This episode continues Peter McGraw’s exploration of marriage and its alternatives. He speaks to Vicki Larson, an author of a book that presents models of less traditional forms of marriage.
Listen to Episode #35 here:
Alternative Forms Of Marriage
This episode continues my exploration of marriage and its alternatives. I speak to the author of a book that examines alternative forms of marriage. I’ll tease you with a few of them. There’s the starter marriage, the safety marriage, and my favorite, the living apart together marriage. There’s no bonus material again, but it could use that extra time if you would give it to rate and review the show if you haven’t done it. I managed to get a forthcoming guest because she read the reviews and commented on how lovely they are. Thank you for your help. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Vicki Larson. She’s an award-winning journalist, the lifestyle editor, columnist, and writer at the Marin Independent Journal. She’s the co-author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. Her writings can be found pretty much everywhere, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Quartz, HuffPost, and Medium to name a few. Welcome, Vicki.
Thanks for having me.
How does one turn from being an award-winning journalist, lifestyle editor, columnist, and writer at the Marin Independent Journal and end up writing a book about reshaping marriage in a modern age?
You have to be divorced twice probably. That helped.
It’s like the guy who never married being the host of Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to a Remarkable Life.
It’s an interesting story because I met Susan, my co-author, for a story. She’s a therapist here in Marin. I interviewed her and then a few years later, Huffington Post started having a divorce section. She was writing about it and I was writing about it. We said, “We should do something together.”
Was this after your second divorce?
Yeah. I thank my former husband for marrying me so I could divorce him, so I can write a book. I never would have written a book about marriage if he hadn’t married and divorced me. Susan told me that she’d been working on a book. Susan became known as a divorce coach when she started. A lot of people were coming to her. They were getting divorced and there wasn’t a lot of support for people. That became her specialty. The funny thing is she wrote a book about divorce as she was getting married for the first time at age 40. She asked me to come on board. We both came to it from different angles. Susan not getting married until she was old, people were like, “What’s wrong with you?” I haven’t been married and divorced twice. People would say, “What’s wrong with you?”
I had a conversation about this very idea, being middle-aged and dating. There are two places you can be and each of them has their cons. The first one is, “He’s never married. I’m not sure he can settle down. Is he ready to ‘grow up?’” The other one is, “He’s been married, but he didn’t do it well. Why should you expect that he’s going to get it all worked out the second time?”
We were both experiencing shame, which tends to cloud the whole marriage versus single issue. There’s a lot of shaming. If you’re married and you don’t make it, it’s like someone has to die for you to have a successful marriage. Any other exit from marriage, you’re doing it wrong. If you remain single, you’re a suspect. You’re a spinster if you’re a woman.
A Peter Pan if you’re a guy.
That’s why you see the magazines were like, “George Clooney is finally getting married.”
A little piece of me died when George Clooney got married.
He actually had been married before. People forget about that. He was not a lifelong bachelor.
Is that true? I didn’t know that. His starter marriage. That’s a preview for the readers. You’ll see in a few moments here. One thing that is interesting, I did not know that HuffPost had a divorce column or section. Do they still or has it been shut?
They still do. I was writing for HuffPost for quite a while mostly in divorce. They changed their platform and not anyone could write for them. I moved away and went to Medium, which was to be the new HuffPost.
I purposely added that to the list so you would be more hip.
I’m hot and it’s hot.
It’s interesting that you bring that up because I was looking to pitch some solo focused articles. I take some of the show content that I have already and then repurpose it for newspaper, magazine, op-ed, to do what you do. I was unsuccessful, unfortunately, but what I did was I was looking around for where might a good location be. Who’s the right editor to target and so on? I’m not a professional journalist. I don’t have a Rolodex of editors, relationships, and so on. I’m looking at mastheads and cold emailing people and things like that. I came across The Atlantic has a family section and I started fussing around with this. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I copied the announcement of the family section. I started rewriting it as if they were going to launch a single section.
It’s fascinating changing it. This is me trying to rewrite this. The title of it is family so I changed it to single and it says, “Introducing The Atlantic’s Single Section. A new hub for the coverage of American life from the viewpoint of its most basic unit. When The Atlantic founders created this magazine 161 years ago, the single person was not top of mind. The Atlantic group would be devoted to art literature, etc. Soon enough, the editors came to understand that the well-being of a nation, its culture, and its economy, was tied up with the health and vitality of its single people. The question single face,” and I haven’t put all those questions in.
That’s awesome. The Washington Post had a single section. Lisa Bonos ran Solo-ish.
That’s right, but it’s now a relationship section.
