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How to make marriage work

During today's guest spot Lynn Toler is joing the conversation to talk about her book, Making Marriage Work: New Rules For An Old Institution." 

Lynn Toler brings to the table her 22 years of marriage and her experience as a long-time judge on Divorce Court, a nationally syndicated TV show. According to Lynn a problem that couples face today is that of technology. 

Be sure to tune in at 3pm for the full conversation and below find an excerpt from her book. 


It Was Never There

Whenever some number cruncher finds a new way to quantify the decaying state of marriage, I end up fielding phone calls from all manner of people who ask me the very same thing: “Why,” they inquire incredulously, “can’t people stay married anymore?”

Of course, there is no single answer to that question. The trip from soul mates to sworn enemies is almost always a circuitous one, littered with an endless array of detours, forks in the road, and better paths not taken. Most couples that end up in divorce court get there in a way that is unique to them. But, the individual nature of marriage notwithstanding, the dramatic rise in the divorce rate over the past fifty years indicates that we clearly have some systemic concerns.

Some say that marriage is in trouble because we are no longer willing to do the work the institution requires. Marriage involves compromise, sacrifice, and—on occasion—a bit of suffering. But in a society that places such a high premium on happiness and immediate gratification, the great patience that a good marriage requires has lost a lot of its appeal, they argue. Add that to no-fault divorce laws that have taken the phrase “for better or for worse” out of the marriage vows and replaced it with “it better be better or I’m out,” and we have the perfect recipe for the high divorce rate upon which we currently dine.

Others say the problem is the secularization of marriage. They say that as soon as we lost sight of God as the center of the institution, we lost the ability to maintain successful marriages. In the absence of moral absolutes, marriage is no longer a prerequisite for either sex or child bearing. They claim this has created a crisis of culture that doesn’t give the institution a chance. In the shadow of that argument lurks a quiet condemnation of feminism. As soon as those women walked out of the kitchen, some hiss, the whole thing fell apart.

And then there are those who simply believe that marriage is obsolete. In fact, there is a small but growing orchestra out there playing a requiem for the institution. They contend that marriage is no longer necessary because most of the reasons why we used to value it don’t exist anymore. Historically, marriage has created stability and increased our chances of survival. It has served to clarify relationships, assign obligations, secure status, construct alliances, move money, and conform to religious tenets. It has also been used to help identify with greater accuracy, if not with complete certainty, which kids belonged to what guy.

But now we mostly marry for love. Women, legally equal and economically able, are no longer required to land a man in order to survive. The genders have grown independent of one another as never before. Why, we now ask ourselves, should I surrender so much of what I want in order to receive in return something I can do for myself? If I can’t find a soul mate who completes me, what do I need with a man if I am financially independent? Why do I need to marry a woman when I can have both sex and children without making any commitment at all?

Others contend that we can’t stay married because we now enter marriage for all the wrong reasons. Focused as we are on falling in love and having a special wedding day, we don’t look past how we feel long enough to truly appreciate the seriousness of the commitment. This particular theory has been around ever since romantic love caught on as the principal basis for marriage back in the 1600s. Conservatives of the day worried that as soon as we started basing something as important as marriage on how we felt, the entire institution was doomed to crash in a ball of misdirected romantic fire.

So the question still remains: Why can’t we stay married anymore? Are the seventeenth-century predictions simply coming true? Have we progressed to the point where we have rendered the institution obsolete? Or have we elevated our expectations of marriage so much that it is no longer capable of meeting them? Is it feminism, laziness, the legal landscape, or the loss of God that has taken an institution that thrived for centuries and turned it—in the span of 50 years—into an anachronism?

I think you can make a convincing argument for almost all of the above. And I am sure there are other popular theories out there that I failed to mention. Whatever the case, I never have time to exhaust the panoply of theories when someone calls to ask me why. Instead, I offer this: “Marriage”—of the kind that everyone idolizes, that seems to be collapsing all around us, that everyone thinks we need to get back to—was never really there. There was never a time when marriage was entered into for love and couples stayed married because they were happy and fulfilled. Don’t get me wrong: I am sure many marriages in the 1950s (which seems to be the period most people hold up as the gold standard for getting it right) were good marriages. But whether or not they were really didn’t matter; those people, for the most part, were stuck. Divorces were harder to get—they required cause, they were socially frowned upon, and there was the small matter of a woman’s ability to support herself after. Many couples remained married because getting out was just not a viable option. That’s why what worked 50 years ago won’t work now. Freedoms gained are rarely relinquished. What once was available and desirable in a different age simply doesn’t apply anymore. That doesn’t mean marriage is obsolete; it just means that it must change. We need to stop pouting about what we can’t go back to and construct something new.

