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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).

It’s more about the people I’ve spoken to lately and the project I’m working on with Susan Pease Gadoua, a divorce expert, author and fellow Huffington Post blogger.

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. tweet

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.


2 Responses to “Marriage — obsolete or ready for tweaking?”

  1. Black Iris says:

    There’s something a little contradictory about your project. You don’t want to ever get married again, but you’re trying to figure out a new model for marriage. You don’t think love is a good basis for marriage, but I’m guessing that your current relationship is about love and companionship. Perhaps you’re not as cynical as you think you are?

    Anyhow, I think you may be overlooking the reasons for the high divorce rate. Divorce is much higher among people who don’t go to college, people who marry in their teens and early 20s, people who get pregnant before getting married, people who’ve been divorced before, and people whose parents were divorced. Why not start there to try to figure out what’s wrong with marriage and how to fix it? Encourage people to get an education before they marry, have jobs for everyone, discourage premarital pregnancy. For people whose parents were divorced or who’ve been divorced before, give them extra support in their marriage. Generally support people in choosing a partner and getting through the first few years and the various adjustments in life like having kids or getting older.

    Although it’s not on the list, work to have a good ratio of males to females (i.e. about even), as that seems to be correlated with lasting relationships and monogamy.

    The thing is, the high divorce rate is very much concentrated among people who aren’t doing well financially. For middle class educated people, it’s not really an issue. Divorce still stinks, but sometimes it may be necessary. I don’t know what’s the optimal rate for divorce. It’s clearly not 40%, but that’s not what it really is for middle-class couples.

    As for judging reasons to marry, I think it’s a perfectly sane thing to do. Marrying for status is shallow. Marrying someone for reasons other than love is likely to upset your partner. Love can make it easier to work through the hard times that come your way. We want happiness and starting with a partner we love makes sense.

    Also, if you want to come up with a better model for marriage, you’re going to have to make some judgments about what works in general. In fact, really, I think you already do.

    To answer your questions – no, the current rate of divorce is not acceptable. For one thing, it’s not what people want. Most people are unhappy when they get divorced and would like to have their marriages last. Yes, we should try to do something about it. Making marriage fit who we are today sounds fishy, but I guess it depends what you mean by who we are today.

    The implied question – should we move away from a lifelong, monogamous commitment? I don’t think so. The problem with throwing out the lifelong bit is that one person may want to leave and go for a different marriage while the other one wants to keep what they have. Also making a lifelong commitment changes what you can do in your marriage. It allows you to do more for each other and make financial plans together.

    The problem with getting rid of the monogamous bit is that it’s human nature to want a faithful partner. The social strictures were created to keep us from being at each other’s throats all the time. Variations on polyamory have cropped up at various times in history, but they don’t have staying power. Affairs do disrupt marriages, either by leading to divorce or by making people mad but stuck with each other.

    Cohabitation before making the final commitment is better for society. Cohabiting and having kids is worse – in cases where the couple shouldn’t get married, they shouldn’t live together either.

    A final thought – comments on blogs are probably nastier than people really are. And there seem to be some people who go around attacking as a group whenever their particular issues comes up. I think they may notify each other.

  2. OMGchronicles
    Twitter: OMGchronicles

    Hello Black Iris — Thanks for commenting and your thoughtful response, and sorry it has taken me so long to answer you. You address a lot of topics so I’ll try to respond to each of them:
    “Divorce is much higher among people who don’t go to college, people who marry in their teens and early 20s, people who get pregnant before getting married, people who’ve been divorced before, and people whose parents were divorced.”
    Agreed. These are socioeconomic issues that are not easily fixed; they are not problems with marriage per se.
    “Marrying for status is shallow.”
    Why? I may not marry for status (actually, I wouldn’t marry for many reasons other people marry) and you may not, but why is that marriage any better/worse than a couple that marries because she had an “oops” pregnancy, or a 70-year-old widow wants companionship or a 35-year-old woman is feeling pressured by her family and her biological clock? In other words, people marry for all sorts of reasons; if a couple marries because he wants status and she wants security, at least they both know what they’re saying “I do” to.
    “The implied question – should we move away from a lifelong, monogamous commitment?
    I am not suggesting that we do that, although I think offering people the option of term-limit marriages (as suggested by Mexico City legislators) for those who might then marry instead of, say, cohabit makes sense to me if they plan to raise children. As for moving away from monogamy, we already do that! We say we demand monogamy and yet we have many affairs. So, offering an option of marriage that allows people’s behaviors to jibe with their believes makes sense to me. Again, I may not want an open marriage and you may not, but I’m also not going to cheat on my partner.
    “Cohabitation before making the final commitment is better for society.”
    Studies would argue with that reasoning. The commitment to the relationship must be there first, otherwise the cohabitation is fragile. No problem if there are no kids, but there often are kids involved and that is damaging.
    “You don’t think love is a good basis for marriage.
    Love alone isn’t, because what happens when you don’t love your partner anymore? Also, love often does not exist in arranged marriages — they grew to love each other or, if not that, respect and care for each other. Is that an unsuccessful marriage?
    “Perhaps you’re not as cynical as you think you are?”
    I don’t think I’m cynical at all. 😉

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