She’s always trying to throw that narrative that everyone wants to be in a relationship and that is a normal thing to do.
To step back, you have some expertise from personal experience, from your writing, and from your co-author, but talk through a little bit more about the genesis of this book. That’s why I have you on here because I want to talk about this book. I think it’s a fascinating concept.
We didn’t go out to create new versions of marriage, but we noticed that they were already happening. When people talk about marriage, they talk about traditional marriage as if there’s one kind of marriage, but there isn’t. Marriage has changed so much throughout history. Marriage looks different throughout the world. We wanted to bust that stereotype and also because the divorce rate is pretty high. The narrative is always 50% but it’s not. It’s more about 30% to 40% depending on the age range, but for people 50 and older, it is 50%.
I’m glad you brought that up because I don’t do series yet with Solo, but sometimes I hit on a theme. Early on I had a little bit of health and wellness. You line up a few people because I’m thinking about that stuff. This will be a third relationship and marriage focused topic. One of them was I have a conversation with Mary Dahm, where we talk about people who should not have married in history. The way we think about it is if they were alive now, they probably wouldn’t have married. They didn’t have a choice back then because you had to.
I believe my father if he were a young man now, he would not have gotten married and had children. It’s not to say that he didn’t love my mother or my sister and me. It’s just that he went from being a dutiful son to being a dutiful husband, to being a dutiful father. He probably would have loved to be an airplane pilot or something. He was an engineer and he had a wonderful career, but when I try to get a sense of my dad, I don’t think he would have married.
I think about this movie, It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. It’s a lovely film. There’s a lot to like about Jimmy Stewart. You would see how he would be hard to be a leading man now, but yet he pulled it off with such grace. People ignore the beginning of that movie where he doesn’t want to be married. He wants to go to South America. He wants to take his piece of luggage and his map and see the world. Because he was the dutiful son, he takes over the Bailey Building and Loan. His brother goes off to war and then goes off to college and does all these kinds of things. George Bailey becomes a loving husband and father.
I had a striking conversation with my own dad when we were both adults. My parents divorced and I got reunited with him in my teens when I went off to college. I remember sitting with him at a restaurant once and I asked him. I was like, “Why did you marry mom?” It wasn’t clear to me knowing both of them that they were a good pair, that it was love at first sight or something like that. It was Vietnam. He was going off. He had been enlisted. He had this fantastic story about being pulled in front of a federal judge for dodging the draft.
He wasn’t dodging the draft, at least not. He was just a screw up so he hadn’t changed his address. They had sent his draft notice to a previous address and he didn’t get it. One day an MP shows up at his door. This was the late ‘60s when this was all going on. I was like, “Why did you do this?” He said to me in this matter of fact way, “That’s what you do. That’s what you did.” It was that simple. There was no debating and resisting this. It was the next step in the process. It sounds like your dad had that.
My dad, they talk about women in those days and the whole feminine mystique was written about that. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about men. They were as constrained as women. Women had a little harder, but certain expectations.
If you wanted to have sex, this strong urge.
Especially if you’re going off to war. Here we are in 2020, you don’t have to get married to have sex. You can have children without getting married. Women are financially independent. You can live together. You can create whatever kind of life you want. There is still this saying about marriage.
Before I ask you about that, the other third theme is an episode with Amy Gahran. She’s a journalist and she wrote a book called Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator. It’s a fascinating book. In it, she puts forth these criteria for what she describes as this relationship escalator. You referred to one of them, which is this idea of a successful relationship ends with someone dying. The criteria she puts forth is sexual and romantic exclusivity, monogamy. Merging, that’s merging your identity, your infrastructure, your bank accounts, or your living arrangements. Hierarchy, that is this relationship has some special status.
You can do things with this relationship that you couldn’t with other relationships. The example she uses is, suppose you invited your best friend to go to join you at someone’s wedding rather than your spouse. People are like, “You should bring your spouse, but why are you bringing your friend? That’s weird.” This idea of asexual connection that you were talking about. There’s some sexual intimacy there. The last one, which you’ve alluded to is continuity and consistency. It starts at some point and it remains until some endpoint.
The ideal end is death.
I bring this up because most of the book, you dedicated one chapter to each of several different types of marriage like altered, revise, renewed, and improved version. These are my words.
Right now as we talked about, the only way to decide that a marriage is successful is if it lasts until death.
That’s a poor indicator.
