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It’s December, beginning of engagement season. So if you’ve already gotten a ring, or hoping to get one this month, there’s just one thing left to do after you’re told your loved ones and friends, and posted your bling on Facebook and Instagram. No, not start planning your wedding — start planning your marriage.

First stop: your indie bookstore or fave online bookstore.

In my research for The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,  for this blog and freelance writing elsewhere, I have read a lot of books on love, sex, relationships and marriage. Some were pretty good, some were not so good, some were so good that I believe everyone about to tie the knot would greatly benefit from them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are five relatively recent books that are good reads with outside-the-box thinking, in no particular order:

Rewriting the Rules 

I’m not sure how I stumbled upon Meg-John Barker’s Rewriting the Rules, but I’m so glad I did. Barker, a lecturer in psychology at the Open University, who writes extensively about sex, gender and relationships, takes on the many “rules” we hear about love, dating and marriage — that there’s a soul mate or “the one” for us, that relationships must be monogamous and  sexual lifelong, etc. What she gets more than any other book I’ve read is that most people today are living in a state of uncertainty about relationships and so we seek to take comfort in old rules or create new ones. But Barker suggests we might want to not only question these rules — some may be holding us back, making us unhappy or even ruining our relationships — but perhaps even rewrite them, thus creating a more authentic way of living. As she writes, “clinging to the common rules too rigidly, often paradoxically, ends up with us being less likely to get what we were aiming for in the first place.”

How to Fall in Love With Anyone

It’s no surprise that Many Len Catron’s Modern Love essay went viral and led to her getting her first book published this year, How to Fall in Love With Anyone. With charm and solid writing, Catron mixes her personal story of love and marriage with research to tackle the messages we get about love and relationships, and the scrips we follow (not unlike Meg-John Barker’s “rules”). Many of our love stories are problematic, and often set us up to have unreasonable expectations. If we are going to continue to look to love stories to inform us, she says, well, we’d better have access to better, more expansive and more diverse love stories. As she writes, “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.” This book will help you sort out the romantic scripts you may be following and, hopefully, get you to create your own.

The All-or-Nothing Marriage 

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 … etc.? Perhaps not, writes Eli J. Finkel in his new book, The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. Finkel, a social psychologist, offers “love hacks” to address the niggling issues that often arise in marriages, as well as strategies that couples can use to better their relationship, like looking to have some needs met outside the marriage. And, he references The New I Do — thank you! — by embracing the idea of asking less of our marriage and re-envisioning new ways to make it work, like living apart together. Lots of thought-provoking, practical and doable suggestions.

Parenting as Partners

It may seem to early to think about kids when you’d rather think about picking out a dress and the perfect wedding venue, but if you’re planning to have children, it’s essential to understand your family-of-origin issues. It’s never too soon. Parenting coach and author Vicki Hoefle’s new book, Parenting as Partners: How to Launch Your Kids Without Ejecting Your Spouse, brings that conversation into the forefront. Her book is designed to help couples create a parenting plan — just as we suggest in The New I Do — to help them get on the same page about their children and to understand what drives our behavior, and our partner’s behavior, when it comes to the childhood we want to give our children. If they don’t agree, she writes, “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.” Yep.

The Rough Patch 

Wait — you haven’t even tied the knot yet; why would you want to read a book about midlife marital angst? Because it’s a thing, and if you want to avoid it — or at least lessen it — it might be helpful to know how you might get there in the first place. There’s a lot of wisdom in therapist Daphne de Marneffe‘s upcoming book The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together. “Couples turn away from each other for any number of apparent reasons, but underneath it all, it’s usually because they feel misunderstood, unheard, or unable to agree,” she writes, but it takes many years to get to the crisis stage, starting from your first days together. She has some sound, if not necessarily unique, approaches to dealing with affairs, sexual attraction to and flirtations with others. “The question is, how do we deal creatively and sensitively with the daily reality of encountering other sexual bodies, other sexual minds, when we have chosen to commit ourselves to one other person? This is arguably among the more important life skills for remaining happily married, yet it attracts little in the way of subtle reflection or serious study.” True! I particularly like the way she addresses booze, drugs and other “attempted escapes.” Most of us have a family history or story related to that; we could all benefit by digging a little deeper into it.

Of course, my fave book for all spouses-to-be is my own, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, which was just named by Business Insider one of best five books to help you think differently about love, marriage and relationships (Thanks!). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

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The big news this week was the announcement that Prince Harry and girlfriend Meghan Markle became engaged and are planning to marry in the spring. Although some may say her prince has come, theirs is no fairy-tale romance — Markle is a thoroughly out-of the-box modern bride. bride

At 36, she’s older than her husband-to-be, who’s 33 — a trend that makes sense not only because men often die earlier than women do, but also because older women bring more to the table. As biological anthropologist and adviser to Match.com Helen Fisher says, “Men want a companion, and we are seeing the rise of women as intellectual partners, as sexual partners, as soul partners.”

