On November 19, 1949 – 70 years ago today – my parents were married. While the marriage ended with my father’s death a month shy of their 57th Anniversary, it didn’t for my mother. Reunited six years later, they will always – at least in my mind – be married beyond a vow that only called for “till death do us part.” They set the bar for me on what the ideal marriage should be. They set it pretty high.
They were partners in every sense of the word. They spent every day together – at home and at work – as business owners, homeowners and parents. They did an amazing job holding it all together and looking pretty good doing it. I can’t say they always agreed on everything, but they were so diplomatic in their disagreements, that in all the years I knew them I cannot recall a single fight. Not one! Never voices raised between them.
I wish I could say the same. But my husband wasn’t my dad and I’m not my mom (as much as my daughter tries to tell me I’ve turned into her). I think I knew from the start that I wasn’t going to have a marriage like my parents did. Although I thought defining it on our terms would work too. Yes, my marriage made it to an acceptable finish line when my husband died, but it was difficult for years.
My mother told me at the time of their 40th Anniversary that she felt the secret to a happy marriage was always having a project. She felt that if you were jointly working on a common goal, it helped keep you focused on the benefits of staying together. I guess being business partners as well as life partners was a big part of that for them.
Appraising my own marriage of 21 plus years, she was probably on to something. When we were both working full-time and sharing household chores and projects on our free time things were pretty good in spite of some differences. The biggest issue in the end was that I spent half our marriage responsible for 100% of the household income. That can work for some couples and I know there is a lot that can be gained by having a parent home to preside over the children and the household, but not if it creates a financial burden. And not if it’s not a mutually agreed-upon strategy.
My parents felt that marriage was a life-long commitment and that it had to be worked on everyday. I agree. But what happens when one partner isn’t working at it? What happens when the responsibility to hold the marriage together falls to one person? And that’s where I feel marriage – or at least the assumption of a life-long commitment no matter what – fails us.
My parents would think a domestic partnership was inappropriate. Something about not buying the cow when you can get the milk for free. Even though that’s exactly what I’m doing now, I’m still inclined to agree with my parents. To be honest, I liked being married. I liked the commitment and shared responsibility. But I do think how we go into marriage could benefit from some transformation.
What if marriage were a renewable contract (the terms of which the couple negotiates up front while everything is still good), rather than a life-long commitment? My parents thought cohabitation lacked the commitment that kept couples together. Although from my experience, married people can become complacent; no longer making the effort with the assumption that their partner is committed to them “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”
If my marriage was a 10-year renewable contract, my husband would have gotten a renewal at 10 years, but the renewed contract would have included some bench marks about expected financial contribution to the partnership and a mandate to get help for his depression and anxiety. The terms of the dissolution of the marriage could also be factored in putting responsibility on both partners for their own financial health and well-being. No complacency if you want a renewal!
I met with an attorney after my husband said I couldn’t leave him because it would cost me too much. One of the things I was told was that marriage is essentially a financial/business agreement. I was, in part, responsible for our situation because I didn’t do anything about his lack of financial contribution for 10 years. The lawyer asked me, “If you had a business, would you have allowed your business partner to not contribute to the business and take revenue from it for 10 years without doing something about it?”
When young people get married they aren’t looking at it like that and society (and religion) guilts us in to continuing to try to work things out. If we don’t make it “till death do us part” we feel as though we have failed. There are a lot of reasons that marriage is declining among Millennials and those marrying are marrying later in life (Hermanson, M. “How Millennials are redefining marriage” The Gottman Institute). Making marriage less of a life-long commitment and divorce less of a burden could help, no?