Peter McGraw concludes his mini-series on conventional and unconventional relationships with a “rerun” of a previous episode with Vicki Larson, an author of a book that presents models of less traditional forms of marriage.
Listen to Episode #72 here
Welcome back. If you’re a regular reader, you know that we’ve been investigating conventional and unconventional relationships. This episode was relevant to the topic that I brought it back as a rerun. It presents some alternative types of marriage. We haven’t discussed it deeply on SOLO, but I want to highlight some elements of marriage that may be relevant to our investigation. First, the marriage that you’re familiar with, in which love is central and the happiness of the couple is paramount. It’s a relatively new invention and not even the norm in every culture.
We’ve discussed many of the reasons for the loosening of the reins of marriage, including the rise of birth control, women’s equality and economic independence, in particular, the change in belief about sexual desire. The rise of the prominence of love in marriage in many ways has been a positive development. However, it has also threatened the institution of marriage. After all, if there is no longer love, there’s less reason to be married.
Prior to all of this, marriage was designed to create alliances between families, and central to it. It was arranged as a partnership to secure land and other possessions. Something that didn’t matter back in hunter-gatherer days. Back then, you only owned what you could carry. I suggest reading a couple of excellent books if you want a deeper dive. One is Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz. The other is A History Of The Wife by Marilyn Yalom. In this episode, Vicki Larson and I will talk about her book and the documents on how people are adjusting marriage in less radical ways than some of the unconventional relationships that we’ve been exploring. Nonetheless, adjusting marriage to make it work for them. I hope you enjoy the episode.
Our guest is Vicki Larson. She is an award-winning journalist, 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 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 for it and I was writing for it. We said, “We should do something together.”
Was this after your second divorce?
Yes. I thank my former husband for marrying me so I could divorce him and 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 so 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 of 40. She asked me to come on board and 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 have been married and divorced twice, people would say, “What’s wrong with you?”
I had a conversation about the idea of being middle-aged and dating. There are two places you can be in and each of them has its 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. Someone has to die for you to have a successful marriage. Any other exit from marriage, you’re doing it wrong, and then if you remain single, you’re a suspect. You’re a spinster if you’re a woman.
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 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, I must say. That’s a preview for the readers. One thing that is interesting is I did not know that HuffPost had a divorce column or section. Do they still or has it been shuttered?
They still do. I was writing for HuffPost for quite a while mostly in divorce, and then they changed their platform and not anyone could write for them. I moved away and went to Medium, which seems to be the new HuffPost.
I purposely added that to the list so you would be more hip because that’s the new hot. It’s interesting that you bring that up because I was looking to pitch some SOLO focus articles. I take some of the show content that I have already, and then repurpose it for newspaper, magazine, or op-ed to do what you do. I was unsuccessful, unfortunately. 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 so I don’t have a Rolodex of editors in relationships. I’m looking at mastheads and cold emailing people and things like that. I came across The Atlantic. It has a family section and I started fussing around with this. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. I copied the announcement of the family section. I started rewriting it as if they were going to launch a single section.
This is me trying to rewrite this. The title of it is Family so I changed it to Single. 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 would be devoted to art literature and those kinds of stuff. 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‘s faced,” and I haven’t put all those questions in.
The Washington Post had a single section. Lisa Bonos ran Solo-ish.
It’s now a relationship section or something.
She’s always trying to throw that narrative that everyone wants to be in a relationship and that is the normal thing to do.
To step back, you have some expertise from personal experience, from your writing and your co-author. Talk through a little bit more about the genesis of this book. I have you on here because I want to talk about this book. 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 is 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 high. The narrative has always said it’s 50% but it’s not. It’s more about 30% to 40% depending on the age range, but for people age 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, marriage-focused topic. One of them is 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.
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 loved my mother or that he didn’t love 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. When I try to give 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’d see how it 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 just take his piece of luggage, his map, and see the world. Because he was the dutiful son, he takes over the Bailey Building and Loan, and then his brother goes off to war and then goes off to college and does all these kinds of things. George Bailey becomes the loving husband, father, and so on. 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, “Why did you marry mom?” It wasn’t clear to me knowing both of them that they were a good pair. It was love at first sight or something like that kind of thing.
