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Should your spouse be your everything and fulfill all your needs — be your best friend; passionate lover; devoted parent; soul mate; great communicator; romantic, and intellectual and professional equal who provides you with happiness, fulfillment, financial stability, intimacy, social status, fidelity … ? That’s what marriage has become, as my co-author and I detail in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, and what Eli J. Finkel addresses in his about-to-be released book, The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.

That’s a lot to ask from a relationship. Can we do it?

Yes and no. But the better question is why do we want marriage to do that? It’s certainly not how marriages were throughout history, and while I’d be the last person to get all rose-colored glasses nostalgic over the way marriage was, there were historically some things that actually worked for couples —  they relied on people other than their spouse to fulfill some of their needs.

I think it’s time to revisit that.

As we write in The New I Do:

Rather than expecting one person to meet all your needs, you might ask a spouse to meet a few, and you’d be encouraged to get other needs met in other ways or with other people or in some combination. Maybe you want to partner for the sole reason of having children and co-parenting, and have passion and sex outside the marriage. Maybe you prefer to partner for companionship instead of expecting a spouse to support you financially. Maybe you want to partner solely for financial security and enjoy social activities and vacations with family or friends.

Claire Dederer does. As the author of Love and Trouble writes in a recent Modern Love:

The world is divided into two places: home and away. At home, I’m married to my husband, Bruce. Away, I am married to Victoria. She’s my travel wife. … My husband and my travel wife are both generous: He lets me go; she lets me come along. I’m not sure I could have had one marriage without the other. There’s a lot of talk about open marriage and polyamory lately, but marriage can be customizable and nontraditional in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Marriages can include other spouses who provide other functions. Maybe they need to.

Wow — “Marriages can include other spouses who provide other functions. Maybe they need to.” That’s exactly what we propose in the book (although we don’t call them “spouses”; it takes the pressure off your spouse — and you — to be the everything. And, by viewing a partnership that way, more people might be attractive to us as marriage material; we just won’t have as many demands on them as we do now.

What needs can be met by whom?

Finkel agrees with all of us. As he writes, we can break down our needs into three categories:

  • needs that can only be met by our partner
  • needs that we can meet through our partner, or with a “other significant other” (OSO), such as a friend or family member
  • needs we can meet through our partner, an OSO or on or own

I love that! Why shouldn’t we turn to others, or ourselves, to make life better?

I gave up backpacking and camping when I got married the second time because my then-husband wasn’t an outdoors guy. I don’t live in regrets, yet at the same time there was no reason for me to give up something I loved just because my hubby wasn’t into it. So every year for the past six years, I go backpacking for a long weekend with a group of gals. I go whether I’ve been partnered or not, and I will continue to go as long as our bodies hold up. I look forward to the trip every year, and hold that time sacred — no romantic partner necessary.

Spreading the love

Why does it matter? For one, it’s unlikely any one person will have all the skills for all of our needs (and we probably won’t have them for someone else. Plus, as Finkel notes, our spouse may not always be available when we need him or her most. And that’s going to be problematic for us, and could lead to anger, frustrations and resentments down the road. Finally, if we’re so dependent on our partner, the times we’re stressed out will likely create stress for him or her, too —now both of you are depleted and emotionally distraught at a time when you might need someone to be strong enough to carry the load for a while.

In other words, spread the emotional and physical love around.

But, this takes a new way of thinking about our romantic relationships. Getting our needs met by others, emotionally close to someone else or spending a lot of time with others — especially of the opposite sex (if you’re hetero) — might feel like a betrayal. That’s a missed opportunity. Polyamorists often talk of “compersion” —  a word coined in the poly community that explains the joy people feel when they see a loved one experiencing pleasure with someone else. It’s the opposite of jealousy. It isn’t just about sex — it’s just about wanting our partner to feel good by having his or her needs met — whatever those needs are (and at the same time, acknowledging we’re off the hook!).

Is this challenging? Probably. Does that mean we shouldn’t explore it? No; if anything, it might be the only way the all-or-nothing marriage Finkel describes can survive. And because it worked in the past, we know it can work again — with a few tweaks to fit who we are and how we live nowadays.

Want to learn how to have needs met outside a 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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It’s an old saying but most of us have heard it — “Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?” That’s a phrase that’s both dated and sexist, so to hear it re-branded as “cheap sex” — aka casual sex — and purported to be the reason men aren’t committing and marrying is something I would have thought we wouldn’t be discussing in 2017. And yet, here we are, thanks to sociologist Mark Regnerus and his new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.

Regnerus (the same sociologist behind a controversial study of how children of same-sex couples fare) says cheap sex — sex with little cost as far as time or emotional investment — is behind a host of societal ills, from fewer people marrying to  the rise of unmarriageable men to more people living together to more children being born outside of marriage — you get the idea. And it’s all because women are giving men sex too easily and quickly, thanks in part to the Pill, without demanding anything in return.

OK, it’s true that fewer young people are marrying nowadays. It’s true that more young people are cohabiting nowadays than ever before. It’s true that the pervasiveness of porn has changed the way men and women think about and engage in sex. And it’s true that there’s a lot more sex outside of marriage nowadays. But to say that the only reason men are avoiding committed relationships and marriage is because women are spreading their legs and giving it up too soon (bad, women, bad!) is shaming, blaming judgmental and, as it happens, not entirely accurate.