Marriage has been around for thousands of years. It has bent and shook and shifted to meet the necessities of place and time. The problem is that the world has changed so rapidly of late that marriage hasn’t had time to catch up. Our society no longer changes in the slow, plodding manner of the past. We now exchange information and ideas at lightning speed. Legal, social, and moral absolutes have shifted, been lifted, or simply disappeared. In their place we now have an endless array of options. We are incredibly mobile and unbelievably self-actualized. Compared to the way we used to work and live just a hundred years ago, we have copious amounts of free time and unparalleled access to things that give us immediate gratification. We now have the time and social permission to ponder what we want, ruminate on how we feel, and ask ourselves, “Am I happy?”

Despite these sweeping changes, we haven’t rethought marriage in any significant way. Once an institution of obligation, it is now one of choice. No longer arranged, mandated, or simply the only game in town, today marriage is something we do simply because we have fallen in love. Formerly a legal fortress difficult to escape, these days it’s something we can walk away from any time we please. Since we changed the reasons we get into it and obliterated most of the obstacles to getting out of it, the institution may look and sound the same, but it’s fairly new. But we haven’t changed how we approach it. We keep reaching back for old-school solutions to modern-day problems, because we liked the old-school divorce rate. That’s like trying to fix a Prius with parts from a Model T.

I contend that marriage, though under pressure and, increasingly, out of favor, remains a viable institution. We are social creatures who rely on one another for our survival. We pair up and we procreate. We have been doing it for thousands of years and we are not going to stop now. I contend that a workable marriage is still the best means by which to get that done. It stabilizes and secures our ultimately undeniable desire to do what nature requires.

And when I say marriage, I am not just talking about the license. A piece of paper alone will not make an otherwise untenable pairing functional and worthwhile. The county clerk’s signature has no mystical power to infuse stability into a lifetime of challenges. Marriage is a mindset. It is all about perspective. It is a commitment of such magnitude that it demands great ceremony, enormous thought, and legal recognition. Marriage is a symbol of how serious two people ought to be about the decision to join not just two lives, but two families, two futures, and two gene pools. If you say it before the world, solemnize it, set it down on paper, and change your legal status, you are demonstrating the commitment necessary to establish a unit that serves as the center of society and the base of operations for the generation to come. It is not something, as the vows say, to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly. It is, in fact, a huge freakin’ deal and it ought to be treated as such.

This book does not pretend to proffer an easy five-step process to happily ever after. Nor does it seek to return us to where we were. I am neither so arrogant nor so delusional as to believe that any how-to book can stem the tide created by the national divorce tsunami. No one person can advise an entire nation in a manner that will rescue an institution that now fails almost as frequently as it succeeds.

Yet, here’s the thing: While the state of marriage and the rate of divorce are concerns of national significance, your problems are nonetheless local. You don’t have to fix the world in order to fix what is going on in your own house. Certainly you must be aware of the pressures and challenges you are presented with these days. But I contend that once you are armed with that information, you have the ability to manage the challenges in a way that works for you.

One thing that I find remarkable about human nature is our ability to decide. We can think past instinct. We can consciously reverse course. We can acknowledge that what we are doing isn’t working and figure out a way to do something else. Unlike other animals that function solely on brute strength and instinct, we think. Well, at least we do on occasion. We make decisions. We have choices.

I am asking you to make a decision now. I am asking you to decide that marriage matters enough to struggle a bit before your throw up your hands and walk away. But I am not just saying “try harder”; I intend to tell you how to make it work.

But before we can get to how to do it, though, I have got to get you to believe you can do it. One of the reasons I hate to be asked why we can’t stay married anymore is that in the creases of that question lay so much frustration and resignation. We are awash in a sea of alarming revelations about the state of marriage. And you can deny it all you want, but I think a lot of us are just plain scared. You can’t watch something so central to human life for most of history start to fall apart and think nothing of it. Nor can you read what seems to be the never-ending stream of divorce horror stories and remain cool about the commitment.

My concern is that when we read the daily divorce doom-and-gloom data we feed the emotional knee-jerk reaction to just give up when things get tough because, after all, the statistics say it probably won’t work anyway. We keep repeating, “The divorce rate is rising” and “The marriage rate is dropping” like they are weather patterns we can do nothing about.

As contradictory as this might seem, I believe we can get closer to living the marriage fantasy by accepting the fact that the fairytale does not exist. We are not rudderless ships in the swell created by a sinking institution. In order to make this old institution work in this new day and age, we need to take the best of what was, acknowledge the challenges that exist, and create something new. Once we removed all the stuff that used to cement marriages together, it ceased to be a state of being and became a process. We need to accept that, and accommodate the changes in social circumstances, absorb the aftershocks of unparalleled technological advances, and create a marriage scenario that functions well—not for everyone, but for you and yours.

