The Future of Marriage

Here is how one on-line magazine reported on Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Chris Martin’s recent breakup:

Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow became famous in her early 20s, she has made women feel bad about themselves. As Gwyneth’s former high school classmate told a New York magazine reporter in the mid-’90s, “Even people who don’t know Gwyneth measure themselves against her success. … Gwyneth makes us feel extremely lame.” And so it was Tuesday, when Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, announced their split in the most Gwyneth way possible by telling the world about their separation in her lifestyle newsletter Goop, with a personal note and an accompanying expert essay about something called “conscious uncoupling.” Because Gwyneth does not break up like the rest of us.

The gist of the essay—by Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami, doctors who integrate Eastern and Western medicine—is that the institution of marriage hasn’t evolved along with our longer life spans. Divorce doesn’t mean your relationship wasn’t successful, they say. It just means that this particular relationship has come to its conclusion; you may have two or three of these successful relationships in a lifetime. Instead of a typical, rancorous, regular-person separation, you just need to have a “conscious uncoupling.”

I feel for Paltrow and anyone who feels compelled to manage their image so methodically. What an exhausting and lonely path to trod. So sad I’m going to grant her a mulligan on the New Age phrasing many others are using for laughs.

Gwyneth’s brand will not shape the future of marriage, Millennials behavior will. Esther Perel is a marriage counselor who has unique insights on why people have affairs. Read an interview with her here. She also has provocative things to say about Millennials and the future of marriage. For example:

Slate: What would you say to people who want to preserve a marriage?

Perel: Most people today, for the sheer length we live together, have two or three marriages in their adult life, and some of us do it with the same person. For me, this is my fourth marriage with my husband and we have completely reorganized the structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity.

Slate: Explicitly, or it just happened organically?

Perel: Both. It became clear that we could either go into crisis mode and end it or go into crisis mode and renew. And that is one of the most hopeful sentences a betrayed partner can hear when they come into my office the day after they find out and they are in a state of utter shock and collapse: I say, your first marriage may be over, and in fact I believe that affairs are often a powerful alarm system for a structure that needs change. And then people say: But did it have to happen like that? And I say: I have rarely seen anything as powerful lead to a regenerative experience. This is a controversial idea, but betrayal is sometimes a regenerative act. It’s a way of saying no to a rotten system in need of change.

Perel earlier in the same interview:

We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.

I like Perel’s thinking because it challenges my own. I’m not modern enough to give up on monogamy, but I’m intrigued by her notion of multiple marriages to the same person.

Here are a few reminders I’m taking from my brief intro to Perel’s work. First, it’s extremely unhealthy to expect one person to meet all of your needs. Some degree of autonomy is important. Second, the health of one’s marriage depends mostly on their individual emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. And third, to maintain positive emotional, psychological, and spiritual health, balance daily routines, both as an individual and as a couple, with a sense of “novelty and adventure”.

I liked a story my sixty year old sister told me last week at Uncle Erwin’s celebration of life in Missoula, Montana. Recently, she spent an afternoon sledding with a bunch of her friends. Novel and adventurous. And her marriage might be (marginally) healthier and happier as a result.

 

 

 

 

How to Find Your Soulmate

Apparently, the first all important step is to figure out the single most consequential thing you want in a partner. For example, maybe they HAVE to be devotees of Ayn Rand, or farm for a living, or be gluten-free. As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, there are dating websites for each of those interests. Soon there’s bound to be meta-websites where someone could zero in on their dream gluten-free, Ayn Rand loving farmer within 100 miles of Cedar Rapids.

The Journal article was nice because it featured people who weren’t terribly optimistic about finding love, but were finding it thanks to these “niche” websites. They were getting along with their newly found partners, marrying, and starting families. Tough read for a tech skeptic like me.

