Salon.com thinks that millenials may need to beta-test marriage. Jean Fitzpatrick thinks couples can make the marriage they want.
It’s easy to think that the only way millennials can approach marriage is the way they think about bicycles and real estate — as something that works best as a short-term rental. Salon’s recent post on why millennials need a “beta version” of marriage is the most recent version of this idea (a bit puzzling since most couples live together before marriage anyway).
People unhappy in their marriage often come into my office and tell me, “I’m not getting my needs met” or “I’m not getting anything out of this marriage,” and they’re afraid they picked the wrong person. When I ask them what they’re putting in, they look startled. Without realizing it, they’re caught up in a consumer approach to relationships: you choose a partner off a shelf as though she or he were a piece of merchandise at WalMart or J. Crew. Then you wonder if you made a bad choice or if you maybe deserve a refund.
With the idea of short-term marriage contracts, I guess we’re moving from buying to renting. Is Spouseflix next?
The temporary spouse idea has some built-in problems. Marriage is hard. Like any worthwhile challenge, from Ironman to regular ordinary workouts at your local gym, succeeding at it takes commitment. Sometimes people do pick the wrong person — someone who is not prepared to do this hard work — but mostly people need to learn new relationship skills and to practice them long enough to start seeing real change.
That’s why many therapists ask couples to set aside the idea of divorce for a specified period, usually six months. When a partner who’s hurt and angry puts the divorce card on the table, it’s hard for them not to play it.
When partners promise to be there for keeps and work on the relationship, then the quality of their attachment gets a chance to grow. Often, they begin to feel emotionally safe enough to discover how to be both generous and vulnerable with each other. That’s not the same as enduring a marriage or sticking with it long after it’s dead. A real marriage isn’t a thing. It’s alive. It’s a creature that needs regular care and feeding.
So why do we keep talking to millennials about lifelong marriage as though it were that split-level with a hefty mortgage they are so eager to avoid? That version of marriage is not only stultifying; it’s unrealistic. Partners and couples change all through life.
That’s why I approach millennial marriage as part of “maker culture”. A marriage is not a box you stuff yourself into. It’s a life we make together, and keep on making.
“You don’t marry a snapshot,” I tell them. “You marry a movie.” Everybody gets married multiple times. The more you can learn how to understand each other, talk gently and handle differences, you can have all those marriages with the same person.
That’s a mouthful, right? Nothing good happens without skill and care and perseverance. Stop paying attention and before you know it your relationship’s a mess. That’s the nature of any creative endeavor.
I find millennial couples get pretty enthusiastic about marriage as an ongoing creative project. They’re facing career and reproductive choices that are fluid and complex. A lifelong marriage becomes a platform that in turn offers them strength and resilience.
And so couples are makers. Through thousands of moments and dozens of years, we learn to be both honest and tender. We figure out how to design a life that encompasses our togetherness and individuality. We nurture a shared, intensely personal identity that touches our community and even the wider world.
Renting is for bicycles. Want to build a marriage? Make sure you’re all in.
Need Jean’s help making the marriage you want?
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Photo: Siti_Fatimah/Flickr (cropped)