Marriage in America is in trouble. Recent surveys have shown that the number of Americans who describe their marriage as "very happy" dropped by almost 10 percent over the past 33 years. At the same time, the number of therapists in the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy exploded from 237 in 1960 to 24,000 in 2007. To add a few more sobering statistics: In 2003, the Ashley Madison Agency, a website for married people looking to have an affair, had 50,000 members; in 2007, it had more than 1.2 million. Finally, the New York Times recently reported that we're a nation of singles-51 percent of American women now live without a spouse! Sadly, pretty much the only statistic that America leads the world in, nowadays, is the divorce rate.
So how do we fix this problem - the apparent failure of traditional marriage - at a societal level? Well, it might be possible to fix marriage the same way we fix industry: by increasing innovation and openness. Why can't we take the processes that companies use to invent hit products, and apply them to something like marriage? How many people today are as crazy about their marriages... as they are about their iPhones?
One of the techniques that companies like Apple use to identify and develop hit products is called design ethnography. It's a powerful tool for building hit products. Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct and make meaning of their worlds and their lives can be observed in such a way that unarticulated and tacit needs and desires can be uncovered.
For example, a watch designer understands that the human need for status is just as vital as the need to tell time. In a traditional product survey, the questions are all about function. But in an ethnographic expedition, the designer observes the wearer of the watch in the field; he gathers firsthand data about the subtle clues and emotions that the subject might reveal. Hence, design ethnographers can unlock powerful market opportunities by seeing beyond than what people say... to see how they feel but cannot express.
If we turn our attention to the institution of marriage, one common disagreement with older couples is the common argument over how much sex is enough. For the partner with lagging sexual drive, it's often a complex issue, replete with regrets about aging and self-esteem, a tendency toward depression, a loss of trust, and an internal decision to no longer be sexual. For the partner yearning for sex, it's about making the decision to either accept de-sexualization (bury their sex drive), or to seek divorce, or to find some other way to meet their sexual needs surreptitiously. (See Satoshi Kanazawa's blog post: Men do everything they do in order to get laid.)
However, when you think like a design ethnographer, your job is to delve down below the superficial issues, where something profound can usually be unraveled. This leads to the core issue that marriages must face: learning how to perceive or elicit your partner's unarticulated needs. However, to innovate in either the boardroom or the bedroom it means that you have to engage in an underlying process of transformation and to drive yourself to see into the reality of things and yourselves. Usually, this requires the willingness to kill a few sacred cows. Killing sacred cows, like cannibalizing your primary revenue stream, is a pretty scary prospect to undertake; in business, every imaginable corporate anti-body will be awakened. In marriage, expect tears and recriminations.
The first sacred cow: A high divorce rate is a bad thing. Innovative thinking usually tries to turn things upside down, so maybe it could be that a high divorce rate is actually a good thing... not for kids, but for society overall. Here's why: The history of humankind documents a slow process of power transfer away from institutions that favor societal needs and toward systems that favor personal fulfillment. If you look at the period following the Council of Trent, the 16th-century Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church, marriage rights have been slowly and painstakingly won back from the institutions that seek to control sexuality. First, through the Reformation, the people - via their King - won back the right to divorce from the Catholic Church. Then, following the Industrial Revolution, people of mixed races were forced to live together in growing metropolitan areas and began to marry, which led to the civil rights movement and the repeal of miscegenation laws, some of which lasted on the books until 1965. And today, gay and lesbian freedom fighters seek the right to marry, continuing the battle for personal sexual freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, having a high divorce rate is actually a sign of societal evolution; it means that a particular society is moving toward the future. In the best possible outcome, if people are allowed to innovate around what marriage means, the divorce rate will eventually fall, after the invention of a better format for long-term relationships that can survive into the 21st century.
The second sacred cow: Monogamy is natural. If you are to adopt a model of sexual innovativeness and openness, you have to eventually open the can of worms known as "open relationships." In his book, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan (another PT blogger) argues that monogamy and the nuclear family are far less natural than we've been taught to believe. The premise of the book is that human beings are an exceedingly sexual species--based on evidence gathered from human physiology, archaeology, primate biology, and anthropological studies of pre-agricultural tribes. The conclusion of the book argues that repressing our sexuality is in essence equivalent to denying one of the most unique aspects of what it means to be human. Thus, as we evolve as a species, we should be evolving toward sexual and relationship processes that bring us closer to our natural and organic state of being--as the most sexual species on the planet.
