Is it looking past the mark to think of our marriages as eternal rather than thinking of what we need in the here and now and in the near future?  Do we focus so much on eternity that we are just barely enduring to the end in the day-to-day marriage?

Last week I re-posted a review of Stephanie Coontz’s book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage under the title The Myth of Traditional Marriage.  One of the commenters when I had originally posted this at BCC was author Susan Pease Gadoua who recommended I read her book The New “I Do.” Here’s her comment, for those who are interested:

I appreciate your overview of marriage in this article. I know Stephanie Coontz as well as the Cowans through an organization called the Council on Contemporary Families. You might want to join! Cutting edge info there.

If you’re interested in the future of marriage, I’d invite you to read my latest book (co-authored with journalist, Vicki Larson) entitled, The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014).

I’d love your feedback and I hope your readers will check it out as well. Thanks again for your post.

In the book, she talks about the different types of marriages and the different reasons for marrying and recommends having contractual shorter term marriage partnerships rather than expecting one marriage to be elastic enough to last a lifetime (or longer). It’s an interesting premise, and not just to Tom Cruise. Even if you don’t go so far as to have a time bound short-term contract instead of a traditional marriage license, a concept from the book that resonated for me is to renegotiate as circumstances change so both partners know what they need at this next stage of life, and then to decide if this partnership can continue into that next stage of life and its goals and what success will look like.

While it sounds scary to some people to even talk about the possibility of divorcing if we can’t agree to terms in these renegotiations, I think there’s a lot of merit in getting that discussion out in the open up front, while everyone’s still friendly and happy, rather than waiting until feelings are hurt due to unarticulated, missed expectations.  Even if we are simply setting short-term goals as partners, the approach creates a much stronger marriage than the usual method of assuming we are in sync until proven otherwise.

First, a word about setting goals.  I think we do a fairly good job in marriage of dealing with the superficial things or setting the easy goals:  a budget, dividing responsibilities, what car to buy.  Where we seem to fall short is in addressing the big things:  our parenting philosophy, discussing sexual needs, dealing with health issues, handling changes in belief, and generally being vulnerable.

We often enter marriage without setting concrete expectations, goals and boundaries. Then we fail to communicate throughout the marriage and we hide our resentments rather than dealing with them. This is particularly difficult in Mormon marriages because marriage is such a focal point of our religion.  The more important something is, the more vulnerable we are if it fails.

We also aren’t really (within cultural Mormonism at least) considered adults until we are married, and although gender roles are often touted as ideal, they are discussed in very vague terms.  Is it providing or nurturing to do the grocery shopping or pay the bills?  Is it providing or nurturing to keep the family medical records or attend school functions?  This is why it’s important for partners to discuss their needs and goals openly before and during marriage.

We also tend to just throw people into marriages, tell them to have kids, finish their education, and stay together for life in total fidelity, but this is conflating various stages of life.  Additionally, it’s unrealistic to believe that we can comprehend our future needs when we first choose a partner. Gadoua talks about different reasons people marry and the different goals at each stage of marriage.  Here are a few that seem directly applicable to Mormon marriages, although more are discussed in her book:

  • Starter Marriage. Usually when young adults are just starting out, and they want to pool their financial resources, to finish their education, to start their adults lives with a partner. These marriages are usually romantic and sexual in nature. Financial stability and parenting skills are less important (or not even considered) in the selection process and in making the marriage successful at this stage.
  • Parenting Marriage. When a couple is ready to make a child or children the focus of their adult lives, they enter a parenting marriage. They seek someone who is going to be a good parent and partner in parenting, who will pull his or her weight, who wants the same things and has a similar disciplinary or child-rearing philosophy.  They want someone who will complement their parenting skills and not contradict their values.
  • Companionship Marriage. When children are grown, a couple wants someone who is a friend and partner. Financial stability matters at this stage, as do common interests and mutual respect.
  • Security Marriage. In advancing years, people need a partner to help them when they are sick or infirm, to remind them to take medications and visit the doctor, to be a good influence on their health and well being (optimistic and supportive). Common interests become less important than being reliable and helpful.  People who marry to be dependent on a provider also prefer a security marriage so that their financial needs are met by the union.

In my own marriage, when we first got married, I didn’t want to have kids. As a youngest, I didn’t have skills or much experience with kids, and I wasn’t sure I would ever feel differently, so I told my husband that if he was just marrying me to have kids, we might as well not get married.  Although it was a temple marriage, and for eternity, we entered into what Susan Pease Gourda would call a Starter Marriage.  At this stage of life, marriage is about pooling financial resources, learning to live with another person, and to some extent romance and sex.  These marriages succeed or fail on those grounds and on those terms.  People enter a Starter Marriage with expectations about those aspects of life:  contributing financially and domestically, household habits, and a sexual or romantic connection.

About four years later I became curious about kids. I thought it might be interesting to have one and see how it went. [1]  But again, I renegotiated. I said I was willing to give it a shot, but I was not going to be saddled with the primary care of the child. I had a job, and we still needed both our incomes, and I was earning more. I had seen other Mormon marriages in which the woman’s entire life changed drastically when a child was born, but the man’s life was nearly the same as it had been before.  I wasn’t going to be in a situation where it was assumed that I was always the default parent, the one who had to leave work for a sick child or the one who had to be up all night.  We talked about discipline, and we read books about parenting and discussed them.

Fortunately, we had similar views.  We watched the shows about getting the child to sleep at night through self-soothing.  I clearly stated that if I was going to have a child, we needed to not only be equal partners, but I needed to be the lesser partner in the areas where he was more skilled (as an oldest child) like teaching the child to read or tie shoes or just knowing what to do in general with kids. I was willing to try and to learn, but I had no experience and limited interest. As it turned out, he was vastly more skilled at those areas than I am, and he still is to this day.  I’m better at some things, and he’s better at others.  And like most couples, both of us are terrible at some things.

Now that our kids are teens and starting to leave the nest, we’ve begun to enter into a more companionable stage of marriage.  We talked about what we needed to do to have the financial resources to retire the way we want, to be able to travel, to be free to move to another country if we want, to stay healthy (although not as fit as we have been in the past), and to live as long as we will likely live without feeling imprisoned by a fixed income.  Those plans could go awry, but the conversation we’re having in our marriage has begun to change in that direction.

The book would suggest that for each stage of life, we create a short-term contract and keep to it, being prepared to exit the marriage on friendly terms if we don’t want the same things at the next stage of life, celebrating the successes of the past.  There is something very appealing to this logical, planful approach as opposed to our Mormon tendency to assume everything will all work out in the eternities without trying to make it better today, assuming that divorce is not an option.

I agree with many of the book’s conclusions, and yet, I think the same aims can be achieved within a long-term marriage rather than a short-term contract by simply being more open about our own changing needs and the parameters of support within the partnership.  This approach would eliminate some of the shortfalls that Mormon marriages seem prone to:

  • Gender-role assumptions that lead to entitlement and resentment on both sides and a lack of empathy.
  • Too many kids too quickly, leading to financial hardship, sleep deprivation, emotional stress, sexual apathy, and lack of personal fulfillment for the adults.
  • Lack of financial resources due to single breadwinner marriages in a dual-income economy, leading to debt, marital strife, and increased stress on the earning spouse.
  • Too much focus on eternity and not enough on creating happiness and enjoyment today.

Do you think the suggestion of a short-term marriage contract is a better alternative?  Do you think Mormon marriages are happier on average or less happy than other marriages?  How would you improve the quality of Mormon marriages?  What are your best life lessons to improve marriages?

Discuss.

[1] Twenty years later, the jury is still out.