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As a writer, nothing is more satisfying and affirming than when your writing positively impacts another person. Of course, the entire reason for writing The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels was to impact people — to make them think consciously about their romantic decisions. Which is why Mandy Len Catron’s Modern Love essay this week was so gratifying — the University of British Columbia professor and author of the just-released book How to Fall in Love With Anyone, used our renewable marriage contract when moving in with her romantic partner.

As you can imagine, it got a lot of comments. Many were negative — but I would expect that. Trying something new and different is scary. Nevertheless, that’s what I wanted to address.

The contract reminded some commentors of the Roommate Agreement that Sheldon Cooper, of the popular TV show Big Bang Theory, created with Leonard Hofstadter that detailed their rights and responsibilities as friends and roommates, and that Sheldon attempted to create with his girlfriend, Amy. I never saw the show, but since that episode aired in 2015 and The New I Do was published in 2014, perhaps the show’s writers were inspired by our book as well. No way to know. In any event, the idea of a marriage contract dates back to at least the 1850s and they were always insisted on by the wives (and any woman who has ever lived with a man probably understands why).

Here are a few of the 286 comments her essay gathered that exemplify some of the main reasons people balk at a relationship contract.

It can’t shield you

Alexandra wrote:

Will your contract include what will happen when one of you loses a job, or has to deal with taking care of a sick parent, or gets cancer and faces insurmountable bills? Don’t get me wrong, communicating your expectations is a wonderful thing in a marriage, but you suppose everything you will deal with will be a routine matter, which can be solved by rational discussion. My marriage was tested when our first child died. There is no contract that can shield you from having to weather what life throws at you.

Alexandra is right — there indeed is no contract that can shield anyone from having to deal with whatever life throws your way. But that isn’t what the contract is for. It’s not a shield; it’s a baseline. So I answered her this way (which is similar to the way we address dealing with the unexpected in the book):

As the co-author of The New I Do, I understand exactly what you are saying, Alexandra — nothing prepares you for what life throws at you, and we mention that in the book. Much of life is unexpected. That said, having a baseline makes it that much easier to deal with the unexpected because you already explored it and perhaps agreed on a certain path, etc. When a crisis hits, no one even knows where to begin — it’s overwhelming. But a couple can certainly entertain the worst — what would we do if one of us becomes sick/disabled (open up our marriage, allow affairs, etc.? Would we have another baby if something happened to our child? What would we do if one of us lost his/her job and couldn’t find work? Exploring hard topics together is a great way to know your partner, and yourself, better.

Even if a couple discusses such things and puts it in writing, it still won’t guarantee anything. The contract isn’t a guarantee. But, because the contract needs to change as your life situation changes, it would, at the very least, force you to discuss the hard stuff. There’s no down side to that.

Sticking to the contract

Which leads me to Carmine. She writes:

Friends of mine had a marriage like this, everything spelled out and equally shared (especially finances.) Then they had children. After a few years, for various reasons, she realized that she needed to stay home with the children for a while. He insisted on sticking to the contract (especially about finances.) The divorce was very messy. Life is not always as rational as you would like it to be.

As I mentioned above, the contract must be tweaked as life situations change. The biggest life change in many couple’s lives is becoming parents. There’s so much to be discussed before you actually even start to get pregnant that there’s an entire chapter on it and a huge section in the prenup — I prefer to call it marital planning — chapter in the book. Carmine’s friends may have been able to avoid divorce, especially a messy one, if their contract detailed who was going to care for the kids. Believe me, that matters!

It’s not romantic

Jack’s comment names perhaps the biggest obstacle to creating a relationship contract: Romance. He writes:

I don’t think I could do what Mandy and Mark do, probably because I view it as unromantic and, frankly, it sounds a lot like Sheldon’s roommate agreement on The Big Bang Theory. But I developed a simple test for myself when I met a woman I really cared about. What drove me was the desire to be the best version of me I could be, to make her as happy in the relationship as I could. So I constantly ask myself one simple question: “Is this the best I can be?” Sometimes I simply have to admit that it’s not and change what I am doing or how I am doing it. So far it seems to be working. Or she is just a saint, sent down to save me.