We can replace the glue that used to keep marriages together with a greater understanding of how we each work. We can revel in the joy of romantic love, but still be practical in its application. In modern-day marriage, love is king. But, as in all of life, practicality is queen. And I believe it is time to show Her Highness some respect.



The Underlying Principles

RULE NUMBER 1.1: Decide to be consciously married.

Think of marriage as a two-year-old who we want to let go outside. Fifty years ago we had legal, social, and moral fences that kept that kid in the backyard. Over time we took the fences down, one by one. Yet we still have the nerve to be shocked when we look up and find the child has left the grounds. Of course he’s gone. All the things we relied on to rein him in have been removed and we haven’t made any deliberate effort to replace them with anything else.

Now that containment is no longer the answer, we need to engage in active parenting. You have to keep that two-year-old appropriately engaged and directed. You cannot take your eyes off of him and let him wander too far away from you. That means you have to start working on your marriage the very second after you say “I do.” You have to put procedures into place to address what we know about the biological realities of love and the social realities of life today. You have to pursue a passion that keeps your attention while you are out back.

In other words, you have to be consciously married. It is no longer a state of being, something you can just enter into and let it rest where it is. It is that toddler who needs constant attention designed to keep him happy, occupied, and safe.

RULE NUMBER 1.2: Respect the biology.

Being consciously married requires you to deal with all of the facts, the first being that romantic love is a chemical reaction of the most outrageous kind. The brain in love releases a whole cascade of chemicals that work like narcotics. It sends dopamine to the very same place in your head where cocaine sets up house when it gets you high. When love first strikes, women begin to release higher levels of oxytocin, which engenders a sense of well-being when they see their partners. This coincides with the release of vasopressin in men, which causes them to have a laser-like focus on the object of their desire. The levels of other sex hormones in both men and women begin to mimic one another in a way that allows the opposite genders to feel more in tune.

I am not saying that love is not humanity’s greatest gift and highest achievement. I do not think that our love for one another is any less remarkable and meaningful than all of the women’s magazines say it is. What I am saying is that love is not without explanation. It has a physical basis that will evolve in time, and you have to get next to that. There is a whole new brain thing that happens several years in, for people who can make the leap. You can light up entirely different parts of your brain with a more mature kind of love—but you have to work in order to help move that love from one part of your brain to the other.

RULE NUMBER 1.3: Do your homework.

You know how some couples spend more than a year planning their wedding day? For months they pick colors, taste cakes, look for dresses, choose bridal parties, peruse venues, and listen to bands. It is a lot of work, and an incredible number of people are more than happy to do it.

Can you imagine what would happen if you put that kind of thoughtful planning into the marriage itself? What if you were to speak with your partner, at length, about how each of you grew up and how that affects your view of marriage? What if you talked about your in-laws openly and frankly in an effort to anticipate the complexities that joining two families can bring? What do you think would happen if you two were honest about the small annoyances that, to date, you have been all too willing to ignore—not to complain about them, but to make the adjustments you both need to make in order to live together harmoniously?

What if you went to marriage counseling to find out what you might not know about each other, or about the institution of marriage itself? What would happen if you actually sat down with pen and paper and talked about money: what’s going in, what’s going out, and what you both need in order to be happy? What might happen if you took a class on problem solving to help you deal with those things on which you will eventually, and inevitably, not agree?

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. The bottom line is this: It is easier to work the ups and downs of marriage if you have a better idea of what to expect, and some agreed-on way to approach the dips. Education and preparation: You do it for school, and you do it for work. Is marriage any less important? It certainly isn’t any easier.

RULE NUMBER 1.4: Replace once-common enemies with common passions.

Technological, scientific, and medical advances have eliminated several common enemies couples once had to fight together in order to survive. At the same time, these advances have introduced us to a multitude of seductive alternatives to our remaining common problems. A lot of what held marriages together back in the day was the couple’s need for one another. Life spans were shorter. The specter of now-curable diseases loomed large. Couples rode out economic crises, famine, and such without governmental safety nets. When you had a child with a disability, you were on your own. Births were many; infant and maternal mortality rates were high. The flu killed 3 million people in the United States in 1917. Many people made their living doing manual labor. They didn’t have the time or energy to assess whether their marriage was happy and fulfilling, let alone the means with which to explore other options.

We still struggle, certainly, but the nature of those struggles has changed, as has our access to alternatives. Once mere survival became less consuming, we gained the luxury of time to think about what we want and the means by which to get it—new things that may or may not involve the spouse.

If you are married today, you have to give yourself reasons to want to stay together. Seek out common joys and pleasures that bind and satisfy you both. If you are trying to feed starving children in Africa, climb a mountain, or simply engage in social or philanthropic activities you both enjoy, these bring you together. They are common pursuits. They bind you.