‘Men will work for sex’

In a 2011 article in Salon, no doubt the beginnings of his book, Regenerus writes:

(W)hat many young men wish for — access to sex without too many complications or commitments — carries the day. If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we’d be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on.  … while young men’s failures in life are not penalizing them in the bedroom, their sexual success may, ironically, be hindering their drive to achieve in life. Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today’s young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year’s book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.” They’re right. But then try getting men to do anything.

I have no problem with a society that’s relaxed, tolerant and plenty sexy. In fact, I’m all in! I’m also in for a male-friendly society, too — why not be friendly to men? But, what does it even mean? Does it favor men and men only? In what way? What Regnerus seems to forget or ignores is that some women — not all, but some — would actually like to have casual sex so they can focus on other things besides a romantic relationship, which is a time and energy suck. As my friend, economics professor and Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex author Marina Adshade, says, women are “shamed for behaving in a way that society believes is contrary to their nature.” People have a hard time believing women can be happy having “cheap sex.” Well, many of us gals actually can.

But Regnerus also seems to say that if men don’t have to work hard for sex, they’re not going to work at anything. Really? I know lots of men who are doing lots of things — working to make the world safer from nuclear weapons, helping poor farmers in Africa and Sudan increase their crops so they can feed their families, investigating fraud, fighting for justice  … Oh, wait — that’s not what Regnerus means; he means try getting them to woo a woman properly and commit and marry. Because I guess that’s the only thing that matters — romantic relationships and marriage. For men like Regnerus, it’s true: they see marriage as a way to make men become respectable members of society, to tame them. But do today’s men really need to be tamed? And, if so, is it really a wife’s responsibility to do that? We have enough on our plate, quite honestly.

And as the mom to two nice young men, one in a committed relationship and one single after five years of a committed relationship, it’s an insult!

Other factors in play

Yes, there are young men who are living in their parents’ basement and playing video games all day, but I highly doubt it’s because women are “giving” them cheap sex — it’s probably more about stagnant wages and the fact that video games offer a social aspect that leads to a boost in guys’ happiness. I don’t fully understand it, but I don’t think convincing women to hold off on providing “cheap sex” is going to do anything Regnerus would like to see happen — like marriage. And some men are wary of marriage because they know divorce is always an option and men haven’t always been treated fairly by family court; why wouldn’t they delay or avoid tying the knot?

And that’s part of what he suggests, that women conspire together to close our legs and vaginas until men give them what they want — even if what we may want is some casual sex until we find the right person to settle down with, if we even want that, and more and more women are just not interested in being married.

Sorry, Regnerus, but it’s not women’s job to control men’s behavior. The guys are going to have to figure this out by themselves. That said, women should never feel that they owe a man sex; we don’t. Ever.

Delaying marriage isn’t all bad

Interestingly, the data Regnerus presents clearly indicates that men are committing and marrying — they’re just waiting longer to do so. But that’s OK! Since we’re living longer than ever and since women fare better by delaying marriage, why are we still wringing our hands about this? Maybe if we offered people other versions of marriage — like time-limited, renewable marital contracts — more would consider tying the knot. Maybe the problem is with our very narrow one-size-fits-all traditional marriage model.

So let’s stop worrying about men getting free milk without buying the cow. As comedian John Mulaney explains, for many men the cow still matters:

Why buy the cow? Maybe because everyday the cow asks you when you’re going to buy it. And you live in a really small apartment with the cow and you can’t avoid that question at all. Also, the cow is way better at arguing than you are. … But for real, why buy the cow? Let’s be real. Why buy the cow? Because you love her.

And that’s what people like Regnerus don’t seem to understand — men will commit to a partner and may even want to marry her (or him or they) when it feels good and right and natural and important and desired. Because sometimes, that’s what they want — even if they’ve had a lively casual sex life with whoever’s given it up freely, willingly and happily.

Want to explore why you want to marry? (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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“For life. No one wants anything ‘for life.’ It just reminds us of our impending death.” So starts Lake Bell’s new movie, “I Do … Until I Don’t,” which explores the sorry state of marriage and the promise of a seven-year marital contract.

I was incredible excited to learn about this film — its premise is what I’ve spent the past five years of my life researching and writing about. I am a huge fan of time-limited, renewable marital contracts, which actually have a long, sometimes successful, history, and devote a chapter to it in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (in fact, our contract was used by Mandy Len Catron to draft a relationship contract with her partner, which she wrote about in a Modern Love essay and her new book, How to Fall in Love With Anyone). In other words, it’s really practical and doable. So when I had a chance to preview the movie, which opens Labor Day weekend, I jumped at it.

I wish I could say I loved it, or even liked it. I don’t. In fact, I was deeply disappointed. Instead of offering a balanced look into how a time-limited renewable marital contract might actually benefit couples, the movie just reinforces the simplistic views we already have about marriage — that “death do us part” is pretty much always the best option because, well, vows — as well as our views on monogamy, misunderstanding what open relationships are truly about and thus treating them with disdain.

Such a missed opportunity!

Here’s the premise: recent (and, of course, a cliched bitter) divorcée and sociologist Vivian Prudeck is working on a documentary that seeks to prove that traditional marriage is outdated. (It is!) She enlists — well, pays handsomely, which is clearly unethical — three couples: Alice and Noah, 30-somethings stuck in a 10-year marital rut and dealing with infertility; Alice’s free-spirited sister Fanny and her open relationship with longtime partner Zander, with whom she has a child; and Cybil and Harvey, an unhappily married middle-aged empty-nester stepfamily.

Marriage as an archaic institution

First, kudos to Bell for wanting to explore marriage, what she calls an archaic institution.

