In today's society, marriage happens when two people (usually a man and a woman) fall in love and decide to spend the rest of their lives together in monogamy. But did you know that wasn't always the case? In fact, the modern version of marriage emerged a mere couple of hundred years ago. In the past, marriage rarely involved love (most marriages were arranged based on income and social status), and the majority of societies allowed and expected plural marriages, with either multiple wives or multiple husbands.
Clearly the concept of marriage has changed greatly over the years. And with today's rate of divorce between 40 and 50 percent, coupled with the prevalence of adultery in many marriages, perhaps it's time for the concept of marriage to continue to evolve. According to Associated Press, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 41 percent of spouses admit to infidelity, either physical or emotional. This leads me to ask, "Are we really supposed to be with just one person our whole life? And if not, must we get re-married five times? Are there alternative ways to perceive and participate in a marriage that will guarantee its success?"
Adultery May Be Inevitable
Hundreds of years ago, life expectancy was a fraction of what it is today. When two people in their 20s got married, it was quite possible that one of the two would be deceased within 10-15 years -- often much sooner. Today, however, that same young couple could be together for 60 or more years! Is it realistic to think that two people could be emotionally, mentally, physically and sexually compatible for that long? I've known several marriages that last that long, and a few even look happy, which is great. However, they're few and far between.
Don't get me wrong... I'm not condoning adultery as we know it, because I'm not strictly talking about sex. But because it is so taboo, when you consider the historical context of marriage, isn't being shocked by adultery a bit of an overreaction?
Of course, no one can deny that when you lie and do something behind another person's back, you are doing something wrong. You're breaking an agreement, and that lacks integrity. You're breaking trust with the other person, which is most definitely hurtful. But in the course of a long term relationship, taking into account the practical realities of our human need to experience life on our own, or through experiences with other platonic or romantic relationships, perhaps a new kind of conversation can unfold with your spouse or partner where you jointly communicate your needs and set reasonable and practical parameters of what is and isn't allowed in your marriage, so the negative and hidden behaviors associated with adultery don't take place.
A Lesson From the Japanese
The Japanese culture, which views marriage as vital for social status, not something you do for love, has a booming adultery industry. Online adultery site Ashley Madison says Japan was the fastest country to reach 1 million users, and the ratio of women to men on the site is about two-to-one.
I worked in Japan off and on for nearly a decade and often heard people say that marriage was more of a business and didn't encompass the whole being. Men would say, "I got married because you have to marry to be respected as a man. You can't get a job in a good company if you're not married." Similarly, women often said, "If you're a woman and you're not married, it looks bad on you, it's hard to fit in, and you can't have children or you and your child will be shamed." As a result, many people in Japan get married to anyone, whether they're attracted to them or not, because in that culture marriage makes you legitimate, which is true in many cultures. In fact, I once asked several men why they regularly visited hostess clubs (night clubs that employ female staff to act like "rent-a-girlfriends" to men), and they all said similar sentiments: "My wife is cool with it. That's our culture. She doesn't love me either. She's thrilled that I'm gone and I'm not bugging her for sex or company." Clearly, in the Japanese culture, the concept of marriage is viewed very differently than the widely held beliefs of it in the West, showing that marriage cannot be a one-size-fits-all concept.
An Evolving View of Marriage
Since marriage has evolved so much over the ages, and different cultures have different views of it even today, perhaps it's time for the age-old institution to evolve yet again. Maybe the tenets of a successful marriage should not be whether the couple stays monogamous for decades, but rather whether the couple openly communicates about what their unique marriage will look like, what will be deemed acceptable and what will not, and then honoring that joint decision.
For example, most couples that end up on my couch say that they have fallen into complacency. One or both people in the relationship have checked out, but they don't want to divorce for the sake of their children. Or they still love each other, valuing each other as a support system and as close friends, but don't feel sexual toward one another. Or one partner feels the need for solitude to work on themself, separate from the responsibilities required in a relationship. In any of these cases, they're all frustrated by the limitations put upon them by the traditional expectations of marriage.
I always tell my clients to create a vision plan of what they want their marriage to look like and what they'd both be okay with. This will enable their relationship to grow within the confines of how they, as a unique couple, define marriage. One of my couples took a year off; another couple decided to live separately but stay BFF's because they enjoyed each other's friendship, but the passion died. And guess what eventually happened to both couples? They ended up back together again because they had breathing room and felt that simply having the freedom to do what they wanted shifted their energy back to their original partner. Sometimes, as the saying goes, "absence makes the heart grow fonder." But perhaps "abstinence" could be an appropriate substitution in that statement?