The New Marriage

Marriage today is undergoing an enormous revolution.  No longer are the simple values of companionship, family and a path to financial security enough satisfy today’s hungry couples. They want soul mates who provide endless passion, adventure, and opportunities for personal growth.  They want shared, egalitarian roles that nevertheless uphold the values of the past.  Women today need to bring home the bacon AND cook it well; men need to be good in the office, the bedroom AND the kitchen.  And above all, the children’s needs must come first.  Is there anyone out there who has honestly –now tell the truth- found the partner who can do it all?   Who among us can admit that they have never wondered whether they married the wrong person, or have never secretly asked themselves, “If I knew then what I know now, would I marry him/her again?”

Contrary to popular culture and belief, marriage an enormous shift in definition and expression, only these alternative styles mostly exist behind closed doors Perhaps a radical idea, we need to update, if not literally redefine the very concept of marriage in order to allow for the myriad ways couples create workable solutions in the context of their own lives.  My belief is that most couples want to stay married –especially where children are involved—but don’t have any realistic options or models to help them find their way. [My hope is to offer a] new, enlarged model of marriage as a flexible and responsive system in which couples invent solutions that work for them.  Not only is this a more accurate portrayal of how marriage actually works in real life, but it is my sincere belief that expanding the concept of marriage will aid in its long-term health and preservation.

Let’s face it: marriage is here to stay. A whopping 90% of people still opt for marriage, yet it seems that diminishing numbers of couples – by all counts less than 50% – can actually boast of spending an entire lifetime together with one and only one person without inventing some kind of creative solution to make it work. The institution has had to evolve in order to survive a rapidly changing social infrastructure, while still preserving its essential utility and desirability. Marriage is indeed in great flux, and rather than try to turn back the clock in order to retrieve a lost ideal, the future of marriage relies on our enlarging the concept to better reflect the needs of today’s couples.

To be sure, marriage today is vastly different than when our parents or grandparents married, yet in many ways we still struggle to recapture the simplicity and security of times past.  Fifty years ago marriage was conceived to be a stable unit in which to procreate and raise useful children. Rarely did you find people questioning whether they were personally fulfilled and romantically satiated enough to go the distance. The current marriage culture, however, is a product of a new social landscape which produces an incredible amount of confusion about what one can, or should expect to get from another person. Because personal satisfaction, growth, and happiness have become the yardstick of the new marriage, people are often disillusioned when their own marriage doesn’t live up to these impossible ideals.

Who ever invented the idea that marriage should be one-stop-shopping (one person to meet your every need) or one-size-fits-all (one model that works for everyone)?  To the vast majority of people whose relationships neither reach nor maintain this ideal, marriage can feel like a failure.  Not only is it impossible for one person and one model to meet the needs of every individual, but the truth is that most couples are privately inventing their own pathways to happiness and creating their own solutions when their relationships falter. The time has come for many of our unrealistic ideals and myths to be reconsidered in terms of how well they meet the needs of each couple and family, given the enormous changes that have occurred in our culture.  

In my work with couples I have observed many alternative solutions, from the radical to the mundane, from “polygamy” (extra-marital affairs) to “serial monogamy” (divorce and remarriage), to platonic, sexless long-term arrangements in which one or both individuals are perfectly content or secretly miserable.  For some, marriage can take on other perfectly agreeable forms and expressions even though it doesn’t subscribe to the
cultural ideals that a person grew up with.  Marriage can be a friendship and partnership that doesn’t require sexuality; for some it’s an amicable and stable environment in which to co-parent children; for some it may involve living apart, in separate beds, and/or leading quite separate lives; for others it is a financial arrangement that benefits all parties, and doesn’t pretend to be more.  In my experience I have seen perfectly acceptable arrangements between two people go south simply because their expectations are set unreasonably high and they don’t feel that it is acceptable to invent their own marriage in whatever way works best for them.  If people knew that it’s not only OK to author their own lives according to their own values and beliefs, but that in reality most healthy couples do, there might be far fewer divorces and more intact families, not to mention psychologically healthy individuals.

Healthy marriages require both spouses to mindfully construct a relationship that meets the needs of both parties.  It’s about preserving the sanctity of the marital bond without artificially imposing unnecessary constraints, but with constraints that respect and hold true for the individuals involved.  This is what forms the bedrock of healthy and enduring marriages: a willingness to be flexible and responsive to the changing needs of the family and of the partner you love and respect.

The institution of marriage is integral to our social survival and personal well-being.  However, times have indeed changed, and marriage in the 21st century requires an updated definition and a new ethic of normalcy.  In order to preserve the health of the institution and of the individuals involved, we need to recognize and respond to the emerging trends in marriage because they inform us as to what our most basic needs are, and the ways in which people actually choose to meet them.