Oh, Jack! I love romance, too! I’m really romantic, but to tweak a Tina Turner song, what’s romance got to do with it? I like that Jack is inspired to be the best person he can be for his partner; I believe that’s one of the best parts of having a happy, healthy relationship — being the best you you can be, not because you have to but because you choose to be. But that has nothing to do with romance. I want to be the best person I can be for my children and my friends, too. Because I care about them and love them. Romance, if we want to define it by the dictionary, is “a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.” I love excitement and mystery, but when it comes to committing myself to someone else, I will choose clarity, mutual consent and transparency to the day-to-day details that often destroy a relationship and leave the mystery to the parts that keep you attracted to him or her.

A woke relationship

That said, many readers got it. They understand how the good communication we always hear a relationship should have often gets misunderstood or ignored, and that just leads to frustration, disappointment and anger.

Zarvora wrote, “If I had read this when in my twenties, I would have dismissed it. At the age of 57, it sounds like genius.”

FirstTimeCommentor wrote: “A list is a clear way for both partners to know what’s most important for the other. Maybe it’s not romantic. Falling in love is romantic. Staying in love takes effort and communication is key.”

The Lorax wrote: “I find this incredibly romantic because it is way more dedicated to living with conscious commitment to each other every day than any artificial construct created by the wedding industrial complex.”

And Tom wrote: “I think their approach is brilliant. I too have been married 30 years and know from experience that mismatched/misunderstood expectations are the source of many conflicts. Often neither party knows what their own expectations are. Having a format and writing it down forces each person to think about what they really want, need and hope for longer term, beyond the heat of first love.”

Yes! To the readers who get it, thank you. To the readers who question the idea of a contract, well, it should be questioned. Everything related to love, romantic relationships and marriage needs to be questioned because, as the Lorax writes, questioning means you’re being conscious about what you’re doing. And that’s exactly what we ultimately want — to live and make decisions consciously. I don’t know any other way to do that other than questioning what you believe, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and exploring whether you’re doing it because you think you should instead of consciously choosing to do it.

What about you?

Want to learn how to create a relationship contract? (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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Perhaps you grew up loving fairy tales, where the beautiful princess ends up living happily ever after with a handsome prince. Maybe you watch rom-coms where the guy and girl end up together despite impossible odds. Maybe you’re addicted to The Bachelor or The Bachelorette and what happens to the lucky couples. When love stories end predictably, how does that make you feel? How do you feel when they end unpredictably, like last year’s La La Land?

Maybe you’ve never thought much about it. Mandy Len Catron has. The English professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., loves love stories. Throughout her life, she  especially loved the love story of her parents, a meet cute between the new football coach and a cheerleader asked to interview him for the school newspaper. So when they divorced after three decades of marriage, when Catron was 26, she began to look deeper into her own nearly decade-long relationship, which was faltering, and what she thought she knew about love. In 2015, she wrote a Modern Love essay for The New York Times, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” — one of the most-read of the series — and now has a just-released book, How to Fall in Love With Anyone, part-memoir, part exploration about the love stories that we absorb and perhaps allow to dictate our ideas of what love “looks like.”

As she writes in her charming and engaging book:

For most of my life, I’d conceptualized love as something that happened to me. It isn’t merely the stories we tell about love that encourage this attitude, but the very words themselves. In love, we fall. We are struck, we are crushed. We swoon. We burn with passion. Love makes us crazy or it makes us sick. Our hearts ache and then they break. I wondered if this was how love had to work — or if I could take back some control. Science suggested that I could.

One thing she noticed when her Modern Love story, based on research by psychologist Arthur Aron, went viral was that people were eager to discover a “secret” to finding love:

[W]e prefer the short version of the story. My Modern Love column had become an oversimplified romantic fable suggesting there was an ideal way to experience love. It made love predictable, like a script you could follow.

Even Catron didn’t come to love her current partner until months after they tried Aron’s research themselves, when they’d gotten to know each other better. (As an aside, Catron and her partner used the questions posed in The New I Do to create a cohabitation contract that, she writes, “gave us a sense of control” as they merged their lives; Thank you, Mandy!)

