I once wrote an article about how love fits into marriage but after co-writing, The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, with Vicki Larson, I realize that a better question to ask is how our outdated paradigm applies to the way people in love couple these days.
For the first time in literally thousands of years, marriage in our Western culture has viable, socially acceptable, competition and the pressures (and necessitation) of marriage have diminished greatly.
In the past 50 years, the marriage rate in the U.S. has fallen dramatically. In 2008, a mere 26 percent (one quarter) of people in their 20s were married as compared to 68 percent (two thirds) in 1960.
We have not stopped coupling in our culture (although staying single is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice for younger adults). Rather, increasing numbers of up-and-comers have rejected tradition not legalizing their unions; even when they go on to have children.
Having lived with two serious boyfriends at different points in my life, I understand this choice and in many ways, I think it makes sense. There are things you learn about togetherness in general and your partner in particular that you might not learn any other way. There is also a stronger sense of commitment (albeit unspoken in most cases) in a relationship when you live together.
What's the advantage to shacking up over marriage? You can have a lovely relationship, be very committed in the moment, and yet, if or when you break up, you can simply go your separate ways back out into your single worlds. It's certainly easier and cleaner to split when you don't have all the legalities to contend with: Maybe just a few dishes, airline points or pieces of furniture to split, but nothing small claims court can't handle.
But here's the rub: Big problems emerge when couples make other kinds of long term commitments that do bind them legally -- like buying property together or worse, having children together -- without having protections in place. As outdated as marriage can be, one thing it does do is provide important protections to both parties if a breakup occurs.
No one knows that better than the one who got the raw end of a real estate deal (with no recourse) or the one who got booted out on the street with a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old. While there are laws that protect children in those situations, there are not the same protections for partners as there are for spouses.
As we watch the pendulum swing toward a less structured paradigm, I think we'll start seeing and hearing more about this kind of fallout. And it won't be pretty.
Why can't we have more options than risking so much by coupling but avoiding marriage or opting for security by marrying someone we may not want to be with forever? It's not as if it's never been done before.
The Romans had three different levels of marriage: Confarreatio, the most formal option had more religious overtones; Coemptio, was a less formal and more business-like union; and Usus, was an informal marriage that occurred by default when a couple lived together for more than a year. (Confarreatio and Coemptio required ceremonies but Usus did not have a marriage ceremony).
Throughout history, people have married for all kinds of reasons that had nothing to do with love--primarily for business and monetary gain, for political gain and to procreate. Love was even seen as an impractical emotion in these relationships. The Greeks, seeing the insanity caused by those in love, coined the phrase "lovesick." Indeed, some cultures even described love as dangerous when it came to setting up stable family structures.
Having spent the past two years (and more) researching the subject of marriage for my book, I can tell you that informal changes are actually happening to the institution behind closed doors.
Unbeknownst to family, friends, and clergy, young couples tying the knot are agreeing to themselves the conditions they want to see in place. Ryan and Lisa is one such example: These twenty-somethings are marrying with a purpose and an end date (rather than out of love "because it's what you do."). They agreed to have children together but they also agreed that their marriage would end when the kids are out of the house (the option to stay married was there, but not the expectation).
At the other end of the age spectrum, unapologetic third-time marriers (many of whom are Baby Boomers) are stating unequivocally that they want only the best parts of marriage. How are they doing this? Many are vehement about maintaining their autonomy. Some are choosing to live in separate houses, others are asking for open marriages, and still others are quite frank about needing practical things like someone to grow old with, someone with insurance benefits or someone who has financial security.
Far from breaking from traditional marriage, these seeming rebels are reverting back to ways of old. Yet, because they fear being judged, many of these couples keep these arrangements secret. But why? Are they really doing anything wrong? Are these couples harming themselves? Are they harming anyone else? Are they taking anything away from anyone?
If you think about it, marriages based on love often have the most fallout because love is fragile. Love can easily turn to dashed expectations (especially since expectations are so much higher for lovers than they are for friends), jealousy, betrayal and even hatred. These are the things that crimes of passion are borne out of.
Now, I'm not saying that love has absolutely no place in marriage, but perhaps love shouldn't be in the number one spot. Perhaps we should rethink purpose-driven marriages rather than emotion-driven ones. Perhaps we should give individual couples the right to pick and choose aspects of relationship that they want rather than assuming that monogamy and forever are right for everyone. As things stand now, those who don't play by the current rules are told they are doing something wrong, or they are looked at as odd, damaged or unlucky.
Whether you agree with this article or not, I hope this topic will get you talking with others about the shame-based all-or-nothing paradigm we have set up now.
We received a terrific compliment recently from a TV talk-show producer. He said that before he read the book, he was against the concept. He fully expected to disagree with us. But, when he read the book, he realized that what we said made good sense and he thanked us for writing it.
If you'd like to open your mind and read more about these ideas, pick up a copy of The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. If you know someone who's just about to get married or re-married, do them a favor and get them a copy of The New I Do. And, finally, if you or someone you know is considering ending their marriage, tell them to read this book first. There may be a creative solution to their problem in its pages.
A previous version of this article appeared in Susan's Contemplating Divorce Column on PsychologyToday.com