You can have a loveless, full of contempt, angry, abusive, horrific marriage, and a lot of them are like that. People will say that’s a success. We were like, “That’s not a success.” We said, “What if people married according to their values and goals? What do I want from this marriage? What am I looking for?” You can then decide whether it’s going to be a successful marriage or not because you’re saying, “I want this. You want that too. This is going to make our marriage successful.” Let’s say you want to have children. Do you have to marry the love of your life as someone who’s a great sexual partner, or do you want to marry someone who’s going to be a good dad or a good mom? That should be your priority. If you raise the kids to whatever age you decide is good enough, maybe eighteen or off to college, then you can say, “Do we want to stay together? If we do, do we want to switch it up? Maybe we want to have an open marriage at this point.” What we want to do is to help people individualize their marriage based on their values, goals, and needs.
We’re going to go through each of those. The one you described is a parenting marriage. They have terms for them. I hope to get them right and we’ll revisit that one briefly. First of all, I commend the two of you for doing this. It’s a useful conversation in terms of trying to get people to shift away from the one standard that this is what marriage should look like. As we know and as you were saying, the divorce rates are high enough to put that standard into question. I’m glad to hear what your analysis is. My analysis was, it’s like 35%. What is the probability that you will get divorced? That number goes up or down, depending on a lot of things. Unfortunately, low-income people have a much higher probability. One of the sad things about marriage is, it’s stacked against the people who probably in many ways needed the most in terms of resources and so on.
Yeah, but you could have a roommate too. I do remind people of that because if you’re just getting married for the financial thing and believe me, marriage is a financial arrangement as you know. It is the number one financial arrangement. If that is why you’re getting married. Get creative and think of something. Get a roommate.
You should exhaust more options. Take some online courses and try to improve your career. I want to press you on one thing. I promise this is the most mean I’m going to be, which is, why even stick with marriage? Why even continue to use that standard? I feel like you have deviated, but you’ve done a little turn there.
It’s a valuable question. I’m going to answer it because when you wed in the United States anyway, you are privy to more than 1,100 federal perks and protections, and then there are some on the state level. What we have done is we say, “You two are making this commitment here. Here are all these goodies.” When Social Security was changed in the ‘50s in the post-war, then it encouraged the breadwinner-homemaker model. In other parts of the world, you don’t have to get married to get privileges. It is ridiculous to privilege people based on their romantic and sexual life. However, that’s what we got. If that’s what we got, then people should consider that.
I know a number of people who are longtime cohabiting couples. They’ve never gotten married and they are in some times, in some ways might be losing out on things, but that’s the choice they made. Two economists, one was in the Obama administration, Betsey Stevenson and her partner Justin Wolfers, they have children together at least or maybe one child. They’re not married but they live together because they did the economics on it and they decided that, “It’s better if we don’t wed.” People should think about that if they do want to get married and see, “Is marriage going to help us or is marriage going to hurt us?” It tends to help a bunch of people because of those perks and privileges.
I know a previous guest. She comes up all the time. Everybody who’s playing in this space knows Bella. She’s done some very good work on not only where are the perceived benefits. There’s also, where are the costs when you don’t do this thing? Society is harder on women who don’t do it than men. There’s a double standard.
It is harder on women in a lot of ways, but that is a different conversation for another day.
As a man, I also will say that society is hard on men and women, but in different ways.
I am the mother of two young men. I know the messages they get too. I’m aware.
It’s a gentle reminder that I say. As we’re having this during the Black Lives Matter’s time, one thing that is absent from this conversation is, who gets killed by police? It’s almost exclusively men. When it comes to relational elements, caregiving, and challenges in terms of balancing career and parenting, one of the great, funny, and sad statistics is the second shift has gotten worse during the pandemic in some ways.
I’ve been reading a lot of articles about that. There have been a lot of books about men getting men to do their share and this and that. I want to scream because one of the things in our book and something that I’m a big believer in is relationships are marital contracts. You have some hard discussions about things. You come to agreements. You hold each other accountable and you talk it through maybe yearly and go, “How is it working?” “It’s not working.” Rather than what most people do is build up the resentments and this and that. This is what breaks up a lot of marriages. I hate to say it there’s so much resentment. I remember a few years ago, there was an article in Parents magazine and the headline was Mad at Dad. They had more than 1,000 women wrote in and 75% of them, which is some huge amount, we’re pissed off at their husbands all the time because of all of the stuff that they were doing or that the guys weren’t doing or weren’t doing enough or whatever. That’s a problem.
That’s a real problem because those things are fixable. It’s not like these are major differences of opinion and lifestyle. This is about cooking meals, cleaning dishes, vacuuming, and running errands.
It’s minding the birthday gifts and making calls to the parents. It is totally fixable.