Following the love script

We do, of course, have a love script of sorts — meet, date, fall in love, live together, marry, buy a house, have kids. It’s an outdated script; nowadays, many couples have kids first, or buy a house first while living together or apart, or never marry, or never have kids. The romantic script isn’t guiding us so well anymore — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is, as Catron beautifully explores in her book, we still buy into it. Our view of love is limited, something that her fellow UBC professor Carrie Jenkins explores in her book, What Love Is and What It Can Be.

In a recent Glamour article, Catron observes that, if we are going to continue to look to love stories to inform us, well, we’d better have access to better, more expansive and more diverse love stories.

What I wish I had as a teenager — and what I think we need more of in the world — are stories that avoid fetishizing love and attempt to reckon with it more honestly. Stories that widen our sense of what’s possible when you offer yourself to another person.

Yes!

I’ve not been as enamored with love stories as Catron has. Sure, I grew up with Disney fairy tales but I also grew up deeply influenced by the 1960s and the free-loving hippie culture. My parents’ love story, such as it was, didn’t seem all that romantic to me as a young girl: my dad’s sister ran into my mom in the elevator of a Bronx apartment, asked if she was single (she was) and told her she should meet her brother. She did, and six months later they married. It wasn’t until many years later, after my mom had died and my dad was in a nursing home and I was cleaning out their condo that I found letters written by men to my mom, responses to an ad her uncle had no doubt placed, looking for a husband for her. She was 19 at the time and an orphan, a Holocaust survivor with limited schooling and skills, an immigrant who most likely needed a husband because she couldn’t live with her aunt and uncle forever. It’s also when I found sweet love poems my father had written to her, acknowledging her “sad eyes.” But by then, I knew the reality of their love story — it was more complicated than romantic.

It’s true that I was the kind of gal who always had a boyfriend around and that the traditional love script was the only one I knew. But now, after I married and divorced twice, and have a pretty full life — financial security (more or less), a house, kids, a career, a group of amazing gal pals I call the Lovelies and on whom I can depend — the traditional love script seems unnecessary. Live together? Marry? Buy a house together? What for?

No guarantees

The gift, if we can call it that, of getting divorced after X-number of years of marriage is that it often makes us question the script that we put so much faith and hope into when we’re just trying to figure love out. Again, that’s not a bad thing; why wouldn’t we want to question it? But it’s not encouraged or even suggested when we’re young and thinking about romantic love and marriage — we often don’t understand that we have choices and there’s no right or wrong choice as long as we’re making it consciously. And that’s the problem. As Catron writes of her parents’ divorce:

Divorce was the wrong ending, one I hadn’t even considered possible. For so long I thought of romantic love as a virtue, a moral triumph, a reward for people who made good life choices. But my parents’ divorce suggested that there were no guarantees in love, not even for the best and most devoted among us, or those of us with the perfect story.

How true! There are no guarantees in love — or anything else, I might add, besides the proverbial cliche — taxes and death — so you can forget about divorce- or affair-proofing a marriage. You can’t. Just be kind, generous and loving, and hope for the best.

Still, Catron suggests we’d all be better off if our love stories weren’t so narrow and constricted. Not to say that we have to be relationship anarchists and make all relationships equal. But we might want to at least tell stories and show models of love that don’t look so predictable, that speak more to the way we actually live and love instead of some idealized and often unsatisfying or unsustainable version of it, stories that recognize that loving relationships are as varied and beautifully complicated as we humans are.

Which is why what Catron writes resonates with me more than anything lately:

Sometimes I wonder if I would’ve loved differently if I’d had more stories like these. If our love stories tell us how a life can go, it would’ve been nice to have had a few more scripts to draw from. Maybe then I would’ve spent less time worrying if I was doing love right and more time thinking about what exactly I wanted from my experience. In fact, 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.

Well, there’s no way to know. Yes, we may have loved differently — in fact, we most definitely would have loved differently — but it doesn’t necessarily mean it would be better, easier or more fulfilling. But spending more time thinking about what we want from the experience — that’s key.