I was interested in the concept of this old-fashioned, somewhat — in my opinion — archaic institution that seems to again and again be thrust at us as some sort of requisite. But it was my intention and want and hope to ultimately inspire hope and romance in whoever comes to this old-fashioned albeit worthy commitment.

It’s the “worthy” that’s problematic (well, and her desire to inspire romance). Bell admits she wasn’t coming from an open-minded place when she started writing the screenplay (she chose a contract of seven years is because she heard about German politician Gabriele Pauli’s call for a renewable seven-year contract in 2007). In fact, she says she was “staunchly opposed to the concept of marriage.”

The inception of the idea really did come from a jaded place. I always set out to end it by finding the hope in it, but I didn’t know what the ending would be, because I hadn’t had the experience of a meaningful, trusting, real relationship, where you’re like, “I’m seeing you, I see you eye to eye, and I will walk with you through the mud and the light.” That hadn’t found me yet.

Coming from a jaded place is hardly the way to approach a topic. But then she met and married Scott Campbell in 2013, before her film was completed, and one has to wonder if that changed her viewpoint. It must have because as she tells Vulture:

I’m really proud of this movie — it’s so personal, and one day I get to show my kids, you know? What a nice thing, to show them something that has these good values. And I’m not even conservative! … And look, sometimes relationships between two people just don’t work. But every relationship deserves an effort.

Questionable values

And here are the “good values” she’d like to preserve, or at least “deserve an effort” to preserve: Alice lies to Noah on numerous levels, most importantly about wanting to have a child; she confesses she was only going through the motions because he wanted a baby. Great! Let’s bring a baby into the world even though we don’t want it! And, she only seems to be able to fully be honest with him once she’s in front of Prudeck’s camera, and what she says reveals a long-simmering frustration. She’s also distrustful of him, but, hey — no problem there!

Meanwhile, Cybil and Harvey have a relationship filled with anger, disappointment and contempt. If you are savvy to the work of the Gottman Institute, you know that contempt is the worst of what’s considered the four horsemen — contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling — that typically lead to divorce. As therapist Esther Perel has said, there are many ways to betray a spouse besides sexual infidelity and — yep — contempt is in the mix.

As for Fanny and Zander — an unmarried but committed cohabiting co-parenting couple — they at least have conversations about monogamy and transparency even if they’re struggling with feelings of jealousy. Bell pokes fun at their weird crunchy-granola-like diet, music, lifestyle and beliefs, but they are actually the most genuinely happy of the couples presented (well, they are having lots of sex!). While trying to explain her relationship to her sister Alice, Franny uses a clumsy metaphor about heroin, but it’s relatable and honest: they have the means and resources to get heroin if they want to, and they could use it if they want to, Franny tells Alice, but they don’t. They just choose not to. And that’s how they approach their open relationship.

This is what one of the couples I interviewed for the open marriage chapter in The New I Do told me — they, too, didn’t have sex with people outside the marriage all that often, but just knowing they could made them feel much more connected and respected.

If only it ended there!

But, alas. Because the next thing Franny tells Alice is: “We don’t cheat.”

Of course not! Because an open relationship is not cheating! C’mon people; do we still have to explain consensual non-monogamy to you in 2017?

Predictable outcome

You can probably tell where this movie is going. It’s not going to be team anti-amatonormativity, that’s for sure.

As if all the prior missteps weren’t enough, one of the movie’s final scenes — warning: spoiler alert, here — once again reinforces the desire to make marriage be a one-size-fits-all model.

At an event filmmaker Prudeck sets up, based unbeknownst to her on a revenge plot the three couples agree to, Harvey stands up and, to loud applause, states:  “I think I speak on behalf of everybody here. You don’t have to get married. But, let others figure it out. Don’t make it worse. We have enough problems.”

Then Franny chimes in, “People only partake in open relationships for the bragging rights.”

At which point Zander asks Franny to marry him.

Please — just smack me now.

And of course all the couples in the film reboot their love and deepen their connection by the film’s end. But here’s why: They just become kinder to each other. That’s it. It’s true kindness and generosity go a long way in making us feel good about ourselves and our partner. But here’s the thing about a time-limited renewable marital contract; spouses wouldn’t have been able to have gotten away being so unkind and resentful for so many years if they had to be accountable for their behavior every few years or so. And they would have to be clear about expectations about such things as monogamy, and if jealous thoughts came up, well, that’s just another opportunity to address fears.

So “I Do … Until I Don’t” was a missed opportunity to bust free from what we think marriage should look like. Even the most liberated couple, Zander and Franny — despite their long-term committed partnership — suddenly see marriage as an antidote to “bragging rights.” But will putting a ring on it just seal then into sexual conformity? Will they lose their desire for transparency and communication?

If they’re marrying without a contract that expresses why they want to wed and that holds them accountable, my guess would be yes.

Want to learn about how a marital contract might actually help a 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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At some point, women recognize that they have sexual power. Often, it happens before we’re ready to have it — we develop breasts at a young age, for instance, and we’re clueless about what that does to boys and men. It’s both scary and exciting, but often more scary than not — until we know how to use it, whether in healthy or unhealthy ways.

Recently a friend and I talked about the moment we realized we had sexual power and how we used it. It was the first time I’d really talked about it openly although I’ve thought about it from time to time. Sexual power is different at various ages, and when you’re single and dating, or in a committed relationship, or when you’re married.