It was Vietnam. He was going off. He had been enlisted. He has this fantastic story about being pulled in front of a federal judge for dodging a draft. He wasn’t dodging the draft. He was just a screw-up. He hadn’t changed his address and they had sent his draft or notice to a previous address and he didn’t get it. One day, an MP showed up at his door. This was the late ‘60s when this was all going on. I was like, “Why did you do this?” He just said to me in this matter-of-fact way, “That’s what you do. That’s what you did.” It was just that simple. There was no debating this and resisting this. It was just the next step in the process. Your dad had that, it sounds like.
They talk about women in those days and The Feminine Mystique was written about that. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about men. They were as constrained as women. Women had it a little harder, but certain expectations.
If you wanted to have sex. This strong urge.
Especially if you’re going off to war. 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 and you can create whatever life you want. There still is this thing about marriage.
I wanted to ask you about that. The other theme is an episode with Amy Gahran. I don’t know if you know Amy. 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 romantic exclusivity, so monogamy. Merging your identity or your infrastructure, bank accounts, and living arrangements. Hierarchy, which is that 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 supposed you invited your best friend to join you at someone’s wedding rather than your spouse. People are like, “You should bring your spouse. Why are you bringing your friend? That’s weird.” This idea of asexual connection that we were talking about. There’s some sexual intimacy there, and then 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, in your book, you dedicated one chapter to each of several different types of marriage like altered, revised, renewed, improved versions. These are my words.
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, and people will say that’s a success. We were like, “No. That’s not a success.” We said, “What if people just married according to their values and goals? What do I want from this marriage? What am I looking for?” You then can decide whether it’s going to be a successful marriage or not because you’re saying, “I want this and 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, someone who’s a great sexual partner? 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 the age good enough? It’s usually eighteen when they’re off to college. You then 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. 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, the divorce rates are high enough to put that standard into question. I was glad to know what your analysis was. My analysis is 35%. What is the probability that you will get divorced? That number goes up or down, depending on a lot of things. Unfortunately, for example, low-income people have a much higher probability. One of the sad things about marriage is it’s stacked against the people who could probably, in many ways, need it the most in terms of resources and so on.
You could have a roommate too. 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. You should take some online courses and try to improve your career. I want to press you on one thing. Why even stick with marriage? Why even continue to use that standard? I feel like you have deviated, but you’ve done a little-term there.
It’s a valuable question and I’m going to answer it. When you wed in the United States anyway, you are privy to more than 1,100 federal perks and protections and then there’s some on the state level. What we have done is we say, “You too are making this commitment here. Here are all these goodies.” When Social Security was changed in the ‘50s postwar, 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 several people who are longtime cohabiting couples. They’ve never gotten married. Sometimes in some ways, they might be losing out on things, but that’s a choice they made. Two economists, one was in the Obama administration, Betsey Stevenson and her partner, Justin Wolfers. They have children together or maybe one child. They were not married, but they live together. They did the economics on it and they decided, “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.
A previous guest comes up all the time, Bella DePaulo. Everybody knows who’s Bella, playing in this space. She’s done some good work on not only where are the perceived benefits, and where are the costs? Society is harder on women who don’t do it than men.
Society is hard 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. We’re having this interview during the Black Lives Matter 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, challenges in terms of balancing career and parenting. One of the great, funny, sad statistics is the second shift has got 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 getting men to do their share, and this and that. I want to scream. One of the things in our book and something that I’m a big believer in is the relationship or marital contracts in which you have some hard discussions about things. You come to agreements. You hold each other accountable. You talk it through maybe yearly and go, “How’s 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, and there’s so much resentment. There was an article in Parents Magazine and the headline was Mad at Dad. More than 1,000 women wrote in and 75% of them were pissed off at their husbands all the time because of all of the stuff that they were doing, and that the guys weren’t doing or weren’t doing enough of. That’s a problem.
That’s a real problem. Also, 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.
