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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Why Do We Marry People Like Our Parents

Published August 19 Role/Reboot

Our early childhood plays a major role in our choice of romantic partners. Dr. Harville Hendrix theorizes that “We marry the emotional image of our caregivers—both positive and negative.”

Sometimes, in an effort to resolve troublesome issues with a parent, we choose a partner with the same personality flaw that left us feeling unsatisfied as a child. That choice is a desperate, last-gasp attempt to get the love or attention we longed for.

If that sounds preposterous, let me illustrate the hypothesis by describing my four husbands.

My first husband was 14 years older and, by the standards of my small, blue-collar hometown, well-educated and sophisticated. What parental gap was I trying to fill? I was replacing my alcoholic father who left school in seventh grade to work in a textile mill.

This pairing might have succeeded but for its hidden flaw: My husband was gay and married me as a cover-up. I only learned of his gender preference seven years later when he was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer.

Several years passed and I married husband number two. This was my first attempt at trying to get love from a narcissist—the love I’d never gotten from my mother.

Before the hate mail starts flying, let me say I loved my mother. I understand many of the events and personalities in her background that made her a narcissist. I’m sorry she was so besieged as a child.

When I use the term “narcissist,” I don’t mean selfish. I mean someone who struggles with underlying profound insecurity by inflating her own importance. A hallmark of narcissists is their inability to feel empathy or give love. They have other harmful traits such as being manipulative and willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want.

Also, they have little or no regard for personal boundaries. They may view their child or partner as part of themselves. If the other doesn’t exist, their feelings and needs don’t exist in the narcissist’s mind. The child may come to feel lost unless coupled with another, especially a narcissistic other.

Marrying a narcissist to get the love your narcissistic parent didn’t give you is, of course, futile. By definition, a narcissist cannot love.

Back to husband number two. Before we married, we discussed my desire to have children. Because he had two children by his first marriage, he wasn’t as enthusiastic as I was, but he readily agreed. When I first brought up stopping contraception so I might conceive, he declined, saying “I lied to get you to marry me.”

I stayed in the marriage for years because I’d been trained by my mother not to expect my needs to be met. Finally, after a separation, he agreed to have a child on the condition that he could quit his job as a nuclear engineer and go to photography school.

We succeeded in adopting, but we weren’t a happy family. He complained that the baby was number one in my life and work was number two. He was only number three and wasn’t receiving enough attention. (Psychologists call this narcissistic supply.)

That takes us to marriages three and four. I married the same personalities and hoped for a different result. I’ll spare you (and them) examples.

Samuel Johnson, a prominent 18th century poet and essayist, observed, “Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” After four marriages, I no longer hope to get love from a narcissist.