A noteworthy paragraph:

Relationships often work best when people share similar core values and lifestyle goals. The online dating site eHarmony, for example, matches users by personality traits. Yet if two people are too similar, doesn’t the day-to-day relationship suffer from a lack of fun tension and fresh ideas?

I bet that’s a likely unintended negative consequence of delegating dating to computer algorithms.

Besides the fact that she was fine, a large part of my falling in love with Betrothed was the realization that she brought out the best parts of me. Put differently, I was a better person as a result of our friendship. Specifically, her kindness, her compassion, her social conscience, her generosity, her human decency, superseded my selfish, apathetic self. No computer could quantify that instinct.

I think she’d say I’ve enriched her life too. As a team, our sum is definitely more than our individual parts. But it hasn’t been a walk in the park, in part because we’re so different. Now, twenty-six years in, we’re starting to realize maybe our differences are strengths. Instead of failing miserably at changing one another, we’re learning to appreciate what each person contributes to the relationship, the family, the world.

To find your soulmate chuck the lengthy, hopelessly unrealistic check-list and replace it with one two-part question. Will this person bring out the best of me, and together, will we make a more positive impact on the world than we would apart?

True Confession

If you were standing here beside me right now you’d probs (adolescent form of “probably”) counsel me to immediately abort the mission. You might even slam the laptop on my fingers. You’d argue, and I’d be hard pressed to prove otherwise, that this is not the right time or place to confess that I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. But being of slow and stubborn stock, I feel I must come clean.

Straying from the marital straight and narrow started innocently enough, wishing the love of my life was a few pounds lighter, then fantasizing about weekend get-aways. I wish I could say this was a one-off and that I immediately realized the damage done, but in fact, since taking the plunge, I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s promised to spend hours with me. Take me places near and far. Climb steep mountain passes. Crush anyone that gets in our way. To always be there for me.

If you’re a female reader, you’re probably so disgusted with me that you can’t see straight. If you’re of the male persuasion, you’re wondering what she looks like. Without further ado. . .

Be still my beating heart.

Be still my beating heart.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

Paragraph to Ponder

From Roman Krznaric in The Wonderbox:

The idea of passionate, romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because the main aspiration—the discovery of a soulmate—is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. We can spend years searching for that elusive person who will satisfy all our emotional needs and sexual desires, who will provide us with friendship and self-confidence, comfort and laughter, stimulate our minds and share our dreams. We imagine somebody out there in the amorous ether who is our missing other half, and who will make us feel complete if only we can fuse our being with theirs in the sublime union of romantic love. Our hopes are fed by an industry of Hollywood screen romances and an overload of pulp fiction peddling this mythology. The message is replicated by the worldwide army of consultants who advertise their ability to help you ‘find your perfect match’. In a survey of single Americans in their twenties, 94 percent agreed that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost.’ The unfortunate truth is that the myth of romantic love has gradually captured the varieties of love that existed in the past, absorbing them into a monolithic vision.

I’m Lost

Now that I’m the greatest triathlete the world my family has ever known, I’m lost. Sibling rivalry is a beautiful thing. For the last six months sticking it to my brother provided me with a purpose for living.

But now I need a new purpose for living. Here are some possibilities.

• Be the first male to break down the Olympic synchronized swimming or rhythmic gymnastics gender barrier.

• Cut a rap record. Are you aware there’s a serious shortage of white, 50-something, Ph.D. rappers? I could be the Chosen One. Today’s Facebook friend request from someone named Joanna Byrnes in Tennessee inspired some sick lyrics. Turns out Joanna is married to Ron Byrnes. But I guess Tennessee Ron Byrnes isn’t quite enough. Yeah Joanna, odds are you did pick the wrong one, but I’m already spoken for, so it’s probably best to get on with your life. One more reason Twitter rules and Facebook drools, lots of people on Facebook share your name despite whacky spellings. Am I the only one that weirds out? Back to my off-the-hook lyrics. Ask a friend with human beat box skills to lay down a beat while you read this seedling of rap genius:

May I have your attention please? May I have your attention please? Will the real Ron Byrnes please stand up? I repeat, will the real Ron Byrnes please stand up? We’re gonna have a problem here.. ‘Cause I’m Ron Byrnes, yes I’m the real Byrnes. All you other Ron Byrnes’s are just imitating. So won’t the real Ron Byrnes please stand up, please stand up, please stand up?