Imagine what it would be like if we saw love as “something we get to offer another person, thoughtfully and with generosity.” How would that change your view about love?

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

 

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In a brilliant essay in the New York Times this past weekend, “America Made Me a Feminist,” former supermodel Paulina Porizkova wrote about how women are treated around the world, or at least the countries she’s lived in, and in America.

Moving to France after living in Sweden for a number of years, where women and men are equal, she was disturbed by how men treated her — even though opening doors and offering to pay for dinner seem innocent enough:

They seemed to think I was too delicate, or too stupid, to take care of myself. Instead of feeling celebrated, I felt patronized. I claimed my power the way I had learned in Sweden: by being sexually assertive. But Frenchmen don’t work this way. In discos, I’d set my eye on an attractive stranger, and then dance my way over to let him know he was a chosen one. More often than not, he fled. And when he didn’t run, he asked how much I charged.

American men, we are led to believe, are similar — they’re turned off by women who own their sexuality. Their loss!

But what struck me most in Porizkova’s article was an interpretation of female empowerment that I find disturbing — while French women promote wearing lingerie and acting like mistresses to keep their romances alive, there’s an ulterior motive:

In France, women did have power, but a secret one, like a hidden stiletto knife. It was all about manipulation: the sexy vixen luring the man to do her bidding.

It caught my eye because in Jo Piazza’s book How to Be Married: What I Learned from Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage, she also talks about how women manipulate men, sometimes because they were living in machismo societies but not always.

Gals, boost that male ego

More than a few women in Chile, France and elsewhere told her that wives need to boost men’s egos and be softer, if not quite submissive — a message American women hear a lot from conservative writers (I’m thinking of you, Suzanne Venker) and that’s overwhelmingly upsetting to feminists. But, as Piazza notes, those women had the power and influenced their — presumably unknowing — husband’s behavior.

“The word submission sucks. I will say at least right now, the male ego, it’s still a real thing despite the fact that I’m married to a feminist man,” she told me. “I think we can look at it in a different way. Everyone, whether a man or a woman, wants to feel needed in a relationship.”

Sure, everyone wants to feel needed in a relationship. Men have egos and so do women. But must stroking them be so manipulative? Is this really what women want to do, or think they should do? Wouldn’t we prefer to be honest (in a kind and loving way) instead of putting on some sort of act to boost our partner’s ego and get our needs met? Wouldn’t our partners prefer that as well? Or is this somehow a win-win proposition?

And that’s where it seems to get confusing.

Empowering femininity

Femininity and feminism are incompatible, writes Laura Kipnis in The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability. But, interestingly enough, she writes that femininity itself is as much of an “empowerment program for women” as “you go, girl” feminism is (and a case has been made that the sexual manipulation perfected by the femme fatale may be the most feminist move of all):

Appearances to the contrary, femininity was never about being some kind of delicate flower; it was tactical: a way of securing resources and positioning women as advantageously as possible on an uneven playing field, given the historical inequalities and anatomical disparities that make up the wonderful female condition. Femininity was the method for creatively transforming female disadvantages into advantages, basically by doing what it took to form strategic alliances with men: enhancing women’s appeal and sexual attractiveness with time-honored stratagems like ritual displays of female incompetence aimed at subtly propping up men’s (occasionally less than secure) sense of masculine prowess. Thus, lacking body mass, women made a virtue out of delicacy (often a rather steely delicacy); stuck with not just bearing but also raising the children, women promoted the sanctity of motherhood; deprived of upper-body strength, women made men carry things; afflicted by capricious hormonal fluctuations, women used crying as a form of interpersonal leverage; restricted from the public sphere, women commandeered domestic life; shut out of decent employment, gals adopted a “pay-to-play” strategy-men had to pay for sex, with dinners, rings, and homes. Men are also required to kill spiders. All this took some considerable effort: achieving what looks like a passive aim often requires large amounts of activity, as someone once said. (Okay, it was Freud.) The point is that femininity assumes that the world isn’t going to change and endeavors to secure advantages for women on that basis.

