Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

Topics: Ethical Living | Relationships, Society

Is the ancient tradition of marriage worth saving?

Bitterness and boredom seem to define many mid-life marriages, but we might not have to settle for apathy ever after

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I’m driving down the Sunshine Coast to Vancouver, my two kids in the back seats of my grungy 1998 Dodge Caravan. We’re on our way from our home in Powell River to Grandma’s house so I can fall apart. Mercifully, the kids are quietly reading, pre-occupied with piles of comics and Ivy and Bean. My eyes are riveted to the winding road, staying focused while my mind melts and the back of my chest aches and throbs.

The week before, my husband of 16 years told me he’s thinking about leaving. He’s deeply unhappy, he said. Worse, my immediate reaction was that I knew I wouldn’t stop him. “Au revoir to you and all your terribleness,” I thought. “Take it with you. I can be poor and alone and happier.” Not long after our visit to my mom’s, I took off my ring. He moved into our guest room. Life — meals, piano lessons, car repairs, hockey, firewood, birthday parties — went on. The kids didn’t notice much, thank God.

This isn’t a story about me, though. It can’t be a tell-all — too many relatives and friends read The Observer, and we’re fundamentally shy people. However, it is a story that started here, a year ago, in a pool of my own misery and fear and loneliness and resentment. Journalism isn’t always a smart way to make a living. (I’m broke and preoccupied a lot of the time.) But when my marriage hit the skids, the reporting discipline revealed its hidden powers. For the first time, I boldly asked friends about the quality of their marriages. I asked acquaintances, too, even friendly-looking people at Starbucks. It was so easy. All I had to say was, “I’m thinking about writing a story called, ‘Miserable Marriage: Why so many people are so unhappy in their primary relationships.’” Then I’d sit back and listen, and listen, and listen some more.

I talked to still-married parents and elders, those who have been divorced and remarried, same-sex and not-the-same sex couples. I asked friends in what looked like happy marriages, terrible marriages, controlling marriages and open marriages. They all had so much to say. I also read everything I could get my hands on and spoke with experts. In journalism, this is basic interviewing and research. In real life, it was a sanity-saver. And maybe a marriage-saver, too. As I listened, the full horrors of other people’s intimate relationship struggles were revealed to me. I heard about depression, seething rage, festering housework, neglected bills, decades-long grouchiness, decaying bodies, sexual and intellectual ennui, and enough unhappiness to chill the most jovial marriage celebrant. And these were people without obvious marriage destroyers, such as violence or addiction.

I realized how not alone my husband and I were in our trials with this ancient institution. And I couldn’t help but wonder: is marriage, the legal and religious framework, even worth saving?

On the surface, you bet it is. Exchanging vows can help hedge against poverty; married people statistically live longer; kids raised by hitched parents have, on average, better life outcomes. But these supposed benefits don’t seem to matter. Marriage, as we’ve known it, is declining in our country. In a 2018 poll, most Canadians between 18 and 34 — what was once known as “marrying age” — told the Angus Reid Institute that exchanging “I dos” is “simply not necessary” and that marriage is less relevant now than it used to be. In other words, there’s less social pressure to get married for today’s young adults than for nearly every generation in the past. And the proof is in the numbers. When American baby boomers were 21 to 36 years old, 67 percent had married. By comparison, just 43 percent of millennials put a ring on it.

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash
Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

And who can blame them? A while ago, I read an interview with Dana Adam Shapiro, the author of You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married). The premise of his book was to find out, as a then-38-year-old single guy, why his long-term relationships consistently fell apart. So he interviewed hundreds of people. In his assessment, half of couples end up divorced — which suggests they had been miserable. Of the remaining half, he figured two-thirds were unhappy or just “meh.” About 17 percent of all marriages, he concluded, were ones he would like to be in.

From my conversations, 17 percent seems optimistic. Besides, what does “happy” mean exactly? I took a handful of women for coffee — all were in their 50s to 70s and still married to their original husbands — and I asked each of them about their marriages, looking for advice for my own. Instead, what they said further stabbed at my hurting heart. None of them were having sex (they’d given it up decades before), and all of them carried deep resentments toward their spouse. Yet, they described finding a place of comfortable companionship and were resolved to stick it out. Probably, if asked by a sociologist if their marriages were very happy, they’d say “yes.”