• Go hard after Frenchman Robert Marchand’s new 100k cycling record of 4:17:27. Marchand is 100 years old so that could provide me with a reason for living for the next half century. Marchand averaged 14.3 miles an hour but pre-race said, “If I was doping, maybe I could hit 21-22mph.” Part of his secret, honey in his canteen.

• Compete in the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. Told the GalPal, given my horrific mountain biking skills, I could literally die during the race. A friend who competed in the race a few years ago almost watched another participant die after a terrible accident. The GalPal’s reply, “Maybe a second Ironman isn’t such a bad idea.” There’s an important life lesson there fellas, but if I need to spell it out, there’s no hope for you.

That’s all I can think of for now. Vote for one of those or recommend something new that my pea-brain hasn’t considered. But don’t delay. It’s tough living day-to-day without an overarching purpose.

Hold the presses!!! The most difficult and important project en todo el mundo just dawned on me—learn to listen more patiently to the woman who, in 1987, won the real Ron Byrnes lottery. I’d like to think her life has been a fairytale ever since, but recently she told me she doesn’t feel truly listened to.

Can I learn to listen more patiently? I’ll try.

The Great Marriage Divide

The GalPal and I enjoyed a fun-filled 25th anniversary last Wednesday. We celebrated by bicycling the Burke-Gilman trail in Seattle, kayaked on Lake Union, took in the King Tut Exhibit, ate at the China Outpost as directed by the Principal, and swam in Lake Washington. More fun than a couple should be allowed to have in one day. Congratulations to my best friend for putting up with me for a quarter cent.

Speaking of marriage, sobering sociology compliments of the New York Times.

Primary point—Across Middle America, single motherhood has moved from an anomaly to a norm with head-turning speed.

Key excerpts:

The economic storms of recent years have raised concerns about growing inequality and questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead. Most of the discussion has focused on labor market forces like falling blue-collar wages and lavish Wall Street pay.

But striking changes in family structure have also broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility. College-educated Americans . . . are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women . . . are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides . . . . Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class — among women . . . who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

Whether and whom to marry are the most monumental of decisions, yet most people make them when they’re young and aren’t entirely sure about what they want to do for a living, or how to manage personal finances, or solve conflicts peacefully, or parent.

And through a steady stream of romantic comedies, Hollywood promotes the idea that love and marriage are equal parts physical and emotional. In nearly complete contrast, the New York Times journalists imply love and marriage is a practical partnership, one where two incomes and two parents are needed to successfully manage a household and reliably raise children with promising life prospects.

The stats are depressing and another reason I suppose to go to college. Of course though, finishing college and then marrying is no guarantee that anyone will make it twenty five years. That takes perseverance, commitment, bicycles, and kayaks.

The Burke-Gilman trail

Teaching Grit Continued

[Editors note: Please notice that in the right-hand margin I've moved my twitter feed up. My tweeting is just too genius to reside anywhere else.]

Thanks to last week’s comments, I’ve continued thinking about teaching and grit. The two primary questions I’ve been grapping with are: 1) What is grit? And 2) Should it be taught in public schools?

1) What is grit? We think it consists of courageous acts in the face of opposition. For example, a hiker survives for six days after an 800 pound boulder pins his arm. Eventually, he uses his pocket knife to self amputate his arm and somehow he survives the ordeal. The height of grittiness right? Or the marathoner who withstands 80+ degree temps and a series of surges to hang on and win.

