not more, in their life. And the funny — or actually not so funny — thing about it is, women are constantly advised to have sex with their partner whether they’re interested in it or not.

Sex as relationship ‘investment’

Take psychotherapist and She Comes First author Ian Kerner’s post, Charity Sex vs. Pity Sex, on the Good in Bed blog:

You may be bristling at the phrase “charity sex.” If you’re a woman, perhaps it brings to mind past, award-worthy, faked orgasms. Or maybe it reminds you of that time you bit your tongue and had sex because you were sick of hearing him ask for it. If you’re a guy, you might be thinking, “better than nothing.” Or possibly, just possibly, you assume I’m referring to guilt-induced sex … the sort you engage in because you feel bad for not throwing your partner a bone lately … the sort you suffer through, only to feel resentment later on. But don’t equate charity sex with pity sex. Rather, see charity sex as a means of reestablishing a connection with your partner, and of making an important investment in your relationship. Think of it as a donation, rather than an assessment.

Samantha Rodman, aka Dr. Psych Mom, may be the only woman I’ve heard of who insists the same of men: “I truly believe with my whole heart that women should have sex when they don’t want to. Pick yourself off the floor and get ready to faint with shock again, because I THINK MEN SHOULD ALSO HAVE SEX WHEN THEY DON’T WANT TO.”

I generally don’t hear too many people advising men to give it up when they’re not in the mood, so kudos to her. And kudos to a gay guy on Thought Catalog for admitting that sometimes he’s not in the mood but he’s had sex anyway:

There have been times when I’ve had zero interest in having sex but I relent because I don’t want to let my partner down. WTF? Why can’t I just say, ‘I’m not in the mood’? Why do I feel like my dick gets chopped off when I say that? Women deal with a major set of pressures when it comes to having sex but men do as well.”

I don’t know if hetero men feel the same way. And, I’m pretty sure they aren’t being pressured by therapists and relationship experts to have sex when they’re not in the mood.

Often when our man isn’t in the mood, we gals tend to blame ourselves. As one woman writes in Elephant Journal, when a relationship with a boyfriend who had a much lower libido than hers ended, “for a long time afterwards, I felt I was largely to blame for the end of that relationship, and I lost one of the few men who loved me for me and wasn’t with me just to ‘get some.'”

Where were the advice columnists telling Mr. Low Libido to man up and fake it until he could make it, and give his woman some sexual pleasure?

Maybe we gals feel it’s our fault because some men actually think it is, which is what a CafeStir blogger found when she polled a bunch of guys.

And if he’s sexually bored, guess who’s advised to amp it up? Yeah, you know who.

Do you sense a familiar theme?

‘Thank you’ sex

But what was most disturbing to me was to discover in Lisa Wade’s new book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, how many young women feel that they owe a man sex because he paid for dinner or drove her home or because he was “providing shelter.”

Wade writes about Mara, a young woman whose girlfriends skipped out on her at a house party at which she drank too much and had no way to get home — clearly a bad situation. The party host offered to let her crash on the couch, but she’d seen someone spill beer on it earlier that night. “At this point it was very late,” she told Wade, “and I was very tired so I figured I just had to take my chances.”

Rather than sleep on the couch, she joined the party host in bed because, Wade writes, “she felt obligated to hook up with her host. In her mind, she owed him a hookup because he was ‘providing shelter.’ Sleeping on the couch was akin to having bad manners.”

Please just absorb that for a minute. A young man allowed her to sleep at his place and she believed it would better to offer her body — risking pregnancy and disease and perhaps self-esteem — rather than display bad manners (or, for that matter, sleep on a beer-soggy couch)?

I can’t help thinking that our efforts to “empower” (a word I hate, BTW) women has failed if a woman believes she has to give up her body to thank a man whose is doing something nice but not, you know, really going out of his way. It’s not like he had to struggle or suffer in any way — emotionally, physically, economically or all three — to make his couch be a reasonable bed substitute or, even, better, offer to sleep on the couch so she could sleep on his bed.

The idea of hookup culture — versus pleasurable casual sex — is disturbing. But more disturbing is the idea that women believe — and still are told — that we owe men sex.

We don’t. Not for a dinner, not for a drink, not for a ride home, not for a beer-soaked couch or a shared bed, not for any kindness. A heartfelt “thank you” or a reciprocal meal or drink is probably good enough.

And that thinking contributes to a society where men feel entitled to our bodies — to often horrific results (I’m thinking of Santa Barbara mass murderer Elliot Rodger).

Sex in relationships

While some couples are quite happy not having sex, most are not and an argument can be made that if you’re in a committed relationship and you’re not in the mood for sex for a length of time, well, OK — you might want to be open to exploring why; there’s probably a treasure trove of reasons, some complicated (a history of sexual abuse, religious upbringing, body shame, etc.) and some not (raising young kids, menopause, emotional labor, etc.). I don’t think it’s OK to let it continue without introspection and honesty; people who are stuck in a sexless marriage suffer, too.

But in times like this, when women’s reproductive rights are coming under assault, when men view women as “hosts” for babies and when even having access to contraception is threatened, it’s irresponsible and dangerous to tell women that they owe men sex — even if it’s “charity” sex to make an “investment in your relationship.” If that “investment” costs us our health, mental or physical, or results in a pregnancy we may not want, well, that’s a price we may want to pay.

