One-Size-Fits-All Marriage Model Fails to Bind

It’s built into our psyches. How could it not be, with marriage – and the implied happy-ever-after – concluding every literary and cinematic romantic tale? And then there’s the return of the elaborate, often white wedding, costing on average (based on 2004 figures) $36,234. Social research shows it, too. We, as a nation, particularly those in our dotage, and those in our thirties, believe in the institution of marriage.

Our divorce rate only confirms this, if you consider that 56% of Australian men, and 45% of women have, or eventually will, tie the knot again.

So are we idealists or mugs?

My verdict is mugs. Yes, the one-size-fits-all definition of marriage as a lifelong romantic union of choice with “the one” person able to meet our every emotional, intellectual and sexual need suits some. But for others it is a recipe for disaster.

I can count the number of happy couples I know – or knew – on a single digit. But for many the dissatisfactions are not global, but particular, boiling down to malcontent in one key area, with the remaining fundamentals solid. Despite this, and often amid cries of “don’t go for second best” and “you deserve better,” one or both partners will call it quits. In the aftermath, many will blame themselves for failing to be for their partner, or to have found in them, their everything.

But are we failing at marriage, or is marriage failing us? If we stopped blaming ourselves for failing to suit marriage, and started asking why marriage doesn’t better suit us, would more of us stay together?

I say, “yes”. Marriage was designed to serve a number of purposes, but most relevant to 21st century Australians is that of raising children. Research suggests that unless there is violence, children do better in intact families than divorced ones, even when parents fight. The reasons for this are complex, but include the financial advantages of two-parent households, and the dramas caused by divorce, and parental dating and re-partnering which may distract children from focusing on – and parents from supporting – their project of growing up.

We all have needs, some of which reflect at the most fundamental level who we are, what we value and what we require to flourish. For some, abandoning hope of having those needs met to maintain the marriage for the children’s’ sake seems desperately old-fashioned and unfair. And so the divorce.

The alternative – rarely discussed – is to renegotiate the marriage contract. Key to such a process is the acknowledgement that the inability of the relationship to meet all the needs of both partners is the fault of neither, but the result of the inflexible, impersonal and unrealistic demands of the institution of marriage itself.

For some, the freedom to negotiate the individual conditions required to sustain the relationship could save the relationship in the long-term, or at least until the kid leave home. While each individualised marital contract will be different, mutual respect, attendance to parental obligations and the primacy of the marital relationship over extra-marital ones would be likely bottom-line conditions in most.

It may be that some people continue to opt for the standard “you are my everything” marriage deal. But for others, tailored contracts with the flexibilities required by the individuals involved could make the difference between the despair that leads to divorce – with all its misery for children – and the contentment that allows couples to stay together.

Publication history

Moralmaze: One-Size-Fits-All Marriage Model Fails to Bind  The Sun-Herald