Every day, my co-author on The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, Vicki Larson, and I post articles on our Facebook page about how marriage and people’s attitudes about marriage are shifting. These changes are taking place at alarming rates all over the world.
In this article, I’m going to highlight the three most controversial alterations for us in the West: Open marriages, temporary marriages and parenting marriages.
Open Your Mind: Open Your Marriage
Open marriages, as we know, have been around for eons, but it is only in the past decade or so that the taboo for such practices has eased. Dan Savage calls it being “monogamish,” while others speak of ethical non-monogamy, consensual non-monogamy, or, polyamory.
I heard the word polyamory for the first time 13 years ago but didn’t hear it again for a long time. Now, I hear about polyamory almost weeky. According to Frank Veaux, co-author of More Than Two, A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory, polyamory is much more common now than in the past.
Clandestine affairs have also been around forever. Just two generations ago, it was common for women to know their husbands were cheating but turn a blind eye. As an 82-year-old woman told me recently, “women of my generation couldn’t leave. We were completely economically dependent on our husbands.”
Even though affairs hurt, these women had to put up with it. If all the wives had was a suspicion that their mate was being unfaithful, it was almost impossible to prove. Today, things have changed. As noted psychologist, Esther Perel says, today, cheating has never been easier but uncovering an affair has never been easier either.
Most agree that the greatest pain of the betrayal is not the sexual betrayal. It’s the lying and leading a double life that cuts deep; it’s the not knowing if you can trust your mate—the person with whom you exchanged solemn vows that were supposed to protect you from such ordeals.
However wrong and hurtful, cheating is rampant. And it’s not just men. Women cheat too. Some statistics estimate that, depending on how you define cheating, as many as 70 percent of men cheat while 50 percent of women do. It’s what made Ashley Madison (whose motto is: “Life is short. Have an affair”) so popular.
If these stats are true, rather than make all cheaters wrong, maybe it’s time to examine the marriage paradigm itself. After all, we impose our one-size-fits-all model on everyone but that may not be fair. As we write in The New I Do, “If half of all cars bought in America (could be any Western culture country) broke down on the road, there would be national uproar. But when half of all marriages in America fail, we blame the drivers, not the faulty engines.”
What if, instead of skulking around out of fear that they couldn’t otherwise have their cake and eat it too, couples could have open, conscious, mature conversations about exploring sex or love outside the marriage? What if both people were willing to expand the boundaries of the marriage or at least try polyamory on for size? What if both people consent? Is it wrong simply because it's different? It is certainly more respectful to the other person and to the relationship to be honest and forthright with your mate. It’s what we refer to as conscious coupling: choosing rules work for you rather than trying to cram yourselves into the “traditional” rules that you may have outgrown.
Italy, the very country where Roman Catholicism was born, may be paving the way by removing the fidelity clause from the marriage laws in the near future. Stay tuned to see what happens in 2017.
Setting Your Marriage Up To “Succeed” by Changing the Definition of Success
Some say the best way to avoid divorce is to not get married. Others say the best way to avoid divorce is to not divorce. But, there’s another way to avoid divorce: Give your marriage an expiration date; a natural ending.
Currently, the only measure of a “successful” marriage is whether it lasts until one person croaks. While that makes things easy on the one hand, it creates an unnatural confinement on the other. There’s virtually nothing else in your life that you are expected to maintain until you die.
Getting back to the car analogy, you wouldn’t tell someone, “I don’t care if the engine doesn’t work, the transmission needs replacing and your wheels won’t stay on. You made the decision to purchase that car when you were 35 so you need to keep that car until you die.” Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?
I am not trying to demean the human relationship by comparing it to an object. My point is that perhaps not everyone who marries is cut out to be with the same person forever. Those of you who may be offended by this notion need to keep in mind that marriage hasn’t always hemmed people in for life. The “until death do us part,” clause was put in place by the Catholic Church when it converted marriage from a civil event to a holy sacrament in 1215. Prior to that, divorce was actually fairly easy to obtain in many cultures.
There were also a few important details in place that made the death clause make sense back then: The church controlled everything (or they at least they tried to control everything), women were seen as property, marriage was still needed for political, social and even physical well-being, and finally, the average life expectancy was 32. Even if a person married at 16 (not uncommon), that was still only a marriage of 16 years.
Millennials, who are often still reeling from student loan debt well into their 20s, are putting off marriage until they are established in their careers. Paradoxically, being single makes it tougher to accumulate wealth. What if young people could try marriage on for size while also building a better financial foundation and then, after four or five years, go their separate ways—or renew their vows for another term.
This novel concept is sometimes called a Starter Marriage, a beta marriage, or a time-limited marriage. It’s also been referred to as a wed-lease.
