We are not even a week into the new year yet it’s already brought a lot of interesting and important developments (which bodes well for 2015, at least in my eyes).
There was a spirited discussion on Evan Marc Katz’s website about potentially “wrong” ways to marry — albeit it wasn’t presented that way — and then there was a sort of vindication by someone who has been a staunch pro-marriage advocate (she even defended former Vice President Dan Quayle’s attack on the TV character Murphy Brown, an unwed mother, back in 1992) who is rethinking her ways.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with reasons why someone might want to marry. Katie wrote to Evan that she and a best friend, who’s a guy, don’t have romantic feeling for each other but they have a lot of other things in synch — lifestyle goals and financial ambitions among them. She wondered if they could make those goals come true if they married or lived together — even if they removed the sexual equation from their partnership:
(W)e are both fine with the idea that there would be other people we would seek for that. Obviously, if we move forward with this arrangement, we would have separate rooms. We also acknowledge that potentially down the road we could fall for other people but can cross that bridge if and when it happens. So my question is, do you think a marriage or a relationship/friendship like that could work if both are open and upfront about the terms and boundaries of the relationship, and both are content to cohabitate (sic) in an arrangement like this because we make each other happy and we love each other in our own way, but we’re not in love with each other?
This is what Susan Pease Gadoua and I call a Companionship Marriage in our book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. Since passion seems to peter out about two years anyway (at which point couples are often advsed how they must create excitement with new toys, positions and lingerie, schedule date nights and sex nights, etc.), most marriages become companionship marriages at some point anyway, no matter how passionate they began. Since few believe that’s problematic, and since people name companionship as the No. 3 reason to marry, why is it “wrong” if a marriage starts off that way?
Yet Evan, who I believe has been a pretty smart and grounded adviser in all things romantic in general (he was an instrumental voice in Lori Gottlieb’s 2011 book, Marry Him: The Case for Mr. Good Enough), put the kibosh on her idea:
(T)here is a reason that marriage has a sexual component. Not merely because attraction is generally what brings two people together, but because people have sexual needs. And it’s much easier to get your sexual needs met from within the marriage than to have a marriage whose very premise is based on infidelity. tweet
Well, whoa. Yes, sexual attraction often brings people together, but that happens with people who also chose to be in consensually non-monogamous relationships, too, and there are quite a few people who dabble in such things. Researchers estimate 1.2 million to 2.4 million people are exploring consensual non-monogamy, and about 9.8 million allow “satellite” lovers — like Dan Savage’s monogamish arrangements.
But let’s be clear — consensual non-monogamy is not infidelity. A couple that agrees to have sex with others has an entirely different relationship than couples that don’t agree but experience non-monogamy anyway. In that scenario, one partner doesn’t have a choice, but for couples who mutually agree to be consensually non-monogamous, both do. Big difference!
I’d also argue that not all marriages have a “sexual component” in the way Evan seems to believe they must have. I’m thinking of Crystal Harris and Hugh Hefner. As Harris freely admits, their intimate time is more about cuddling, watching movies and playing games than sex but their marriage is no less a real marriage than anyone else’s. Why? Because they both knew exactly what they were getting into when they tied the knot, and so their expectations are matched. That’s what makes a marriage satisfying and successful.
So, there’s that. And then there’s this — kids. Evan wonders what might happen if kids come into the picture for Katie (and from her letter as published, it’s impossible to know if kids will be in the picture at all):
You start a family under the guise that you’re best friends/business partners. You both keep dating, seeing other people, having sex with strangers, friends-with-benefits. That means that each of you is either going to have to leave the house (and your little kids) in order to pull off these sexual shenanigans, OR bring your various sex partners to your house (and your little kids). How’s that for a normal, healthy, stable family environment? Finally, if it’s not just random sex partners, but you actually find someone you care about, you will then be torn between spending time with your lover and your family. Either way, you’re neglecting the other, while both of them deserve a full-time commitment from you. tweet
I am a monogamous woman by choice (monogamy is a choice, you know), and even I have problems with such thinking! It is totally dismissive of anyone who is in or interested in an open or polyamorous arrangement and has or wants kids. It also ignore the fact that many single and divorced parents are engaging in “sexual shenanigans” (we like to just call it sex) while their kids are around or not. Divorced parents who share custody quite thankfully have time to themselves while their former spouse is doing what he/she needs to do — parenting — so there’s nothing wrong with that scenario. But even a parent who doesn’t have that arrangement has other options — a baby-sitter or sleepovers. Why can’t a parent take care of his or her needs, sexual or not, and be a good parent, too? It isn’t “sexual shenanigans” that are causing problems for kids, it’s conflict and that occurs in intact families as well as divorce ones (although yes, subjecting kids to a parade of lovers is not a good idea, but most single/divorced parents don’t do that). Still, Katie didn’t mention kids nor was she asked how kids might fit into the picture (and really, not every woman wants to be a mom, and even those who do have found ways to co-parent without having to have a sexual relationship with the father of her kids).