Comfortable companionship, resentment and zero sex? I could absolutely see that as our trajectory. But it sounded terrible. No. If we stayed together, my battle cry would be: “Transformation, not resignation!” But why are so many modern marriages so miserable?

In Montreal, Andrew Sofin sees a lot of misery as a couples’ therapist. He’s also the president of the Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. He believes the institution is at a tipping point. Unrealistically high expectations of marriage, created in part by Hollywood, have led couples to unprecedented levels of resentment toward each other. “Marriage used to be about a division of labour,” he says. “Now your spouse must be your lover, the person you balance your chequebook with, your social life, your helper in the house. . . . Who can live up to all that? I really believe things are changing. They had to. There had to be a shakedown, because the divorce rate is through the roof.”

Poor relationship skills aren’t helping, either. Among the couples Sofin sees, communication is often stunted thanks to smartphone addictions, blame has infected their relationship and few take responsibility for their own behaviour. Therefore, many couples find themselves loathing rather than loving.

But don’t let that depress you, Sofin says. Marriages — and marriage — can be rescued. On his retreats to vacation resorts, where he takes couples who are on the brink of divorce, he asks them to figure out what they expect and ask for it. He forces them to talk with each other and to rewrite the story of their marriage. He finds, with help, it usually doesn’t take much to turn a sour marriage sweet.

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

In Toronto, Denis Costello puts some blame for marriage misery squarely on the shoulders of the modern lifestyle. “You can barely make it,” says the executive director of Catholic Family Services of Toronto, describing an average suburban family. “Let’s say you’re an executive assistant downtown, and your husband is a car mechanic. You’re making $120,000 a year. You get married. You can’t afford to live downtown, so you move to the suburbs. Now you’re dropping the kids off with Mom and commuting an hour each way every day. You’re up at 6 a.m. At 5 p.m. you leave the office, 6 p.m. pick the kids up, 7 p.m. you make it home, the kids are cranky. You fall into bed at 10 p.m., and you roll out of bed to do it again the next day. Nothing in society supports this lifestyle. So you’re overwhelmed. You don’t see an option.”

Costello’s slightly tongue-in-cheek solution? Work where you live and see your kids grow up. He also says that marital breakdown significantly drops when partners attend a religious service at least three times a month. Making peace with God each week seems to encourage spouses to forgive and make peace with each other. Costello, a jokey, infinitely likeable guy on the phone, also observes that life is just hard sometimes, and marriage absorbs the shocks. “I’ve been married 30 years,” says the 71-year-old. “There were times when life was tough. Absolutely.” But he isn’t miserable, and he deeply believes in marriage — the institution and the sacrament.

So far, all these misery-causers are fixable. Start talking to your spouse. Ditch your smartphone in the evenings. Stop the commuter insanity. Go to church. But all that’s easier said than done. In a 21st-century marriage, statistically, both partners work outside the home. We’re fatter. Those of us with children carry more debt. And we have less sex than we used to. Marriage is one of Nicholas Wolfinger’s specialties — from a research perspective, that is. He’s bravely bringing crucial statistical information about modern marriages to the huddled masses.

In 2017, Wolfinger wrote a blog post entitled “Why Has Married Sex Declined?” His analysis showed that in 2000, 65 percent of married men aged 25 to 55 said they had sex at least once a week. In 2016, that had fallen to 54 percent (women reported slightly lower sexual frequency). Why? He isn’t quite sure. The data ruled out heavy work schedules and the easy availability of porn. He did find a correlation between men’s unemployment and sexual frequency but not enough to explain the sharp decline.

“Is America less interested in sex?” Wolfinger wrote in the post. “This is a surprising development, especially given that we collectively voice more acceptance of more forms of sexuality than ever before. . . . There’s been a puzzling decline in testosterone in men since the 1980s. Does this have anything to do with the decline in married sex? Or is the decline a consequence of men and women spending more time with smartphones and other new media and less with one another? Only time will tell.”

As I read this, I flashed back to my own shameful bed-room routine. My baggy T-shirted back to my husband, iPhone in hand, Facebooking, Pinteresting, texting, BBCing, sending him funny memes from a foot away, but not rolling over. Or worse, doing all this from one of our children’s bedrooms. My trendy “attachment parenting” meant exhausting, hours-long tuck-ins each night, when adulting might have happened instead.