She had a beta marriage. Markle dated film producer Trevor Engelson for six years, got engaged in 2010, married in 2011 and divorced in August 2013, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

She’s been a live apart together partner. Markle landed her role in Suits shortly after she and Engelson wed. He was based in L.A. while she was based in Toronto, a five-hour flight away. She has been in a LAT relationship with her fiancee, too. “I think we were able to really have so much time just to connect and we never went longer than two weeks without seeing each other, even though were doing a long-distance relationship. We made it work.”

She’s the child of divorce. Markle’s parents — her mother, a clinical therapist, is African-American and her father, a former TV lighting director, is white — divorced when she was 6 years old. Although she lived with her mom, she saw her dad a lot, and her parents put her first. ‘What’s so incredible, you know, is that my parents split up when I was two, [but] I never saw them fight. We would still take vacations together. My dad would come on Sundays to drop me off, and we’d watch Jeopardy! eating dinner on TV trays, the three of us. We were still so close-knit,” she says.

She thinks outside the box. In the seventh grade, Markle had to fill out a census and check one of the boxes to indicate ethnicity — white, black, Hispanic or Asian. She didn’t know which one to choose. “You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other — and one half of myself over the other.” So she chose to not answer.  “When I went home that night, I told my dad what had happened. He said the words that have always stayed with me: ‘If that happens again, you draw your own box,'” she wrote in an Elle essay.

She’s an independent woman and feminist. “I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches — I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works,” Markle once wrote on her now-shuttered blog. Since her early days, Markle has spoken up for women’s causes. “Women need a seat at the table, they need an invitation to be seated there, and in some cases, where this is not available, they need to create their own table,” she said in a speech on International Women’s Day two years ago.

She’s opting for a safety marriage. One can imagine what it’s like marrying into a royal family, so it’s no surprise that Markle is giving up her acting career — she’s starred on the TV show Suits for the past seven years — and is instead ready to delve into groups in the U.K. “that are working on the same causes I’ve always been passionate about” — causes that include human rights and encouraging young leaders to create positive change.

Still, she’s quitting her paid work to take on her new role — what The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels would call a safety marriage. Markle doesn’t see that as a negative, it’s just something different, she says:

I think what’s been so exciting [transitioning] out of my career and into, as you said, the causes I can focus even more energy on, very early out of the gate, [is that you] have a voice that people listen to, a lot of responsibility. I don’t see it as giving anything up. I just see it as a change. It’s a new chapter. And keep in mind I’ve been working on my show for seven years. We were very fortunate to have that sort of longevity on a series. For me, once we hit the 100 episode marker, I thought, I have ticked this box and I feel really proud of the work we’ve done there and now it’s time to work as a team with [Harry].

One thing they will not do is sign a prenup, following in the footsteps of Harry’s brother, Prince William, and father, Prince Charles. That’s a mistake; while Harry is worth nearly $40 million, Markle is worth about $7 million. But a prenup that goes beyond money and addresses how a couple wants to live, what I call a marital plan, can help them individualize their marriage — especially since they plan to have children.

Princess Diana grew into a strong, vocal woman in her marriage to Prince Charles. Markle is entering her marriage as one. It will be interesting to see what she becomes as a royal.

Want to see if a safety 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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Your spouse had an affair — can that benefit your marriage? According to renowned therapist Esther Perel’s new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, maybe.

Perel explores a lot in her book — much more than I can address here — but I was particularly drawn to her exploration of why more women are cheating nowadays, and we are.

Why? When women had few choices, we played it safer. Now that we are often financially secure on our own and expect a lot more from our marriage, we struggle with what domesticity and motherhood does to us — what Perel calls the muting of eros. Hubby thinks that his wife isn’t interested in sex — she keeps rejecting him, after all, or when they finally get around to having sex, she’s hoping it’s over soon — and so he’s stunned when he discovers she’s been having a torrid love affair. What the heck is going on?

Ceasing to feel like women

As Perel writes,

Home, marriage and motherhood have forever been the pursuit of many women, but also the place where women cease to feel like women.

Sound familiar? It does to me. We go from being a desired being to a domestic one.

Perel mentions the work of researcher Marta Meana on the enigma of female desire (Meana’s work is also referenced in Daniel Bergner’s book, What Do Women Want? and if you haven’t read it, put it on your list — now):

She challenges the common assumption that women’s sexuality is primarily dependent on relational connectedness — love, commitment and security. … Meana suggests that women are not just “touchy-feely” but also “saucy-sexy” — in fact, “women may be just as turned on as men by the novel, the illicit, the raw, the anonymous, but the arousal value of these may not be important enough to women to trade in things they value more (i.e., emotional connectedness). … We interpret the lack of sexual interest as proof that women’s sexual drive is inherently less strong. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think that it is a drive that needs to be stoked more intensely and more imaginatively — and first and foremost by her, not only by her partner.