Although Mexico City (another primarily Catholic area) attempted to create legislation limiting new nuptials to 2 to 5 year terms in 2011, the current traditional marriage contract in most cultures assumes no end. In fact, here in the United States, it’s against public policy to plan for the demise of your marriage.
I think it’s time we took a long hard look at public policies as they relate to marriage because with divorce rates that have gone as high as 50% and currently hover between 30% and 40%, divorce is happening—a lot!
Having term limits with the ability to go your separate ways or renew your vows at certain intervals makes really good sense. Kids obviously complicate matters but that's where the next model comes in.
Changing the Focus Changes the Terms
There is only one right reason to get—or stay— married, right? That’s love, of course.
Unless and until you find your soul mate, in our culture, you shouldn’t tie the knot. To get married for any other reason is blasphemous. And you definitely should not have kids with anyone but “The One.” Families are supposed to be built solely around love and connection.
The only problem with this marriage model is that when the love goes, the foundation for the family goes. What then? You have a bunch of miserable couples staying in unhealthy or even toxic situations for the sake of the kids.
Estimates are that one fourth of married folks are staying “for the kids” and some of them plan to split once the children leave the house. These spouses are often good co-parents but the romantic love part of their marriage is over. The couples grow apart, fall out of love and in some cases, may even resent the other for keeping them stuck.
Many stay because they want to see their kids on a daily basis. Some stay for financial stability. Some remain to spare their kids from having two households (perhaps because they were themselves children of divorce and hated going back and forth).
These couples are not modeling healthy love, nor are they modeling a healthy lifestyle. They are demonstrating living life from an unhappy place. All the kids see is two people who remain in the relationship begrudgingly and who have lost their joie de vivre.
My parents lived like this. They stayed for the kids for ten years after they should have split. I tell people that they showed us that marriage was a life-sentence to be endured rather than a partnership to be enjoyed (I’m sure this was a factor in my not getting married for the first time until I was 43).
If, in situations like this, the emphasis on love is taken out of the equation and put instead on raising healthy children together, what you get is a “purpose-driven marriage” rather than an “emotion-based marriage.” Authors John F. Cuber and Peggy B. Harroff distinguish these different marriages in their book, Sex and the Significant Americans, naming them "utilitarian" and "intrinsic" marriages respectively.
I call a marriage where the primary focus is on raising kids together a Parenting Marriage. I often recommend it to couples that can’t make up their minds whether to stay for the kids or bite the bullet, get divorced and let the chips falls where they may. It makes perfect sense as an alternative and it can buy couples time to gain clarity and ease the pressure of having to make a decision.
When couples are faced with staying unhappily or divorcing, a Parenting Marriage offers the best of both worlds and avoids the worst: They can be with their kids every day, the kids don’t have to go between two homes, they can keep all their assets in one place, their kids still get the lessons, amenities, schools, etc., they avoid breaking the family unit up, and they put their own kids through college rather than the attorney’s kids. With a Parenting Marriage couples can legitimately put off the decision to split until the last kid is out of the house. They might even decide to stay indefinitely but they create the marriage they want rather than the one they are stuck with. That always feels better.
Each couple can determine whether they want to have separate lives outside the marriage but they definitely agree that their primary focus is on the well-being of the children. Moms and dads (or moms and moms/dads and dads) then model teamwork and coming together around the kids, which helps them have stability and feel cared for.
If couples can end up here, why can’t they start here? Going into a Parenting Marriage from the start is another trend we are seeing on the rise. Websites like Modamily.com and PollenTree.com connect those who might not otherwise be able to have a child (because they haven’t met Mr. or Mrs. Right) but who feel ready emotionally and financially to start a family.
Taking love out of the equation and making child rearing the primary focus of the relationship is actually a throwback to times of yore (before the Industrial Revolution). Rather than weaken the family foundation, this model increases stability for the kids.
The three alternatives to traditional marriage presented here probably go against everything you’ve been taught marriage should be. They probably raise concerns—especially when it comes to how the kids will be impacted. The reality is that these models are not new at all. All three of these ideas have been—or currently are—actual marriage models in the evolution of marriage. We know they have worked in the past.
Traditional marriage works for some too. While we can keep our traditional notions of what marriage is and ought to be, others should have the freedom to determine what works best for them. If both parties in the couple agree, everybody benefits.
As I wrote in the title of this article, these alternatives to traditional marriage are already happening. The changes are here whether you approve of them or not. Rather than fight it, why not join those in creating marriages by design?
If you’d like more information on any of these marriage models, pick up a copy of The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, or feel free to contact me directly.
If you feel offended by what is included in this article, please don’t shoot the messenger. These changes are real, they are already happening and these changes are here to stay.