Want to explore consensual non-monogamy? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon.

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Emmanuel Macron made history this past weekend — at 39, he’s the youngest man to be elected president of France. While many might applaud that, as well as his centrist policies over the nationalistic views of his former opponent, Marine Le Pen, others were astonished by the 25-year age gap between Macron and his wife, Brigitte Trogneux. True, it’s the same age difference between Donald and Melania Trump, but in this case it’s Trogneux who’s older. That has some people celebrating his win as a win for feminism.

At the same time, the couple has sometimes been teased and taunted; some have circulated rumors that he’s gay. Others have labeled Trogneux a “cougar.” To Macron’s credit, he has stated that this sort of language just illustrates the “rampant homophobia” in French society and the “rampant misogyny” against older women in general.

“They both had to face hostile looks, even the reluctance of their respective families and also the view of our society about the age difference,” Philippe Besson, a friend of theirs, has said. “Especially when the woman is older, (people are) always suspicious.”

To which Macron has replied, “We do not have a classic family, it’s undeniable. But do we have less love in this family? I do not think so. Maybe there’s even more than conventional families.”

The pain of being marginalized

And that is a beautiful response to those who would mock them. People who have been marginalized by society, whether LGBT people or poly people or people who live apart together or any of the dozens of variations on the theme of what love and relationships “should” look like, have to work harder to feel good about themselves or their choices. And many do.

Still, it can be hurtful.

Some research indicates that while couples in which the wife is significantly older may, as Macron states, have love and happiness, the judgment from others may add stresses to a union — especially for the wives — that ultimately break it apart. Says Sven Drefahl of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research:

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

That does not seem to be an issue in the decade-long  Macron-Trogneux marriage, despite the rumors and naysayers; I hope the stress of being a president’s wife doesn’t change that.

A former teacher (in fact, she was Macron’s drama teacher, married and with three children when they met), Trogneux has put her career on hold to help him. with his campaign and now presidency.

She is unequivocally his equal.

“She spends all her time beside him, she reads and listens to everything that is said about him. He asks her questions and takes her advice,” according to Paris Match.

As Macron has said, “I owe her a lot, she helped make me who I am.”

Changing the romantic script

What I love most about their partnership is that they’ve turned what we have come to expect of men and women in romantic relationships on its head. Men only desire youth and beauty, we’ve been told, and women will use their youth and beauty to snag a man  of status and wealth, usually older. Sometimes that happens, and if both parties are savvy to what’s going on and agree to it, why should anyone else care?

Macron’s version of what he wants in a relationship isn’t limited by that, or fears that his wife will get old (we all will) or saggy (ditto) or less beautiful; it’s pretty clear that his version of beautiful transcends just the physical.

He’s not the only one.

When I was actively dating online, I never felt diminished by a man who rejected me because he wanted someone younger. In truth, a man like that is not someone I want to be with anyway; I wish him well in finding what he wants.

Busting stereotypes

Many women who seek a romantic partner, no matter our age, want someone whose understanding of what’s beautiful and desirable goes beyond physical beauty and age. I imagine a similar dynamic works for men; they’d like to be appreciated for things other than a paycheck or their status. This all sounds dated and sexist yet it’s why people question the Macron-Trogneux marriage and not the Trumps — why would a young, handsome, virile and powerful man choose an old woman?

Maybe because he isn’t trapped by a narrow version of what a relationship looks like. Maybe he sees that there’s more to a woman than youth and beauty. Maybe he appreciates having an equal partner and he’s open to what that might look like and with whom it would happen.

More important, maybe they weren’t willing to let society dictate what they know is right for them.

“Nobody would call it unusual if the age difference was reversed,” Macron has said. “People find it difficult to accept something that is sincere and unique.”

Yes, sadly, they do. We have much to learn from them.

Want to learn how to have an unconventional marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon.


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I don’t often get nostalgic or feel thankful that I grew up when I did because things were better back then. But I just finished reading two books about what’s happening on college campuses now — American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus by sociologist Lisa Wade and Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by feminist and social critic Laura Kipnis — and I actually do feel quite blessed that my college days are long past.

When I went to college, in the ’70s and ’80s — post ’60s sexual revolution and The Pill and pre-HIV — there was lots of casual sex, and sex with professors, without the pressure to be hot, look hot or only have sex with someone hot. Not to say that I didn’t want to have sex with hot men — I do and often I did. But my status wasn’t somehow dictated by that.

Even though I have two 20-something sons, one a recent grad and one in his final year, and I read a lot about popular culture and was quite aware of hookups, I still was kind of clueless about how hookup culture’s changed how college students enjoy — or, more accurately, don’t enjoy — sex.

There were a few things that were mentioned in both books that I find extremely disturbing. For one, women binge drinking in an effort to loosen inhibitions and have fun, but to the point that they get sick or pass out or both. How can that be fun? It also makes them more vulnerable to sexual assault, and Kipnis’ book is an exploration of how that plays out in a world dictated by Title IX — the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination against girls and women in federally funded education that was expanded, in 2011, to include sexual harassment. It’s not pretty.