I was not one of those girls who developed early. I didn’t have big breasts (and still don’t, but let’s not go there), nor did I do much to flaunt my sexuality as a teen — I wasn’t even aware of it. I was shy and quiet and hide my face behind long hair and was full-on hippie, with underarm and leg hair and all. And yet, I always had a boyfriend. Cute boyfriends.

Liking the male gaze

I didn’t realize I had sexual power until I was in my 20s, when I did stupid things like cheat on my partner. The way my affair partner looked at me  — the male gaze — was unnerving; no one had ever looked at me that way before. And I liked it. I liked the power I felt from it. I still was shy and awkward, but the transformation had begun; I began to recognize and honor my sexual power.

Honestly, what 20-something woman isn’t going to gather attention? But, that was decades ago, and some stuff has happened since then — a divorce, years as a more-confident young single woman, a second marriage, another divorce, being single with kids in my late 40s, having a few committed relationships at midlife and finding myself single again at an age that feels, well probably is, old.

I’ll admit it; being married with young kids did nothing to boost my feelings of sexual power. I kind of lost myself as many women do. Discovering my husband’s long-term affair didn’t help, either. But when I was newly divorced and went back into the workplace full time, at midlife something happened — I got my mojo back. It’s never left.

What happened?

Embracing the flirt

For whatever reason, I acknowledged and embraced the sexual, flirty side of me that I love but foolishly believed had to be in check when I was married — channeling Vice President Pence here — and when I was in some relationships, the ones in which my flirtatious nature was seen as a threat and not a playful interaction with an equally flirtatious partner but trusted and openly talked about.

Women don’t always have power in the ways we’d like to, but we do have sexual power. This dates back to biblical times — Eve was a temptress, after all. As Krista Thompson writes:

Women have the power of sex. Entire industries are based on it (beauty, fashion porn) or attempts are made to cover it completely (some Muslim and Jewish ultra-orthodox societies, etc). Men want it bad, women bestow it on the deserving. Let’s face it. The only way for a man to have complete control over when and where he has sex is to pay for it. If this power is taken from a woman, it is rape. At worst, she is a killed for dishonoring her family. The joy in the gift of female sexuality is pursuing your interests in all areas of sexual opportunity. The responsibility of this power is to share it, allowing men to fully express themselves sexually as well.

But it’s not easy to do that. As Suzannah Weiss writes:

The idea that women attain control by eliciting men’s desires plays into the age-old notion that women’s worth lies in their ability to produce erections. … [T]elling women their value lies in their ability to be desirable devalues women who are not widely considered sexually desirable. … Placing value on women based on men’s attraction makes those who don’t possess the traits society considers attractive feel worthless, and it makes women of all appearances feel like objects.

I don’t think any woman wants to feel like an object and I agree that telling women that our value lies only in our ability to be desirable could be seen as devaluing “women who are not widely considered sexually desirable.” I don’t necessarily agree that only “Men want it bad” — many women do, too, and saying “women bestow it on the deserving” feels bad, too. Bestow? Deserving? Ugh!

At the same time, I am an older woman, therefore many men might — and do — consider me undesirable. But I don’t feel worthless. Whether they do or not, I just want to embrace my sexual power. Not in a manipulative way, but because it makes me feel good.

Therefore, some men notice it. And I’m aware of that.

‘Women aren’t going to stop being sexy’

Women don’t have to feel worthless or an object just because they own their sexual power. It isn’t either/or.

I like what Sex and the State blogger C says:

Sexualization is seeing sexual value/power and non-sexual value/power as mutually exclusive. The antidote to sexualization, then, is reconciling sexual value/power and non-sexual value/power. To end the sexy double standard we have to replace either/or with yes/and. Because women aren’t going to stop being sexy.

To which I’d say, gals, own your sexual power. You have it when you feel it, when you have it for yourself and not because someone else thinks you have it or don’t have it. Don’t use it to hurt or manipulate others. And it isn’t solely for sex. It’s for you.

Want to explore which marriage is right for you? (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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Who has the upper hand in dating, men or women? It might depend on whom you ask but there’s one thing I’ve been thinking about lately — how gals generally don’t have as much experience with rejection when it comes to dating as men do, although it may feel like it if they’ve been dumped, played or cheated on.

At an first-meet date with a man I met online recently, he was dis-
appointed that women don’t message men first. I reminded him that I had, indeed, messaged him, not vice versa, but he said it was a rarity. To prove his point, he’d set up a pseudo online profile as a woman — and immediately got inundated with messages from men.

“But probably not the kind of men you’d be interested in dating,” I told him. “Quantity isn’t quality.”

True, he acknowledged, but we got around to talking about how rejection — or lack of rejection — impacts the way men and women approach dating. I think it matters.

Masters of romantic rejection

Men risk romantic rejection a lot more than women do. As Mark Rosenfeld, a self-described dog lover, male stripper and dating coach — interesting combo, that — writes:

If a woman is unwilling to make a move on a man, she can sub-communicate to him she wants him to make one, without risking a real rejection. If that doesn’t work, a different man will try his luck. She can meet and get chatting to a lot of men, without having to risk a direct rejection. … For many men, confidence does not come naturally. Unfortunately, in dating, where men must risk rejection regularly to have success, confidence is required. This can be a huge, sometimes insurmountable, obstacle for some men to overcome.

The “sub-communicate” thing is exactly the advice many dating coaches tell women to get a man they’re interested in to make the first move — despite my online first-meet date’s desire to have women approach him first.

