The New Definition of Marriage: It's All About Me, Me Me -- or Is It?

7 years ago

Marriage is in the news again. This time, the focus is on commitment -- or, more specifically, how to stay married once you are married. The newest idea is “self-expansion," the concept that your level of commitment to your marriage may depend on how much your partner “enhances your life and broadens your horizons.” No longer is marriage about shared goals. Now it’s all about you, you, you, or rather, what you do for me, me, me.

Father and his son washing dishes in the kitchen sink

Perhaps it is a reflection of our narcissistic society. You know, the one that makes us all eager to tell our stories in blogs, on Facebook and via Twitter. (Oh and yes, feel free to consider me guilty, guilty, guilty.) When most of our days are spent telling the world the most incidental of our thoughts and activities, when the very idea of self-expansion depends on a rapt audience, it is no surprise that we expect our marriages to enhance us. But if I am waiting for my partner to constantly expand me, what happens on those days when he doesn’t? What happens when we barely see each other, because we are busy driving our kids to one activity and the next or when we work late or when we are too tired to even grunt an “I love you,” before we tumble into bed? If modern marriage relies on individual self-actualization, we are in for a rude awakening.

I wonder, do marriages really fail because they need constant stimulation? Sounds like a video game definition of commitment to me. When I was a younger -- much younger -- I spent my days watching TV, and in many ways, what I saw formed my idea of marriage. These were the days of The Brady Bunch and The Waltons. TV marriages weren’t about self-actualization. They were about cooperative management. Mike and Carol Brady, like John and Olivia Walton, weren’t worrying about their individual fulfillment. They didn’t have time. They were busy raising their children and running a household, which included deeply exciting activities like doing the laundry, making lunches and caring for sick kids. Oh yeah, and earning a living so they could clothe, feed and house said kids. The most important part? These couples did all of this together. (Yeah, I know deep inside a gendered environment but still...)

In truth, I don’t buy the latest marital theories, because they don’t take into account a very real trend: the deeply engaged father. Modern men want to be more involved in the raising of their children and are already involved more than ever in housework. This new manhood has resonating implications for marriage and gender roles. A recent article in the New York Times reported that “Men are facing the same clash of social ideals that women have faced since the 1970s — how do you be a good parent and a good worker?” Another article about trends in fatherhood indicated that “many men no longer want to be identified just by their jobs.” If men want to be more than simply providers, then their engagement will undoubtedly lead to more marriages based on cooperative management.

Or perhaps, this sea change in male behavior really will lead to marriages that broaden our individual horizons. Columnist Will Wright recently wrote, “I was a manly man. Then I got married. Little did I know that my wedding day would be my last day as a man. From this point on I was something else -- not quite a man, definitely not a woman, but something in between -- a husband....Am I less of a man than I was? Yes. But I'm more of a person. And that makes me a better man.”

Some marriages don’t include children. These marriages truly can use the concept of self-expansion as a foundation for commitment. Other marriages, if they can stick together long enough to launch the kids, have the freedom to do so as well. Sure I’m jealous. I’d love my husband to help expand my horizons but until he has the time to do so, I am thrilled that he and I agree on our shared goals of being the best parents we can be, together. Henry Fonda playing Frank Beardsley in the 1968 version of Yours, Mine, and Ours couldn’t have said it better, “Life isn’t a love-in, it’s the dishes, the orthodontist, and the shoe repairman. It’s ground round instead of roast beef. It’s getting up in the morning and facing the drab, miserable, wonderful everyday world with (your spouse) that counts.” For now, at our house, that definition of marital commitment will have to do.

What are your secrets to a committed marriage? Blogger Roe thinks having fun together is the key to a happy marriage. Joanne Goddard argues that a good partner is selfless, “A key to a good marriage is trying your best to focus on what your significant other needs you to be to him, instead of what you want him to be to you. Blogger Trula shares her ideas on what a healthy marriage looks like. She says some beautiful things but the best of all: “He feels like my home.” If that isn’t the definition of commitment, I don’t know what is.

Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you? Lisen

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