Cruel hookup rules

Mostly, I was saddened by the rules of hookups — seem rather cruel — and the extremely narrow version of consensual non-monogamy it’s offering young people.

Students have to go out of their way to have sex that doesn’t mean anything. They don’t want to appear emotionally attached to their sexual partner, so they have to act like they care less than the other person. And the way to do that is to avoid anything that is even remotely kind. As Wade writes:

Students may have spent hours or even weeks working up to a hookup by taking opportunities to interact, being attentive and flirtatious, offering compliments, and getting to know each other, but once a hookup is in progress, it’s time to get down to business. No sissy stuff. No niceties. Everything must be hard and furtive. Expressions of tenderness — like gentle kisses, eye contact, holding hands, cuddling and caresses— are to be avoided.

Even eye contact is considered too intimate. Wow!

As I mentioned above, there was lots of casual sex when I went to college. I assumed that hookups were the same thing as casual sex. But casual sex didn’t mean no kisses, cuddling or eye contact — it just meant you were generally enjoying sex with someone with no expectations (OK, but sometimes with hopes) of a relationship. You could still talk to the person if you ran into him or her in the hall, in class or on campus after. Casual didn’t mean cruel. There weren’t strict rules about what you should or shouldn’t do. I have no idea why young people want to create so many rules around sex, instead of deciding for themselves what’s OK and not OK. I’m all about busting out of societal norms and here are these young people — growing up in a time when there’s more freedom than ever — instituting oppressive rules around sex.

I just don’t understand.

Narrow views of non-monogamy

Just as disturbing is how hookup culture is creating an extremely narrow view of non-monogamy. Because they don’t want to seem to care, students have to have a cold, unfeeling hookup; if they want kissing, cuddling and eye contact, then they need to be in a committed monogamous relationship.

How limiting!

Caring relationships, Wade writes:

are almost exclusively understood to be monogamous ones. So much so that words like “relationship,” “serious,” “commitment” and “romance” are usually used as synonyms for monogamy. … Students simply flip this logic around and conclude that non-monogamy involves no kindness at all. These arrangements, they argue, are supposed to be “easy” and “simple.” … Students see two categories of engagement — hard and easy, caring and careless, emotional and emotionaless — and nothing in between.

In their sexual world, all that’s available are two choices: hookups with no strings attached or monogamous relationships. And, as she writes, it reinforces narrow, dated views of what it is to be a man or a woman.

I hate to break it to them but consensually non-monogamous relationships are a lot of work, as those who are in it say. And so are committed monogamous relationships. Any relationship between or among people is going to require some sort of work, unless it’s just about sex. So pick your poison.

Still, I’m confused — there have been so many articles recently about how more young people are embracing consensual non-monogamy. (At the same time, there have been articles about how today’s college students are more likely to be unfaithful.) Is it a happy, willing choice or is it buying into what we think we “should” do?

Long-term impacts

I’m really curious about what this narrow view of non-monogamy might mean in the long run. Some have said that hookup culture’s rules speak to the adulterous kind of non-monogamy — affairs are OK as long as it’s just about sex,  just no emotional attachment, please.

Maybe the rules and expectations of hookups disappear after graduation. But it still may be affecting our views about love, relationships, marriage, monogamy, infidelity. I’m all for questioning those views but I’m also for busting out of rigid ideas about them, which is why the exhausting rules about hookups seem, well, exhausting. Couldn’t young people do better than that?

The casual sex of my day and the hookup culture of today don’t seem to have lasting imprints; most of us who have had random sex with virtual strangers — be it casual sex or hookups — have come out the other side OK. Some have settled into relationships, monogamous or not, some have become serial monogamists — that’s me — others have decided they’re not interested in dating, romance or marriage, and others want a partner but haven’t found one yet.

Still, why should young people have to endure years of unkind sex, limited options when it comes to non-monogamy, and rigid views of what it means to be a man or a woman? I think we can do better.

Want to learn more about consensual non-monogamy? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon.


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Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and founder of Lean In, experienced the kind of grief some of us already know and what most married people will likely know — the sudden death of a spouse. Her husband, Dave, died of cardiac arrhythmia while they were on a Mexican vacation in 2015, and Sandburg had to fly home by herself to tell their two children, then 7 and 10, that their father was dead.

While dealing with her own grief  as well as experiencing a “real feeling of isolation” — we have a hard time talking about death and knowing what to say to someone who’s experienced it — she had to help her children with their own, and somehow get through the tragedy together in a way that would make them stronger, more resilient, all the while wondering how she could just get through another day. Now she has co-authored a new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, to help people move on after grief.

Grief isn’t unique to people experiencing the death of a loved one — it also comes from divorce, often considered the most stressful situation after death; the end of a relationship, romantic or not; an illness or disability; disenfranchisement or abandonment by a loved one, such as a parent; the loss of a job; abuse; growing up with an incarcerated, mentally ill or addicted parent or loved one. In other words, there’s a lot of grief in all of our lives.

So how to give children the tools to weather what’s to come?

Creating resilience

Sandberg says it’s important to let kids know that they matter. All of us want to feel needed and loved. As she writes:

Adolescents who feel that they matter are less likely to suffer from depression, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. They’re less likely to lash out at their families and engage in rebellious, illegal and harmful behaviors. Once they reach college, they have better mental health.

