Is Marriage Obsolete?

This post originally appeared in Role/Reboot on Is Marriage Obsolete?

Marriage certainly has its problems but as they say about Democracy, it sure beats the alternatives, according to author Lisa Levey.

Matt Richtel’s Sept. 28th New York Times article “Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part” explores the question of whether marriage in its current form has become obsolete. Given the reality that nearly half of all marriages break up, and many more are unhappy unions, Richtel questions whether a better alternative might be some type of renewable marriage contract. 

The question is no doubt provocative but I don’t see a renewable contract as the answer. Instead we would do better to focus our attention on what helps to create—and support—stronger marriages through time. A key first step, as suggested by Richtel, is to tone down all the hype. We flood the airwaves with crazy reality shows suggesting you can find your life partner with some kind of Darwinian hunt that lasts a television season. The pages of magazines are filled with an ongoing diet of fantasy celebrity weddings and their subsequent bitter divorces. Even for the average person planning a wedding, it becomes all about the trappings—the dress, the food, the venue—with barely a thought to the quality of the relationship or what will help it to endure. 

For many, marriage is followed within a few short years by children with the couple barely having a chance to coalesce as a family unit of two and to develop their couple identity. Similar to weddings being all about the logistics, being pregnant is all about childbirth and preparing to care for the baby in the first few years. Often, there is little talk about what having a child will mean for your lives together. Through my consulting on women’s leadership and work-life issues, having spoken to women and men for years about how they integrate their work and personal lives, I know that many feel caught off guard by the seismic changes once they become parents. There are changes in their relationship, changes in their careers, changes in their finances, changes in the way they spend their time, money, and energy.  

The complexity of marriage ratchets up exponentially when children are involved. Children are the game changer because by definition they represent a lifelong commitment. If the marriage breaks up, the couple will forever be linked as parents whereas breakups without children can be a whole lot cleaner and easier.

The predominant modern-day parenting style is a very child-centric one in which we focus intensely on meeting the needs of our children while giving short shrift to our marriages. We want our kids to have every opportunity and we work very hard to make that a reality but too often we neglect the care and feeding of our marital relationships. Our focus is on the well-being of the children rather than the well-being of the whole family, including the adults who keep the family engine running smoothly.

Among the best gifts we can give to our children is a strong and enduring marriage with their other parent. Children derive incredible security and comfort from feeling like their parents are a solid unit, one they can count on and push back on as they face the inevitable challenges of growing up. I am not suggesting people should stay together just for the kids—or that divorce is not sometimes the best alternative—but as a child of divorce since the age of 3, I can say with great certainty that divorce is hard on everyone, children and parents alike.

The sad part of the high divorce rate is that it’s during the later years of marriage in which couples tend to report the highest satisfaction levels. As Robert Emery, author of The Truth about Children and Divorce says in Ritchel’s article, “The big benefit of marriage is precisely the commitment over the long term.” In research for my book on a highly shared approach to career and family management, I found it was the deep partnership around managing both kids and careers—and the sense of building something profound and enduring as a team—that became the defining characteristic for these couples.    

Most of what we hear and see has little resemblance to real marriages in all their complexity with both challenging and wonderful aspects. The fantasy of endless marital bliss without a lot of hard work and compromise is not on target but neither is the notion that marriage is primarily an economic arrangement without romantic love. It is many things: romantic bliss, hard work, and compromise, and an economic unit well suited for raising children. 

While renewable contracts don’t seem like the solution, there is much that can help improve the current institution of marriage. It means to stop believing in the packaged fantasy of marriage and to learn more about the skills that support strong marriages, to carefully consider with our spouses what children will mean to our lives, to strive to take better care of our marriages—and our spouses—after we become parents, and to keep connected and talking about both the hard stuff and the good stuff. Marriage certainly has its problems but as they say about Democracy, it sure beats the alternatives.

Note: This article originally appeared in Role/Reboot.

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