Meet. Marry. Move On.
When you're looking for a soul mate, why let a spouse slow you down? There's a new emphasis in marriages on emotional togetherness, a standard some relationships just cannot meet. Good thing nobody bats an eye anymore when young, childless couples divorce.
At 24, Kathryn Murphy had the life she thought she wanted: two Ivy League degrees, the beginnings of a promising career, and a marriage proposal from a man she adored. She had met him at a party in New York City soon after graduating from college and was instantly attracted to his intelligence, humor, and ambition. The couple ran the Boston Marathon together and planned adventures around the world. So when he presented her with a diamond ring after less than two years of dating, Murphy had no second thoughts. "You're 24 years old, and the guy you're in love with proposes with a big ring," she says over a snack at the Grafton Street Pub & Grill in Harvard Square, her face still flushed from yoga class. "Are you going to say no?"
Murphy and her fiance had a good reason to hurry into marriage: Her father was terminally ill. The couple pushed their original wedding date forward six months to make sure he could attend. But instead of the emotional security the energetic blonde says she was hoping for, once "the realities of life and marriage" set in, she found herself floundering. "I had never, ever been independent," she says. "I'd never been self-supporting. I sort of started to panic, like, 'Oh, my God. What happened to me?'" As the couple approached their fourth anniversary, Murphy, then working as a writer, realized she did not share her husband's vision for the future. He wanted, she says, to be "a cutting-edge academic researcher traveling around the world. Although I wanted to want that, really wanted more stability."
Instead of stability, she got more upheaval: The couple, who had already lived in Los Angeles and New Jersey, moved to Boston for her husband's career. "Any sense of my 'self,' which really hadn't had a chance to develop yet, was gone," Murphy remembers. "Maybe I was too young to know how to be in a partnership while still being myself."
Acknowledging that their marriage was in trouble, the pair followed all the prescribed steps: They sought counseling; they talked, and talked some more. But the process only fed Murphy's misery and her conviction that they would not be compatible in the long run. Murphy says she and her husband "looked at each other and said, 'We're young, we don't have kids. Let's cut our losses.' " They separated five years after their wedding and divorced a year later, when Murphy was 30.
Newly single, she veered away from writing and toward the more lucrative field of law, so she would be able to support herself comfortably. Now 33, Murphy is remarried, has finished her second year of law school, and is expecting her first baby this month. "I believe in marriage," she says. "If it doesn't work, I don't believe that means you have to be with the wrong person or be miserable for the rest of your life. I don't believe the intention of marriage is to make you unhappy."
What the intention of marriage is has been a matter of national debate, especially since Massachusetts became the first state to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But now the reasons that male-female couples marry are in flux - especially among Murphy's peers. Academics, therapists, and divorce attorneys say that for young, childless couples where both parties are educated, employed, and capable of financial independence, emotional fulfillment tends to outrank other reasons to get married to a degree that would have been almost unimaginable for their parents or grandparents. Today, emotional fulfillment may be the only reason to marry - and the lack of it can mean the end of a marriage.
Divorce at 20 or 30 isn't new, and the numbers of failed first marriages have remained fairly constant for the last 30 years; about one in five couples will experience separation or divorce within five years of marriage. And true love, of course, has always been the ideal - think Jane Austen or Romeo and Juliet. But Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who studies marriage and family life, says that changing domestic economics - specifically, the rise of two-income families - is causing a shift in what couples are looking for when they enter a marriage. "Three or four decades ago, you had to be married to make it" both financially and emotionally, he says. Now, the choice is "a matter of personal happiness," Cherlin says. It used to be that a union was judged by how well it fulfilled both parties' economic and social needs, while today, young people judge the success of a marriage by how well it fulfills their emotional needs.
What has also changed in the last 30 or 40 years is that many of the traditional perquisites of marriage - shared household expenses, children, sex - are no longer tied to a marriage license. So when young people, often already living together, decide to get that piece of paper, they expect it to transport them to a higher emotional plane. And when that doesn't happen, they leave - facing little stigma and with few regrets.
A HAPPY, EMOTIONALLY FULFILLING MARRIAGE IS, OF COURSE, A good thing for society and for the individuals involved. But therapists and divorce lawyers who work with young couples (and young former couples) see downsides to this narrowing in marriage's focus. The most obvious one is that almost no one is happy all the time, and people who expect instant, permanent bliss will be disappointed. "We have a society that tells us that things need to be perfect in order to be acceptable," says Stephen Howard. A divorce attorney at K&L Gates in Boston, he estimates that about a third of his clients are childless couples in their 20s and 30s. "You have to have the perfect car, the perfect house, the perfect job, the perfect husband or wife," Howard says. "If people perceive that some aspect of their life is not perfect, they get into self-doubt." The doubting person's marriage, he explains, "unwinds from there."