That seems kind of sucky, too. (Kipnis laments the fact that today’s femininity is always about women somehow being deficient, thus the never-ending advice on how we can be better.)

But, as Julia Serano writes in Ms. magazine, femininity doesn’t always — or even ever — have anything to do with men. Why can’t women be feminine because it pleases them and no one else?

I consider myself to be feminine — I love being a woman — but I’m also a feminist; what frees women frees men. I don’t believe I’ve ever taken part in the “pay-to-play” strategy; I’ve even killed some spiders on my own (or, more likely, released them into the wild)! At midlife, I date because I enjoy male company and sex — I’m not looking for anything more. Is my femininity manipulative?

Valuing femininity

But it is true that men do seem to value femininity. According to one study, “Men who perceived female partners as more responsive also perceived them as more feminine, and more attractive.” And, as I’ve written before, many men seem to prefer women who do what most women do well — nurture.

Some men — often the MGTOW guys — lament a perceived belief that American women aren’t feminine anymore (that darn feminism!); some say they prefer women from countries like Asia or Russia, believing they’re easier to please and more submissive. Honestly, guys, I’d been really concerned about that kind of femininity.

So my question is, is being feminine today somehow manipulative? And would men happily accept that manipulation if they got what they wanted out of the relationship — a sexy, giving, ego-boosting, nurturing “looks and acts like a woman” woman?

Want to get your need met without being manipulative or manipulated? (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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Recently, a dating coach for women got upset with me on social media. He works with clients who want to get married one day, and, as a happily married man himself, he thought some of the articles I’d written or tweeted are anti-marriage. What do I have against marriage, he wondered.

Except here’s the truth: I have nothing against marriage. I’ve done it twice and even though I have no desire to walk down the aisle again, I co-wrote a book about marriage that basically is for the institution — but a much more individualized version of marriage because when no one has to marry anymore, it makes sense to make marriage fit the people entering into it instead of trying to cram themselves into a one-size-fits-all marital model that actually doesn’t fit many people today.  

That’s hardly anti-
marriage!

Still, the last chapter of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels addresses a modern-day reality: why does the government give perks and protections to people based on their love life? Why should people who never find a romantic partner — or don’t want one — have to pay more than those who do or lose out on certain protections?

At some point in the past it probably made sense to give people incentives to get married — it relieves society from having to care for the young, elderly and sick. Except nowadays, no one has to marry and a huge number of children being born to men and women who are unmarried, but often living together. And, until recently, there were many LGBT couples raising children who couldn’t marry; they were excluded from the perks and protections marriage offered. Which is among the top reasons why same-sex couples fought so hard to have the legal right to marry.

So, it begs the question — do the perks and protections we give only to the married among us make sense anymore?

Here’s what I wrote for Aeon recently (and, yeah, it’s totally weird to reuse your own writing under the Creative Commons license):

A previously unknown species – single people – has recently been discovered. First, there was Eric Klinenberg’s book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (2012), followed by Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (2015) around the time that The Washington Post started a column about the single life called ‘Solo-ish’. Then came Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (2016). ‘Single people are getting harder and harder to ignore,’ wrote Jesse Singal in New York magazine last year. In fact, single women were predicted to be the most powerful voter demographic in the recent presidential election in the United States. (There doesn’t seem to be the same attention paid to single men.)

It seems, then, that single people have finally arrived, poised to take their rightful place alongside married couples when it comes to status, power and respect. Except for one thing: single people still don’t have access to the legal benefits and protections the government grants to those who get married. In the US, there are more than 1,100 laws benefiting married couples, and that’s just at the federal level; many states offer perks and protections as well.

Spouses in the US can pass on Medicare, as well as Social Security, disability, veterans and military benefits. They can get health insurance through a spouse’s employer; receive discounted rates for homeowners’, auto and other types of insurance; make medical decisions for each other as well as funeral arrangements; and take family leave to care for an ill spouse, or bereavement leave if a spouse dies.

These privileges are unavailable to the unmarried in the US, yet most single people would benefit if they were. After all, singles are rarely all alone. They have parents, siblings and other relatives, they have close friends and, often, lovers. Why should they be denied the right to pass on their Social Security benefits to them when they die, instead of having their money absorbed back into the system? Why should they be denied paid time off work to care for them?