So, it’s on their parents to make that happen. Not to say that a parent — or parents — alone can’t do that; many of us do. But some don’t, or don’t do it well. Then what? Do we let those children flounder? Society suffers from children growing up with “rebellious, illegal and harmful behaviors.”

Which is why I believe we need to create a village of people to care for our kids (and each other). Yet we moms ourselves are often guilty in making that village impossible to find, which was the impetus for “Why our kids need others to love them,” an essay I wrote for Motherwell Magazine (you can read the entire essay here). Here’s an excerpt from it:

Sharing our children with others, especially with non-family members, isn’t always easy, according to Cameron Lynne Macdonald, whose book Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering, explores the often complicated relationship between mothers and caregivers.

“There’s a sense for most women that it hurts, that their first impulse was to always want to be the one their baby sought for comfort. That’s understandable,” Macdonald says.

But what matters, she goes on, is what mothers do with that feeling. There are different responses, she explains. The “it hurts but I’m glad my child has a nanny she loves” reaction; the moms who strategically hire au pairs only on one-year contracts which, by default, makes the mother the central attachment in the child’s life; and then there are the moms who fire the nanny when the child would reach for her first.

That’s a problem, argues University of Sheffield, England, philosophy professor Anca Gheaus, who has published numerous papers on the rights of parents and children. Children deserve to have continuity of care, she says, and shouldn’t be subjected to the whims—and jealousies—of their parents. Parents have no moral right to fire a beloved caretaker, she believes, especially if the child and the baby-sitter have become deeply attached and maintaining a connection would benefit both. Which is why she suggests that some non-parental childcare should be mandatory despite—and perhaps especially because of—parental jealousy.

“I know as a parent that it can be difficult to watch how others become close to your child, especially when their way of doing things is different from yours, and different from what you think is ideal,” Gheaus, the mother of a young son herself, told me in an interview. “This may be especially true for people who came to identify with their parental role above everything—which is still the case with many women.”

But, people can be trained to manage their jealousy, especially if social expectations around childrearing changed.

That would benefit children, who’d have more people to look after them and mentor them, as well as moms, who still typically do the bulk of childcare and pay the price for it, not only in their careers but also in a society that tends to blame mothers for any perceived failings.

So, how would that help someone in Sandberg’s position? For starters, it wouldn’t feel so isolating — for her or her children. One of the worst parts of grief is feeling we are alone in it, that no one else can understand the depth of our suffering. But many of us have our own sorrows that we don’t share with others — perhaps not the death of a spouse, but other tragedies that have nearly destroyed us or changed our worldview.

If she was having an exceptionally hard time, perhaps requiring antidepressants or, worse, was self-medicating, as some grieving people do — her kids wouldn’t have to suffer any more than they already were. Some children, not wanting to burden their grieving parent, might not share their own feelings — they might suffer silently. If a parent were truly consumed with grieving, a child might become like the parent and become his or her caretaker — what’s known as parentification. This is damaging to the child.

A more caring society

A better way to raise resilient children, and thus adults, is to create policies that encourage a more caring society. One way to do that is creating a community-based village of trained, quality and ongoing caregivers-mentors, both men and women — a concept I call carenting.

Sandberg’s a billionaire — she could easily afford to pay for the best help for her family, psychologists and nannies and babysitters, as they grieved, which many of us might not be able to afford. Still, that’s not quite the same as having a truly caring village of people who wouldn’t need to ask, “How can I help?” They’d already know.

We don’t have that kind of a society yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start to create our own village now and be part of a village for others. Really, it’s all we have.

Want to learn how to avoid having a “greedy” marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press); you can order it on Amazon.

 


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Back when my New I Do co-author and I were doing research for our book and interviewing engaged couples about why they wanted to wed (most were already living together), one groom-to-be mentioned sex among the many reasons.

“You want to marry for sex?” his fiancee asked, somewhat horrified.

He immediately got sheepish as he defended himself: “Well, they asked us to check off all the reasons, so, um, yeah …”

I’m with him; most of do expect sex with some sort of regularity to be among the many perks of tying the knot — or any monogamous romantic relationship for that matter. Unless you have an open relationship or an adulterous one, monogamy typically limits who can sleep with.

But is sex a marital requirement? Does sex really matter all that much?

It clearly does to those spouses who want it and don’t get it, or not enough of it, as so many have written to this blog and The New I Do blog. And marital expert after marital expert, and couples counselor after couples counselor will likely tell you the same thing. According to the National Marriage Project, sexual satisfaction is even more important than kind words and acts in a marriage. When I reported on its findings, I basically agreed: “This is a no-brainer, too.

But, what if sex doesn’t matter?

Intimacy is not the same as sex

For one couple, it actually doesn’t. Married for 25 years, the couple hasn’t had sex for 20 years — and they’re OK with it, or at least that’s what they told the Guardian.

According to the husband, “we’re very cuddly and close to each other and still as interested in each other and do as much together as we ever did.”

Well, OK — who doesn’t appreciate “cuddly” and “close”?