Dating coach Evan Marc Katz says if women ask men out first, it “can be taken as aggressive, desperate, and masculine. At the very least, it can signify a loss of power.” Instead he suggests women create an opportunity for a man to act on our interest and ask us out first — which, again creates a “huge, sometimes insurmountable, obstacle for some men to overcome.”

So some may not be able to do it and, guess what — a missed opportunity!

In explaining her BRUTAL (her emphasis) reasons why a women should never ask a man out, dating coach Ronnie Ann Ryan admonishes “strong, successful women (who) think gender equality means there’s no longer any reason NOT to ask a man out.” She questions a man’s inability to be confident in asking a woman out (which really doesn’t seem fair), and then advises that “letting the man pursue you works best. That’s the only way you’ll ever know if he’s really interested.”

And we’re right back to where we were. Missed opportunities.

Disadvantaging women

Ultimately, I think a lack of experience in rejection disadvantages women, who tend to react one of two ways if a date, or planned date, goes awry — either “he’s an asshole” or she takes it personally. (Of course, some men react violently to being rejected by women. That’s a form of entitlement that’s dangerous for everyone.) Some studies indicate that experience with rejection is keeping women from rising in their careers; could it also be keeping us from getting what we want romantically?

There’s got to be a healthier way to accept the fact that not everyone’s going to be into us and that’s OK. And that might take practice, some self-esteem and a healthy dose of humor while dating.

In exploring why women still rarely ask men out on dates — despite greater equality in many other things — associate professor of psychology Michael Mills found that both men and women are willing to have someone of the opposite sex ask them out, but much fewer women actually did it than men. In part, he explained it as “as an effort by women to protect their sexual reputation. By refraining from making first time relationship initiatives, women may be providing evidence to potential long-term mates that they would not make the first move with another man in the future, given their history of not doing so in the past.”

Still, as he notes, it’s tricky to rely on histories of what’s been done or not done “in the past” because men can claim that, too — right? If we want equality, shouldn’t women have to risk as much as men do?

We certainly don’t let men use the “but it is only natural” excuse to justify some of their more antisocial behaviors. Should we give women “a sexual inequality pass” because it is just one part of a natural courtship script? Or, should we encourage women to make more risky initiatives? Should men go on a “risky initiatives” strike? Should we ask women to “woman up” — put their fragile egos on the line, get some ovaries, get out there and start asking out men on first dates?

Well, I have put my ovaries out there and asked men out; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I’m a woman of a certain age, as was my online meet date. Could it be that the older we get, the more likely we’re willing to shed restrictive dating rules on who “should” do what first? Maybe.

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A few years ago, I broke up with someone I had been seeing for about a year. Because of age differences and life circumstance, we agreed from the beginning that it was not a relationship that was going to “go somewhere,” but we genuinely liked each other. So when it ended I said, “Let’s still be friends.”

That did not happen. When I ran into him about a year ago, we were friendly and had a good time catching up, but that’s that. No, “Hey, let’s get together soon” or promises to go grab a bite or a drink or take a hike. I already have lots of friends I can do that with — do I really need to do that with a former lover?

I believe that former lovers, spouses and partners can be friends after the romantic relationship ends — I’m a big believer in Katherine Woodward Thomas’ conscious uncoupling, which promotes ending relationships as they began, with love, kindness and compassion — but I’m not sure that needs to happen.

So, outside of the friendly relationship I have with the father of my children — because that really matters — it hasn’t totally happened for me, nor have I actively sought to make it happen, although I have maintained contact and have been friendly with some former partners.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong about it, but I am curious — why do people want to remain friends with their former partners?

Seven ways to keep your (former) lover

According to a recent study, it falls into seven categories:

  • sentimentality  — “we shared a lot of good memories” or “they were supportive of my goals”
  • pragmatism  — “they were able to provide me transportation to places” or “they had attractive friends” (and hmm on that one!)
  • continued romantic attraction — “I still had feelings for them”
  • shared resources such as a child, pet or an apartment
  • diminished romantic feelings, which made it easier to keep things platonic
  • “social relationship maintenance,” such as keeping a friend group intact and minimizing drama

As the study’s authors note in previous research, while it isn’t necessarily rare to stay friends, it’s a lot harder to maintain a relationship with a former romantic partner than it is with a friend of the opposite sex (and even that is almost always suspect), and that men were more interested in maintaining friendships for practical reasons and — no surprise! — sexual access. A kind of friends with benefits thing until someone else comes along. Not every woman can do that without feeling diminished, although that often has more to do with societal messages than the way we really feel.

One social experience researcher suggests that it may not be a good idea to become friends with former partners because those friends tend to be “less emotionally supportive, less helpful, less trusting, and less concerned about the other person’s happiness. This is especially true, not surprisingly, for former partners who were dissatisfied with the romantic relationship, and in cases when the break-up was not mutual.” That doesn’t sound like a healthy friendship at all.

Check your motives

That said, it can work if — and this is a big if that you may want to explore — “neither of you has ulterior motives … and if your friendship doesn’t interfere with your current relationships.” But the study acknowledges that there often are ulterior motives; we’re human after all!

A more recent study broke the romantic-partner-to-friend relationship into just four reasons: security (wanting his/her emotional support, advice, trust); practical (shared kids, pets, friends); civility (not wanting to hurt feelings) and you’re still crushing on him or her. Interestingly, unresolved romantic desires led to more negative feelings about a former romantic partner, but longer friendships. Go figure!

