Why I Wasn’t Ready for a Modern Marriage

465905035Of all the people in the entire world who have joined together with another person in marriage, I’ll be honest, I’m probably the worst out of any of them.

But then again, maybe I’m the best.

See, sometimes it’s the ones who make the biggest mistakes who we end up learning the most from.

Case in point: The New York Times’ “The All-or-Nothing Marriage” is unquestionably one of the best things I have read on matrimony-in-the-modern-age in a very, very long time. And that’s kind of saying something because, let’s face it, there are literally hundreds of marriage articles trying to zombie-crash through our computer screens every single day, aren’t there?

This one blew my mind wide open like a shotgunned cantaloupe, though. Mostly, because I think it reveals a few harsh but usable truths, if you will, about what marriage has meant to most people for a very long time versus what it has actually become, for better or for worse. And then, out of nowhere, it reveals the ultimate truth, one that a lot of married folk pretend to understand, but really, they suck at.

That’s where I come in.

Look, history is best understood in retrospect, you know, and maybe in this case, that is more true than ever, as tremendous tectonic shifts have literally been occurring underneath the very floors of love for just about any of us who have gotten married in the last decade or so.

Let me start at the top, okay? Let me start with my favorite subject.

Let me start with me.


I got married about a decade ago, and fast. But somehow we managed to make things last through several cross-country moves, career changes, two (soon-to-be three) kids, and a whole hell of a lot of ups and downs along the way. Through it all, though, I think we dropped the ball in a lot of key ways, mainly because, at least from my perspective (and remember, I am quite the fool when it comes to love). I believe my wife and I weren’t ever all that clear with each other about what we actually wanted from our marriage.

Hell, I’ve only actually just begun to even think about that sort of thing in the very recent past. I know that may sound stupid to a lot of people who are involved in perfect storybook unions, but the thing is, it also will ring a familiar bell with a lot of other people, too, because one thing I’ve come to realize is that, when it comes to being married, a lot of nice, well-meaning people have no freaking clue what they’re actually trying to accomplish.

That was me. Or, that is me, I guess I should say. I never thought about what I wanted from hooking up my life with another person’s. I mean, I knew that I wanted some kids and a place to live and some cars and stuff like that, but beyond those generalities, as important as they are, I don’t think I ever spent more than a ride to the grocery store contemplating what exactly I could offer up to my wife in terms of soulful connection and future opportunity.

To be even more candid with you, I could never even really tell my wife where I saw myself in 5 or 10 years; I just kind of coasted without ever having any big plans. I had dreams, of course, we all do. But mine were mostly gratuitous and not very realistic when it comes to helping define the path you wanted to take together.

“I want to write a novel,” I told her. “Or maybe a memoir. Whatever. I want to write a book.”

“I think.” I added.

Nothing seemed to pin me down for long in the planning department, though, and slowly, understandably, this began to take a toll on our  marriage.


The New York Times article, then.

Anything with the title “The All-or-Nothing Marriage” ought to get you to at least click over for a second, which is really the main goal for a lot of this marriage stuff that ends up all over the internet. That was my aim here, too. I would click in, read a few sentences, drown in my own boredom or disappointment, and click out of there forever.

But no.

As it turns out, writer Eli J. Finkle is a pretty wise fella. A professor of psychology and a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, Finkle has turned his recent attention to studying why so many marriages in the 21st century are failing, and why a select few are thriving like never before.

Along with several other prominent researchers in his field, the author hooked me in the proverbial eyeball when I read these words:

Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.

Read that again. Go on.

Is that you?

Be honest.

Are you one of those people investing a slew of time into making your own marriage work and thrive?

Because, I have to say, that sure hasn’t been me.

And as I read the entire piece, it became more and more obvious to me that so much of my problem within my marriage has been that I didn’t really work much on anything with my wife because — here’s the kicker — I didn’t even know what the hell I wanted out of the thing to begin with.

Aside from the stuff I kind of expected to get out of it (the kids, cars, maybe some sex, sharing finances, etc), I entered a marriage never, ever considering the honest and ever-changing hopes and visions of either my spouse or myself. Finkle continues:

Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth. Fueled by the countercultural currents of the 1960s, they have come to view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment.

Reading that made so much sense to me two days ago, when I first dug my eyes into it, and with each passing hour that I have contemplated it, it has resonated with me more and more. The overall gist of the author’s groundbreaking discovery is something that I had never dreamed of, really. Marriage, and what we perceive as two people’s commitment to a lifetime together, he tells us, has changed drastically from what it once was long ago, to what it was even for our parents, to what it is now.

Of course, the article dives into a lot of intriguing research, especially in relation to how money and class has affected the institution, with promises of more articles to come. It’s all very worthwhile, I promise you. However, for me, and I suspect for a lot of people out there kind of floundering around in marriages a decade or so old, the breathtaking revelation is that whatever it is we may have been hoping for or working towards when we got married, if anything at all, it was probably deeply rooted in some outdated idea of what marriage had always appeared to be to us.

Yet, today, here we are, standing in the midst of a startling new definition of what it means to be hitched.

I find it all overwhelming and frustrating and exciting and somewhat disappointing, as well. I wish I had understood these things long ago. I wish I had understood that getting married really does mean you are going to have to work very, very hard to maintain a level of love and trust and partnership long after that first year’s magic has crumbled to dust. But I didn’t understand. I just didn’t. Some do, some don’t, I guess.


Still, there is hope, I think. For me and for all of the other people like me.

I think I took my marriage for granted in a lot of ways. I worked, I made money, I did the dishes, I was a good dad, and I never missed buying anniversary flowers on the right day.

But what an amateur I was.

Because all of those things pale drastically in comparison to the amount of time and active listening and honest effort that Professor Finkle and his colleagues have come to identify as the absolute integral ingredients to a successful marriage here in the 21st century. It’s all-or-nothing, people, when it comes to marriage now. Men and women are equals, and the separate roles we each played in marriages of the past have been obliterated.

We need to re-think everything; we need to re-invest ourselves. Or we need to prepare the divorce papers alongside our neighbors and friends.

Finkle ends his article with this sentence:

The good news is that our marriages can flourish today like never before. They just can’t do it on their own.

When I think about it enough, that might just be the hardest-hitting sentence I have ever read about being married, or about being in love. It’s bold, it’s insightful, and it’s optimistic.

And it makes total and complete sense, even to a so-called husband who never saw it coming.


Info source: The New York Times : The All-or-Nothing Marriage’

photo credit: thinkstock

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