What I’ve learnt about marriage
Two and a half years ago, I embarked on a crash course in marital dissolution. As editor of Huffington Post Divorce, I immersed myself in the full spectrum of turmoil — psychological, physical, financial, spiritual — that comes with ending a marriage. I spent my days reading hundreds of blogs by our roster of experts (lawyers, psychologists, financial planners, and divorcees among them), writing stories on the latest divorce-related news and trends, combing through thousands of tweets and comments, and sharing my expertise on the subject at divorce conferences (yes, there are such things). While I haven’t been married or divorced myself, I’m a child of divorce (and therefore have a lot of opinions on the subject), and what makes certain marriages endure and others implode is a topic with which I’ve long been obsessed. Then, a year and a half ago, I became the editor of Huffington Post Weddings and spent over a year examining relationships from the other side, which turned out to be just as fascinating and complex and only enhanced my (intellectual, if not experiential) understanding of relationships. So what has this expertise given me — aside from enough cocktail party conversation to last a lifetime? As I move on to my next role at the Huffington Post overseeing special projects, I thought I’d share some of the most helpful nuggets of wisdom I’ve accumulated from my time in the trenches.
1. Talk about money before you get hitched.
Finances are among the biggest stressors in most marriages and a leading cause of divorce. Why? Because like it or not, how we spend money is deeply reflective of our personal values, beliefs and goals, so if couples have conflicting spending philosophies, they’ll inevitably encounter problems. High-profile divorce attorney Laura Wasser knows this better than most. Her advice resonated with me: in order to avoid the fate of her A-list Hollywood clients like Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie, and Kiefer Sutherland, sit down together and map out every detail of your future lives together, even the most quotidian. (Will you rough it or stay at 5-star resorts on vacation? Will weekend entertainment consist of tasting menus at the hottest new restaurants or Netflix and take-out on the couch? Will your future kids go to private or public school?) This may be a painfully un-romantic exercise, but it will ensure that you and your partner are on the same page when it comes to financial expectations — or whether the differences you do have are deal-breakers.
2. The trait that initially endeared you to your partner may end up annoying the hell out of you.
Her vivaciousness is what first attracted you to her; now you roll your eyes at her loud-talking ways. His sweet gestures once made your knees weak; now you think they’re suffocating. Some version of this plays out in more or less every long-term relationship, to a lesser or greater degree. Before you settle down with someone, ask yourself: Are these irritants ones you can live with for the long haul?
3. Drop out of the workforce after you get married at your peril.
All the chatter these days about women “Leaning In” and “Opting Out” obscures a critical fact: leaving work for an extended period of time is a pretty risky proposition in the face of the sobering statistic that around 50 percent of marriages (still) end in divorce. Because women are usually the ones to leave the workforce after having kids, we often find ourselves at most risk if the relationship implodes. This isn’t a value judgment about deciding to stay home and raise children. If you choose this path, just make sure you have a solid backup plan if the worst happens — like having your own financial resources to draw upon if you can’t immediately return to the workforce full time.
4. Who you choose to marry is one of life’s most important decisions — and it’s extremely easy to mess the decision up.
I always considered this a grating platitude until I heard it from Dr. Neil Clark Warren, founder of the online dating site eHarmony.com. I figured someone so pro-marriage — I mean, the guy is a Christian theologian who founded a multi-million-dollar website for the sole purpose of helping heterosexual couples get hitched — might be a little more laid-back about the whole enterprise, as long as “I do” remained the endgame. But according to Warren, it’s “frighteningly easy to choose the wrong person” because attraction and chemistry are often mistaken for love. It’s the reason so many people rush into marriage or remarry. But if spouses are ill-suited, all the chemistry in the world doesn’t matter. So slow down and embrace the daunting but not impossible challenge of finding the right person for you.