This reminds me of a story of a colleague that had been married. This is not a close colleague. This is someone in my career world. He’d been married, had kids, and was divorced and then he met a woman. They started dating and had a good relationship. She said, “I want to get married and have children.” He was like, “I’ve had children. I’m not that excited to do this, but I will marry you. I will impregnate you. I will contribute financially, but I’m not going to change diapers.” These are my words, not his. “These are the things that I will not do. I’ve done it and I don’t want to do it again. I understand why you want to have kids.” She said yes to that. She was like, “Okay, that’s our agreement. That’s our arrangement.”
Is it working out?
As far as I know.
In a way, I can see that it would work because it gives one person total control. If one person wants to raise the child a certain way and do this kind of education, religious training, and this discipline, you don’t have to argue with someone. A lot of single moms say it’s so much easier in that respect. It’s their control. They can do whatever they want and they don’t have to negotiate with someone.
Especially when there’s no tiebreaker. When you have three people, you’ve got a tiebreaker. When it’s two, you got at some point. Some of these things have no middle ground. You have to choose one path or another. That’s a good point, but that story is a nice segue into these different types of marriage that you and Susan put forth in The New I Do. Let’s start with the starter marriage.
I had one of those but not intentionally.
You didn’t set it out to be a starter marriage.
We were poorly matched and it was a few months before my 21st birthday. He asked me and we never discussed anything. I said okay, then realized that it is not working.
How long did it take before you realized it wasn’t working?
Two years. We were married for about four years. We’ve been divorced for awhile. We were probably together for about 3.5 years. A starter marriage is a marriage of under five years. There should be no children involved.
Is it generally younger people?
It doesn’t have to be but generally, yes. It’s like trying marriage on for size. People push back and they’re like, “We’ll just live together.” That’s marriage like but it’s not, because everyone understands husband and wife. People don’t understand always living together. Are you living together? Are you saving money? Are you in love with each other? Who does what? It doesn’t have the cache I suppose of hierarchy. Our idea of a starter marriage is not new. Throughout history, there have been starter marriages. It’s part of what we think marriage should be. It is a term-limited and renewable marriage, which isn’t even new. Margaret Mead was speaking for women back in the day. She said women should have three husbands. One for youthful sex, back in the day when you couldn’t have sex. One to raise children with and one in old age to be your companion. I’m like, “Margaret, go. That’s exactly what we need.”
That’s outstanding. I had not heard that story.
The way we present a starter marriage is that you do come up with this relationship contract of, why are we doing this? It’s not that you are doing it because you think you’re going to split. You’re doing it because we do care about each other and we do want to be together. Let’s see if we’re on the same page about things. We have a sample marital contract for starter marriage of, what are our goals? What do we want to do? How are we going to handle things like in-laws, pets, friends visiting, and who moves for whom’s job? In other words, we want people to have a lot of conversations before they go into the marriage. People spend so much time planning a wedding and they forget to plan a marriage.
It’s striking the amount of time and resources that go into planning a six-hour event.
It never used to be like that. I got married on a mountain top in Colorado, under a tree in Balboa Park. I’m not that wedding person. Everyone made fun of Gwyneth Paltrow when she consciously uncoupled. We want people to consciously couple. Think about this thing that you’re doing. Have conversations, and then ideally at the end of the period that you decide, you say, “That was great,” or “That wasn’t so great.” If we did have temporary time-limited marriage licenses, then you would be able to split without all of the drama and the expense of a divorce. There have been in history certain things like that and similar to that.
We’re ready for temporary marriages and started marriages where you see if you’re a good fit, see if your goals are aligned. If it doesn’t work, then you can split. If it does work, then you can decide, “Where are we going now? Do we want to have children?” You will transform your marriage into whatever you want it to be in the next phase. There are phases to marriage as Margaret Mead pointed out. If you look at some of the timings of divorces, the joke is, “It’s a seven-year itch,” but it is 7, 14, 21. There is a little bit of a rhythm when there is some divorce happening.
I had a divorce mediator on. One of the things that she pointed out that I thought was interesting was there’s all this resistance to people having a prenup. In some ways, what you’re describing is a little bit of some of the conversations that you have with a prenup, which is, “Should we split? This is how it will go down.”
Prenups generally are strictly financial stuff, but that’s changing. A prenup scares people. It sounds so negative. It’s like you’re planning your divorce, but it’s not because the state has a plan for you.
That’s what she said, “You may resist a prenup, but just know you have a prenup. It’s just not called that.” I thought that was an insightful thing. It’s a strong way to argue for a prenup which is, “Would you be comfortable with this outcome? If you’re not comfortable with this outcome, then you should have a prenup.”