Buying the birthday gifts and making the calls to the parents. It is 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 had been married, had kids, was divorced, and then met a woman. They started dating and had a good relationship. She said, “I want to get married and have children.” He’s like, “I’ve had children. I’m not that excited to do this, but I will marry you and I will impregnate you.” These are my words, not his. “I will contribute financially, but I’m not going to change diapers. These are the things that I will not do. I’ve done it. 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 wants to do this kind of education, religious training, and discipline, you don’t have to argue with someone. A lot of single moms say it’s much easier in that respect. It’s their control. They can do whatever they want and they don’t have to negotiate with someone.
There’s no tiebreaker. When you have three people, you’ve got a tiebreaker. When it’s two, you’ve got at some point. For some of these things, there’s no middle ground. You have to choose one path or another. That’s a good point. 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 out for it to be your starter marriage.
No. We were poorly matched. It was a few months before my 21st birthday. He asked me and we never discussed anything. I said, “Okay,” and then realized, “This is not working.”
How long did it take before you realized that it wasn’t working?
A few years. We were married maybe for about four years. We didn’t divorce for a while. We were probably together for about three and a half years. A starter marriage is a marriage of under five years. There should be no children involved.
Is it with generally younger folks?
It doesn’t have to be but generally. It’s like trying marriage on for size. People push back and are like, “We’ll live together.” That’s marriage life but it’s not. Everyone understands a husband and wife. People don’t understand always living together. Are you living together because you’re saving money? Are you in love with each other? Do you live with each other? Who does what? It doesn’t have the cachet I suppose of the 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, which should be a term-limited, renewable marriage, which isn’t even new. Margaret Mead was speaking for women and this is back in the day. She said that 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. This is 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, and friends visiting? Who moves for whose job? In other words, we want people to have a lot of conversations before they go into a 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 mountaintop in Colorado, and then under a tree in Balboa Park. I’m not that kind of a 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 and have conversations. Ideally, at the end of the period that you decide, then you say, “That was great,” or “That wasn’t great.” If we did have temporary, time-limited marriage licenses, then you would be able to split without all of the drama of a divorce and the expense of a divorce. In history, there have been certain things like that, very similar to that. We’re ready for that again. We’re ready for temporary marriages and starter 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 a marriage.
As Margaret Mead points out.
Also, if you look at some of the timings of divorces, the joke is a seven-year itch. It is 7, 14, 21. There is a little bit of a rhythm to when there is some divorce happening.
I had a divorce mediator on and 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 negative like you’re planning your divorce. It’s smart because the state has a plan for you.
That’s what she said. She said, “You may resist a prenup but know that 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 the book, we do call it a prenup. It 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 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. 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 parenting marriage. Talking about dating, I noticed this with women in their mid to late 30s where there is some urgency to figure out this all out because they want to have children. The challenge of finding a partner who provides everything in that short time is a real challenge.
You’re seeing more women who are freezing their eggs. You’re also seeing the rise of these websites like Family by Design, CoParents, and Modamily.
I’m not the target market for these things. What is Family by Design and all these about?
Let’s say you’re a guy and you want to have a kid, and I’m a woman and I want to have a baby. I don’t want to be a single mom and you don’t want to be a single dad. It’s like a dating site and you find someone to have a baby with. It can be that you live close to each other or 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, and who’s changing the diapers. You’re planning your parenthood, and that’s what most people don’t do. Originally, this was a way for LGBT people to find a way to have children. If you’re two guys or two women, that’s hard. More heterosexual people are looking into that. Parenting marriage is not quite like that, although it could be. You could get together with someone to have children with and after age 18 or 20 say, “We did our job.” It can also be that you have a contract of that time length and after that, you decide what you’re going to do.
I met someone in an airplane once and he had lived with his partner for seven years and 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 not 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 personality. The focus is more on children. A lot of marriages, what they call high investment marriages, are focused on the children. A parenting marriage makes sense.
The flip side of that is a companion marriage.
I struggled a little bit with a companionship marriage. It’s like a spillover to me and 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 kind of marriage that child-free people have.
They’re like, “This is 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. They’ve done a fantastic job being parents. Their kids are amazing. They have this connection that seems to be this way. They’re like, “Kids, no gap here for you. You’re going to college.”
I was talking about this with friends. Our mothers didn’t even know where we were like, “Bye, mom.” “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, “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 over their children. They didn’t even pay attention to them. I don’t even think they were nice to them. Now, parents are intense.