And therein lies part of the problem — the stuff of domestic life doesn’t always make us feel all that sexy. So, even if we have a hubby who is romantic, cooks and cleans and adores us, we need to connect with our erotic self, too, otherwise …

From selfishness to selflessness

She quotes psychotherapist Dalma Heyn in describing the “deadening of pleasure and vitality” that happens to some women after they wed:

“A woman’s sexuality depends on her authenticity and self-nurturance,” she writes. Yet marriage and motherhood demand a level of selflessness that is at odds with the inherent selfishness of desire. Being responsible for others makes it harder for women to focus on their own needs, to feel spontaneous, sexually expressive and carefree. For many, finding at home the kind of self-absorption that is essential to erotic pleasure proves a challenge. The burdens of caretaking are indeed a power anti-aphrodisiac.

Monogamy just may not be a woman’s thing, as I’ve written before, and perhaps marriage and even intimacy — what we’re constantly told we need to have and maintain in a romantic partnership — isn’t working well for us either.

In again quoting Meana’s work, Perel writes there are three themes that work against women:

First, the institutionalization of the relationship — a passage from freedom and independence to commitment and responsibility. Second, the overfamiliarity that develops when intimacy and closeness replace individuality and mystery. And lastly, the desexualizing nature of certain roles — mother, wife and house manager all promote the de-eroticization of the self.

Managing love and desire

Yep, yep and yep. It sounds bleak, right? But as Perel notes, some couples can integrate the contradictions of love and desire, but first we have to acknowledge that we’ll never eliminate the dilemma — it’s not a “problem to solve; it is a paradox to manage.”

And for the ones who can’t? Is an affair the only way to recharge our erotic selves, and maybe even bring that energy back to our — unknowing but no doubt appreciative — hubby? Maybe.

Want to learn how to create space in your marriage to own your erotic self? (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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Do we need marriage? The answer might be Iceland.

For much of history, marriage mattered. It was a way to make sure property could be passed to heirs, alliances could be forged (often to avoid wars), children could be reared, society could be assured that caregiving would be taken care of and a lot of other practical matters, as historian and Marriage, a History author Stephanie Coontz has extensively detailed. And it’s true that marriage matters today in the U.S., because it grants those who tie the know more than 1,100 perks and protections — and that’s just at the federal level. But what if marriage didn’t matter — people could be romantically partnered or not, have children as part of a couple or not, and still be accepted by society and set up to succeed. Enter Iceland, where more than two-thirds of babies — 67 percent — are born to parents who aren’t married. And no one is freaking out about it. Would we still need marriage? Good question. Iceland

I recently stumbled upon the setup for an episode of CNN’s The Wonder List, which sent reporter Bill Weir to the country to explore its many charms. Among them was the progressive way of thinking about how people can raise children without being married to each other.

Marriage isn’t just about children

OK, marriage is not just about having kids, so we need to be clear about that. But the belief that marriage is exactly about that — which means marriage must involve sex — creates a very narrow view of marriage, and thus a very narrow view of family. Which is probably why, in the U.S., single moms are blamed and shamed, and seen as a problem to be fixed.

But in Iceland? As one woman who has has three kids with two partners “and not a drop of shame or regret” tells Weir:

You have this horrible term in English, ‘broken families,’ which basically means just if you get divorced, then something’s broken. But that’s not the way it is in Iceland at all. We live in such a small and secure environment, and the women have so much freedom. So you can just, you can choose your life.”

Women having freedom to choose their life. Boy, doesn’t that sound good?

Religion may be the problem

Since few Icelanders are religious, “there is no moral stigma attached to unwed pregnancy,” he writes. And that’s a huge difference between Iceland and the U.S. — as well as the fact that Iceland guarantees some of the most generous parental leave in the world. Conservatives in the U.S. who claim to support “family values”  have a simple view of family — the 1950s nuclear model where women know their place,  barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen — are doing everything to put us back there, including attempts to do away with birth control. Nothing will put a woman in her place quicker than taking away the right for her to control her own body.

Women in Iceland benefit from the country’s “it takes a village to raise a child” attitude, as well as how motherhood is perceived — it doesn’t define you as a woman. Nor does your relationship status.

So, really, is it marriage per se that matters most or is it a society that supports all sorts of lifestyles and caregiving without requiring that a woman be in love with — let alone live with or marry — someone to raise children?

Clearly, it isn’t just about marriage despite matter all the hand-wringing in the U.S. about the declining rates of marriage, women having children outside of marriage and the “success sequence.”

Do we need marriage?

So, would we still need marriage if everyone thought like Iceland does?

Would you still be with your loved one if marriage didn’t exist? Would you feel that you were an adult if marriage didn’t exist? Would you have children with him or her as long as you had societal support — or an agreement between the two of you to make sure your child is cared for you both equally no matter what?

What would you do differently if no one treated you differently if you were married or not?

