I have been thinking a lot about marriage recently.
Not to be confused with thinking about marrying — I am not. Having done it twice, I think I’m pretty much done with that institution. I just can’t see how it would add anything to my wonderful relationship that I’m absolutely committed too (and vice versa).
First, the people.
I enjoyed interviewing San Anselmo filmmaker Kate Schermerhorn, whose new documentary, “After Happily Ever After,” explores the question of whether marriage is still relevant. (My absolute favorite part of the movie is the interview with Nancy and Donald Featherstone (he invented the pink flamingo lawn ornament), who have dressed in matching outfits hand-sewn by Nancy for the past 30 years. They do everything together, even grocery shopping, and as much as that makes me pause (cringe?) I have to think — why not? If that’s what makes their marriage work, who am I to judge?
Schermerhorn’s question about marriage is exactly what Susan and I are exploring in our book project, tentatively called “The New I Do.” And we do think marriage is relevant; we just think it just needs to be tweaked to better reflect who we are today and what our needs are. Since the divorce rate has hovered about 50 percent for the past 40 years, it’s clear a monogamous, lifelong commitment isn’t working out for many of us.
It’s funny, though; when we present these ideas to the community at large, people cannot get past the old ways of thinking about marriage. In fact, they get absolutely furious about it.
Like insisting that the only reason to marry is for love. Really? We may want to believe that, but we actually marry for many more reasons than love. As I wrote in a HuffPo article:
A woman in her 20s may be tying the knot because she’s ready to be a mom. A 40-something divorcee may want to get hitched again for financial stability. A man in his 50s may wed a so-called trophy wife, a younger woman who offers him social status. A 70-something widower may be marrying for companionship.
Aren’t all those marriages just as valid as a marriage for love? Yes, of course.
Anyway, we already know from Stephanie Coontz’s brilliant book, Marriage, a History, that love is a crappy reason to marry. It’s too fragile to make a lifelong commitment out of. Plus, although we insist people marry for love, but don’t insist that they maintain that love to stay married (given the number of loveless marriage) — we just want them to honor their commitment, even if all involved are miserable. Worse, we don’t like it when people divorce because they’re no longer in love — it’s selfish and immature. All of which seems incredibly schizophrenic.
Coontz came to Marin recently, and I had a chance to hear her (thank you, Speak To Me). The Evergreen State College professor and marriage historian makes a lot of sense to me. Despite our current day marital discontent, our marriages are a lot more equal than ever before.
Journalist Iris Krasnow makes a lot of sense to me, too.
“I am constantly reminded of the eggshell-thin line that separates loving from loathing” she wrote in her HuffPo column, “The Fine Line Between Marriage and Divorce,” which women passed around like it was a joint.
Married or divorced, you probably can recall that feeling all too well.
I had a chance to interview Krasnow for the IJ before she came to Marin for a book reading/signing for her latest book, The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married, and then went to see her at Book Passage.
When I handed her a copy of the article before she spoke, Krasnow’s brow furrowed. The headline upset her: “Sex, lies and the secrets of a happy marriage.” “Secrets are different from lies,” she told me, and that’s true (as is the fact that “secrets” was too long a word for the headline!). But, she was happy my article didn’t focus on what those secrets appeared to be about in her HuffPo piece — affairs — and the major emphasis that got in the Daily Beast book review, “Is Cheating the Secret to a Happy Marriage?” In fact, infidelity is just a tiny part of her book. Yet, that is what many people were focusing on: How can you be cheating and yet claim you have a happy marriage?
Krasnow neither condones nor condemns affairs; she has chosen to be monogamous in her long-time marriage but people have a right to decide what works for their marriage, she says.
Judging by the comments on not only her HuffPo piece but on almost any article on marriage or divorce, few people would agree with her. We are a highly judgmental society. Marriage is only for love. Marriage is sanctioned by God. People who divorce are selfish. People who divorce don’t know what commitment is.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the gender wars appear to be as nasty as ever. There is finger-pointing at women for being entitled princesses who are quick to walk away because all they want is their hubby’s money, and finger-pointing at men for cheating, not carrying their weight in a marriage and disappearing after a divorce.
All of which would make me sad if I weren’t so excited by what Susan and I are working on — models to make marriage work better for those who want to marry while acknowledging that marriage isn’t for everyone (and that’s OK — who wants to get “caught up in the hoopla” a la Kim Kardashian) — and that divorce isn’t a failure.
So, I ask you:
- should we as individuals and a society try to make marriage better fit who we are today?
- should we be content with and accepting of about half of all marriages ending in divorce?
- is cohabitation the “new marriage,” and is that a better thing for people and society?
I welcome your thoughts and comments.