Technology, gender roles, and work
definitions have changed immeasurably in the last century.
The mechanics of relationships, however, continue to
look very much the same.
There've been some minor allowances.
A June 1964 magazine
article in Life, then a major newsweekly, profiles
how Hollywood police closed gay hang outs near Santa Monica
One bar owner hung a sign in his bar "Fagots [sic] --
Stay Out!" This
behavior would be seen as reprehensible fifty years on.
Same sex marriage is now legal in twenty U.S. states,
Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Spain,
Sweden, and ten more countries, with still more inevitably
on the way. Miscegenation
laws were enforced in some U.S. states until 1967.
Nowadays, no one bats an eyelash spotting a Caucasian
married or dating an Asian, Black, or Hispanic.
Cohabitation, while not quite mainstream worldwide
yet, is readily accepted and considered a viable union in
some nations. In
Scandinavia, they have a real term for it besides "living
together," and there is no stigma propagating without being
legally married first.
Blended families are
I call these minor allowances, as major
as they may seem to the communities which benefited, because
all that's been done is to extend the accepted definition of
a union and its accouterments to once disenfranchised
alternative lifestyle communities.
What's considered proper and permitted within the
confines of these unions is about the same as it was a
hundred years ago.
Let's examine the typical wedding vow,
which wouldn't differ much if the union were between
homosexuals, heterosexuals, mixed races, or interplanetary
party vows to take the other as a faithful partner, for better or for worse, for richer, for
poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,
from this day forward until death do us part.
On the face, these are ideal wedding
vows for the ideal union, where people are able to pick
their truly ideal partners.
One person complements the other perfectly in every
way. I am sure
these vows originated in Europe sometime during the Romantic
period toward the end of the eighteenth century, a very
unromantic time except in name.
It's certainly a romantic ideal to live up to
person wouldn't want a partner whom s/he could consult for
business advice, to proofread his or her latest novel, polish stand
up comedy routines, tighten up business plans, trek through
national parks with, practice newfound language skills, cook
5-course gourmet feasts, and to have and to hold, love and
cherish, till death do us part?
Yet, in reality, I've seen few such
unions. In my
parents' generation and before, people got married a year or
two out of college.
Getting married was like mandatory military service.
Between such-and-such ages, you did it.
In modern day Korea and in India, you're expected to
be married by 30. In India, your parents will insure you're
married by arranging a suitable spouse.
You're not exiled if you don't tie the knot by that
age, but you will find yourself gradually marginalized as
you witness nearly all of your peers conforming to these
There was no arranged marriage
tradition or strict married-by-30 expectation where I grew
up, so, in theory anyway, people had the freedom to hold out
as long as they pleased.
They could wait until they met their ideal match for
which such romantic wedding vows could be apt.
In practice, it didn't really matter.
Everyone bows to societal convention to some degree.
At some point, for some reason, most settle for
what's in front of them and it falls far short of any romantic
I am not saying that most of these
individuals are locked into tortuously unhappy unions at any
one time. In
Does The Institution Of Marriage Belong In An Institution,
I said that marriage should be considered a
partnership of fulfillment and happiness profits.
In a freeish society where there's no stigma not
being married, I take it that most people are rational
enough to be happier within the union than outside of
it or else they'd end it.
But that doesn't necessarily translate into people
being happy. One can be happier by being slightly less
Look at how stocks are priced in the stock
market. You have
your rational indicators like earnings per share.
And then there are the intangibles like future
a particular industry is hot and a business within it is in
possession of a new technology, future expectations can
become insane and bid up the stock price to stratospheric
levels. Think of
the internet bubble in the early 2000's.
When the expectations aren't met (for the business or
for the marriage), the value plunges.
It all really comes down to
Most people don't marry a soul mate.
This is not a reason to shed a tear.
Most profitable businesses don't boast multibillion
dollar market capitalizations.
Why would most 'profitable' unions need to?
A union can remain sustainable and yield some cache
of fulfillment and happiness profits as long as each party
knows what s/he's signed up for and benefits from those
I know of couples who've been in less-than-ideal
marriages for over 40 years.
The sad part is that both people could have wound up
happier with other partners.
On the other hand, each is probably happier in the
union the way it stands than if s/he were alone.