The wife, however, as content as she was with the arrangement, had moments of wondering if she was missing out on something, but not because she believed she was; she was just concerned about what others thought:

It’s quite odd feeling you’re not interested in something that the rest of the human race is mad about, which is why I joined an internet support group for celibate couples. I don’t have to justify our marriage to other people, but it’s almost like I have to justify it to myself. … All sorts of sexual proclivities are accepted now, but being celibate in a relationship is still taboo. It’s only mentioned if illness or some other negative stops it, never as an ordinary way to live. Everyone puts all the details of their sex lives all over the internet now, and I’d love it if a famous couple would say they’re celibate. I still wouldn’t tell the world, but maybe I could stop feeling that our sexless marriage is a shameful secret.”

I feel for both of them. Having a sexual relationship within a romantic partnership may matter for many people — I’m one of them — which is why I am fully empathetic to those whose sexual desires and needs are not being fulfilled in their marriage.

At the same time, there are are couples for whom sex is not all that. They deserve the same feels. They should not have to feel that their marriage is a “shameful secret.”

The Guardian article mentions asexuals — typically “misunderstood as a disorder, when it’s a sexual orientation,” according to Julie Sale, a psychosexual psychotherapist and chair of ethics for the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists.

Asexuals, according to the Asexuality Network, don’t experience sexual attraction — it’s just who they are. But for people who identify as celibate, it’s a choice — and that matters.

But does that mean their marriage is “less than”?

All the perks, none of the sex

One of the marital models in The New I Do is a companionship marriage, a model I have sometimes struggled to define. It seems to be a catch-all for marriages that don’t fit the “traditional marriage” model: it’s not about having kids, especially for the childfree, or  having kids together, especially for those who have already had all the kids they want. Beyond the child issue, it may or may not be about having sex. It may be a way for people who are friends and seek companionship with shared interests, with sex or not, to be privy to the legal perks and protections of a marriage license.

Which is why marriage is an individual thing — there’s no “wrong” or “right” way to be married as long as the couples themselves are satisfied. And that includes people who are not romantic/sexual partners. Author Jeanette Winterson believes we should expand marriage to include “communities where those who do not wish to marry or form one-to-one unions could live in congenial company, pooling resources and moving beyond both marriage and the binary oppressions of gender.” And, I imagine, with or without the requirement that there be sex.

Sex matters to me; it may or may not matter to you. Regardless, shouldn’t everyone else be free to enjoy their relationships the way they want to?

Want to learn more about companionship marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.

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A few months ago, singer Janet Jackson made news by becoming a first-time mother at age 50, to a baby boy Eissa. This week, she made news again — she and her husband, Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana, have separated.

According to Page Six, a family source said Jackson became aware of cultural problems between them after Eissa was born and her husband, a Muslim billionaire, became more controlling, demanding that she tone down the overt sexuality of her performances and music videos, and cover more of her body, among other things.

Still, Page Six says, they hoped having a baby would help.

Oh boy.

They certainly wouldn’t be the first couple to hope that a baby would save a faltering marriage.

Years ago, couples were actually advised by marital counselors to have a baby because it would boost their marital satisfaction. Then, there were studies saying the opposite — that having a kid added stress to a marriage. Hello, marital dissatisfaction. Then research by Philip and Carolyn Cowan indicated that if both partners wanted the pregnancy — and didn’t slide back into traditional gender roles once the baby was born — the initial shock of new parenthood disappeared and their marriage would be back on a happy marital track.

Unfortunately, a lot of couples do slide into gender roles after the birth of a child.

It sure seems like Jackson and Mana both wanted a child, so presumably there was no disagreement there. But the cultural differences, and clearly a more gendered approach to parental roles, was probably the kiss of death to their union.

What could they have done differently?

A different approach

If you’re read this blog for awhile, you know I’m a big fan of having a marital plan or, if you plan on having kids, a parenting prenup or, at the very least, some discussions about the what, when, where, why and how of having and raising a baby. Even if you both are on the same page about having kids, and how many, there’re a lot of other issues that are going to come up; just ask Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or Jancee Dunn, author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.

So, there’s that.

But, despite the Cowan’s advice, despite the occasional blogger who insists her marriage is better because of a baby, I — a mom of two — just can’t see how a baby can turn a struggling marriage into a better marriage.

Thankfully, I have people who are much smarter and more researched than I to say the same thing.

“For around 30 years, researchers have studied how having children affects a marriage, and the results are conclusive: the relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along,” writes psychology professor Matthew D. Johnson, director of the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory at Binghamton University in New York.

Having a baby adds incredible stress on a marriage, says Hara Estroff Marano, editor at large of Psychology Today. “People think having a baby is a kind of a cement and it’s generally nothing of the kind. Babies make demands that take time away from each other. Babies take women out of the workforce, away from peers, it isolates them, and completely takes you away from what you’ve been doing.”

Yep, they do.

Rethinking baby

It’s too late for a lot of people, including Janet Jackson. Some might say, well, she waited a long time to have a child, she’s had three marriages and can obviously survive on her own and can afford good nannies (she’s worth about $250 million) so, no worries. Eissa will likely be fine, too, assuming there isn’t a big, bad custody fight (those happen). But, maybe it’s not too late for you.