In calling it a marital plan, although in the book we do call it a prenup. I forget what we called it in the book. It’s a plan. What you are doing sounds better. You’re planning something. You’re agreeing to things. That sounds so much more positive even though it is the same thing.
I get it. I can see how it would be quite threatening for people to do that. I also sense that if you and your partner want to do this, it’s already a good sign that you will have some compatibility. I can imagine the challenge is one person wants to do it. One person is pragmatic and the other one may subscribe to a more traditional or at least, contemporary view of love and marriage.
If that’s happening, that would be like, “Let’s not rush into marriage. Let’s talk some more.”
You’ve already mentioned one of the other ones, which is this parenting marriage. Talking about dating, I noticed this with women in their mid to late-thirties where there is some urgency to figure this all out because they want to have children. The challenge of finding a partner who provides everything in that short period of time is real.
I’m not the target market for these things. What is FamilyByDesign and all these?
Let’s say you’re a guy and you want to have a kid. I’m a woman and I want to have a baby. I don’t want to be a single mom. You don’t want to be a single dad. It’s like a dating site that you can find someone to have a baby with. It can be that you live close to each other, you live together or you don’t. You can arrange it however you want. You fill out forms and there are background checks and there’s this and that. You have discussions about money. How is this happening? Who’s changing the diapers and everything? You’re planning your parenthood. that’s what most people don’t do. Originally, this was a way for LGBT people to find a way to have children because it’s hard if you’re two guys or two women, but now more heterosexual people are looking into that.
Our parenting marriage is not quite like that, although it could be. You could get together with someone to have children with. After age 18 or 20 say, “We did our job.” It can be also that you have a contract of that time length and then after that, you decide what you’re going to do. I’ve met someone on an airplane once. He had lived with his partner for seven years. He said they were getting married. I said, “Why after seven years?” He said exactly that, “We want to have children. We’re agreeing to eighteen years together. After that, we’ll see.” I thought, “Okay.” Also in choosing a parenting marriage, maybe your focus is like we talked before, not like the guy who’s going to give you great sex, but the person who’s going to be an amazing dad. You’re looking for these attributes and this kind of personality. The focus is more on children. A lot of what they call high investment marriages are focused around the children. A parenting marriage makes sense.
The flip side of that is a companionship marriage.
I struggled a little bit with a companionship marriage because it is like a spillover to me. It could be a lot of things. My co-writer and her husband married older. They’re not having children. In a way, they have a companionship marriage. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s only for people who don’t have children, but it tends to be the marriage that child-free people have.
It’s like, “This is so good. Let’s not screw it up with a couple of kids.” I have friends. They will not be named. They have great kids but they’re like, “I cannot wait for these kids to go to college so I can start spending more time with my wife.” It’s wonderful and refreshing to hear because they’ve done a fantastic job being parents. The kids are amazing, but they have this connection that seems to be this way. They’re like, “No gap year for you. You’re going to college.”
I grew up where our mothers didn’t even know where we were. We’re like, “Bye, mom.” “Okay, be home for dinner.”
It was easier back then.
My mom went about her life. She was in her sewing room doing her thing. She was making dinner. She didn’t check on me like, “Where are you?” She didn’t fond all over me. I’m one of these strange people who doesn’t watch TV. I was watching Mad Men before it went away on Netflix. They didn’t fond of their children. As a matter of fact, they didn’t pay attention to them. I don’t think they were nice to them. Now, parents are so into them.
It’s a heavy lift. It’s difficult.
They’re so afraid that if they don’t do all of this stuff, their kids will fail in the world. I’m wondering if what we’re going through now, with the pandemic is a total reset for people.
It will be interesting to see. It’s tough. I have sympathy for these modern-day parents because it comes from a place of love. It comes from a place of wanting to see their kids be successful, healthy, and happy. First of all, 40% to 50% of it is genetics. Let’s say 40% of it is genetics. Those dices are rolled already, so there’s no unrolling them. There’s another 40%, which is the stuff that you give them access to. You send them to the right schools, nutrition, and all this stuff. There’s then 20% of randomness in the world that you have little control over.
Parents can mess up kids. Although I feel as a mother myself that I am responsible for keeping the next generation of shrinks in business. I’ve done my part.
I think it’s fair because as a college professor, I teach the kids who had everything. Not all of my students but many of my students come from privileged backgrounds. Both parents, not divorced, upper-middle-class and beyond incomes, etc. All the things that are necessary to get you into a top school, yet they struggle. The idea is you give them everything that you can because you don’t know what matters and what doesn’t matter. Even despite doing that, it’s not like they’re all going to be super successful, tall, happy, beautiful, healthy, and all those things. As you know, adversity is good. That’s how you build strong bones and muscles is because you flex the body.