But Duckworth and her colleagues define grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” The hiker wasn’t thinking long-term, he wanted to live to see the following week. The marathoner’s performance probably doesn’t qualify as gritty as his months and years of race prep. Is it possible that the elderly couple who have stayed married for sixty years despite personality differences, debilitating illnesses, and financial hardships are especially poignant examples of grit? Or the baseball player who breaks into the “bigs” in his mid 20′s after years of honing his craft in single, double, and triple A?

Or the alcoholic who has been sober for several months, years, or decades?

Or Jim Abbot, the one-handed former professional baseball player who I heard interviewed on a Seattle radio station this week. Abbot pitched at the University of Michigan, and in the 1988 Olympics, and in the “bigs” for a decade. His “grit quotient” has to be off the charts.

Or just read the opening of Michael J. Fox’s most recent book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, about what it’s like to get out of bed, shower, shave, and get dressed with advanced Parkinsons. Fox’s resolve in the face of daily challenges is inspiring, but I’m not sure it constitues grit since it doesn’t involve long-term goals. Clearly though, his grit is evident in the foundation he’s spent years building, a foundation that has radically improved the pace and prospects of Parkinsons research.

If my “grit quotient” was higher, I’d have published a book or two by now.

2) Should it be taught in public schools? Not as simple a question as it first appears. Seymour Sarason, in The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform, contrasts teachers with docs. Docs he says have been honest about how difficult it will be to cure cancer. He argues they’ve done a great job of managing expectations. They continually remind the public that there are genetic and environmental variables (like smoking and nutrition) that are outside their control. They repeatedly say any progress will be slow. As a result, the public appreciates the real progress that is being made.

On the other hand, teachers, too altruistic for their own good maybe, have taken on more and more intractable social problems—like hunger and poverty, teen pregnancy, racial reconciliation, and most recently, childhood obesity. And let’s not forget that business leaders, journalists, and politicians like Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and President Obama routinely, if somewhat indirectly, blame teachers for our slowing economy, for letting our lead slip in the global economy, and for our declining standard of living.

What should families be responsible for? What should “the community writ large” be responsible for, whether non-profits, religious youth groups, or civic associations? I anticipate one loyal PressingPause reader, a school counselor in a poor community, to protest, “But if families aren’t teaching grit, what are we supposed to do, just sit back and watch their children not accomplish meaningful long-term goals?” Fair question that highlights this is a real dilemma.

Back when Obama was smoking dope at Occidental (belated and weak 4/20 reference), and Nineteen was about to start kindergarten, the Good Wife and I had a meeting with her two teachers who wanted to know what we most wanted her to learn during the year. I suspect my answer was different than most. Growing up in a reading intensive home with two experienced educators as parents, I wasn’t worried about basic literacy. “I’d really appreciate if you’d help her develop a social conscience,” I said. “I want her to be in touch with her privilege and to be an empathetic person.”

That was a private Quaker kindergarten which I grant is a little different animal, but one wonders, should public schools teachers be held responsible for young people who don’t have a social conscience? Do public school teachers set themselves up for failure by taking on way more than literacy and numeracy? Does their seeming willingness to take on a never-ending list of social problems partially explain why the “powers that be” are so dissatisfied with their performance and are pressing to evaluate and pay them based upon their students’ test scores even though the problems with those proposals are painfully obvious?

Despite Sarason’s insight, I believe the study of grit, it’s absence and presence, can most definitely be taught in the context of reading and writing instruction. Student have to read and write about something. Why use innocuous, fictional reading material when they could be introduced to stories that prompt discussion about perseverance, long-term goals, and grit? If Sarason were still alive I wonder if he’d see any harm in that.

If a grit curriculum doesn't fire you up, what about a grits curriculum?

The Great Recalibrating

Three years ago, back when Peyton Manning was a Colt and Tim Tebow a Gator, things were groovy at work and home.