It’s a heavy lift. It’s difficult.
They’re 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 with the pandemic is a total reset for people.
It’ll be interesting to see. It’s tough. I have sympathy for modern-day parents because it comes from a place of love and it comes from a place of wanting to see their kids be successful, healthy, happy, and so on. First of all, 40% of it is genetics. Those dice have been rolled already. There’s no unrolling them. There’s another 40% which is the stuff that you would give them access to, send them to the right schools, nutrition, and all that stuff. There’s 20% randomness in the world that you have little control over.
Parents can mess up kids. As a mother myself, I feel that I am responsible for keeping the next generation of shrinks in business. I’ve done my part.
It’s fair. 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 are not divorced, upper-middle-class and beyond incomes, etc., all of the things that are necessary to get you into a top school, and 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. It’s not like they’re all going to be super successful, happy, beautiful, all those things. As you know, adversity is good. That’s how you build strong bones and build muscle, you flex the body.
Failure is important. People are afraid to let their kids fail. 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.
Also, you can reinvent yourself if you make a mistake. It took me four schools and ten years to graduate college because I did a lot of stupid things like getting married at age twenty. You can find your way. Kids are afraid to do that. People are afraid. We digress.
The companion marriage, folks don’t have to worry about this.
No. That type of marriage is also for people who are asexual, who are not interested in that romantic, sexual thing. I see that it could be a marriage between friends. It’s a spillover kind of marital model.
I completely understand. In terms of Amy Gahran’s Relationship Escalator, that’s one example that may not have a sexual 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 have affection for your partner, but the person doesn’t turn you on. You don’t like having sex with him or her. By nowaday’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 got to go out without the sex.” If you get divorced, you’re being selfish. What are you doing to the kids? If you’re cheating, we know the problems with that. Enough people find having an open marriage distasteful. Yet, one of your 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 cheating or there’s something wrong with it. Instead of realizing, why is monogamy the norm? Why do we choose that? People will say, “It’s evolutionary because women want to raise their children.” Most of the evolutionary biologists are men. They’re saying that. Do you know Wednesday Martin’s book, Untrue? You’ll have fun with her.
Monogamy does not necessarily suit women any better than it does men. Also, people don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about it even if like, “What if one of us becomes disabled or has an illness?” One of the women we interviewed in our book was from Australia, 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. They didn’t understand. We don’t have many healthy models of consensual non-monogamy. 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 good for the world to have successful couples.
Think about the choices that you’re making and maybe you decide, “I like monogamy.” 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’s our kids’ coach going to think about it? The community and the family. There’s a lot of social pressure. Also, it’s not only the benefit from the government, but there are societal benefits. For example, in the case of your friend, she has a husband and she has a lover. What if the lover is a foodie and he’s a great dinner companion? She gets invited to a couple’s dinner. She’s got this one man that she could bring. He might do it because he’s obligated to do it. She 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. They’ll always talk about amp it up and date night. There are a lot of people who are mismatched sexually with partners and they’re unhappy. It makes them feel bad. We offer that as an option.
We’ve alluded to one before that you call a safety marriage.
Some people would call that a gold digger marriage or something. Look at Crystal Harris when she was married to Hugh Hefner. They have a 60-year difference. She can’t possibly be in love. Honestly, if you are marrying for money or safety or however you want to call it, and you are upfront about that, 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.” That might not be for everybody. However, because we’re 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 because the way that we get health insurance is through employment or marriage. That’s wrong. Everyone should be entitled to that. Marriage is a financial arrangement. Maybe you want to have that kind of a marriage and there’s no judgment for me on that, as long as everyone is 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’s always an 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 people, progressive people, and folks who rightfully are champions of equality and egalitarianism. They get a lot of pushback from this.
They’re always surprised because there’s so much evidence for sexual economics, for an exchange. Prostitution being the most common and arguably the oldest profession. There’s a website called Seeking Arrangements as well as on the apps where people are either blatant or coded in their language around this topic, about lifestyle, generosity, and so on. 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. It’s not right for you but it seems to be working for Heff.
Before he died, he has a successful marriage.