Wondering if you should marry or not? (Of course you are!) 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 your anniversary (Aw.) You buy your spouse a card, a gift, make plans for a special getaway (and if you have kids, you arrange for someone to care for them for the dinner/weekend away) and that should be it — right? Well, it used to be all that was needed. but nowadays you have to take it one step further; you have to profess your love for your spouse on Facebook, and you have to provide photos of your special day and love online because …

Because, well, why? I don’t know.  

At the risk of sounding like a social media curmud-
geon, I have a love-hate thing with social media and there are some things I just don’t understand about it. Mostly the way married people feel compelled to present an idealized version of their lives online. Not to say that they aren’t blissfully happy — I sure hope they are. But I think it’s more about the pressure couples feel to present themselves that way.

Our spouses are a reflection of us, and to present ourselves as other than happy isn’t good for our personal “brand.” Facebook is “a place for good news, not the place where you talk about your most vulnerable self,” says psychologist and author Sherry Turkle. “Marriage lies so close to the raw bone of who you are, so I think people need boundaries and privacy to feel a certain integrity to maintain the relationship.”

Still, we are sending out messages about marriage we may not be aware of. Which is why I was intrigued by the findings of researchers who looked into what they consider the “performance of unattainable marital ideals on Facebook.” In examining postings with hastags of #sadwife, #happywife, #sadhusband and #happyhusband, they discovered that — happy or sad — they represent the same thing: the “performance of an ideal spouse where the inconvenience of everyday chores (laundry, dishes, childcare) and stresses (fiances, marital disputes, familial relationships, resentments) are absent from the rose-tinted world of marital performance on Facebook.”

It’s disturbing to think of marriage — or any relationship — in terms of being a “performance,” although it’s true that, married or not, we often put on our “best” selves to influence how others view us. Social media just amps it up, encouraging and rewarding us for it. Still, the way we talk about our romantic relationships is a form of storytelling and that’s powerful, as Mandy Len Catron details beautifully in her book How to Fall In Love With Anyone.

Facebook just takes it to a weird level of storytelling.

Gendered vision of marriage

We all have feels about people who post their every romantic detail online, even if we aren’t necessarily aware of or don’t pay attention to what research has to say about it — they aren’t really all that happy, they’re narcissistic, they’re insecure, they need validation from others, yada, yada, yada.

But the #sadwife, #happywife, #sadhusband and #happyhusband postings reveal more than that — they speak to a very American version of marriage and a very gendered vision of marriage. They speak to how marriage is based in romantic love, how the couple is the basic unit of society and that it’s based on the husband-wife dyad and reinforces whatever gendered notions of being a “good husband” and “good wife” are to attain “the good life.”

The researchers found more hashtag posts related to wives than husbands, which they suggest may be because women feel more pressure to “perform their ‘wifeness’ online.” And what they post seems to reinforce an idealized form of femininity — of commitment, devotion and undying love. Meanwhile, men’s posts reinforce hegemonic norms — they’re stronger, have more power over and are the caretakers/providers of their wives, maintaining the “institutional dominance of men over women.” Their #happyhusband posts almost always are about food … that their wives made for them — again, a gendered construction of marriage that also validates the “way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” stereotype.

Marriage = ‘complete person’

Ultimately, the researchers find that “the performance of marriage on Facebook reifies the traditional narrative of heterosexual marriage, in which the wife is dependent on her husband’s presence and material support; and husbands rely on wives for good food and domestic care.” Rather than seeing that as a constriction, the couples who post on Facebook “depict a home life centered on the marital dyad as the basis of ‘having it all.’ … To be married is to be a complete person.”

Although I often question the need for couples to profess love and gratitude for a spouse online — can’t you say “I love you” or “You’re the best!” to him or her directly and leave the rest of us out of it? — and while I am very aware of how people curate a perfect online presence, I never considered that what people post on Facebook somehow continues to elevate coupledom as being better than, and reinforces gendered notions of what a “good” marriage looks like. That’s a much more disturbing reality than interpreting such posts as a sign of a couple’s unhappiness and insecurity, or feeling jealous that your romantic partnership isn’t as glowingly perfect as everyone else’s.

Want to learn how to have a happy marriage by your definition of “happy”? (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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The recent release of the movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has been heralded as “a trailblazer for polyamory in film” for depicting a polyamorous arrangement in a positive light. But the story, based on the lives of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, his wife, Elizabeth, and his — and their — live-in lover, Olive Byrne, could actually be a model for single women today who can’t find a marriageable man and who want children. Yes, I am suggesting that polygyny — when a man has multiple wives — might be the answer as long as we see it through a feminist slant. Although the three weren’t married, the arrangement worked for Marston, Holloway and Byrne, and it might work for you, too.

Before you reject the idea outright, let me explain.