I don’t think there’s any wrong or right answer but if you have a child with a former romantic partner, maintaining a good relationship is really important for the children especially, but that doesn’t mean you have to be friends — or even be friendly — although the later would certainly help. As for being friends with your former romantic partner’s other former romantic partners? Hmm, all I can say is, do I have to???

Are there compelling reasons to remain friends with all your former romantic partners? I’m not convinced. Are you?

Rather than consciously uncoupling, do you you want to learn how to consciously couple? (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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What do you want out of life, happiness or meaning?

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Eli J. Finkel’s The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, which comes out this September. I’m excited about it for a few reasons, one because The New I Do is mentioned in it — thank you, Eli! — but also because it expands on the Northwestern University professor and head of the Relationships and Motivation Lab’s provocative New York Times op-ed of the same name a few years back.

In it he wrote:

Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.

I’ll talk much more about Finkel’s book when the book comes out, but one thing stuck me halfway through it — a discussion on research about those who seek happiness, defined as having a life that’s easy and pleasurable, and people who seek meaning, defined as those who think a lot about the future or who have strong tendencies to be a “giver.”

As he writes in his book:

In short, whereas the happy life is characterized by ease and pleasure, the meaningful life is characterized by generosity, deep engagement with difficult pursuits, and a coherent sense of how the self develops across time.

I hadn’t really thought about that before, so this past weekend, when I was on my annual backpacking trip with some of my dearest friends, book in tow, I asked them, “What matters more to you — happiness or meaning?”

Of course, they said they wanted both. But if they had to chose? Happiness, they said.

I’d like both, too, but when I look at what has really mattered to me over my life, it’s meaning. Having meaning makes me feel happy, even though Finkel says that the research indicates people who seek meaning are actually less happy (which makes me wonder how we are defining happiness).

Easy versus being ‘all in’

He cites the work of psychologists who describe two hikes along North Carolina’s Linville Falls. One is a challenging route that requires hikers to scramble onto giant boulders close to the falls but offers a total sensory and fulfilling experience; the other is a lot easier but hikers only get to see the falls from afar.

It’s like that with relationships, too, he suggests: you’re going to get different results if you look for something easy or go “all in.” So people who choose happiness view divorce favorably when things get tough; those who seek meaning see the rough patches as a path toward self-improvement. (That said, this happiness versus meaning approach seems to value longevity as the only measure of a marriage’s success, which is what’s getting us in trouble in the first place.)

I wasn’t surprised that my friends chose happiness over meaning: an easy, pleasurable life sounds awfully enticing. But it made me ask myself for the first time, what’s my priority in life, in a relationship? Of course I want both, too,  but again I will always choose meaning. Not that I want or seek romantic complications — I’ve had dramatic relationships and they’re exhausting. But easy relationships? They’re, well, a bit boring. I’d like to scramble on big, slippery boulders, alone or with someone, to feel alive. That makes me happy, research be damned!

What about you?

Want to find your own happiness or meaning in 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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Many people made fun of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s conscious uncoupling a few years ago. But it’s evident that they have influenced a number of other newly divorced celebrity parents who are raising kids together to put aside their anger and differences and come together for their family. (Sienna Miller even admits to doing the nightly bedtime routine together with former partner and father of her daughter, Tom Sturridge, while Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner take vacations together with the kids.

Could this happy co-parenting stuff happen before a couple gets divorced?

Of course —  a lot of couples have figured it out when it comes to parenting their kids. But many, many more have not and guess what happens? Conflict. And guess who suffers? Right, the kids.

Which is why one of the chapters on The New I Do is dedicated to a parenting marriage, a slightly different take on platonic parenting. But what both do so beautifully is this: anything related to the kids — from when and how to have them to how to raise and discipline them — is talked about and agreed upon. No surprises, no hidden agendas, no frustrations, no resentments  — well at least a lot less of all of that.

Merle Weiner, a law professor at the University of Oregon, proposes that the state should create a legal parent-partner status that binds parents — married, cohabiting, living apart, romantic partners or not —  with certain mandatory obligations in order to give their children what they need to thrive.

Whether you agree with any or all of the above, there is one aspect that is essential in making these sorts of arrangements work, and that is understanding your family-of-origin issues.

Now, there’s a new book that brings that conversation into the forefront, Parenting as Partners: How to Launch Your Kids Without Ejecting Your Spouse by Vicki Hoefle, a parenting coach and author. Her book is designed to help couples create a parenting plan — just as we suggest in The New I Do.

The beginnings of bad parenting

If you don’t want to end up like Jancee Dunn, who was almost at the point of divorce, as she writes in her new book, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, because she and her husband  had “dreamy conversations” about their baby when they were pregnant, but never discussed  the day-to-day practicalities, then you might want to read Hoefle’s book. As she writes:

As tensions rise between parents, their ability to parent effectively is compromised, and as a result, both the children’s behavior and their emotional health are put at risk. Because we are a culture convinced that kids are the ones who need fixing (thankfully this trend is changing), it’s reasonable that parents place the discord in the home at the feet of the kids, rather than on the state of the individuals doing the parenting. With each passing year, parents grow further and further apart, until they are either sabotaging each other openly or have entered into a quiet battle of wills, otherwise known as a power struggle. Without a course correction, not only are the children impacted in a negative way; the marriage suffers enough that parents consider divorce their only remedy for an untenable situation.

As a woman who has raised two children in a marriage, truer words were never said.

Here are two things Hoefle nails: family-of-origin issues and the rise of more hands-on dads.