Failure is important. People are afraid to let their kids fail and that is a good thing for them to do. Not in a way that they’re going to end up in jail or something.
These are small failures.
You can also reinvent yourself if you make a mistake. It took me four schools in ten years to graduate college because I did a lot of stupid things. I get married at age twenty, but then you can find your way. Kids now are afraid to do that. People are afraid to what they’re doing, but we digress.
The companion marriage, people don’t have to worry about this.
That’s marriage also for people who were asexual, who were not interested in that romantic sexual thing. I see it could be a marriage which means friends. It’s a spillover narrative marvel.
I completely understand. In terms of Amy Gahran’s relationship escalator, that’s one example that it may not have asexual connection per se or something like that. It doesn’t have to. It’s unfortunate when you think about it. Imagine you’re married and you have kids. You are quite fond of and you have affection for your partner, but the person doesn’t turn you on. You don’t like having sex with him or her. By now’s standards, you either have to forego a healthy sex life, cheat, get divorced, or open your marriage up. The sad thing is if you said to the world, which of those is the best option, much of the world will say, “You’ve got to go out without the sex.” If you get divorced, now you’re being selfish and what are you doing to the kids and all this stuff. If you’re cheating, we know the problems with that. Enough people find having an open marriage distasteful and yet one of the marriages in the book is the open marriage.
A lot of people don’t have honest discussions about monogamy. They don’t discuss if they’re good at it. Are they choosing it? Do they like it? Have they ever not liked it? Have they ever not done it? Whenever we talk about monogamy, it’s always like, “It’s cheating,” or there’s something wrong with it instead of realizing, “Why is monogamy the norm? Why do we choose it?” People will say, “It’s evolutionary because women want to raise their children.” I was like, “Most of the evolutionary biologists are men and they’re saying that.” Do you know Wednesday Martin’s book Untrue? Monogamy does not necessarily suit women any better than it does men.
People don’t talk about it and they don’t talk about it even like, “What if one of us becomes disabled or has an illness?” One of the women we interviewed in our book, she was from Australia and her husband who she loves became unable to have sex of any type. He encouraged her to find someone for sex. When she would be out with that person, it was so much shame and judgment, but they didn’t understand. We don’t have many healthy models of consensual non-monogamy. Generally, people talk about Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith. They’re like, “They have an open marriage.” They’re always denying it. I’m like, “What if they did? So what?” It would be great if they did.
It would be useful if they do. It would be good for the world to have a successful couple.
At least to think about the choices that you’re making and maybe you decide that “I like monogamy,” but at least you’re making that decision. You’re not doing it blindly because you think that’s the only way to be.
This is tough because so much of the undercurrent of the conversation that we’re having is the tension between what these two people want and what’s best for them. What does Aunt Sarah think about this? What does our kids’ coach, the community, and the family are going to think about this? There’s a lot of social pressure. Also, not only benefits from the government but there are societal benefits. For example, in the case of your friend, she has a husband, and then she has a lover. What if the lover is a foodie and he’s a great dinner companion? She then gets invited to a couples’ dinner. She’s got this one man that she could bring who he might do it because he’s obligated to do it. She then has this other man that she could bring who would be appreciative. She would have a better time. The guests would have a better time because he would bring more to the dinner table. She might get uninvited to future things because she brings her lover and how awkward that is and so on. It’s a tough world.
Among people in polyamorous communities, they don’t often talk about it because if someone is divorced, children can be taken away. In those situations, I understand why you might want to keep things quiet because there are real-life consequences of that. It isn’t an option that a lot of people think of. If you’re in a “sexless marriage,” you’re not going to find a counselor who’s going to suggest it and talk about amp it up and date night. There are a lot of people who are mismatched sexually with partners and they’re unhappy, and it makes them feel bad. We offer that as an option.
We’ve alluded to one before at least. You call it safety marriage.
Some people would call that a gold digger marriage or something. Take a look at Crystal Harris when she was married to Hugh Hefner. It’s a 60-year difference. She can’t possibly be loved. Honestly, if you are marrying for money or safety, however, you want to call it and you are upfront about that is an arrangement. It is probably much more transparent than someone who doesn’t share that, “As soon as we get married, I’m going to quit my job. I want to be full-time whatever.”
She still has a housekeeper. I’ve seen that happen. I’m like, “Why does this homemaker have a housekeeper?”