We’re always hearing about a lack of marriage-
able men, although Isabel V. Sawhill, of the Brookings Institute, suggests it may be less about marriageable men and more about independent women who don’t necessarily want or need men. Yes, there certainly are some of us. Economics writer Jon Birger based his entire 2015 book, Dateonomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, on the fact that there aren’t enough marriageable men because of  “lopsided gender ratios and a massive undersupply of college-educated men” (although his views have been called patronizing). Other researchers say the lack of marriageable men it isn’t just about well-employed college-educated men; it’s that more women want more from their marriage — like an equal partner in every sense of the word. If a man won’t do that, well …

Which means there may be fewer of those men around than there are women wanting those kind of men.

Enter the idea of feminist polygyny.

Women call the marital shots

There are more than a few upsides to a polygamous arrangement that women enter into freely and willingly because it suits their needs (versus what we usually read and hear about the traditionally male-driven practice, which is often about secrecy and child brides forced to marry against their will and sexual abuse and other scandals).

As Ms. magazine notes:

[I]s polygamy inherently bad for women? The practice of taking numerous spouses, in and of itself, doesn’t seem to be the root cause of the problem. After all, there are clear examples of polyandry (in which one woman has several husbands, as opposed to polygyny, with one man and several women), but abuse and oppression of men in these cases rarely, if ever, comes up.

Because if women call the shots, the ones who want to be married will get many of their needs met, like Holloway and Byrne did.

So what’s good about it?

Having it all

For Holloway, an ambitious woman who wanted a career, a husband and children, she got exactly what she wanted — and a loving someone, Byrne, to watch her two kids as well as the two kids Byrne had with Marston. Byrne was equally as happy with the arrangement, preferring the caregiving role. A feminist-driven polygynous marriage would benefit women seeking work-life balance as well as those who’d prefer to work in the home or to work outside the home part-time or any combination.

But it goes beyong work-life balance. As Jo Piazza details in her book How to Be Married: What I Learned From Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage, the polygamous marriages of West Africa are less about sex than having a village of people to care about each other. The women forge close bonds with each other, they share the chores and childrearing, and the children have a village to look after them. In many ways, it gives women and children the best of all worlds.

Not that every woman wants to have a child. But there are many 30- and 40-somethings who do want to have children and just haven’t found the right man to have them with. Some decide to have children on their own. Some turn to parenting partnerships. Others come to some sort of peace about it, as has Melanie Notkin, author of Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness. Wouldn’t an arrangement like Holloway and Byrne’s be a happy answer?

And, let’s face it — what woman wouldn’t want a room of her one to escape from the needs and demands of a spouse every once and a while, as well as not losing her sense of self?

What about sex?

But, OK, let’s talk about sex. What about it? While it may seem like the husband would be getting the better deal — more women to have sex with — who says a polygynous marriage can’t be an open marriage, too, allowing hetero and bi women to have sexual relationships outside the marriage? If it’s a feminist-driven arrangement, why not? Marriages often become sexless after awhile — having time apart from each other helps build the erotic mystery therapist Esther Perel says is essential. Plus, sexual needs and desires ebb and flow; there would be less pressure on a woman to have sex when she’s not in the mood for it. There are any number of ways to make this kind of marriage work to address all the emotional, sexual and practical needs of all involved.

But beyond that, why should sex be essential in a marriage? As law professors Joanna L. Grossman and Lawrence M. Friedman write:

We have moved away from the idea that only marriage entitles one to have sex. But we cling to the idea that only sex entitles one to marry. Why? Law (and society) treat cohabiting couples differently from, say, casual affairs; and a man or woman’s “partner” is treated differently from a mistress or paramour. Essentially, there are two factors that give legal meaning to a relationship. One is some kind of commitment. But the other, very definitely, is sex.

But commitment and love should trump sex. What if a man and two or three women want to marry because they see it as solving their work-life issues if not their sexual lives? Why would that upset anyone?

Making it legal

Polygamy is illegal in the U.S., of course. University of British Columbia economics professor and author of Dollars and Sex Marina Adshade believes that polygyny can actually be economically beneficial to women, and shouldn’t be outlawed. And while many worried about how the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples would be a “slippery slope” to marriage among more than two partners, my question is — why is that a bad thing if it’s among consenting adults, especially if it would benefit women? In fact, some say laws against polygamy are an affront to women’s sexual agency.

“Polygamy is no more timeless or fixed than monogamy,” history lecturer and author Sarah M. S. Pearsall says. “Both polygamy and monogamy are institutions that change and adapt.”

And if they can change and adapt in ways that better suit women, why not? Loving More, a nonprofit that supports polyamory, writes that monogamy didn’t change marriage into a more egalitarian contract — the fight for women’s rights did.

Is it so hard to imagine that polygamous marriage could evolve as well? The belief that women need to be protected from polyamorous marriage is really a belief that women aren’t capable of making decisions for themselves and have no real power in the world. … Acceptance of polyamory or plural marriage would have to include women having the freedom to marry or be with more than one, and it is likely that just as monogamous marriage has evolved to be more egalitarian so would plural marriage when it is out of the shadows and no longer hidden. … Polyamory, polyandry, and polygyny between non-coerced consenting adults can be a great choice for people who simply don’t want to be forced into compulsory monogamy.

