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.





3 thoughts on “The Future of Marriage

  1. Some thoughts on this Ron.

    The institution of marriage formalizes the benefits of family, which give us a sense of home and all the positives which that entails along with a means to be economically productive.

    In today’s modern world with social media and the demise of traditional families, marriages are no longer as requisite as they once were to give people a sense of belonging and to meet their economic needs.

    For those of us who still work through traditional family settings I would look closely at how successful they are in comparison to less traditional arrangements. Paltrow’s approach to marriage may offend our orthodox views and where she feels a need to maintain a certain public persona seems shallow but since relationships outside of traditional marriage can now meet the earliest requirements of family that gives one a sense of belonging and fosters economic productivity, I’m not so sure that she’s not on the threshold of the inevitable change that traditional marriages are now facing.

    Change is inevitable as we evolve. How we prepare for it and assimilate it into our culture will determine the degree of conflict that must arise as this change occurs.

    That’s my limited perception. What do you think?

    • Thanks for that. I agree that change is the only constant and also that it would be wrong to discount Paltrow’s interpretation of things out-of-hand. I wonder what you mean more specifically when using the term “successful”. I would tentatively propose this litmus test for any long-term committed relationship…does your partner have a positive influence on you, are you a better person as a result of the relationship? Admittedly, that’s still fairly vague, how about a better friend to others; a more ethical, generous, caring, hopeful person; a better citizen more generally? Also, I don’t quite understand why greater longevity has to challenge the idea of long-term marriage. We’re living 10-20 years longer than 50 years ago, but also marrying 10 years later. Seems like a push to me. I’m torn, I’m glad women have a lot more freedom, and are more economically independent, but I’m unwillingly to modernize if that means giving up on the idea of long-term marriage. And yet, I wouldn’t want to rewind the tape to when divorcees had to deal with serious social stigmas. Also, I have a lot of friends who are much more happy in their second marriages. In the end, I approach this topic with more questions than answers, humbled by how challenging it is to make a marriage work well and appreciative of the rewards of a long-term commitment to one person.

      • “I wonder what you mean more specifically when using the term “successful”.

        Relationships are successful if they endure the test of time that pits us against hardships and unpleasant realities. The relationship that endures is based on one’s ability to stretch themselves after the beauty and passion wear off and compassion, concern and thoughtfulness take their place.

        “In the end, I approach this topic with more questions than answers, humbled by how challenging it is to make a marriage work well and appreciative of the rewards of a long-term commitment to one person.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s