Giving dads respect

It’s true that today’s moms want dads to be more involved in their kids’ lives. But it’s also true that that means moms need to give dads an equal say in parenting decisions — and respect their say. As Hoefle notes, that doesn’t always happen, giving way to conflict:

What a shame to have lost our partner’s ideas and perspectives when ultimately we could benefit and celebrate the fact that we have someone who is as interested and committed to the raising of our children as we are — someone who is willing to go out on a limb and share a new perspective that could benefit the whole family.

Yes. Really, yes.

As for the family-of-origin issues, that can take on various dimensions, positive and negative. Maybe you don’t want to be like your mother or father so you actively choose to raise your kids differently. Or maybe you have such wonderful memories that you want to give your children the exact same experience. Well, guess what — your partner has memories of his/her own and may not feel the same. Now what?

Hoefle gives a great example when she talks about how a mom’s desire to greet her children with fresh-from-the-oven homemade cookies after school, just like her mother did for her when she was young, wasn’t shared by her partner. This can be devastating for the nostalgic mom and create a rift in her relationship. But Hoefle wisely observes that it isn’t really about the cookies; it’s more the feeling of unconditional love that she wants to re-create for her kids. That’s easy to understand. Except that feeling can come from other experiences that have nothing to do with oven-fresh homemade cookies, which, in fact, may be impossible to provide because both parents may be working and the child may be in after-school care.

“Many parents try to re-create with their children the positive experiences from their childhood but get stuck in trying to replicate the details rather than on capturing the feeling and meaning of the experience,” Hoefle writes. And that really is key — understanding what drives our behavior when it comes to the childhood we want to give our children, and our partner needs to do the same. And then you have to be in agreement about what that means day to day. That isn’t easy … unless you’re willing to go deep into that stuff.

Your kids are watching

But it’s worth it. Beyond the tension mismatched parenting expectations will cause the couple, it’s also modeling unhealthy behavior for your children:

Consider the messages you may be sending to the kids when the two of you work against each other rather than with each other. … Ask yourself, would you want your son or daughter’s partner talking to your child the way you are speaking to your partner or vice versa? If not, the it’s time to take this entire co-parenting plan seriously.

Preach it!

I know — it seems onerous to have to create a written parenting plan, let alone have to talk about such things. It is actually onerous. That said, it will be the greatest gift you can give your children, as well as yourself and your partner.

Want to see if a parenting marriage is good for you? (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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A lot of people made fun of Mike Pence in April when it was revealed that the Vice President won’t eat alone with any other woman than his wife, Karen, or even attend events where alcohol is served unless she’s there, too. Others thought, oh well — that’s just evangelical Christians for you.

It would seem that few people actually thought that it’s a common practice — I certainly didn’t. But guess what; I was wrong.

According to a recent poll published by the New York Times’ Upshot, many Americans are a bit freaked out, or at least wary, of one-on-one situations with members of the opposite sex:

Around a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women, and nearly half of men, say it’s unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.

This has huge ramifications, mostly for women, who may (OK, are) shut out of certain opportunities at work and treated differently in many areas of life.

Easily misconstrued

I was shocked — initially. But when I reflected deeper on it, I realized how this has played out in my own life. Not that I have been afraid to be alone with a man when I was married or partnered, but how easily things were misconstrued by others. As Christopher Mauldin, a California construction worker, says in the article, “When a man and a woman are left alone, outside parties can insinuate about what’s really going on.”

Oh boy, is that true!

When I was a relatively new divorcee, I remember waiting for a girlfriend to meet me at a local watering hole. A man who frequented the same morning coffee shop I went to walked in, saw me and sat down for a few minutes to chat. Just then, a couple whose kids went to the same school as mine and whom I knew casually walked in, saw the two of us and stopped by to say hello. Innocent enough, but it was clear that a judgment had been made; I guess that’s who she’s schtupping.

More recently, back-to-back time spent with a long-time male friend became suspect because he and I are both currently single — cue the temptress-lothario scenario. Because a single man and a single woman obviously cannot be together without thinking about sex. Now, it may be true that one or the other, or both, are indeed thinking about sex. But thinking about sex without acting on it isn’t a crime or even inappropriate — even former President Jimmy Carter admitted to having lust in his heart. Isn’t lust for others generally part of the human condition whether you’re partnered or not?

The poll indicates young women are particularly wary of being alone with a man. Given the bad behavior of some men and women’s fear — sometimes irrational — of sexual violence, this does not surprise me.

Clare Cain Miller’s Upshot article mostly mentions how women are hurt by being excluded, and that is real and disturbing. But men are hurt, too.

Men — a constant threat

Men are suspect if they volunteer in classrooms, hang around parks while their kids play or try to join in a playgroup, typically made up of moms. As one stay-at-home dad tells Andrea Doucet, a Canadian sociology professor and author of Do Men Mother, “It’s kind of bad for men to be interested in other children.”

“I have encountered people who … saw me as a threat at the playground because I was a man,” writes stay-at-home dad and daddy blogger Chris Bernholdt.

When a SAHD tried to join the Burlingame Mothers’ Club a few years ago, he was turned down — although the club told him he could join if he was in a same-sex relationship. Why couldn’t he just join a dad’s group, or start his own? some asked. Once he complained to the press, he was finally allowed to join. Was the group’s initial hesitation more about maintaining a sisterhood or more about the fear of a solo man, away from his wife, being around a bunch of solo women, away from their husbands, which just might bring up thoughts of lust and sex? Hard to know.