The third sacred cow: You can't have it both ways, so you must settle. The adage is that men want to sleep with slutty bad girls, but prefer to marry the good girl to bear his children. This conundrum leads to the idea that you can't really get what you want out of marriage.
Hey, now there's a question for you: why are bad girls so attractive to men? Well, first, bad girls have a profound capacity for fun - so much so, that good boys who fall in love with them usually end up standing outside their bedroom windows, in the rain, singing Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes at the top of their lungs, because dammit she's the best thing that ever happened to them. Another reason for the attractiveness of the bad girl is her ability to keep the adrenaline flowing - like Melanie Griffith's character in Something Wild, when she forces Jeff Daniels to dine and dash. A bad girl has the ability to turn normal life into a white knuckle roller coaster ride. Bonus effect: bad girls never have time for depression, because they're having too much fun scaring the living shit out of their boyfriends. One more reason for the attractiveness of the bad girl: she's a genuine nymphomaniac. The bad girl loves everything about sex. The bad girl can come up with new and patentable sex positions with you. All of which, of course, makes her guy feel like the king of the world.
Unfortunately, the bad girl by her nature lacks the qualities that a good girl uses to marry a man. Good girls are faithful and true, and are a better bet, according to evolutionary psychology, of bearing your children instead of passing off someone else's as your own. However, all of this makes her the more boring choice. And because you can't have it both ways, you must settle.
The way to kill this particular sacred cow is to adopt "quantum thinking". Clearly, the qualities of badness are the diametric opposite of goodness, but in reality they are like quantum states - non-dual in nature, both particle and wave. Thus, the ideal woman is actually a non-dual composite of the bad and good. And if that's confusing, it's a good thing, because the "Heisenberg uncertainty principle of love" tells us that if you're knowable you're no longer moving, alive, unattainable, dynamic, and thrilling.
Christopher Ryan shared with me a telling joke about swingers: "The husband usually has to drag his wife to a swingers' party, but after she gets busy, usually has to drag her back home." The reality is that women are and have always been a non-dual combination of bad girl and good girl, no matter who she presents herself to be.
The same is true for men. You can't be a moodle (ie: "man poodle") and at the same time, command the respect of your woman. You need to combine the diametrically opposite characteristics of "best friend" and "bad for me." (Extra points if you ride a really cool motorcycle.) The perfect non-dual quantum sexual man embodies the best of both archetypes; combining the caring and loyalty of the good boy, and sexual prowess of a rake and raconteur. It's not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of inner work to be really good and really bad at the same time... to complete a Jungian integration worthy of a bestselling novel. (The greater the space between self and shadow, the more compelling the character in fiction or film.)
And so, it's within this evolutionary dance of transformative integration that a truly successful 21-century relationship is possible, one that avoids the almost inevitable endpoint of "marriage as a living death." It is this new kind of relationship that benefits from true openness, the sharing of goals from both the shadow and higher self, that is truly alive and dynamic and unafraid to explore the undiscovered territories of the human heart. This is the kind of marriage that can survive because it adapts; this brings its partners to a higher level of radical honesty about what works and what doesn't. This is the creation of a new kind of romantic partnership and relationship structure where the goal is personal fulfillment and transformation, rather than the need for society to make you conform like a well-behaved little cog in the machine.
Again, let me repeat that the evolutionary status of a society can actually measured by its perspectives on marriage and sexual freedom. It's clear that our society is in the midst of a massive bifurcation of American culture where you've got liberalization on one side with states passing gay marriage, and then you have a large and unmoving mass of people firmly stuck in the mores and beliefs of the 19th century, complete with teabag parties and resistance to scientific facts like evolution and global warming. Like time travelers, the Red States are trying to travel backward in time, and the Blue States are rushing at light speed into the 21st century. It's like what the science fiction writer William Gibson said, "The future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed."
And at the bleeding edge of this time machine, there are certain experimental lifestyle communities, which form something like a Manhattan project for sexuality and relationships. These fun-loving yet oddly serious bunch of people - swingers, polyamorists, BDSM lifestylers, what have you who all seem to live in California - are firmly set somewhere around 2190 AD, in terms of experimenting with new relationship models and sexual activities. These groups should actually be celebrated, not vilified; they are the Henry Miller's, the Anaïs Nin's, the Paul Gauguin's of our times--and most likely to invent sustainable models for marriage in the future. These are the people who are doing the basic research, like multi-touch interfaces that enabled the iPhone, that will someday lead to the iMarriage of the 21st century.
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