When I got married in 1998 I believed I was well equipped for the endeavor. I assumed we’d have our ups and downs but would generally enjoy each other, we’d have sex 2.5 times a week, pop out a few kids and the mortgage would get paid on time. These weren’t unreasonable assumptions. Even our gay friends were shacked up, tying the knot and having babies.
But when my marriage ended, and I started my new dating life in London I heard relationship stories that turned my little American brain upside down. All we seemed to discuss over that first drink was how things went wrong in our marriages and how naive we were to what would do us in as a couple. Then we’d talk about how we’d do things differently.
Of course, youth is wasted on the young, and wisdom, by definition, isn’t something you’re born with. But tradition IS something most of us butt up against in our early years.The only way I rebelled thirty years ago was in devoting my wardrobe to second-hand attire. Never did I think to apply another way of thinking to my concept of marriage. Now that I’m in the position to contemplate whether I marry again, I’m reconsidering what I’d like a marriage to look like.
The book I find myself telling everyone to read these days is The New I Do by Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson. In it we’re asked to consider a marriage as defined by the needs of the parties entering into their own unique state of matrimony. What’s fascinating are the author’s suggestions for how we define these marriages: The Starter Marriage, Parenting Marriage, and Safety Marriage are only a few.
The New I Do seeks to shake the romanticism around marriage right out of our Love Story addled heads. When we’re big into someone, our frontal lobe essentially shuts down. We’re incapable of seeing that person’s faults early on and we’re so high on the ‘rightness’ of our bond that we’re convinced we’ll easily avoid the troubles of lesser human partnerships. But we’ve got to wipe that haze from our brains and read this book before we sign a marriage certificate.
For any type of marriage, they encourage us to draw up a contract. Not one that will hold up in a court of law, but one that will be negotiated by both parties, revisited and possibly dissolved purely within the walls of our physical and/or metaphorical homes.
Of course, a contract is totally NOT romantic. But you know what else? Neither is divorce. The fact that romanticism has hijacked our ability to see marriage as anything other than the union of two souls devoted to being together for eternity has given rise to the devastating pain and sense of failure that is divorce. Had I entered into marriage understanding that I was in it for kids, companionship and an easier lifestyle, when it ended I wouldn’t have been such a mess of shame. And I’m not even particularly religious. Had I pledged to my friends, family AND God that I would stay with my husband until the day I died, how much longer would I have felt like a total bloody failure?
I know a marriage contract sounds corporate, but consider this: the business that thrives is the one that anticipates the future, plans for it, takes care of its employees, and has regular meetings to discuss issues. When getting married, why not start out with ‘The Business of Marriage Plan’? Have each person draw up a list of goals and expectations and then compare the two. From that you negotiate how to proceed. Discuss the 2, 5 and 15 year plan. And don’t forget the little stuff. I asked my husband many times to help out more on the domestic front, especially when we were both deep into our careers. His attitude was that his weekend warrior projects made up for not cleaning the toilets (even though he was the only one peeing on the seat). If we discuss things like this before we’re faced with the mess, do you suppose we’d have fewer screaming fits about underwear on the floor?
Like any nimble company, these contracts aren’t static. Their revisions are necessary. I have friends who, each year on their anniversary, write new vows for the upcoming year and reflect upon the past. All over a nice dinner. She feels it’s a good way to annually re-commit to being a good partner. Does their contract include toilet detail? “Not really.” she wrote. But they did talk about decluttering and who would plan the kid activities for the kids next summer.
What I feel is THE most important factor brought up in The New I Do is to get real about your own motivations for marrying. I knew early on, as I was getting to know my former husband, that I was attracted to his smarts and the probability that he’d get a good job. (And his amazing mountain biking legs.) I didn’t want to shoulder even 50% of the economic needs of the marriage. I wanted to be a writer, so I needed to be with someone who could support me if I struggled to make a living doing so. I wanted to travel, live in a great Seattle neighborhood and fix up a house, as did he. And for that we needed money. So I married someone with high income potential. Did I admit this was a big factor? Hell no. I clung tightly to the idea that we were destined to be together. And though I did truly love the man, had he not had a good job and a big tool box, I may have easily moved on.
And kids? Let’s not pretend that we women, when we’re jonesing for babies, are making completely rational decisions about whom we marry. I see it all the time, women who divorce after the kids are old enough to get themselves home from school. Would it be possible to say – as a couple, ‘Let’s focus on being really good partners in parenting and decide after the kids are grown whether we want to stay married.’? How much pressure would that take off all the expectations of ‘together forever’ and ‘you are my everything’? If, after the kids are grown, you still really dig the person you raised them with, splendid! Now draw up a new contract for your empty nest years.
I do believe that marriage is a benefit to our society, especially as it protects kids and confers economic benefits. But we seem to keep messing it up. So I’m all for the romantic realism that The New I Do encourages us to confront. And with a rash of young celebrity marriages occurring, these trendsetters are influencing our normal kids. I might not be so concerned if I felt the young marrieds were clear about how their Starter Marriage was a good way to practice the skills it takes to be a good partner. But chances are these Millennials haven’t a clue what they’re doing. Get your young folks The New I Do and say no more. And be sure to read it yourself first.
(To watch the hilarious enactment of clear-eyed partner choosing, download the 18 minute short film, ‘Full Disclosure.’ It will make you rethink how you date. It will also make you snort with laughter.)
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