Considering that there are more than 124 million single Americans, by choice or chance – outnumbering those who have tied the knot – it no longer makes sense to have the government reward people for their romantic decisions. And, as Klinenberg notes, it’s not just a phenomenon in the US. The rise of people who identify as single is occurring across the globe, from India to China to Brazil to Scandinavia. In Stockholm, more than 50 per cent of all homes are one-person households – ‘a shocking statistic’ according to Klinenberg, but a statistic he predicts is here to stay, despite the long history of seeing single people as ‘lesser’.

Historically, men who didn’t marry were considered immature playboys; women who remained single were sad, lonely spinsters. In both cases, their sexuality was suspect. Even today, when people have more freedom than ever to shape their lives, singles, especially women, are scrutinised, as any single person who has stayed with family for the holidays only to be barraged with questions about his or her love life knows all too well.

The idea that everyone aspires to a romantic relationship – or should – is what the philosopher Elizabeth Brake in her book Minimizing Marriage (2012) calls amatonormativity, and it’s harmful to those on a different path. Having the government shut them out of certain protections is punishing. This is similar to what “Singled Out” (2007) author and singles advocate Bella DePaulo calls ‘singlism’ – the policy of making singles pay more than couples for their basic needs.

Part of the problem is that there is no one type of single person. Singles include the never-married, the divorced and the widowed; the young and the old; hetero and LGBT; rich and poor; black, white and Asian, and every other possibility of race, ethnicity, gender, age and sexual orientation. Plus, many see the single life as a transitory phase, assuming that singles want to marry at some point. Some do, but others don’t. The bigger question is: why should it matter?

Granting benefits to married people made sense at one point, says the historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History (2005). In the mid-20th century, she writes, governments looked to marriage licences as a way to distribute resources to dependents, enacting the Social Security Act of 1935 to give married couples more benefits and the right to pass them on to spouses.

‘Every country, every nation, every state has found it useful to give certain benefits and protections to married people,’ Coontz tells me from her Washington state home. To entice someone to give up earnings to take care of the home and children, she – and it has overwhelmingly been women – would need to be protected. There were incentives to get married as well as obligations.

After the Second World War, there were numerous incentives that encouraged people to embrace male breadwinning and female homemaking, and in 1948 the US income tax code was changed to favour that model. Of course, in those days it was expected that everyone would marry – and would want to marry – and that women would remain at home. But that isn’t quite the reality any more, even though 69 per cent of millennials (people born between 1982 and 2000) say that they’d like to marry one day.

Today, the male breadwinner and female homemaker model is hardly the norm; 46 per cent of US families include parents who both work full-time. In Canada, it’s 69 per cent and in Australia it’s 58 per cent. This makes it harder to defend using marriage licences as a way to funnel benefits to people. Isn’t it time to give singles the same perks and protections to which married couples are privy?

For Coontz, it’s a no-brainer: ‘It’s absolutely overdue.’ Keeping the system as it is might appease the moralists among us, she noted in 2007 in an opinion piece for The New York Times, but it ‘doesn’t serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments’. Even if men and women don’t have children of their own – and many married couples nowadays choose to be childfree – almost everyone has someone who will likely need to be looked after at some point, from a parent to a close friend. The law professor Martha Albertson Fineman argues in her book The Autonomy Myth (2004) that the government should stop privileging married couples, and offer the same perks and protections to anyone in a caregiving role. The law professor Vivian E Hamilton makes a similar argument in her paper ‘Mistaking Marriage for Social Policy’ (2004).

Earlier this year, women’s marches took place all across the globe. While these millions of men, women and children marched for different reasons, the overwhelming message was that women’s rights are basic human rights.

Can the same be said of single people’s rights? Of course. So will there be a unified, orchestrated effort to strip the benefits and protections that apply just to the married and give them to every individual, married or not?

