Marriage Outside of the Box: Staying Together by Being Weird

“Are You Married?” is supposed to be a YES/NO question, and not a short essay format.


Still, in the exam blue book of life, some might prefer to give a more longwinded answer, if only they could.

Take the case of spouses who are calling it quits. There are definitely instances where spouses do a zippety-doo-dah of celebration right out the door when those divorce papers arrive, with no remorse, or second thoughts.

But more often, things feel subtler than that. Talk to divorcing spouses, and you might hear all the qualities that they really admired about each other, and their marriage. I often detect a sad incredulity. They can’t believe that it’s happening to them.

It’s not just lip service. In an earlier column I spoke fondly (and somewhat polemically) about the virtues of a “marriage of convenience.” My argument is that convenience, while a lowly ambition according to romantic ideals, is seriously under-rated, especially in marriages with children.

As the divorced couple tries to untangle the dense knot of their shared life—around children, house ownership, finances, pets, possessions, friends, appliances, and daily routines—they remember the marriage’s good qualities, just as people will forget about a toothache when they’re at the dentist’s door.

They realize that the financial toll of divorce can be devastating, from lawyers to the establishment of two new households.  Just think about it:  you’ll need a new television, frying pan, dish towels, vacuum cleaner…. It adds up.

There must be a better way—a hybrid between a real marriage and a real divorce.

I don’t mean separation, which is more like a legally-mandated rest stop on the well-marked path to divorce. I also don’t mean that brittle chestnut of “sticking it out [grimly] for the children,” but sacrificing your happiness to do so.

The third way is a companionate, custodial marriage—a custodial marriage over a household, finances, and childrearing. It maintains a stable, amiable household for the children for a few years longer, while spouses move into their post-marriage lives. I talk about this in my book, with the pioneering breed of divorced co-habitators.

There’s no illusion that the third way will last forever, or that it’s anything more than a realistic compromise. But realistic compromises are what life often invites us to make. Some spouses would consider it a reasonable compromise, if only it didn’t seem so off-brand and weird, to be “sort of married.”

Could you still maintain a household even if you weren’t living like “real” spouses—for example, if you were still married, but didn’t sleep together, or have romantic intimacy, and you spent time apart, too?

You know those family bumper stickers that show the census of the mini-van’s family, down to the pets?  There’s no sticker to illustrate exactly what your family situation is. Maybe it would be you on one side, your semi-ex-spouse on the other side, the children in the middle, in your shared house, and, off in a separate circle somewhere, another partner.

You’d be moving from spouse to close roommate, co-parent, and friend. In some ways, you’d have a part-time marriage, with one foot in and one foot out.

Psychologically, it would require imagination, trust and tolerance. Admittedly, those are three qualities that the unraveling marriage might already have lost. You’d have to have overcome phases of jealousy, resentment, and acrimony. You’d have to be at that place that many exes reach eventually, when they’re nonplussed by their spouse’s new lives, wish them the best, and remember the good things.

You’d have to be willing to give each other some of the freedoms of divorced people in this halfway marriage, even if you maintained an entangled, still-married life in other ways. 

You’d need to be able to deal with the anxiety of social confusion that your situation presents. You’re trailblazing. You won’t find your story in the “Self Improvement” section, where I’m embarrassed to say that my book has been hilariously mis-shelved (if you see it there, please rescue it by buying it).  

But that’s not a “real marriage,” you might say. True, it’s not, by the prevailing romantic litmus test that a real marriage encompass a sex life, romantic intimacy, childrearing, financial partnership, “best friend” camaraderie, a shared social life, and joint accountancy, all in one package, and house. But who’s to say that this is what real marriage has to mean in the next decades, or century?

In a recent Sunday talk show appearance, David Brooks used a fascinating term to describe young people’s lives: He said that they’re “underinstitutionalized.” This strikes me as very apt. Young people don’t join corporations right out of college, or bowling leagues or civic clubs, nor do they join the institution of marriage early in life.

We can look at this underinstitutionalization and say that young people have failed at marriage. Or, we can look at it and wonder if the institution of marriage has failed them, in the sense that our expectations, ideals, and standards for marriage haven’t kept pace with the breathtaking changes in men’s and women’s lives since the 1950s.

In our rhetoric, there’s no institution more box-loving than marriage. And now that the institution appears to be waning, some recommend that we crawl deeper into the box, and double down on traditional notions of marriage in order to save it.

In contrast, the third way between marriage and divorce—a true companionate, co-parenting marriage—is just one example of how marriage might survive by adaptive eccentricity. 

So when in crisis, a dose of creative weirdness might keep you together, if part of you still wants to be. And, in the long run, it might fortify the institution of marriage. 

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