A friend of mine recently read Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, and shared some of his realizations with me. Geared toward women, he still found it extremely useful.
Listening to him added some nuance to my previous position on how to be happy in a relationship, which can be summed up as “Don’t expect anything of anyone.”
Now I think my advice is “Don’t expect everything of anyone.” Staying married requires having appropriate expectations of your spouse.
I believe the divorce rate, and even higher rates of dissatisfaction and sexual dysfunction in marriage, result directly from unreasonable expectations of marriage.
My ex-husband was absolutely my best friend. He was an excellent best friend too. Best friendship was absolutely not enough to keep me married to him.
I now know that I left him for two main reasons. At the time, I thought I was leaving him because he wouldn’t get a full-time job or help out around the house as much as I did. After four years of him working part-time and leaving the majority of domestic work to me, I became convinced of two things. He would never work as hard as I did, and I would never be okay with that.
But in the years since I’ve realized that I also left him because I was bored and lonely. I could not see a way to go out and have adventures and stay married to him.
My friend described the book as a reminder that we ultimately really do have complete control of our own choices. “But for LOTS of reasons – both sides in a relationship will accept the status quo and use the argument to relieve anxiety temporarily. Basically it’s a reminder to – when anger is around – stop and backup and look at why you have that anger. Then understand the world solely through what you yourself can change.”
I remember screaming at my husband about paid work and housework and him crying in response. I’ve never felt like more of a piece of shit than reducing a grown man I’m supposed to build up to tears by telling him all the ways in which he wasn’t good enough.
When I left him, the only thing that made breaking my best friend’s heart and dashing his dreams of forever was the absolute certainty that being alone would be better for him than being with someone who constantly demands more from you than you will give. I knew that if I couldn’t love him while he lived the way he he was comfortable living that I had to let him go.
I’ve spent the past five years asking myself whether I could have made our marriage work. Of course I can never know. But there is one thing I’ve learned that will make my next marriage, should anyone else be foolish enough to marry me, completely different from my first.
I now think of a marriage as a business partnership.
I’m not saying that’s how everyone thinks about it or should think about it. Marriage is a complicated word with myriad meanings and connotations. It’s a legal contract, a religious rite, and a set of social expectations. Just the legal definition alone is complicated, as the fight over gay marriage revealed. Marriage impacts literally thousands of laws and taxes, not to mention private privileges like health insurance, adoption, and hospital visitation.
But let’s simplify for the sake of argument. I want to discuss marriage the legal contract.
The main purpose of a legal contract binding two people together “for life” is to facilitate their sharing ownership of assets and children. Erecting a barrier to exit in the form of divorce then makes it easier for the state to divide assets and access to and responsibility for children equitably.
If I get married again, it will be because I want to share assets (and maybe children) and I want to erect a barrier to exit.
I realize this sounds unromantic. Because it fucking is.
It sounds unromantic because we’re taught to expect our spouse to provide everything to us.
Of course they’re supposed to share assets and maybe children with us. But they’re also supposed to be our best friend for life, which entails its own set of crazy-high expectations. Besides your spouse, how many best friends have you had in your life? Probably more than one, maybe even concurrently! That’s because people grow and change and grow together and drift apart and meet different needs at different times. Somehow saying “I do” doesn’t change a damn thing about that reality, but we expect it to.
But that’s not all! While concurrently equally running the business that is a household and being our best friend for life our spouse is also supposed to be our one-stop-shop for sexual excitement and intimate fulfillment. And if you can’t get it up for the person you just argued with about how much to put toward your 401k and watched get the stomach flu then you’re a failure of a human being!
“I believe we’ve been acculturated to expect some types of commitment to each other’s needs in a ‘primary’ relationship.” Not just some types of commitment but total commitment, and to all of each other’s needs. Marriage, to most people, means you expect one other person to meet all your practical, emotional, and sexual needs, both now and forever.
I may be unromantic, but you all are fucking insane.
The height of your expectations is directly proportional to how disappointed you’re going to feel.
So to save marriage, we have to come into it with reasonable expectations.