A baby will probably not make your struggling marriage better. You may, like Jackson, end up with a baby and a divorce, despite your intentions and hopes. True,  a number of women say they’d much rather be a single parent because it’s easier than negotiating a marriage and a kid. Just like I can’t see how a baby can turn a struggling marriage into a better marriage, I can’t see how having a baby on your own is truly easier. Yes, you can make decisions on your own but that’s a teeny, tiny part of being a parent, especially if you have a special needs kid or an illness strikes or you lose your job or — well, I can go on and on. It’s a lot easier if there’s someone else — actually many someones  — who cares about your kid.

Want to learn how to create a parenting prenup? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.


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What would you be willing to do to have an affair-proof marriage? Would you go so far as Vice President Mike Pence, whose agreement with his wife, Karen — both evangelical Christians — became public last week? The Washington Post reported, “In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.” 

And the world just kind of exploded.

Many people made fun of Pence, some noted how damaging such a policy is to women who may be excluded from important situations and others said, hey, it’s no different than the strict rules of other religious groups, such as fundamentalist Muslims and Orthodox Jews.

But what interests me is what couples do — or don’t do — or believe they should do to affair-proof their marriage.

There are no guarantees

You can’t really guarantee that your spouse will never cheat on you — or you on him or her — as I’ve written before. Still, some couples set up boundaries that they hope will keep each other on the straight and narrow. Even beloved author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that he’s:

a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding “the moment.” I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.” But I am prepared to be an honorable one.

As a woman whose former husband spent many an hour at the bar, where indeed the battle was lost, I understand what Coates is saying: Stay away from temptation because, as Oscar Wilde so wonderfully said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” And many do.

Are men are out of control?

Pence’s agreement to avoid temptation — what has been called the “Billy Graham Rule,” after the famous evangelist — only seems to apply to men; Karen and other wives, evidently, can do whatever they please. Which says a lot about how society doesn’t think men can control themselves but women can. Too bad, because women are cheating at about the same rates as men are, according to a recent study.

Beyond that, it’s dangerous to peg men and women so narrowly. As Bustle notes:

At its core, the provision implies that men are beastly creatures bereft of any command over their sexual urges. Such a practice insinuates that a man on his own is a man unchained, and that without his wife’s presence, he is spiritually predisposed to violating the vows he made to her. Because the rule removes responsibility from men in terms of thinking for themselves, it goes on to view women who are not the wives of these men as sources of temptation, not human beings. By adhering to such a concept, the person practicing it is basically viewing other women as potential betrayals to marriage.

Well, we often do view other women as potential betrayals to marriage. Mate poaching is a thing (although men engage in it, too). We’re often suspect of opposite-sex friendships and even “work spouses.” And, let’s face it — for some women, being the Other Woman is empowering; they’re likely to ignore any “guardrails” men have erected and go head-on for them, no matter how honorable men want to be.

Put a ring on it and get civilized

Many conservatives believe men need to be somehow kept in check. Enter marriage. Marriage “civilizes men,” a belief that became popular during the Regan era and that persists today. As Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, states:

Marriage plays an important role in civilizing men. They work harder, longer, more strategically. They spend less time in bars and more time in church, less with friends and more with kin. And they’re happier and healthier.”

Except marriage alone will not prevent anyone from having an affair because, well, Ashley Madison. Enough said.

All that said, could Pence and Coates be on to something for people — well, men — who want to try their darndest to steer clear of temptation? Should they just avoid certain situations that involve members of the opposite sex? People who have alcohol or drug issues or who are in recovery often don’t do well in social situations where booze and drugs are part of the fun. So they stay away. But at least there are options — there are many public and social events that have nothing to so with booze or drugs. Not being in the presence of women alone? That’s a hard one and in many ways rather unhealthy. But if you know that’s your weakness, I suppose that would be one way to attempt to affair-proof your marriage — well, at least your part of it.

And that’s what it comes down to. All those articles by so-called experts on how to affair-proof your marriage pretty much put the onus on women to woman up — plan for sex, go on dates, wear sexy lingerie, communicate better, etc., etc. Yawn. You can do all that and still be cheated on. Because you can’t control your spouse’s behavior, you won’t be able to “affair-proof” your marriage either.

But — and it’s a big but — your spouse can control his own behavior. Really! He may not need to pull a Pence, but the two of you can create your own agreement and what’s OK and what’s not. It’s worth a try.

Want to know how to talk honestly about monogamy with your partner? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.

 


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Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner have evidently bounced back from a much-publicized “strained period” during which she almost filed for divorce. Affleck recently finished rehab in hopes of becoming a better father. 

They’re not back together, People reports, but a source described as close to Garner said the actress has backed off from filing for divorce. “She really wants to work things out with Ben,” the source said. “They are giving things another try.”

So are Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner, who separated this past August after yet another sexting scandal. Abedin is reportedly working to salvage their marriage.

Bad behavior — aka cheating as well as addictive behaviors — is what drove those two wives to consider divorce, a common theme according to many marital therapists. A lot of women cite their husband’s “bad behavior” as a reason to divorce.

But for many couples, the real marital killer is a more common and insidious, quiet but just as deadly, behavior, one Jancee Dunn details in her new book, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids. And it’s the kind of slow-simmering “low-conflict” that leaves men blindsided when their wife says, Enough!

