Can We Give Up the Marriage Habit?

Published October 2, 2012 in Role/Reboot 

Humans are notoriously stubborn about giving up harmful habits. Smoking is one obvious example. Packing on the pounds is another. Marriage is a third.

A recent article in the New York Times exploring the virtues of renewable limited-term marriage contracts has raised eyebrows. As the survivor of three divorces, I heartily endorse the concept.

Marriage became a bad habit for me. My desire to be part of a couple arose from my upbringing as part of a dyad with my narcissistic mother. I was never allowed to individuate or stand on my own. The only way I found to break free of her was to take on another partner—a husband. When that choice failed, I searched for another and then another and yet another. As I’ve described previously on Role/Reboot, I continued to marry narcissists hoping to find the love I’d never received from my mother. But getting love from a narcissist is virtually impossible.

Few marriages are based on such a neurotic motive. However, other disagreeable reasons, such as greed and control, may come into play. The institution of marriage has created a stage for manipulation and deceit.

Humans bonded and reproduced for tens of thousands of years without marriage. Sociologists speculate that marriage evolved as a way to provide exclusive sexual access to the bride in an attempt to ensure that the children born of the union were sired by the groom. The desire to establish paternity related to children’s entitlement to an inheritance as well as the father’s obligation to support them.

As practiced for most of recorded history, marriage shifted the burdens of household chores and child-rearing onto women. These factors led to its criticism as a patriarchal custom. But marriages fail for a number of reasons. Dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles (or with a spouse’s failure to fulfill such role) is just one of many.

Today, approximately half of all marriages end in divorce, and many more couples remain unhappily married. The costs of divorce and miserable marriage are psychological and economic.

A renewable limited-term marriage contract would significantly lessen both. A contract with five- or 10-year terms would provide stability with a less fraught escape clause than a divorce petition. In many ways, such a contract can be seen as a fleshed out prenuptial agreement.

Prenuptial agreements are increasingly common and typically set forth the economic consequences of divorce if one occurs. Expanded into a marriage contract, these agreements could even deal with child custody if the couple anticipates having children. However, because courts rightfully treat the interests of children as being paramount, a contract’s custody provisions might not be upheld.

If the mention of children in the context of limited-term marriages makes you squeamish, remember that in all 50 states either spouse can seek a no-fault divorce. Virtually all states permit a divorce to become final within months after the initial petition is filed. A “til death do us part” marriage provides children little more protection than a renewable marriage contract.

Just as the impact of divorce on children’s psychology can be debated so, too, could be the impact of one parent’s decision not to renew the marriage.

I wish I could tell you my only child survived my divorces unscathed. I’m quite sure that’s true for the divorce that occurred when he was an infant. He was 10 when the next divorce occurred and, fortunately, it was amicable. That husband adopted him and continues to play a role in his life today.

The true test of the effect of my divorces on him may be his willingness to marry or enter a committed relationship. He’s 23 now and hasn’t reached that threshold. When I asked him for his views on renewable limited-term marriage contracts versus traditional marriages, he pondered the question for a few minutes then came down on the side of contracts. But don’t read too much into that, both his father and I are lawyers. How could he not favor a legal arrangement?

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Do You Know How to Help a Domestic Violence Victim?

In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Kate McGuinness offers advice on how to help a victim.

Susie comes to my home regularly to help with cleaning. About a year ago, her usual helper took a different job. When Susie asked if her adult daughter Gay could come instead, I agreed.

Gay appeared for the first time the following week with a black eye and missing teeth. Her mother made a vague reference to Gay’s “accident,” and I assumed she meant an automobile accident.

Months passed. One day Susie appeared alone and asked if I had heard from Gay. When I responded that I hadn’t, Susie explained her daughter’s situation.

Gay’s partner, who calls himself “Master Howard,” had telephoned Susie the prior weekend and informed her that Gay was “done with her.” Gay would no longer work with her or associate with her. Howard also decreed that Gay would no longer see her teenaged son who lived with Susie. Susie explained that Howard routinely takes Gay’s pay and screens her calls. And, yes, Gay’s injuries when I first met her had been caused by “Master Howard.”

Howard appears to be the stereotypical perpetrator of domestic violence: a man determined to control his victim. He uses the classic techniques of separating the victim from her family and controlling her financially.

Once Susie confided about Gay’s situation, she explained that all three of her husbands had been physically abusive. Gay had grown up seeing this. My heart ached for both women, but I was flummoxed about what to do.

I had Gay’s cell phone number and, with Susie’s consent, I called her. Of course, all I got was her voice mail. I stumbled through a bland message about being sorry she couldn’t work that day and said I hoped to see her the following week.

But I didn’t. Not that week or any of the subsequent weeks.

Neither Susie nor her grandson has heard from Gay either. I have struggled with what I can do to help Gay.

An Internet search yielded the following advice on how to help a victim of domestic violence. Men can be victims of domestic abuse, too, but because I am focused on Gay, I’ve used feminine pronouns.

1. Let the victim know you care and are willing to listen. Don’t force the issue of abuse.

2. If the victim talks about the abuse, assure her that you believe her, the abuse isn’t her fault, she doesn’t deserve abuse and help is available.

3. Tell the victim you think she might be in danger.

4. Give the victim the telephone numbers of local and national domestic violence resources. The National Domestic Violence Hotline Number is  1(800)799-7233.

