What I’ve learned after twenty-five years of marriage (or, if you expect your spouse’s farts to smell like roses, you are going to be upset)[1]

My wife and I celebrate our 25th anniversary today. Thanks to a family law practice that exceeded my expectations in personal, professional and financial success, we will be able to celebrate in grand style. The irony that this success is predicated upon the inability of others to sustain their most important familial relationships is something I note but am not really bothered by. If folks find their intimate relationships problematic, and I can help them resolve these problems, then I see myself as providing benefit.

However the issue of why contemporary Americans have such a hard time sustaining marriages when our (great)grandparents’ generation seemed able to do so is a frequent topic of discussion among family law attorneys and judges (and some sociologists). The obvious answer is that humans have not changed so much in the past century but our expectations of marriage have changed greatly.

For much of history marriage was merely a household management and child rearing arrangement. The word “merely” in the preceding sentence fails to give sufficient respect to what marriage accomplished. In binding men to children it enabled children to have greater access to resources–financial, emotional and physical–before they achieved self sufficiency and fledged (it also gave rise to the dreaded patriarchy). Marriage was also useful in organizing and combining the labor of two adults into one household. With most humans throughout history living a bare subsistence existence, such pooling of resources and specialization of labor conferred substantial benefits to both one’s survival and the survival of one’s children.

Marriage still remains a useful institution for household management and child rearing. However, with industrialization creating greater labor efficiencies, having two adults contribute to a household–while still helpful–is no longer a matter of survival. The movement of women into the wage-labor force has reduced their economic dependance upon men. Changing social mores have reduced, if not eliminated, the stigma of single-parent parenting. The irony is that, as a consequence of these developments, the well-off and educated are showing a greater likelihood to marry and stay married, while the less educated and well-off are having a harder time getting and remaining married.

The same sociological developments that have made the household management and child rearing features of marriage less vital have also caused the role of marriage to expand–greatly. No longer is marriage merely expected to involve a pooling of resources, a division of labor, and the mutual raising of children. Now one’s spouse is supposed to be one’s best friend, one’s closest emotional companion, and one’s lifelong erotic playmate. That’s a lot of burden, and it’s pretty clear that most marriages cannot sustain it. Of the folks I see in family court attempting to end their marriage, a significant number have their marriages “fail” because one spouse is not accepting the responsibilities of household management or child rearing. However the majority of those ending their marriage do so because they see their marriage as failing to uphold these modern roles. Such marriages might have endured a century ago.

From both discussions with my peers and from the sociology I read, I am not convinced that even the well-off and educated are sustaining these modern marriage roles with complete success. Some of the burdens we place on marriage may be ill advised or unsustainable. Throughout history most humans have had their closest friendships with members of their own gender. While it is lovely to see one’s spouse as a friend, the burden of making one’s spouse one’s best friend is a burden marriage could probably do without.

The expectation that one’s spouse will be one’s closest emotional companion has also led to disappointment. Even good marriages go through bad periods. The expectation that one will rely on one’s spouse emotionally during these bad periods–rather than seek emotional support elsewhere–denies spouses the opportunity for distance that is often useful in getting through these bad patches. The concept of an “emotional affair”–the complaint that one’s spouse is seeking emotional support from someone else–could not exist but for this expectation. Forcing two people who are having troubles in their relationship to try to resolve these troubles through greater emotional entanglement may be counterproductive to long-term stability.

Finally the expectation that marriage results in unending erotic delights is counterproductive. The close intimacy that the companionate aspects of marriage demand is antithetical to the distance that sustains the erotic. As Esther Perel notes in “Mating in Captivity,” this tension between intimacy and eroticism in marriage is “a paradox to manage, not a problem to solve.” Recognizing this is a key to a happy marriage. Too often couples note the decline in eros and blame the other. They would be better off accepting this paradox and developing mutual strategies to manage it.

When family law attorneys or judges discuss the decline of marital stability they often see it as a reflection of declining morality. I, instead, see it as a result of the increased–and likely unrealistic–expectations we now place on marriage. Because these modern marriage goals are difficult, contradictory, and potentially counterproductive, even the most stable marriages don’t meet them. Many couples who are in marriages that would have seemed very satisfying fifty years ago are vaguely dissatisfied when their “perfectly acceptable” marriage doesn’t live up to the ideal. Further our culture falsely tells us that these goals should be achieved naturally, and without much effort, if we are truly compatible. Thus, if these goals are not easily achieved, folks tend to find fault with themselves or with their spouse. As a result most folks grow disappointed for failing to sustain–without much effort–the emotional, companionate, and erotic expectations in their marriage. Some who reach the conclusion that the problem is with the ideal, rather than with them, simply reject the ideal–which explains the rise of “open” marriages.

Yet I still believe marriage is one of humanity’s greatest inventions and think the expansion of the marital goals is ennobling. If the roles we expect from marriage have greatly expanded, so have the benefits of marriage when these goals are mostly met. Achieving this is a matter of effort, mindfulness and recognition that these goals cannot be perfectly met but must be balanced. The vulnerability and honesty needed to achieve this balance is extremely hard: it requires being able to express disappointment with the situation without it appearing to be an expression of disappointment in the spouse. It also requires a spouse who can hear and acknowledge the disappointment without treating it as judgment.

My bride took me as her husband twenty-five years ago today and I consider myself extremely lucky that she did. Marrying her has been the best decision of my life. Regarding the traditional roles of marriage we have succeeded beyond our expectations. Regarding the modern roles of marriage we have struggled, but even the struggle has been ennobling as a source of personal growth. Stay married to someone for twenty-five years with the expectation that marriage will provide constant friendship, emotional support, and erotic delights, and one is bound to be disappointed. However if one can accept that a marriage is successful if these modern features play a significant part in one’s marriage without necessarily being constant, and if one accepts that keeping these features of a marriage requires mindfulness and effort, they can add a substantial element of joy–if not continuous joy–to a marriage.

To “be known” is the meta goal of all intimate relationships and it is likely that no one will ever know me as well as the woman who took me as her husband twenty-five years ago. It is likely that I will never know anyone as well as the woman I took as my wife at that same time. Though the marriage has had its periods of unhappiness and struggle these hard times are perhaps a feature, rather than a bug, in the institution of marriage–as they lead to personal growth and maturity. If marriage has not met all of my expectations, it has greatly exceeded others, and has provided me delights I was not even expecting. I have been extremely lucky to have a spouse with the maturity and patience to accept the disappointments of marriage–and to accept my failings–without becoming hardened to me. I adore my wife more than I did the day I married her and still consider her the most adorable person I have ever encountered. I am truly blessed.


[1]This blog’s title is courtesy of my good friend and colleague, Mary Jane Goodwin

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14 Responses to “What I’ve learned after twenty-five years of marriage (or, if you expect your spouse’s farts to smell like roses, you are going to be upset)[1]

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