But I am incredibly disappointed that this is happening in 2017 America, and not just in Middle Eastern countries where women must hide all parts of themselves lest a man get lustful — and of course it would be her fault.

It would be interesting to see if this fear of the opposite sex is occurring elsewhere, like Europe; I can’t find any research on it but it’s clear that Europeans generally have much healthier and relaxed attitudes about sex, and European women are eager to participate in public life.

Can men and women be friends?

Still, when it comes to why men and women seek opposite-sex friendships, it’s — as they say — complicated in a When Harry Met Sally kind of way: it’s a strategy men use to gain sex, women use to gain protection, and both sexes use to acquire potential romantic partners, according to one study.

But it’s clear the bigger issue, essayist William Deresiewicz writes, is our narrow definition of relationships — romantic or not — and the way we sexualize everything, even same-sex friendships:

We have trouble, in our culture, with any love that isn’t based on sex or blood. We understand romantic relationships, and we understand family, and that’s about all we seem to understand. We have trouble with mentorship, the asymmetric love of master and apprentice, professor and student, guide and guided; we have trouble with comradeship, the bond that comes from shared, intense work; and we have trouble with friendship, at least of the intimate kind. When we imagine those relationships, we seem to have to sexualize them. Close friendships between members of the same sex, after all, are also suspect. Even Oprah has had to defend her relationship with Gayle King, and as for men and men, forget about it.

I agree with him, and I can’t help but feel all of us are missing out by fearing being alone with someone of the opposite sex. And that’s exactly what’s driving it — fear. Will we ever get past that?

Want to learn how to talk about monogamy? (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 was sitting next to two women and hearing snippets of their conversation. The married one was uncertain and disillusioned in her marriage, full of complaints about her husband. It seemed as if he couldn’t do much of anything right: he didn’t do his share of housework or childcare, he always seemed to know when his favorite sports team was on TV but was clueless about anything related to the day-to-day goings-on of making their family tick etc. Her friend, a divorcee, was sympathetic.

The poor guy wasn’t there to defend himself, but the scene resonated with me because I’m in the middle of reading Laura Kipnis’ The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability and she addresses this very thing — women’s utter dissatisfaction with men and the friends who will indulge her:

As masculine failure mounts, female disappointment builds — though at least there are the consolations of female solidarity, meaning that when a woman vents about a man, another woman will invariably cheer her on with her own tale of frustration or disappointment, a comforting female-bonding ritual. What’s problematic about women’s scorn for men isn’t that it’s necessarily undeserved, it’s that it’s so steeped in disavowal. Disavowal not only takes a lot of useless intellectual effort that could be devoted to other things, but is self-deceiving. Self-deception is deforming.

Q: What is this crucial quality men are meant to supply, to plug up those fissures in female well-being? A: Whatever’s being asked of them at the moment. which is to say: more commitment, more sensitivity, more “I love you”s; more housework, togetherness, attention … What do women want from men? More.

Is that true? Do we gals  just want more?

Are single women upping the ante?

Women certainly want more from marriage, as studies have shown. We want a partner “in every sense of the word.” But what about women who aren’t married or who may not even be interested in marriage, or were married and are no longer interested in marriage but would like to have a romantic partner, either live in or live apart? Are women upping the ante on the men they date and become romantically involved with?

For sure, we want an employed man and even if he makes enough to support himself, we often want him to make more than we do. The later may matter more to women who want to have children, but at my age a man who can support himself is all that really matters for most — not all — women. Oh, and his man parts have to work. Really! And, we probably aren’t too interested in becoming a nurse with a purse.

I am recently back in the dating world and so a friend introduced me, via texts, to an age-appropriate man she’d met and thought was attractive. Fair enough. So, he and I spoke on the phone and within three minutes I learned about two huge purchases he’d just made, including a vacation home; within a half hour, I knew all about his house (huge and multistory), financial situation (well-to-do), the boat, the multiple road and mountain bikes, the six-figure sports car, and etc., etc. It really turned me off and I was hesitant to meet but I decided to be open minded. He was a nice enough person, but was either clueless, which is somewhat forgivable, or someone whose identity is wrapped up in his money and stuff, which is to be avoided at all costs.

Looking through some online dating profiles, I found similar disappointing displays of men’s wealth and stuff — with hopes (dictates?) that the women who contact them (or at least the ones they respond to) shouldn’t be overly controlling (I guess a little is OK?), or high maintenance, or high drama. I can’t speak for the controlling thing, but I can pretty much guarantee that if a man’s profile speaks more to his financial situation versus who he is as a person and what he believes in, he’s destined to attract women who want him for his wealth and stuff, and thus may indeed involve some maintenance and drama. I love my sisters but I also know how these things go.

Taking responsibility

It seems like some — many? — of us are still stuck in an unhappy mindset of wanting someone else to give us what we want, or think we need. Which, of course, just sets us up for disappointment and frustration — whether you are a “masculine failure” or are involved with one, or are a man whose self-worth is about glitz and stuff or are a woman attracted to that.

And that’s where Kipnis’ discussion of disavowal — our refusal to take any responsibility in our decisions — speaks loudly to me. I think it works both ways, though. Yes, women do want more from men. Men have their list of wants, too, and men who have power and money seem to want less of women (well, less drama and maintenance for sure, and often less ambition); more femininity may be fine, however.

Which means men and women have upped the ante. Shouldn’t men and women own up to that?

Want to get what you want from 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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