The pressures of societal change may have disrupted the established patterns of marriage (as Pew Center surveys show), but on this St. Valentine's Day, love remains as powerful as ever, even as a new, rational and collaboratively planned, partnership based, marriage is evolving. The new marriage still has love as its basic guiding emotion. It seems our emotions and needs don't change in response to cultural shifts. Science has shown that love and romance are wired deep into our brains. Still, the impact of the changing norms and demands of our time can be seen in the changing response some couples have to love and romance. When couples marry for the first time -- increasingly in their thirties -- they aren't saying "'til death do us part" any more, but making up their own conditional standard of commitment, like, "as long as we love."
The secret doubts and anxieties that have always accompanied being newly in love, are at last moving into the open. Love is essential, and few people would marry without it, but more and more people want to know, understand, and document the conditions for moving from being in love to being in a committed relationship, whether called marriage, or co-habitation. This accounts for the growing use of pre-commitment agreements, not just between couples with widely disparate financial resources, but among well educated, middle class, sophisticated consumers of committed relationships.
The agreements these couples are making are no longer just pre-nups documenting who gets (or more typically, doesn't get) what, when the relationship ends, but collaborative partnership agreements reflecting the couple's plans and how the relationship is going to operate from day to day. The process for developing these agreements has a name. It's called Collaborative Marriage Planning. In effect these couples are saying, "I love you, darling, but I want some assurance that we're going to be partners in the full sense of the word. I want us to discuss and document now, before we make our commitments, what each of us is going to contribute to our partnership, what we each expect to get from our partnership, and for which duties and obligations each of us is going to take primary responsibility."
It used to be that love conquered all (or didn't) and couples accepted their fifty/fifty chances, blindly confident they could make their relationship succeed. Romance was key, and couples struggled to hold on to romance for as long as possible. They marked with sadness when the "honeymoon was over." However, as couples are reacting to the everyday reality and trauma of divorce, and the prevalence of economic uncertainty, they are instead seeking a path for the transition from romance to reality.
Making the terms of their partnership explicit beforehand provides exercise and experience in working through the inevitable conflicts and disputes that accompany living and working at life together. Having an evolving reference document for the operation of their partnership creates space for innovation and surprise while reducing anxiety and disappointment. It appears that reality, when its limitations and opportunities are mutually understood and acknowledged, is not only compatible with romance, but actually supportive and contributory to it. Reason, it turns out, isn't the enemy of romance -- unacknowledged and unaddressed fears, concerns, and anxieties are.
For those who study the trends and stresses in marriage, the changes taking place are not signs of the failure or obsolescence of marriage, but of its continuing vitality. The model for the New Marriage is a rational, well defined and balanced partnership working collaboratively to build a successful, durable and satisfying relationship of love for a lifetime. That's a change to warm the heart of all lovers this St. Valentine's Day.