The second hazard is missing the difference between having a happy marriage and looking to that marriage as the primary source of one's happiness. Jeffrey McIntyre, a couples therapist in Cambridge, believes that young couples often run into difficulty because they don't cultivate enough community involvement or friendships outside their marriages. "As our culture has become more fragmented and isolated in the last 20 years," McIntyre says, "we've loaded up all of our intimate relationships and partnerships with huge expectations that this person is going to take care of everything."
I've never been married, but in the long relationships I've had, there's always been a stretch when we wanted to spend every weekend minute together, followed by another stretch when we did so out of habit. Being part of a couple means having a social safety net: Even if you never get around to anything more ambitious than Chinese takeout on a Friday night, it seems not to matter the way it does when you're eating spare ribs solo. But there's a difference between enjoying the comfort of being part of a couple and suddenly realizing that your other social connections aren't quite as strong as they once were, a shift that married friends - and McIntyre - assure me becomes even more challenging once the knot is tied.
McIntyre has firsthand experience of looking to one person to fill multiple needs: His wife, Nancy Miriam Hawley, is also his business partner. Hawley says their practice has seen an increase in the number of young couples seeking therapy not because they're fighting or have radically different ideas about, say, money or children, but because they're simply not in love anymore. Perhaps most bewildering, these couples are surprised that the passion hasn't lasted.
For Arden Reamer, an upbeat, dark-haired MBA from Brookline, a lack of passion led to separation after just 20 months of marriage, when she was 30 years old. "It didn't go wrong all at once," she says, then corrects herself. "It never went wrong. But I changed. I felt that I wasn't as connected to this man romantically and passionately." Reamer, now 36, and her former husband first bonded around their shared love of hiking, bicycling, and the outdoors. But she felt something missing emotionally, and the absence became more pronounced as time passed. She describes her ex as "very independent but distant," much more distant than she wanted him to be.
Still, the couple tried counseling. "It was about trying to work on the relationship and really trying to be with him, but my romantic feelings were gone," says Reamer, a former financial analyst. She says that by the time she and her ex-husband reached counseling, "there was too much resentment built up." She adds: "I didn't feel like I wanted to start a family with him. He was my best friend, but I didn't feel in love with him anymore." While she believes her ex assessed their marriage in a similar light, she says that his attitude toward divorce was markedly different. "My guess is he felt very stuck with [the marriage], but he wanted to stay together," she says. "I felt I was starting a new decade of my life, and I wanted more for myself." When the couple split, "I felt numb," Reamer recalls. After several years of dating and single life, Reamer remarried last year and had a baby, whom she is caring for full time. She says she believes she has found what a marriage should be: "intimacy, partnership, passion, and attraction."
IT MAY BE EASY TO SHAKE YOUR HEAD AT young couples that split up quickly, to mutter under your breath that perhaps they ought to have worked out their true feelings before they promised before God or a justice of the peace to stick things out when the going got tough. It's tempting to dismiss them as self-absorbed and say that of course no relationship is as exciting and spark-filled after six years as it was after six months. But none of the divorced people interviewed for this article went to the altar with the idea of divorce as a mental escape hatch. Instead, they spoke of a pressure to marry that is every bit as intense as it was in the 1950s, albeit for different reasons.
"When everyone had to marry, it wasn't special," says Cherlin, the Johns Hopkins sociologist. "Today, it distinguishes you more. It sets you apart more from everybody else." Marriage, in other words, has become a luxury rather than a necessity - the lifestyle equivalent of a Jaguar convertible - and the desire to marry is closely linked to the desire for achievement. "Marriage," says Cherlin, "is a symbol of the good life." Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is highlighting his long marriage as part of his presidential campaign. Getting hitched gets celebrities onto the covers of magazines.
For young people, the desire to feel part of the success story can be a recipe for hasty decisions. "I think many young people get married because they feel like it's the next step of what you should do in life," says Greg Jutkiewicz, 28, a summer camp director from Ashland whose marriage led to separation after only 15 months. In a cramped office filled with images of smiling teens and children, he reflects on how a relationship that was once on a fast track to marriage is now making the slower, more painful transition from separation to divorce. "It was really important for her to be married and to be engaged," he says of his soon-to-be ex-wife. "It was something she really wanted, and she wanted it quickly."
He says he got caught up in the hype, too. Compact and dark-haired, Jutkiewicz speaks slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. He now wishes he and his ex - who were 26 and 25 when they tied the knot - had spent their engagement discussing their relationship more and the wedding's color scheme less. "We were on different pages with a lot of things," he remembers. Still, Jutkiewicz was startled and hurt when his wife announced that she wanted out of the marriage.
He believes she became dissatisfied because she had expected the state of being married to transform their relationship - to turn Jutkiewicz into a guy who spends a lot of time at home, as opposed to the way he describes himself: a guy who "has no problem working for 23 hours a day and sleeping for one."