‘I’m not optimistic,’ DePaulo says. ‘Advocacy groups never seem to get any traction or any significant funding. One issue is that marital status, unlike race or gender or sexual orientation, is changeable.’ And changing entrenched programmes such as Social Security is likely to face huge resistance from those who wish to maintain ‘traditional’ values.

Yes, creating a movement around one’s single status would be challenging. But reframing the conversation to become one that addresses basic human rights is much more unifying – and doable.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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’ve been married and divorced twice, but when I divorced the first time — in my 20s, with no children — I never paid attention to any articles about reinventing myself as a divorcee. Not to say that there weren’t articles about that; perhaps there were but this was in the days before the internet and so you’d have to be reading magazines geared toward women and thos never seemed to interest me all that much. But when I divorced the second time — at age 48,with two young children — the internet was beginning to shove the midlife post-divorce reinvention thing in my face. Then came Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2008 memoir Eat, Pray, Love, and we all know what that led to. And, when she divorced in 2016 it was clear that her reinvention of herself — to partner with her best friend, a woman — may have been something more.

Still, we often read about how divorce can be liberating, but that’s usually geared toward women. And, granted — women are often a lot happier after divorce than men are. Marriage isn’t always all that for women, so it’s no surprise that they much more likely to want a divorce.

Which made me wonder, well, what about the men? Are they rediscovering themselves after a divorce? Is anyone helping them see that divorce offers them a chance to reinvent themselves?

Then I read an article by writer and entrepreneur Brian Ainsley Horn that directly speaks to men who’ve gone through a divorce.  In all my years of reading and writing about divorce, I haven’t seen many, if any, articles geared toward divorced men.

Quicker to marry again

Most of the research I’ve stumbled upon indicate that divorced middle-aged men are more likely to marry again than middle-aged divorced women, and more likely to marry faster than women. There are many ways to interpret that, but make no mistake — getting married again at midlife, man or woman, doesn’t prove anything about anything.

Do men need anything different than women do post-divorce? Or are divorced men just not subject to the pressures to reinvent themselves as divorced women are?

Honestly, when I read Horn’s advice supposedly geared toward men I couldn’t see anything that was anything different than what’s been presented toward women:

  • “Look at your divorce as an opportunity.” Check.
  • “Reexamine your priorities and life patterns.” Check.
  • “Examine your past relationship.” Check.
  • “Learn to be happy alone.” Check.
  • “Move on.” Check.

And then his advice for the inevitable mistakes to avoid, which, honestly, any person — male or female — might want to entertain.

Except the one glaring difference: There didn’t seem to be anything that spoke to truly reinventing yourself — start a business! discover a new passion! travel! — which is what women are told all the time. No, men are told to update their wardrobe, take a class and change the way they approach women. All of which are fine, but they are hardly reinventions.

As I’ve written before, there’s been some research on divorced men, but they tend to focus on men who have children and what happens to their relationship with their kids post-divorce,  but mostly on how it the loss of contact negatively impacts the children. There hasn’t been much research on how the dads themselves are faring. A well-referenced 2003 study noted how divorced men were at much greater risk of suicide than were divorced women or single men. Other studies indicate that divorced men drink more booze than their married counterparts and divorced women.

Surviving, not thriving

Maybe that’s why much of what’s written for divorced men is more about coping or surviving, and not thriving.

Brad Pitt may be the perfect example of that. Since his highly publicized split from Angelina Jolie he hardly looks the same. He stopped drinking, he’s seeing a shrink, he’s working on art, he’s trying to be a better man, Pitt tells GQ. He’s coping but he’s hardly reinventing himself.

While men feel devastated, betrayed, confused and often suicidal after a divorce, women are more likely to feel relieved and liberated. More than two years after a divorce, 41 percent of men said they were still sad about the end of their marriage while just 33 percent of women felt the same way.

It’s easier to reinvent yourself when you feel liberated than devastated.

Still, many divorced men eventually find happy, healthy lives.

So, what does it all mean?

You can’t divorce-proof a marriage but you can change your behavior, something Brad Pitt is learning, at age 53. It’s possible to reinvent yourself while staying married. If you want to stay married, you might want to explore how.

Want to reinvent your 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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“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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