Earlier this year, a polyamorous threesome in Columbia became the first legally recognized polyamorous family in the country, in a partnership known as “trieja.” But, don’t look for legalization in the States anytime soon. “Polyamory is deeply threatening to the mainstream in several psychological and historical ways,” write law professors Hadar Aviram and Gwendolyn Leachman. “Fidelity and loyalty, especially through the gendered prism of female chastity, have been fundamental concepts in the creation of the relatively new institution of romantic marriage.”

Yet, I can’t see a downside to an evolved form of plural marriage that gives today’s women what they want Can you?

Want to learn how to have a consensual non-monogamous 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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Hurricanes, earthquake, fires — there have been so many natural disasters in recent weeks  around the world that it all felt a bit apocalyptic. As people struggled with losing homes, possessions and entire communities as well as loved ones and a sense of normalcy, you would think they’ve suffered enough. But as fate would have it, natural disasters often lead to other kinds of suffering — divorce.


According to research, yes. Sometimes.

Researchers looked at what happened after 1989’s Hurricane Hugo. What they found wasn’t totally unexpected — “a life-threatening event motivated people to take significant action in their close relationships that altered their life course” — sometimes marrying or having a baby, but just as often divorce.

Divorces didn’t spike after 9/11 — a manmade disaster. In fact, they went down, just as they did after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, another manmade disaster.

But natural disasters? They are not kind to marriages because they create a huge amount of stress that hits aspect of a couple’s daily life, including their financial and employment situation, and can trigger anxiety and depression — all of which take a relationship to a breaking point.

‘Life is short’

As Catherine L. Cohan, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of human development at Penn State, says, “People are confronted with the realization that life is short. It’s too short to be in this unhappy situation.”

That may not be the thinking in places like Syria, where an ongoing war has created a situation that has led to more divorce, child marriages and polygamy among refugees with inevitably long-lasting repercussions. This is not a “life is too short” thing.

So will we see more divorces in Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas, Mexico and Northern California because of the recent hurricanes, earthquake and fires? Maybe. And this may be the new normal: With climate change and political turmoil around the world, we are going to be facing more disasters — natural and manmade — ahead. Sadly, children are doubly impacted — first by the disaster, then by the divorce.

Is there a way to avoid it?

Preparing for disaster

Joan Tanzer, a woman whose house was destroyed in 1991’s Oakland Hills fire, advises those who recently lost their homes in the Northern California fires, “Kiss your hubby a lot.”

Really, you’ve got to take care of yourself and your twosome. I really think that that got overlooked. We had a support group afterwards. There were 13 of us, seven divorces. These weren’t new marriages, these were established marriages. The strain of even renovation is a big factor in divorce. But doing this is just crazy.

Of course, there are other stressors that impact relationships — and it’s often gendered. Women who are diagnosed with cancer or multiple sclerosis are six times more likely to find themselves separated or divorced shortly after their diagnosis than if they were a man, according to a study. And parents of children with special needs or who have cancer often end up divorced.

While we all live with death and loss, many of us may also know tragedy intimately; in the course of a lifetime, there’s a 22 percent chance we’ll experience a natural disaster, a 69 percent chance we’ll experience a traumatic event — a tragic death, an automobile accident, an assault.

The unexpected can throw a wrench into the expectations of otherwise happy couples. So what to do about that?

Reassessing what matters

This may sound silly and I’m certainly no relationship expert — nor would I want to be. Still, I would embrace the idea of the unexpected into my life plans, especially my romantic life plans. When we take them for granted, we may miss out on appreciating the beauty of the day-to-day gifts we’ve been given, as mundane as they may be. And to appreciate the love we feel for and get from our partner. I’d also want to learn how my partner experiences grief — it may not be the same as my way, opening a door to misunderstands and frustrations.

Many people talk about how a tragedy has made them reassess what matters in their life. That’s fine, and yet I can’t help thinking that we shouldn’t have to experience an earthquake, fire, hurricane, cancer, sick child — tragedy — to make us know exactly what matters. Or do we?

Want to learn how 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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You’re single, let’s say by choice not chance, and you have a full, happy life. There’s only one thing missing — sex. How do you get it?

This was a question posed on a private singles group moderated by social scientist Bella DePaulo, author of  Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. During a radio show interview, the host asked DePaulo about sex, assuming that for single people, getting sex means having a series of one-night stands. 

Of course, that isn’t the only way — it’s one way. But it did get a few of us singles to question, well, just how do we go about getting sex?

First, let’s not make assumptions. Some people are just not that interested in sex. Much has been written about the lack of interest in sex in Japan, but there also has been a rise in the numbers of people in the States and elsewhere who identify as asexual — people who do not experience sexual attraction. And a certain amount of people choose to be celibate.