You absolutely must lean on your friends for emotional intimacy. The way the culture devalues friendships and puts sexual relationships on a pedestal is wrecking our marriages. Your spouse cannot and should not be your everything. You must have a best friend or three that you’re not married to. I wish I’d known how lonely I was. I had a best friend, and I thought that was all I needed.
You absolutely must rely on outside sources for sexual excitement. I’m not even pushing poly here, because it’s a hell of a time suck. I mean read erotica, try new toys, role play, and watch porn.
At the end of the day, there’s only one part of marriage that is fundamental. Which doesn’t mean it can’t be outsourced, but it does mean that if you’re going to outsource it you really might as well divorce. And that’s the business partner part. The person who owns the assets with you really should be the one who helps you manage them.
You don’t own your partner’s heart. You don’t own your partner’s genitals. Sure, they let you use them sometimes. But never, ever, mistake your partner for anything other than a full and complete person who owns themselves and their parts. What you do own jointly is your assets. And so for that reason you two need to work together on how to manage them.
The reason I think divorce was inevitable for me is that he and I could not come to an agreement on where, financially and geographically, we were headed in life. Nevermind how to get there. I wanted to move out of Birmingham, Alabama and live in a nice condo in a walkable part of a southern city. This required that both of us work full-time. He wanted to live in a less desirable location and work less.
Being friends and lovers with your spouse is, of course, a good thing if you can manage it. And a good business partnership requires a certain level of honesty, closeness, and positive regard.
But what you need to get go of is the expectation that your spouse will always and forever be your closest friend and your only source of sexual excitement.
When you stop expecting your partner to be anything other than a good business partner, you free both of you from fear. They no longer do things for you like be a good friend or lover because they’re afraid of disappointing you. There’s nothing less motivating than an expectation. People are the best at being friends and lovers when they feel appreciated. They are worst when they feel like no matter how hard they try they’ll only meet expectations.
Letting go of those expectations means other friends, and even other lovers, won’t change the bedrock of your family. It means a new friend or crush no longer sends fear signals to your brain. Instead, you can enjoy their enjoyment of other people knowing that your role as business partner is secure.
It means they can have other favorites and you’re still going to be co-founders because your relationship isn’t built on feelings and lies about what love means. Viewing your spouse as a co-founder means your relationship is built on hard work toward a mutual goal.
Sometimes people divorce when they realize their spouse isn’t a good business partner. Maybe positive regard declines or a difference in vision becomes apparent.
But too often, people divorce because
1. They can’t meet all their spouse’s expectations
2. They’re not getting their own expectations met
3. They don’t realize it’s not the person, it’s the expectations themselves that are the problem
People know they’re not getting all their needs met and they don’t know which ones are reasonable and which aren’t.
What I want if I get married again is a shared set of reasonable expectations. I want a partner who shares with me a vision for where our little company is going and how to get there. I want someone who is strong enough to look around and feel confident that they can get everything else they need elsewhere, should they need to. I want someone who takes responsibility for their own needs instead of expecting me to be everything to them. In other words, I want a good co-founder.
This view of marriage is both narrow and expansive. It’s narrow in that while there are many, many people I might want to have sex and be friends with, there are very few people who share my goals and vision for achieving them closely enough that I should go into business with them. But it’s expansive in that when you realize what marriage is for, anyone is up for it demographically. That means gay, straight, intergenerational, and plural marriages are all perfectly acceptable ways to divide and conquer.
As for me, I’m in a weird place. While my ideas about marriage may not be romantic, I still like marriage. I love efficiency, and marriage offers plenty, in the forms of division of labor, specialization, and economies of scale. But my goals are ever-changing. And not one of them requires a life partner to achieve.
As to whether I’d be a good wife this time around, I’ll tell you this. I’m not going to take responsibility for your emotional needs. I’m not going to promise to provide you endless sexual excitement. I refuse to be held responsible for what happens in your head. But to someone whose goals and vision aligned with mine, who expects me to work hard, be ethical, be transparent, and maintain positive regard if you do the same, I’d make a hell of a wife.