I was enjoying bringing home the bacon and the GalPal was cool cooking it. She’d cook Mondays-Thursdays, I was Fridays and Saturdays which was great because we’d usually go out one of those nights, and we’d wait each other out on Sundays. Culinary homeostasis.

Actually, domestic homeostasis. She was laundry, me lawn. Her household maintenance, me financial planning. Her labradoodle, me cars. Her school paperwork, me taxes. Her hippy food co-op, me Costco. Her hardwood floors, me carpets. Her weeds, me edging and fall leaves.

And then things started to go south at work. I haven’t written much about that because everything is relative, I’m a tenured professor in a tough economy, and a lot of people would love to have my “first world” work problems. Long story short, I’ve been reorienting, tweaking my interests and identity so that both are less work-centric. I’m still committed to teaching well and doing right by my students, but I’m blogging instead of writing academic papers, sidestepping University Committees, not teaching summer school, and spending less time on campus.

The transition hasn’t been easy in part because deemphasizing work is tough to talk about with my friends who are in the prime of the careers and mostly enjoying working long hours. Doubt they’d understand my desire to strike a different work-life balance, to live more simply, to relish more than normal time alone, and to not be busy.

And while I’ve been striking a different work-life balance, my Betrothed has been too, but in the exact opposite way. She’s tired of taking care of the children and the house. She wants to be challenged in new ways, to broaden her identity, and to be of service to more than her family and house.

So right as I’m resigned to accepting the world as it is, she’s intent on changing it—by teaching adolescents to be bilingual.

Our different orientations present challenges on the homefront. Challenges that have resulted in some conflict. I’d like to used some of my freed up work time to hang out and travel with her, and she’d like that too, but her work schedule is a limiter. And she wants me to take on more domestic responsibilities. At first, when I objected to doing more around the house, she didn’t think I supported her desire to work. Through lots of discussion, she realizes I do. I dig her ambition and I’m glad she’s isn’t as cynical as me. I like that she still has a lot of fight in her.

One outcome of our talks has been a change-up in the kitchen. I’ve been “promoted” to Chief Cook and Grocery Shopper. Now I cook dinner Mondays-Thursdays and Sundays. While I work my “magic” in the kitchen, foreign language teacher lesson plans.

Some bumps have formed in the “dinner-prep” road. First, my repertoire is limited—all things breakfast, wraps, pasta, sandwiches and soup, pizza, all things breakfast, wraps, you get the idea. Second, I now appreciate more fully what the foreign language teacher has said sporadically in the past—the hardest part is deciding what to prepare. Of course, bumps one and two are related. Third, we’re always running low on some ingredient or we’re running low on some key staple—fruit, milk, eggs, etc. What I’d give for a close “one-stop” shopping store.

I hereby offer a belated, but heartfelt “thank you” to all the women who have played Chief Cook and Grocery Shopper at different times in my life—The foreign language teacher, mother-dear, big sister-dear, mother-in-law-dear. If you’re a woman who wishes the men in your life were a wee bit more appreciative, figure out how to get them to take over the grocery shopping, the cooking, and the kitchen detail for two weeks. That’s all it will take.

Our marriage, like most I suspect, works best when we pay at least as much attention to the other person’s needs as our own. The problem is selfishness comes more naturally and easily than selflessness. After 25 years, it’s time to think more about what I can do to help The Good Wife achieve her professional goals than how I can succeed in my own career. She’s always been supportive of my career and I’m indebted to her for that. It’s time to repay the favor. Here’s hoping she doesn’t get too sick of my cooking too soon.

Why We’re So Susceptible to Decision-Making Paralysis

The short answer. Because we succumb to self-induced pressure as a result of thinking about big decisions in zero-sum, make or break, right and wrong terms. Is this the absolute best college to attend? The perfect person to commit to? The ideal number of children? The best job? The best possible residence? The right investment?