It’s a big house. That might not be for everybody because as we were saying, “Marriage is a financial arrangement.” You can be transparent about it. Some of the people we interviewed in the book after the recession were looking for someone who had health insurance. I can see people needing that right now. The way that we get health insurance is through employment or marriage and that’s wrong. Everyone should be entitled to that. Marriage is a financial arrangement. Maybe you want to have that kind of marriage. There’s no judgment from me on that. As long as everyone’s being transparent about it.
There’s consent. It’s fascinating certainly with the rise of dating apps and the internet, you’ve seen more transparency. There is always some exchange. My friend, Kathleen Vohs, and her co-author, Roy Baumeister had written about what they call Sexual Economics. It’s funny because they try to publish these papers in these peer-reviewed journals that are edited and reviewed by fairly liberal, progressive, and people who rightfully are champions of equality and egalitarianism. They’ve got a lot of pushback from this. They’re always surprised because there’s so much evidence for sexual economics for an exchange. Prostitution is the most common and arguably the oldest profession. There’s a website called SeekingArrangement as well as on the apps, where people are either very blatant or very coded in their language around this topic, which is about lifestyle and generosity. I share the same belief that you do, which is as long as these are adults and there’s consent. People may find it distasteful. You say it’s not right for you, but it seems to be working for Hef.
Before he died, he had a successful marriage.
I wrote this down and went down the rabbit hole and looked at this. Your book brought this too. I didn’t know this, but if you’re in the US military and you get married, you get a pay increase. As a result of that, some military personnel seek out an arrangement like putting ads on Craigslist, where they are looking for someone to marry. I assume they split the added benefit. That’s an arrangement. They get to negotiate that.
As I said, marriage and the perks and the privileges, it’s financial. People should be much more transparent about that. We don’t like to say we’re marrying for money, but when people give the top five reasons to marry, financial is in there. What if it was number one instead of love?
It has to be for some people, you would have to assume. This is the merging criteria that Amy talks about. We have two more. This one I found fascinating. It’s the covenant marriage because I have never heard of this before, but I’m not surprised.
The struggle to put that in there because why would you want to put a more restrictive marriage in there? To explain what it is, in certain states, I think it’s four, there is a separate marriage license. There are two marriage licenses in the United States in those four states in the South. You have to do much more before you can get married. You have to take classes and this and that. You have to do a lot more if you want to split. You can’t just divorce.
It’s harder to get in and harder to get out.
Who the heck in their right mind wants that? However, for the people who have entered into it and it’s a small percentage of people because it wasn’t very publicized. People didn’t know much about it. It was the fundamental Christians, I believe, started this. It was tied into religious stuff. The people who choose it because they’re doing premarital counseling together. They’re having the conversations. They’re going into it with eyes wide open. They have satisfying marriages. What we discovered, whatever the model is, if you are on the same page about stuff, you have a more satisfying marriage.
As a scientist who questions a bunch of things, I have to wonder, are the people who opt into this also the types who would have been fine under a regular marriage anyway because they’re already so committed?
Yes, probably and community is a big part of that in this case of the religious community, and that helps keep people accountable. It also can prevent people from leaving abusive things too. It’s both sides of the coin there but probably.
We don’t know. We can’t run the experiment but yes. The last one and I kept it last for obvious reasons.
The live apart together relationship marriage. I happen to like that one the best.
LAT, Live Apart Together. It’s a sort of solo focus marriage.
People have a hard time because, why would you even get married if you’re not going to live together? Because you value your space, your job is in different places, you’re an independent person or you can’t put up with his crappy decor or whatever.
I like to sleep with it being super cold and you like to sleep with it super warm.
In the last few years, people have been talking about sleep divorce, which is not quite the same. It’s like LAT light and you’re not sleeping in the same room, but you’re giving each other freedom. That works for some people. For single people, if you could find the best single living and keep that into a relationship, what would you want? A lot of people do like their freedom and I want to have a partner too, but they like their freedom.
They like their space to be their space.
It is a growing phenomenon, especially in Europe. It’s growing among older people. I wrote an article on Medium about Older Women Don’t Want to Live With Their Male Partners. Here’s Why. It went viral and all the women are writing in going, “I’ll never live with anybody again.” I won’t either. I don’t want to. I want us to hang together. If you have been married before as a lot of the women were. They’ve been there and done that. They’ve cared. They’ve been the main caregivers and they’re like, “I’m done with that.” That is a big one for women. There were men who were feeling that way too.
I always like to say, if you have to parent your partner, there goes your sex life.
