Test Case

A self-help book editor uses what she learns at work and in life to help herself.

Is it Time for a New Paradigm of Relationships?

Is there even such a thing as a 'normal' relationship anymore?

 With the downfall of DOMA and Prop. 8 we've seen the US continue its slow march towards recognizing same-sex marriages for what they are: legitimate unions of love that deserve just as much respect (and the same legal protection) as heterosexual marriages.

Monogamous marriage has been the Gold Standard for relationships in most of the world for a long time, and more power to it. Though my family has not had good luck with marriage and I have never been married, I know many, many people who seem to make the institution work for them and their families, and who seem genuinely happy in their marriages.

However, I don't think that anyone can argue that marriage has changed throughout the past two decades. It's becoming more and more rare for two people to marry and remain married for their entire adult lives until death do they part. Now, a large percentage of marriages end in divorce, and many people who divorce remarry, some several times. Rather than being an embarrassment or seen a sin, divorce has become normal, at least in secular communities. In fact, I've had more people look at me askance when I've told them I've NEVER been married than when I've said I'm not married now and have no kids. It's stranger to not have a divorce under your belt than it is to not be married and to not have kids in your mid-40's.

Relationships and what we expect of them are changing. More women are the main breadwinners in heterosexual relationships. In more and more states, gay people can marry. More people are never marrying, and those who do marry are marrying later. Polyamorous and other “non-traditional” arrangements are becoming more mainstream. People break up and continue to live together. It's more common to remain friends with exes.

Admittedly, I have a pretty progressive community here in the SF bay area, but many of my friends are either polyamorous or have been, and though couples still get married, the way these marriages look is often very different from the way my parents' marriage looked.

Looking around me, I see people creating relationships that work for them rather than forcing themselves into a relationship model that is expected. I see people – myself included – trying things out to see if they work, and then making adjustments if they don't. I see women getting married and some changing their names and some not. I see people who choose not to be in committed relationships at all, for their own reasons. I see endings that look more like new beginnings for all parties than tragedies from which people struggle to recover, doused in hatred and blame. In short, I see people doing relationships mindfully rather than mindlessly, and making real choices rather than fitting themselves (and trying to fit their partners) into a hand-me-down box.

I'm loving this trend I'm seeing, of people making relationships up as they go along. Nothing in my life has been as damaging to me as has the myth that we all find The One Person who will complete us and make us happy. Seeing this myth brought to light as a myth can do nothing but good for our society and will decrease the amount of suffering in the world, and I personally will do all I can to defuse it.

One aspect of this issue that I've been pondering lately is what relationships are meant to do for us. At one time marriage was a way to combine labor and financial resources to keep people alive and to raise children. Then marriage was a vessel in which the partners raised their kids, and once the kids were gone, often the marriage went with them. For a long time now, marriage has been something people just did even though they no longer need it to survive and they don't even really need it in order to raise kids well. And I think it's dawning on us now that marriage - or at least the traditional one man, one woman, kids and a dog marriage -- really isn't even necessary anymore, unless someone needs a green card.

So what are relationship for, then? I think they're for the growth of each person in the relationship. They may also be for comfort and security, sure, and for raising of children and sharing of financial resources, but there's no guarantee in relationships of any of these things. The one thing all relationships do – and are meant to do, I believe – is to challenge and support each person in their self-growth. If we think of relationships this way, then nothing that happens in them is a tragedy unless we make it so. Two people may grow apart. No tragedy. Two people may have struggles and conflicts together. No tragedy. Two people may break up. No tragedy. Two people may be more than two people. No tragedy. The only tragedy is if the people in the situation don't take full responsibility for allowing the relationship to help them grow and mature.

The great thing about a new paradigm of relationship is that, eventually, if we start to think this way, people won't stay in miserable relationships just because they think they're supposed to. If we can let go of expecting relationships to only look a certain way, then endings won't be a failure and maybe won't have to be endings at all, if the couple is open to creating something that works better for both of them. In theory, if the concept of relationship becomes more flexible, there will be less helpless misery and cruelty and more proactive exploration and communication between partners. And that can only be good for everyone involved.

Melissa Kirk is a writer and editor who works as an acquisitions and developmental editor at New Harbinger Publications, a self-help psychology publisher in Oakland, CA. 

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