The longer explanation. Thanks Bill Pollian, former Indiana Colts General Manager, for a very helpful alternative perspective on big-time, life decision-making. Asked why Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos and not the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco Forty-Niners, or any of the other NFL teams he recently talked to, he said, “The decision to play for Denver wasn’t the important decision. What’s most important is all the decisions he makes from this point forward.” Beautiful. My interpretation. If he continues to do the things that have made him so successful throughout his career, outworking everyone else, he’ll continue to win no matter what color uni he’s wearing.

Some high school grads think there’s one best college for them. Pollian would argue it doesn’t matter if you get into your preferred college. What matters more is whether you apply yourself at whatever college you attend. Do you take full advantage of the opportunities? Do you do the reading, take challenging courses, develop self understanding and practical skills, pursue internships, figure out what work might be meaningful, build social capital?

Some people think there’s one “soulmate” for them. Pollian would argue it’s less important that you feel a mystical “love at first sight” connection to your partner than how determined you are to make the relationship work. Based on Pollian-logic, there’s not one right person, just proven processes. Mutual physical attraction is a wonderful thing, but the physical elements of love lessen over time. Long-term committed relationships are less about flashy wedding ceremonies and more about day-to-day decision-making, mutual respect, shared values, interpersonal skills, kindness, and resilience.

A final example. Building wealth is less about picking the absolute best stock or creating the perfect asset allocation and more about distinguishing between “wants” and “needs”, day-to-day discipline, and regularly saving more than you make.

The next time you have an especially important decision to make take some pressure off by remembering that a positive outcome hinges mostly on the long-term, cumulative effect of the numerous daily decisions that follow.

Divorce as Default

Washington State citizens are about to decide whether homosexuals should have the right to marry. There will be awkward moments at dinner parties, some people will switch churches, and the media spotlight will burn bright.

Meanwhile, few people will talk in any depth about when we gave up on the idea that marriage is a lifetime commitment. When did we decide it’s merely a chapter in the book of life? A chapter that naturally runs its course over time?

Some context. First, I’ve written previously that like anyone who has been married for a long time, my Better Half and I have struggled at times, more than outside observers might guess. We drive each other batshit crazy at times, but we’ve never stopped caring for one another, and we’ve persevered. I’m sympathetic to anyone whose struggling in their marriage.

Second, about two years ago, a friend of mine confided in me that he and his wife had separated. He was committed to fixing it, she wasn’t. It quickly became apparent that she was troubled and he—and I suspect his children—are better off now that the marriage has been dissolved. I acknowledge some people are better off getting divorced. Third, I don’t want to return to the days when divorcees were discriminated against.

Despite those caveats, while reading a popular blog recently, I couldn’t help but wonder when we gave up on the idea that marriage is a lifetime commitment. The post that caught my attention was an announcement that after eighteen years the author had asked his wife for a divorce, moved into an apartment, and started his life over. Childless, he and she were still getting together regularly and were committed to “always being good friends”. He alluded to underlying issues, but understandably didn’t want to go into the details.

To summarize the hundreds of comments that I skimmed, the consensus reply was, “Sorry to hear it man, but hey stuff happens, you two are great people, good luck going forward.” Even allowing for the impersonal nature of the net, the laissez-faire responses made me wonder if our sense of community has completely frayed.

Marriage ceremonies are public celebrations where family and friends form a wedding community, witness the couple’s commitments to one another, and vouch to support them going forward particularly during difficult times. In practice though, given our work-a-day mobile society, newly married couples rarely live in close community with the family and friends who pledged to support them. No man may be an island, but a lot of married couples are.

People don’t see their friends’ divorces, whether they attended the weddings or not, as a collective failure. Instead, they take a “there but for the grace of God go I” approach. Guess I’m hopelessly old fashioned. I reject the notion that divorce is to be expected, that a life-time together is unrealistic.

Whether we can figure out how to do a better job supporting existing marriages through thick and thin is every bit as important as what the media spotlight is beginning to shine on in Washington State.