I wrote this down and I went down the rabbit hole and looked at this. Your book brought this too. I didn’t know this. 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, 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. When people give the top five reasons to marry, finance 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, the covenant marriage. I have never heard of this before, but I’m not surprised.
We struggled 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, there’s 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, it’s a small percentage of people because it wasn’t publicized. People didn’t know much about it. The Fundamental Christians started this. It tied into religious stuff. The people who choose it, because they’re doing the premarital counseling together, they’re having the conversations, and 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 just the types who would have been fine under a regular marriage anyway because they’re already committed?
Yes, probably, and community is a big part of that. In this case, a religious community, and that helps keep people accountable. It also can prevent people from leaving abusive things. It’s both sides of the coin there.
We don’t know. We can’t run experiments. The last one, and I kept it for last for obvious reasons, is live apart together marriage.
I happen to like that one the best.
LAT, live apart together. A solo-focused marriage.
People have a hard time. It’s like, “Why even get married if you’re not going to live together?” Because you value your space or your jobs are in different places, or you’re an independent person, or you can’t put up with his crappy decor.
I like to sleep with it being super cold and you like to sleep with it being super warm.
People have been talking about sleep divorce, which is not quite the same. You’re not sleeping in the same room. You’re giving each other freedom. That works for some people. For single people, if you could find the best of single living and keep that into a relationship, what would you want? A lot of people do like their freedom. They 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, Older Women Don’t Want to Live With Their Male Partners. Here’s Why, and it went viral. All the women are writing in going, “I’ll never live with anybody.” I won’t either. I don’t want to. I want us to hang together.
What were some of the reasons?
If you have been married before as a lot of the women were, they’ve been there and done that. They’ve been caregivers. They’re like, “I’m done with that.”
I get it. I do not blame them.
That is a big one for women. There are 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 as committed and they’re happy because they do have their autonomy. They have to work a little bit harder on their relationship so 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 occupying the same space. Whereas the people who don’t live together and then make the conscious effort to get on the plane, drive, or walk to be together are more present. They appreciate that person at that moment, in that time. It works for a lot of people.
If you look through these marriages in the book and you compare them to these gold standards of a “good relationship,” this idea that you might not merge your infrastructure and your identity as much in this living apart together style of marriage. I like the idea that nonmonogamous relationships are often more honest than monogamous relationships because they force a variety of conversations.
There’s so much talking 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 way.”
You have to be much more present and conscious about what you’re doing as 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 and you can forget to appreciate them. 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 more?
The other benefit is it also reduces how annoying that person can be.
Many of the people, because of the quarantine, they’re locked down. I was reading these articles and the 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. People can be annoying and they have bad habits. Maybe they snore loudly at night.
They’re too messy or they’re too clean. Here’s the other one I see, they keep weird hours. You have a night owl and a lark living together. That’s tough. A night owl and a lark living apart, you meet at 3:00.
It removes a lot of the little niggling things that people cite throughout the day but 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 at that stage.
A number of older women are finding that’s what the men want. Not to be cliche but they want someone to cook, clean, and take care of them. I’m not saying all people are like that. If you’re an older man and you’re used to that, women are like, “It’s not happening.”
I don’t need someone to cook and clean because I outsource much of my cooking and cleaning. I can cook and clean when I need to as demonstrated by the quarantine. This reminds me of a joke that Chris Rock has in one of his Netflix special called Tamborine where 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, and 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 is even less distance and less of a break.
That is true. If you live apart, the technology works.
It does work for you. It has that flip. That’s a good point.
24/7 you’re getting a text like, “Don’t forget to pick up this and that.” It’s the same with 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 and I’m talking about fewer ways to get married.” What you’re doing is noble work.
Thank you. 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? Are your parents expecting? Do 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. I appreciate your time. This was a lot of fun.
Thank you so much for having me on.
It’s my pleasure. Cheers.
- Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage
- A History Of The Wife
- Marin Independent Journal
- The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels
- Mary Dahm – past episode
- The Feminine Mystique
- Amy Gahran – past episode
- Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator
- Bella DePaulo – past episode
- Family by Design
- Seeking Arrangements
- Older Women Don’t Want to Live With Their Male Partners. Here’s Why
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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