5. Unorthodox arrangements can work.
We have a somewhat narrow idea of how marriage should look, which hasn’t evolved much since “Leave It to Beaver.” So to those couples who reinvent the form, I say, Bravo. One example of this: “living apart together” wherein committed pairs maintain separate homes by choice, like this South Florida couple, who keep ever-so-stylish his-and-hers adjacent bungalows. Bottom line: as long as you’re not hurting anyone, go ahead and design a marriage that works for you.
6. If a marriage looks perfect, it probably isn’t.
It’s not just Al and Tipper Gore-caliber breakups that incite cries of “but-they-seemed-so-perfect together!” It is often the case that the more flawless things look on the outside, the more dysfunctional things actually are. Perhaps the most poignant example of this was relationship expert Sharyn Wolf’s confession that while she repeatedly doled out advice about how to have a happy marriage and satisfying love life on “The Oprah Show,” her own marriage was coming apart. “I was lying to myself,” wrote Wolf in a follow-up piece that showed even marriage counselors feel the need to keep up appearances. “I kept thinking if I could only change a few things, the marriage would work.” Wolf left her husband three years later.
7. Even if you say “divorce is not an option for us,” divorce is always an option.
I hear this frequently from twentysomethings (and not just Lady Gaga). Maybe it’s because they don’t want to mess up their own marriages like many of their parents did. Maybe it’s because they possess the arrogance of youth and think bad things can’t happen to them. Maybe it’s because they think if they utter this statement enough times, it’ll actually be true. But the fact remains that unless you live in the Philippines or Vatican City — the only two places in the world where divorce is actually illegal — it’s always an option. I see this as a good thing; my theory is that when divorce is an option, it forces couples to work harder to stave off complacency.
8. If you feel something is amiss in your relationship, it probably is.
Most of us have pretty good instincts. We’re just not always good at acting on them. But I learned about the importance of trusting your gut from one author who wrote a blog post drawing on research she had conducted for her book, How Not To Marry The Wrong Guy, in which she found that 30 percent of divorced women knew they definitely shouldn’t be getting married while they walked down the aisle. The lesson: don’t sweep nagging feelings of doubt (or nagging feelings of any kind) aside.
9. Even though it seems like everyone else is married, they’re not.
We’re in the midst of a major demographic shift in this country: for the first time, married couples are not in the majority. As a nation, we’re reinventing what “family” looks like and those new definitions don’t always include marriage. To cite just a few examples: there are now almost 1 million same-sex households and over 12 million single parent families in the U.S., cohabitating couples are on the rise and single households increased by 30 percent worldwide from 2001 to 2011. So relax — if you’re not married, you’re definitely not alone.
10. If you express contempt for your spouse, your marriage is basically screwed.
Psychologist John Gottman has spent almost four decades studying couples up close in his Relationship Research Institute (a.k.a “Love Lab”) in Seattle. According to Gottman, there are a handful of negative actions that can spell doom for relationships, but the one that stuck with me most is contempt, which can be demonstrated through behavior, tone, and words. Wondering what qualifies as contempt? This fascinating footage of couples fighting in the Love Lab should offer some clarity.
11. Total honesty with your spouse is overrated.
It’s not exactly news that we’re living in an age of extreme over-sharing (can you wait one sec while I Instagram my breakfast?). This extends to relationships, where we’re encouraged to aspire to “transparency” and “communication” at all times in the name of stronger, better bonds. Yes, those things are fundamental to the success of any marriage, but marital intimacy doesn’t — and shouldn’t — mean complete honesty. Read: your spouse need not know what you’re thinking and doing at all times, or every sordid detail from your past. Psychologist Cecilia d’Felice, who is quoted here, says it best: “If it serves no purpose to tell the truth other than to assuage your guilt, offload your problems or hurt your partner, there may be times when an untruth will serve your relationship better.”
12. It’s completely fine to go to bed angry.
Contrary to popular wisdom, not every spousal tiff needs to be wrapped up in a neat bow by lights out. You have your entire lives together to talk things through and resolve issues both big and small (even Psychology Today agrees with me on this one). Now stop staying up all night hashing it out and get some sleep.