The idea that marriage will be transformative and a source of unparalleled emotional fulfillment is attractive in a Holy Grail kind of way. Last summer, I attended a lovely wedding in which the groom made a speech to the bride in front of guests. He told her he'd spent his single days trying to find someone perfect, only to eventually find someone "better than perfect." The moment spoke to something I've noticed at other friends' weddings. Instead of a brief exchange of vows, many couples are also delivering testimonials about the quality of their relationship. Wedding websites that tell the story of the marriage proposal, often in intimate detail, have become commonplace.
"People want to show off when they get married," says Cherlin. "They want to display their marriage to their friends." Increasingly, the theme of the display seems to be the quality of the romantic connection.
WHILE TWENTY-SOMETHINGS WANT EMOTIONAL fulfillment from their marriages, they also see attaining that happiness as an important life achievement. As a result, divorce can inspire feelings of failure akin to a job loss, along with a broken heart. "I think when you've always been sort of a success-driven person, it's difficult to admit that you failed at something," says Kathryn Murphy, the law student. "Society rewards you for certain things. It's like: 'You got married - check!'" Her divorce meant she had to "uncheck that box" - a process that meant reevaluating the rest of her life plan, too.
Still, she discovered that the sense of failure she felt after her divorce was almost exclusively internal. Murphy's friends and family supported her decision, and she found almost no stigma attached to her divorced status when she started dating again. Reamer, too, was pleasantly surprised. She can't recall a single suitor looking askance.
It seems that as happiness has become the central goal of marriage, the taint surrounding divorce has waned. "If marriage is based on personal fulfillment, it's hard to argue that an unfulfilled person should stay married," says Cherlin. "There's much less reason for other people to tell you to stay married."
Certainly, a space alien who looked at our magazine racks might assume women are supposed to don bridal veils every year or two, rather than once in a lifetime. Reese Witherspoon splits with her husband at 30, then shows up at the Oscars looking better than ever. A divorced Brad Pitt is embraced not just by Angelina and her brood, but by the world. Perhaps more significant, according to a February poll by the Pew Research Center, only 9 percent of voters would be less likely to vote for a divorced presidential candidate, whereas 39 percent would be less likely to vote for a candidate who admitted to an extramarital affair. If our expectations for our leaders mirror our hopes for ourselves, we prefer the honesty of divorce to a marriage held together at any cost.
In some social circles, divorce may even be an asset. Friends tell me that on the Internet, divorced men in their 30s or 40s without children often have better luck than their never-married peers because they've proved that they aren't afraid of commitment - never mind that they've also proved that they aren't afraid of ending a commitment. One of my friends prefers dating divorced men, because, as she puts it, "they've been broken in." She imagines such men have learned from their mistakes and have figured out how to have relationships.
There are no data to indicate whether an early divorce has any effect on either happiness or longevity in later marriages, but some of those who divorce young do feel an added pressure to get it right the second time around. I spent several years dating a man who had been married and divorced by his mid-20s. He used to joke that if you get divorced once, everybody will sympathize, but if you get divorced twice, the only person who will talk to you is Jerry Springer.
It is, perhaps, a peculiar distinction: If there's no stigma surrounding a first divorce, why should there be a stigma surrounding a second? Perhaps it's related to the desire for marriage to produce fulfillment: We can accept that people misjudge their own happiness once, but misjudging twice calls into question the efficacy of the new definition itself. And a generation that continues to strive toward marriage, and that knows it can have all the old trappings without that piece of paper, wants very much to believe in the happy ending.
Peter Nadeau, a museum exhibit designer from Somerville, has been divorced for eight years, but his eyes still tear up when he talks about his ex. He remembers her as a woman he traveled well with and was "very much in love with" in his 20s. An artist, he designed the engagement ring he had made for his bride. Nadeau, whose shoulder-length brown hair and earrings blend into the hipster crowd in Davis Square's Diesel Cafe, is now 37 and has lived with two girlfriends since his marriage, and ended a few relationships when the women began pushing for more. Divorce, he says, "taught me to take my time." His ex-wife wasn't the one. He loved her, yet "she didn't let me in" emotionally, he says. He has yet to find the person he feels confident will be a true "life partner."
As for the woman with whom he thinks he can find that elusive happiness? "Someone who knows who they are, is comfortable with themselves, is OK doing absolutely nothing sometimes and picking up at a moment's notice other times. Someone who enjoys being around people, is not afraid of the water, loves to cook, loves to eat." Nadeau holds up his hands and laughs, as if to point out the impossibility of accurately describing the woman of his dreams. "A life partner," he repeats. "That's what I'm going for."
Which takes me back to that wedding last summer. The "better than perfect" speech was a sweet moment, and I was happy for my friends. But afterward, another unmarried guest came over to talk. "Dating was hard enough when I felt like I had to find perfection," he said. "Now I feel like I have to top it!" He was kidding - mostly.
Alison Lobron writes regularly for the magazine's "Coupling" column. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.