Angry, resentful and bickering

Dunn and hubby Tom, freelance writers who both work from home, had fallen into a familiar rut: Tom wasn’t doing his share of the house and childcare and Dunn got angry and resentful, bringing them almost to the point of no return. They bickered constantly. Just as bad, their 6-year-old daughter watched it all. So they sought the advice of numerous experts to help them.

But as I read Dunn’s book, I just wanted to scream.

Like many couples, they had what she calls “dreamy conversations” about their baby when they were pregnant; nothing about the day-to-day practicalities were discussed. That’s a major problem and such an easily avoidable one.

OK — even couples who do address some of the important issues about bringing a baby into the mix still find themselves lost when the baby is actually born and suddenly life is in utter turmoil. And as they age and there’s school and activities and birthday parties and childcare issues, it just amps up.

What made me want to scream was Dunn’s language: “train the family to lighten Mom’s load,” “they’re not allowed to come complaining to Mom,” “When he started helping me out.” It’s 2017 — why are women framing things in terms of husbands and kids lightening mom’s load or husbands helping out? The assumption is that it’s the woman’s job. Still.

Yet, I understand it. I didn’t have kids with my first husband, but I was the cook and the house cleaner, even when I was the breadwinner. Why was that OK? It wasn’t, but I was young and stupid. When I married the second time and popped out two boys a few years later, I, too, dealt with that “helping out” thing. But since I worked part time — a plan we agreed to so one of us could be at home with the boys — and he worked full time, it made sense that I would take on more of the child and house chores. But I didn’t take much time to care for myself, and I just felt depleted. And, like Dunn, I didn’t say a peep; I just felt frustrated.

Still ‘Mad at Dad’

This is a familiar scenario, played out in families across the country, sadly even today. As Laurie Penny says in a discussion with Moira Weigel about her book, Labor of Love, “Romantic love can be work, and so can domestic work, childcare, all of it — the fact that we call so much of it ‘love’ makes that work invisible.”

I was hopeful that today’s moms were experiencing more equal marriages when it comes to sharing chores and childcare; I was hopeful we’d moved past the disturbing study Parents magazine reported in 2011, Mad at Dad, with the subhead, “We love our husbands — so why are we so angry at them, so often.”

But if reading the comments on Jezebel’s review of Dunn’s book is any indication then, no, we have not progressed much. As Jezebel author, Kathryn Jezer-Morton, says:

How Not to Hate Your Husband is a book for messy reality, but I can’t shake my frustration that its twin, written for men, isn’t out there somewhere: How to Keep Your Wife From Hating You After Kids. I’m disappointed that on top of doing far more housework and childcare than men, it also falls on women to patiently and strategically negotiate the terms of our liberation. …  men are now more frequently socialized to pay lip-service to household equality. Our culture rewards them for sharing housework and childcare. Yet still we have to ask nicely even when we’ve already asked twice, we have to be strategic in the way we frame our requests so as not to spook them, we have to modulate our tones so as not to seem angry even when we are angry. This is absolutely how reality works in most heterosexual domestic arrangements, and it’s getting fucking old.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Yes, it is getting old, and it’s ridiculous to talk in terms of “asking.” Why do we women think we have to “ask” for something that is basic maintenance of the house, the kids, the relationships? We shouldn’t have to tell, either. It should something more akin to, “I’ll pick up the dry cleaning and drop the kids off; what’s your plan?”

Which is why I’m a big fan of having a marital plan, or at least a parenting plan. I was surprised and delighted to learn that it’s not a new concept. The debut issue of Ms. magazine, in 1971, included an article on How to Write Your Own Marriage Contract, which featured interviews with two progressive couples. The wives insisted on the contracts to deal with what they saw as marital inequities (and there were many in those days) when it came to chores, cooking and finances and, when kids came along, childcare issues.

I contacted one of the women profiled in the Ms. article not too long ago. I was disappointed when she told me that she didn’t think today’s moms needed contracts anymore.

Because they do. Just ask Dunn.

What same-sex couples can teach heteros

This is, of course, mostly a hetero issue; according to a recent study on how same-sex couples divvy up the child care, it’s more equally shared by about 74 percent of gay couples versus 38 percent of straight couples. They also more equally shared the responsibility of caring for a sick child, 62 percent versus 32 percent for straight couples.

Yes, hetero women deal with some gendered expectations that get internalized. We still are suspect if our homes are dirty or our kids are inappropriately dressed.

Let’s stop that — now. We don’t have to ask a partner to do his share. We don’t have to tell him or nag him. We don’t have to take on more because we are afraid to speak up. And we don’t have to accept shoddy housekeeping either. (And yes, I know there are more men than ever who actually do the bulk of the childcare and household chores; this is not about them.) But we women do have to have the conversation (actually ongoing conversations), agree to compromise on an acceptable level of cleanliness and an acceptable time frame for having things done, kids fed, bathed and etc., and then we just need to … let it go.

No more asking. No more nagging. No more telling. No more frustrations or resentments. Just discussion, agreement, compromise and holding each other accountable.

And men, yes, you do need to be held accountable. You need to be fully aware of the day-to-day minutiae in your home and with your kids, and you can’t assume that your wife will take care of that for you. It’s not your wife’s job to ask you or tell you (unless that’s your spoken — not assumed — agreement). If you don’t understand that, then please don’t get upset when your wife serves you with divorce papers one day. Because she probably will.