It turns out that it matters how often married couples have sex — a lot

It turns out that it matters how often married couples have sex — a lot. In 2015, relationship researcher Amy Muise made headlines all over the world with her Social Psychological and Personality Science study that found sex once a week correlated with relationship satisfaction and happiness. Walking with a friend the other day, I told her about Muise’s research. She recalled that her own mother, a conservative Roman Catholic, had advised her to keep her husband happy by having sex with him weekly. I said, “That sounds like old-fashioned advice.”

My friend reflected, “It’s actually about paying attention to your partner’s desires. I know I wasn’t doing that early in our marriage — I was thinking about school and career and kids and money. So we weren’t having sex much. I didn’t take it seriously. We almost lost our marriage.”

After hitting bottom, my friend and her husband started paying more attention to each other in and out of the bedroom. They stayed married, continued to raise their boys and seem quite happy. They also openly sleep with other people.

Journalists are absolutely obsessed with one so-called solution to ho-hum marriages: polyamory. “Is an open marriage a happier marriage?” the New York Times asked in 2017. “Open marriages are a lot more functional than you think,” according to Global News. The Guardian agreed in “All you need is loves: the truth about polyamory.”These stories reflect a widespread evolution of marriage rather than just titillation.

Marriage without monogamy has been on the radar in North America since at least 1972, when the book Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples was published. The draw is obvious: keep the security and framework of marriage without compromising lusty adventuring. This probably isn’t exactly what the Gospel writer Matthew was picturing when he wrote idealistically that in marriage, “they are no longer two, but one flesh.”

Maybe it’s a West Coast thing. Several of my peers have kept their marriages — raising kids, owning businesses and running a home together — while adventuring outside the relationship for sex, desire, intimacy and more. Are they happier? We’ll see. But I wonder if seeking sex outside of marriage addresses the root causes of marital misery or if it’s a feel-good Band-Aid. For some insight, I turned to Jenny Block, who in 2008 released a book called Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage. A decade after publication, I asked how her open marriage was going. Turns out she and her husband divorced, and she’s in a monogamous marriage with her now wife.

In her first marriage, she felt boxed in. Smothered. So they opened their relationship to let in some air. In her current marriage, she feels both free and supported. “Monogamy is awesome when you enthusiastically choose it. It’s horrendous when it’s pushed on you,” says Block, who is 48. “Humans are not naturally monogamous; it doesn’t work with our biological imperative. So to say, ‘I enthusiastically just want to be with you,’ it’s one of the sexiest things on the planet.”

Block points out that marriage isn’t hard. It’s humans who are hard. Authentically talking about your marriage is hard. Figuring out what you actually want and then having the courage to pursue it is hard — but it’s all worth it. “I could very easily still be married to my husband and be unhappy,” Block reflects. “The kid is gone. We’d have an empty nest and an empty marriage.” That’s the fear: to slump into low-level misery forever.

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

I’m sitting with a new writing group, and I’ve told them about this piece. It’s all women. Two of them have recently separated from their husbands. Two more divorced years ago. I’m thinking about jumping into the conversation with my own story, but I don’t know what to tell them. I am still married. Sort of. We’re in separate rooms. We don’t wear rings. All expectations have been dropped.

But over the last year, our spark has come back. We’re fun and functional and light-spirited. We listen to each other’s beefs. We work hard to change. Sometimes we get it right. I don’t know if this détente is permanent. I don’t know if we’ll eventually move further apart or closer together. Maybe we’ll do both.

When I got married, I didn’t think about it much. I was 26 and dumb. Why did I do it? Probably to repair my own chaotic childhood. I craved stability. And we made it work like that for nearly 17 years. Our rule was simple and old-fashioned: we tolerated each other, and we didn’t get divorced.

But that’s actually no way to make a modern marriage work, we discovered. The pressures got to us. We didn’t have enough genuine intimacy or relationship skills or even goodwill to weather the storm of two jobs, kids, money, house and ambition.

We are, in fact, still married. But with the intimate recognition that we’re no longer statues on a marble pedestal — guaranteed to be there for the ages. After nosing into other people’s relationships for a year, I believe this is the new normal. Marriage is no longer a foundation like it was back before the era of no-fault divorce, dual incomes and Hollywood. It can’t be. If we’re lucky, though, we’ll learn to bend, rather than break.

This story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of The United Church Observerwith the title “Apathy ever after?” 

Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.

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