13. Cultivate a rich and full life outside the marriage.
The “soul mate” model of marriage — wherein your spouse is supposed to fulfill every last one of your physical, mental, and spiritual desires — is actually a fairly recent concept in the history of marriage. While it’s a nice idea, it’s a deeply flawed ideal that sets up an impossible standard and puts undue pressure on you both. Bottom line: one person (even the seemingly perfect person with whom you’ve chosen to spend your life) can’t possibly satisfy your every need. So do something to cultivate passion and purpose outside the marriage. Go on girls’ trips. Join a Lean In circle. Start a bowling league for goodness’ sake. Your marriage will be stronger for it.
14. You will probably want to flee your marriage or strangle your spouse sometimes, and that’s OK.
We all know marriage isn’t a cakewalk. But what most of us don’t know — or perhaps don’t like to admit — is just how common it is to actually despise your significant other and frequently think about leaving, even if you’re madly in love. Author Iris Krasnow, who has been married for over 25 years, was the first to alert me to the “eggshell thin line that separates loving from loathing.” She writes it best in her book The Secret Lives of Wives, culled from interviews with hundreds of married couples: “My biggest shock is how many outwardly cheerful women who have been married forever think about divorce if not weekly, at least once a month.” As long as you’re not consumed by these desires, they’re not cause for shame or great alarm. Indeed, they’re a fact of married life.
15. You may fantasize about someone you encounter on social media. Don’t act on it.
The statistic I encountered a zillion times that “1 in 5 American divorces now involve Facebook” is dubious, but it does speak to the prevalence (okay, dominance) of Facebook and other social networking sites today, and the ease with which they put other (seemingly better, hotter) offerings tantalizingly within our reach. It’s totally fine to imagine what might happen if you reached out to an old flame or fetching friend-of-a-friend who pops up on your newsfeed, but do yourself (and your partner) a favor and avoid actually doing it, or you may end up in dangerous waters.
16. Infidelity is never black and white.
Everyone has an opinion about marital infidelity, and it’s usually binary: the spouse who cheated is the so-called perpetrator, the spouse who was cheated on is the so-called victim. But the reality is that cheating — and what it means for marriage — is far more complex than that. As therapist Tammy Nelson argues, perhaps it’s time to revisit the concept of monogamy itself, which is under more pressure than ever, what with opportunities to cheat just a mouse click away and ever-increasing lifespans that mean, if couples wed in their 30s, they’re vowing to love, honor, and get busy with only each other for over half a century. If we can admit that most of us are stumped about how to handle monogamy, maybe we can begin to have a conversation that is as complex as infidelity itself.
17. Keep having sex at all costs.
We’ve all heard of sexless marriages. Of course they exist; maybe you’re even in one. But they’re not inevitable. Or so says psychologist Esther Perel, who brilliantly assesses why sex often fades in long-term relationships, even when everyday intimacy between partners is good. According to Perel, the very qualities we privilege in marriage (security, stability) are the same qualities that flatline erotic desire. Doing things to keep the heat in your marriage — taking time apart, flirting, sharing fantasies — can be antidotes that can help keep your marriage intact. And since couples who have a lot of sex report that they have happier marriages, perhaps it’s worth the effort.
18. You have to be married to your marriage as much as you are married to your spouse.
When couples vow “till death do us part,” they’re pledging to “love, honor and cherish” each other. But if they don’t pledge the same allegiance to the actual union, which inevitably requires compromise, then the marriage may run into serious trouble down the road. Blogger Vicki Larson’s analysis of a fascinating UCLA study on what it takes to maintain marital commitment is a potent reminder of this subtle-but-important distinction. If you don’t want to read the study, just watch an episode of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights”; if there’s a more realistic depiction of this type of commitment than Coach Eric and Tami Taylor’s, I haven’t seen it.