Want to learn how to create a marital plan? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.


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The secret to a happy marriage may mean living apart together in separate master suites, a recent Wall Street Journal article declared.

Not everyone lives in a “4,700 square-foot Tudor home” or wants to, but without a doubt, more people, especially older people (like — *sigh* — me) are interested in having a room — if not a whole apartment or house — of their own. 

Those who are divorced, widowed or never-married who want romantic relationships later in life are “motivated by the desire to remain independent, maintain their own homes, sustain existing family boundaries, protect the relationship and remain financially independent,” a recent study states.

But, as my co-author and I detailed in The New I Do, couples can choose that arrangement from the start of their marriage. Granted, this is a hard concept for many to wrap their heads around. They have questions. So, I have answers to the top three myths people have about live apart together (LAT) relationships, or what my friend Sharon Hyman calls apartners.

Why even get married if you’re going to live apart?

People get married for a lot of reasons, not just love although most of us like to think that’s the main reason — or should be the main reason — to wed. Although love is the No. 1 reason for hetero couples, according to the Pew Research Center, following closely behind are lifelong commitment, companionship, kids, having the relationship be recognized by a religious ceremony, financial stability and, finally, legal rights and benefits (same-sex couples overwhelming cite the legal rights and protections). I don’t see “to live together” as a top reason, do you? OK, in honesty, it’s probably just assumed. At the same time, all the stated reasons for marrying can be achieved while also living apart from your spouse.

What about companionship, you may ask. Well, there are many ways to interpret companionship. Does it mean being around someone 24/7? Does it mean sharing the same space? Can you have companionship while also maintaining a certain amount of freedom?

As Esther Perel has written in Mating in Captivity, love longs for closeness, desire thrives on distance:

Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.

So, yes, you can have companionship without being smother by the day-to-day realities of living together. Just ask any person whose spouse is deployed overseas or who spends days at a time at the fire station. And, let’s not forget that companionship is available from our non-romantic partners — friends, family, co-workers. They key is finding a happy, healthy balance that works for you as a couple.

Living apart together is only for the wealthy

This is a common perception but misguided one (on a few levels). Let’s assume that when you met your partner, he or she was living alone. So were you. In other words, you both had your own places — so nothing’s changed, right? Even if one or both or you had roommates, you’d still have roommates.

Why continue to have roommates when you can just move in together? Good question. Except your relationship with your roommate is not the same as a relationship with a romantic partner — you’re not sharing the same bed and you don’t have the same expectations from him or her or them. It’s often the heightened expectations from our romantic partners that cause a lot of resentments, frustrations and anger.

Nevertheless, I can hear you say that you’d save money if you moved in together!

That’s most likely true, but there are ways to afford your lifestyle that don’t crimp your freedom in the same way, such as getting a roommate (if you don’t already have one) or Airbnbing your place or a room if you really need the cash. In other words, if saving money is the compelling reason to live together, there are creative ways to work around it.

But the much bigger issue is this — are you only moving in together to save money? Because your financial situation isn’t the best reason to move in together; you should only cohabit if you’re prepared to live with your partner 24/7 and all his or her peccadilloes, and not because you want to save money. If that isn’t what you’re prepared to do then it’s better to continue to live apart and get creative.

People who live apart more likely to cheat

Yes, it’s true: people who live apart from each other cheat. But, guess what — so do people who live together, right? Given the rates of reported infidelity (since it’s self-reported, the percentages are sketchy and clearly not everyone admits to being a cheater), it’s obvious that living together doesn’t prevent anyone from having an affair — ever. But does living apart make it “easier”? It seems like it could; after all, there is a lot more time spent alone, often in separate places, and it would be a lot less complicated to hide any extramarital shenanigans. Plus, people might love the freedom but also get lonely.

As we wrote in The New I Do:

LAT marriages help people cope with the uncertainties that come with romantic relationships. You are basically forced to contend with your insecurities, and for many, that leads to greater introspection and self-awareness. While those choosing a long-distance marriage may not end up having to deal with an affair any more or less than those who live together, they do tend to think about it more. And because of that, addressing monogamy and infidelity may be a more frequent conversation between those couples, which cannot hurt and actually can help. Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: are you marrying or are you married to someone you trust, and is that person worthy of your trust? And, are you offering the same? Because if you can’t trust your partner, whatever living arrangement you have isn’t going to change the situation. It isn’t how you live (together or apart); it’s whom you live with.

In fact, as we note in our research, couples who live apart feel happier in their relationship than couples that live together, and feel more committed and less trapped. But for me, this sentence says it all: “It isn’t how you live (together or apart); it’s whom you live with.”

You can’t raise kids while living apart

Wait — isn’t this a fourth myth when I’ve only promised three? Not really, because this is obviously a much longer discussion, one that could be a blog post on its own — or a book. We address this at length in The New I Do. But as a teaser, divorced people do it all the time — they raise kids together while living apart. So do people in platonic parenting partnerships and, as mentioned above, those with spouses who are deployed overseas or live for days at a time in fire stations. So if you want to be married and have children, don’t think you can’t do it while being a LAT couple. You can; you just have to want it enough to find a way to make it happen.

Want to learn how to live apart together? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.


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