5. Ask the victim what you can do to help, but don’t make promises you won’t keep.

6. Don’t tell the victim what to do. This could sound like control, something the victim has already had too much of.

7. Help the victim think through a plan of what she would do if she decided to leave.

8. If you witness abuse, immediately call: 9-1-1.

I wish I could tell you I was able to use the steps to help Gay. I have called her cell and left more vague messages, none of which have been returned. Susie has seen Gay in the street, but they haven’t spoken. I take comfort in knowing that at least she is alive.

I wonder if I was willfully blind when I accepted Susie’s initial explanation of Gay’s injuries as an accident; Susie was her mother after all. I wish now that I had asked more questions. Maybe Gay would have confided what was going on, but I doubt it.

I’ve turned my frustration at being unable to help Gay into writing this blog. (As you may have guessed the names used are all pseudonyms.) I can only hope the information I’ve offered will help another victim of abuse.

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Instead Of Wedding Shower Gifts, Give A Goat

By Kate McGuinness
Published in Role/Reboot May 4, 2012

Kate McGuinness traces the history of wedding and baby showers, and offers new ways to reboot the tradition, which includes swapping gifts for charitable donations to those in need.

Baby GoatI’ve gotten to the age when many of my friends’ daughters are marrying or reproducing. These occasions are celebrated by the community holding “showers.” I began to wonder about this tradition after attending a particularly boring baby shower in which the expectant mother sat on a “throne,” each gift was passed from guest to guest to be admired, and we played a childish game about baby paraphernalia.

Why do we do this? Do showers make sense in the 21st century?

Click to continue reading “Instead Of Wedding Shower Gifts, Give A Goat”

What to Do When You’re the Breadwinner in Your Relationship

By Kate McGuinness
Published in Jezebel, Role / Reboot and Fem2pt0.

What to Do When You're the Breadwinner in Your RelationshipWhat to Do When You’re the Breadwinner in Your Relationship

Mass media has trumpeted a market research study’s conclusion that young, single, childless, white women living in cities out-earn their male counterparts. Feminists would love to embrace the results, but, in fact, the analysis has many flaws, including the failure to account for educational differences. That hasn’t stopped The New York Times from characterizing this finding as a global “trend” and predicting large scale changes in gender roles.

Despite my skepticism about these conclusions, I want to offer a bit of advice to women who are the sole or primary breadwinner in a committed relationship. As a former Biglaw partner and general counsel of a Fortune 500 company, I’ve played that role—three times.

Based on my experience and those of my second wave feminist friends, I’ve concluded the key factors in the success of such a relationship are (i) the reason for the income disparity and (ii) how the primary earner regards the reason. Are you supporting a stay-at-home dad or mom, a day-trader or a would-be novelist?

A stay-at-home parent is clearly adding value to the family. But how will you feel when you come home after a week of 16-hour days and find your struggling artist playing Mario Kart as an antidote to writer’s block? That’s something only you can decide.

Don’t think I devalue personal pursuits that aren’t potentially gainful. I’m now happily married to a man who devotes his day to spiritual practice. What’s vital is that I respect his choice. But, in truth, I doubt that I would have been so accepting when I was billing 2500 hours a year.

Assuming you and your partner agree that you will be the primary breadwinner and support his or her activities, there are some practical steps you can take to minimize the rough spots.

Discuss up front the responsibilities that the other spouse will have. Start with the general but conclude with details. How many days of the week is he or she responsible for childcare or cooking? Who cleans the house and schleps the laundry?

Also, be clear about budgeting. How much do you both want to spend on items such as housing, vacations and eating out? These are issues all couple should address, but couples with widely disparate incomes may be more likely to encounter an unexpected obstacle: ingrained penny-pinching.

If the partner generating less income has been in that position for years, it may be very difficult for her or him to understand why vacationing at an expensive resort might be a good choice. Airing expectations about what constitute “reasonable” expenditures will be helpful, especially in regard to discretionary items.

Another sensitive subject may be investments. Knowing the personal cost of breadwinning, you may be reluctant to let your significant other have an equal say, or any say, in how hard-earned dollars are invested. Your partner, on the other hand, may feel you don’t respect his or her judgment. There’s no right answer to this quandary, but you should talk it out in advance.

I suggest you memorialize the results of these discussions in writing. Am I suggesting a pre-nuptial agreement? That’s not necessary for budgetary guidelines, but, yes, I do endorse pre-nups.

Pre-nups can be emotional minefields, but they often make economic sense if, as one feminist economist suggests, marriage is viewed as a defined contribution pension plan. Before you rule out a pre-nuptial agreement, consider whether you agree with how your state treats property acquired during marriage. Nine states, including California, have community property laws (50 –50 split) and the rest mandate equitable distribution.

The primary breadwinner isn’t the only party who can be protected by a pre-nup. If you live in an equitable distribution state and your partner will be assuming childcare and homemaking responsibilities, agreeing upfront to a 50-50 split would protect him or her.

Another factor is whether your partner is obligated to pay alimony or child support. A sudden increase in income—that is, your income—could motivate a former spouse to seek increased payments. Similarly, your partner’s liability for other debts should be considered.

If you decide you want a pre-nuptial agreement, there are ways to broach the topic that may minimize hurt feelings. If you’re already married, the law now recognizes post-nuptial agreements that address the same issues. Signing one may be especially desirable if one of you has stopped, or is about to stop, working to take care of children.

Whether you’re allocating assets and income before or after marriage, certain steps are required to create a valid agreement:

● The agreement should be in writing. Some states also require notarization.

● Each party must be advised by his or her own legal counsel.

● Each party must fully disclose assets and liabilities.

● Each party must sign the agreement voluntarily.

With or without an agreement, you’ll find the role of primary breadwinner challenging, demanding and, I hope, satisfying.