And, yes, there are plenty of people in committed relationships and marriages who aren’t having much sex, if any. It would seem like they have no excuse for not getting it on, but of course, there are many reasons why desire wanes after you’ve been in a relationship for a while. Still, there’s always the promise of sex if not the reality of it.

Not so if you are single. There’s rarely a promise. Just — for some — hope.

The many ways to get sex

So, how does one go about getting sex as a singleton?

Honestly, singles seem to have many more options for having sex than many committed monogamous couples have (except, perhaps, the ones in consensually non-monogamous partnerships).

Sluts and players

Still, there are problems for the ethically slutty singles among us.

When Kate Bolick’s book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own was published, she was shamed by a book reviewer for being single yet having “a nearly seamless string of long-term, serious relationships with men” and who questioned “how well she understands living a life truly alone.”

Wait, what? Does living alone mean being alone 24/7 with no relationships at all, sexual or not? Are singles not allowed to have “long-term, serious relationships with men”? How about with women? How about with men and women? How about just one long-term, serious relationship? How about this — we accept that being single doesn’t necessarily look the same for every single person?

Just as bad is how singles are judged for expressing their sexuality — too much sex and you’re promiscuous, a slut or a player. Not getting any? Aw, that’s too bad but, “What did you expect if you don’t want to couple up and settle down?” Meanwhile, it’s just as messy if you are married and still not getting any, as the singer Pink recently revealed.  I’m not sure why so many people are worried about  how much sex people are getting, or not, but evidently a lot of people are.  

And, of course, women have been told that we can’t do casual sex well for so long that we’ve internalized that message and generally accept it as true, although at a certain age — aka midlife — a lot of us feel more confident and comfortable with casual sex. What if we got different messages, though? How would that change the way we felt about sex as single women in our 20s and 30s? Where’s today’s Helen Gurley Brown —  the late Cosmo editor in chief and Sex and the Single Girl author who helped unmarried women in the 1960s realize that they could have a fulfilling single life by indulging in casual sex?

Sex can be wonderful and challenging whether we’re single, married, coupled, gay, straight, young, old or anything in between and beyond. We may not always be able to get it when we want it, in the way we want it. Still, being single isn’t a handicap when it comes to getting and enjoying sex, “meaningful” or not.

Want to learn how to have an open 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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The funny thing about marriage (well, there are many, but let’s narrow it down) is that lots of people seem to have a “secret” that will magically transform everyone’s marriage into a manageable, doable and supposedly happy union. Like this week’s Modern Love written by Gabrielle Zevin — except her secret to marriage isn’t necessarily what you might expect:  The Secret to Marriage Is Never Getting Married. 

Zevin, a novelist and screenwriter, describes the 21-year relationship she has with her partner, Hans:

I have had four dogs with the man I am not married to. I have dedicated several of my books to him, but really, they all could be. He is my most important reader and creative collaborator. We have traveled the world with one suitcase. We have cooked more than 100 Blue Apron meals without killing each other. We have shared a dozen different addresses. We have built a life.

But, they’re not married.

And that’s where Zevin reveals the complications of committing to someone without actually tying the knot, even though, given a complicated and unfair debt Hans brought into the relationship two decades ago, it made sense not to co-mingle expenses — then. Still, she had found herself unable to explain that to people — many often don’t understand the financial realities of a marriage license. It isn’t just about love, it’s about money and property and a lot of other stuff, too.

Which is why her longtime accountant is advising that they now tie the knot. Why?

I guess because I am turning 40 this year, he said, “Well, there are reasons to be married when you are old.” The reasons fell largely into two categories: What happens when I die? And what happens if I get sick and then die?

Marriage is not just about love

And this is what hetero couples don’t understand about marriage but same-sex couples do: The big reason why same-sex couples fought so hard for the right to legally marry is exactly because of the sick and dying part, the importance of which was made glaringly clear during the HIV epidemic.

It’s really important for people to understand just what that marriage license offers you; it isn’t just about love and commitment.

Zevin ventures — somewhat blindly — into that territory, too, and it bothered me. Friends of theirs had gotten divorced and when she asked the wife what percentage of the time they would say they were happy, the wife responded 20 percent, then revised it to 2 percent and later bumped up to 3 percent (probably because wives are generally unhappier than husbands although it’s unclear if the couple is hetero or same-sex). Zevin has thoughts on that, too:

Hans and I are happy together most of the time. We have the usual domestic squabbles. Our most frequent argument ends with him throwing up his hands and saying, “I’m not a handyman!” Sometimes I think the secret to a long and happy marriage is never to get married in the first place, although there are surely married couples that are as happy as we are.

Yes, there are married couples who are as happy as they are — maybe even happier — but it isn’t necessarily because of a marriage license. But let’s continue with her thinking:

When I say I don’t believe in marriage, what I mean to say is: I understand the financial and legal benefits, but I don’t believe the government or a church or a department store registry can change the way I already feel and behave. Or maybe it would. Because when the law doesn’t bind you as a couple, you have to choose each other every day. And maybe the act of choosing changes a relationship for the better. But successfully married people must know this already.