I found all of that upsetting. But then there was the kicker:
So how about you do what everybody else does and marry for love? tweet
I am reminded of the saying, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.'” Considering that love wasn’t part of the marital equation until recently (assuming we even agree on what love is) and that love’s introduction into the marital equation has made the whole institution crumble, I’m not sure this is the best message to send to people who want to think outside the one-size-fits-all marital box. And clearly Katie does. And so do others. Still, why should Katie have to marry like “everybody else does” — couldn’t she marry like Katie wants to, and define a successful marriage in her own terms?
Of course she can, which is the message behind The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. And it’s what even unmarried but committed couples like economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson understand:
“Marriage is a contract between two people about how to organize their lives together. But modern marriage is a one-size-fits-all contract — a default written by the state legislatures. It makes no sense to me that I would want to sign the same contract with Justin that you sign with your partner. So we didn’t take the standard off-the-shelf contract that we call marriage. Instead, we’ve talked at length about what is important to each of us, and it’s that Betsey-and-Justin-specific agreement that guides our lives together. And as anyone who has studied divorce knows, the formal marriage contract doesn’t actually bind our future selves. But I have something far more enduring with Justin than a wedding certificate: We have an amazing daughter, who will bind us together for, well, until death do us part. tweet
Which brings me to the staunch pro-marriage advocate, Isabel Sawhill, an economist and former Clinton administration official who now works with the Brookings Institution. In an long article about her last Saturday in the Washington Post, Sawhill is rethinking her pro-marriage message. Rather than try to revive traditional marriage, she suggests we may need to figure out what might relationships might evolve into, and some of what she suggests is already happening:
“Maybe some people will be married, or have some kind of commitment to each other, but they’ll live in separate places. Or maybe there will be marriages with upfront time limits. Not, ‘We thought we were going to be married forever and decided in the middle to get divorced.’ But marriages where you say to the other person upfront, ‘How about a five-year contract to be committed to each other, and then reassess?’ ” tweet
More than the decrease in couples choosing marriage, Sawhill’s big concern is the rise in single parenting (because let’s face it — society doesn’t care too much about what childfree couples are doing; it cares about the kids). She’s interested in an “ethic of responsible parenthood,” which sounds good on surface but borders on elitism once you start exploring what that may mean: George Lucas adopted two children as a single man and I will bet that Sawhill would not insist that he have a partner first and wait until they are “ready to be parents” — he was wealthy enough to hire surrogate moms until he married again and, last year, became a biological dad at age 69. But at least she is looking at the marital landscape and acknowledging that it is changing. Those who care about marriage or advise couples who wish to marry need to understand those changes, and let people know there are options.
This week Susan and I will address a local group of marriage and family therapists — they are on the front lines of unhappily married couples. I’m hopeful that our research will be useful to them as they seek to guide their clients. We’re all searching for the same thing — healthy and happy relationships, romantic or not. Rather than accept the standard off-the-shelf marital contract, it’s time for couples to realize they can create the marriage they want by how they define a successful marriage.
So yes, Katie — as long as you and your best friend set out and mutually agree on the goals of your marriage and define its structure, you can happily marry. If you decide to have kids, then you may want to tweak your contract to become a Parenting Marriage to better provide a stable home for your kids. Please don’t do what everybody else does; the only person who knows what’s best for you is you.
Interested in learning about ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.