All the research shows that people who live apart are just as committed. They’re happy because they do have their autonomy. They have to work a little bit harder on their relationships. They can’t take their partner for granted, which is what a lot of people do. You’re living together. You’re not even spending quality time. You’re just occupying the same space, whereas the people who don’t live together and then make the conscious effort to get on the plane or drive or walk to be together. They’re more present and they appreciate that person in that moment, at that time. It works for a lot of people.
If you look through these marriages in the book and you compare them to the gold standard of a “good relationship” this idea that you might not merge your infrastructure and your identity as much in this living apart together style marriage. I like this idea that non-monogamous relationships are often more honest than monogamous relationships because they force a variety of conversations.
It’s so much topic that I don’t know if I could do it.
The living apart together also has a little bit of that element. You plan to see each other. You plan what you’re going to do. Date nights are a real thing. It’s not like, “We should force ourselves to go out one night this week.”
You have to be much more present and conscious about what you’re doing like a couple when you don’t live together 24/7. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I see that as a good thing. It’s easy to become complacent in a relationship where that person is around all the time. You can take them for granted. You can forget to appreciate them, but you can’t do that easily. Also, may I say, if you can’t have sex all the time when you get together, need I say why?
The other benefit is it also reduces how annoying that was some time.
Many people now because of the quarantine and they’re locked down. I was reading these articles and a woman is going, “I didn’t realize my husband was a circle back guy. I can’t listen to him when he’s on the phone conversations.” You’re finding out so much more about your spouse now. People can be annoying. Not you and me, we are not annoying at all. Some people can and they have bad habits. Maybe they snore loudly at night or they need whatever.
They’re too messy or they’re too clean or whatever. Here’s the other one I see. They keep weird hours. You have a night owl and a lark living together. That’s tough but a night owl and a lark living apart will meet at 3:00.
It’s those little niggling things that people cite about throughout the day. You don’t have to deal with that, quite honestly.
I’m not that interested in marriage, but this would be the one I would choose if I had to choose from your list. This is the one I’m going for. I’ve had a couple of breakups and it was interesting because the thing that broke us up was not some fundamental incompatibility, but it was my partner saying, “I want us to move in.” I did not want the relationship to end, but I wasn’t willing to move in. That’s an unfortunate mismatch of that stage.
The number of older women are finding that’s what the men want. They want someone to cook, clean, and take care of them. I’m not saying all people are like that, but if you’re an old man and you’re used to that, then women are like, “Nope, it’s not happening.”
I don’t need someone to cook and clean because I outsource my cooking and cleaning. I can cook and clean when I need to as demonstrated by the quarantine. The last thing reminds me of a joke that Chris Rock has in one of his Netflix special called Tamborine. He talks about his divorce and his challenges with marriage and so on. He has this joke which is the thing that a comic would come up with. He’s like, “My parents were married for 40 years, but they didn’t spend 40 years with each other. A third of the time they were sleeping. A third of the time, dad was at work and mom was at home. They were together for about sixteen years.” He goes, “In my marriage, my wife and I were communicating all the time. I leave the house and by the time I’m at the end of the driveway, there’s a text message from her.” There is something to this idea that we are much more connected than we ever were before. There are even less distance and less of a break.
If you live apart, technology works totally. If it’s 24/7 and you’re getting texts, “Don’t forget to pick up this and that.” It’s the same with poor kids nowadays. Parents are like, “Where are you? What are you doing?” All the time.
Parents are tracking their kids on their phones. They know exactly where they are. Vicki, this was a lot of fun. You’re a delight. I have to admit, I was a little bit like, “I wonder how this is going to go.” I’m talking to someone who’s putting forth more ways to get married. I’m talking about fewer ways to get married. I think what you’re doing is noble work.
One of the things that we do have in the book is, why do you want to get married? We challenge people to ask themselves why. Is it because all of your friends are getting married or your parents expected or you think it’s what you should do? We want people to do conscious coupling, however, that’s going to look like. Maybe they will decide that marriage isn’t the thing. If they do decide marriage is the thing, they have options. We want them to know they have options.
I appreciate you writing the book and I appreciate your time. This was a lot of fun.
Thank you so much for having me on.
It’s my pleasure. Cheers.
- Marin Independent Journal
- The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels
- The Atlantic
- Mary Dahm – previous episode
- Amy Gahran – Previous episode
- Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator
- Bella DePaulo – Previous episode
- Older Women Don’t Want to Live With Their Male Partners. Here’s Why – Medium article
About Vicki Larson
Vicki Larson is an award-winning journalist; the lifestyles editor, columnist, and writer at the Marin Independent Journal; and the co-author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels. Her writing can be found in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Quartz, HuffPost, and Medium.
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