Being bound by marriage

And here’s where her argument gets iffy. Yes, “successfully married people” most likely know her “secret.” Because the only way to have a relationship — married or not, cohabiting or not, monogamous or consensually non-monogamous, you name it — that continues happily is to have each person choose each other over and over because they love each other in a way that they want to stay together (which, of course, is the thinking behind a renewable marriage contract). Marriage is harder to get out of, which leads some people to stay in unhappy marriages because of lethargy or fear or a religious “until death” dictate, but it’s still an easily available option.

And while it’s true that a department store registry won’t change the way she already feels and behaves, the government or church or community just might. Society seems to understand marriage but not other arrangements, such as cohabiting partners, and because of that we treat married couples differently and they view themselves differently. And you bet that impacts how we feel and behave. Even she — unknowingly, I think — confirms it when she writes “by the time we had the means to make honest people of ourselves, we felt as if we had been together too long to bother.”

So … married people are “honest people” (clearly a dated and sexist phrase that had more to do with legitimizing a sexual relationship)? If that’s how she sees it, then on some level, she is acknowledging there’s a difference — no matter how slight — between being a married and unmarried couple.

Want to learn how to create a renewable marital plan? (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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You’re in love with your partner and your partner loves you and you strongly believe that if two people love each other, then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a child together. Except your partner doesn’t want children — now what? 

That’s the dilemma Heather Harpham faced, which she writes about in her memoir Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After. Her book — at turns heart-
breaking, charming, insightful and funny — is about a heck of lot more than the seemingly doomed romance between the California native and Upper West Side Manhattan intellectual. And — spoiler alert — it ends happily, thus the title. But I will admit that some of it bothered me — the part of how they, Heather and Brian,  got pregnant in the first place.

They didn’t use condoms or apparently any contraception, which I found an odd decision for a man who clearly did not want to become a father (although he’d been told by two doctors that he might encounter trouble conceiving). Still, it was huge gamble. As Harpham writes,

Having kids — what kids do to an adult life already in lotion, what they do to a romance, to your couch, your car,  your time, your money, most of all your art — had been the constant bass line thrumming through our conversations in the months before I got pregnant. It was the issue that sent us, oddly early, into therapy together. It was the gun in the room. If he wanted to have kids with anyone, Brian kept saying, it would be with me. If.

And she acknowledges that was a big if. So then, why was he doing hanging around with her — and vice versa, she wonders; clearly, as much as they loved each other, they wanted different things from life.

I’d never kept my wish to have kids be secret, quite the opposite. I’d said emphatically , many times over, that I could not, would not, contemplate a life without children. Impossible. And he’d made his wish to avoid kids just as obvious. … When we’d made love without protection, I was discounting the things Brian said to me in therapy every week about not wanting kids. I was believing in some version of him that didn’t exist except in bed. But I was acting in alignment with my own deepest wishes.

Heather was 32 at the time, Brian was 45, and she admits that she interpreted their cavalier attitude about birth control as Brian having an unconscious wish to have the issue decided for him. But when she inevitably got pregnant, she realized her interpretation “looked to be somewhere between wildly self-delusional and outright self-destructive.” I’d have to agree.

Still, she was adamant:

I’d told Brian all along: If I get pregnant, I will have the baby. …I wanted to be a mother and he was the man I loved. He might opt out, fairly or unfairly, but the baby was a foregone conclusion.

And so he did opt out and she was angry with him although, having been raised by a single mom who brought three men into her world, each of whom, she said, harmed her, she wondered if Brian would do the same. Maybe it was better, and easier, to just be a single mom — and a lot of single moms say it is.

Common complaint

Perhaps not surprisingly, Heather is not the first woman to be in this situation. Rachel Kramer Bussel writes about it in Cosmopolitan, Dear Polly (aka Heather Havrilesky) responds to it in the Cut, Rachel Needle, of the Center for Marital and Sexual Health of South Florida, addresses it in Babble … and the list goes on an on.

It isn’t just men who are baby-averse: Many more women than men don’t want kids, according to recent surveys.

But the Brians of the world are taking matters into their own hands — they’re getting vasectomies to put an end to having to decide (and also keeping women from trapping them into having unwanted kids, a disturbing but relatively rare reality).

Priorities can change

But Brian didn’t get a vasectomy. In the end — spoiler alert — Brian does become an engaged and present  father. In fact, he becomes an amazing father and partner (and, eventually, husband). But not every man will do that, and that is why it’s a bit worrisome for anyone in a similar situation to read the book and think, oh, well, he came around and it worked out, so …

Because sometimes it will work out. Sometimes, someone who can’t ever see being a parent becomes one and changes his or her mind. I guess the question is, would you wait around hoping for that or would that kind of thinking be “wildly self-delusional and outright self-destructive”?

Want to learn about parenting marriages? (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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