At this point in time, it's difficult to assess the
Who's to say that under the same constraints 40 years
ago, these couples would have been able to make
substantially better decisions?
People get into unions for different
reasons, most of them less than ideal.
To stave off loneliness.
To appease their parents or society.
To have children.
Because their jobs demand it.
To cover up their sexual orientation.
For the union to yield 'profits' and thus remain
sustainable, each party in the union has to be profiting
You don't have to think too
come up with lists of less-than-ideal unions.
The model and stripper Anna Nicole Smith married oil
tycoon J. Howard Marshall in 1994.
She was 26, he was 89.
The union was never a picture postcard of marital
reportedly never lived with him or slept with him. He was
quite old to begin with and died just fourteen months later.
She probably went into the union for the financial
security and he for sexy companionship during his final
years. The irony
is that he didn't get the companionship for very long and by
the time Nicole Smith died of a drug overdose in 2007, she
hadn't been able to collect on any of his lucrative estate.
The movie star Rock Hudson got married
to his agent's secretary, Phyllis Gates, and was quoted as
saying, "When I count my blessings, my marriage tops the
list." He wasn't
marriage was a blessing, engineered as a cover story
for his very active homosexual extracurricular life.
The marriage was profitable for his wife, too.
They divorced three years later, and she was paid out
$130,000 over the next decade.
These two examples are very extreme
cases. Let's use
one closer to home.
I have a friend my age in Korea.
We'll call him Minjoon.
He was married once before.
At age 40, he got married for the second time and
celebrated his honeymoon in Thailand, which is how I met
him. The inside
scoop was that his newlywed wife was four months pregnant
already, a stigma back in Korea.
He probably would have married her anyway, but with
her bearing his unborn daughter, he wasn't left with a choice.
Whenever he pleases, which is usually
every weekend, he has no issue leaving his wife behind with the two
young kids, both a handful. One
weekend he'll go camping with his buddies, another mountain
biking. When I'm
in Korea, he'll dedicate all day to hiking with me in the
mountains around Seoul.
His behavior angers my wife.
She commented that he's a great guy but a lousy
husband. He might be a lousy husband for my wife,
but how bad of a husband is he really within his own
union? To me,
it looks like a profitable and sustainable marriage.
He was nearing forty, worked for a multinational
company, and needed a wife to fit the part.
It doesn't look good in Korea to be a nonconformist
wife-to-be wasn't much younger, wanted a family, and her
biological clock was running out of ticks.
The implicit agreement for this marriage to work was
that he'd be the provider and still enjoy his free time
while she stayed at home to raise the family she always
party got what s/he signed up for.
Let's imagine J. Howard Marshall was
screwing around on Anna Nicole Smith during their courtship
and short marriage.
After all, he met her in a strip club and didn't live with her.
Would it have affected their partnership?
Smith was in that relationship for the financial
Marshall kept providing her with an affluent lifestyle,
she'd continue to get a return on her investment.
Rock Hudson actually did screw around on Phyllis
separated from him after Rock had an affair in Italy
-- with a man.
After her death in 2006, an article in a gay magazine
documented how all Hudson's contemporaries knew Gates was a
confirmed lesbian all along.
Where wealth and fame are concerned and when big
money changes hands, an infidelity matters little.
It's already factored into the negotiation.
In more normal unions, it's just
assumed by both parties that there won't be extracurricular
More accurately, it's taken as a given that there will be
no talk of external activities.
Take Minjoon's marriage, which is probably similar to
millions of marriages the world over:
two people willing
to settle for a less than ideal.
The parties aren't all that compatible but each meets
the other's basic needs for the marriage to stay profitable.
In these instances, would it hurt the marriage for
either party to get action on the side?
I argue that screwing around has the
potential to SAVE marriages, certain kinds of marriages for
people who aren't big risk takers.
Those locked into less-than-ideal unions may not be
all that attracted to their partners.
They may not even love them.
Their responsibility within the union is to provide their partner with the
environment and circumstances for a better shake
than life alone.
Without intimacy, one or both might be tempted to end what
is an otherwise 'successful' marriage.
In seeking what's missing elsewhere, one party lets
the marriage live on for another day.
Screwing around is likely what's kept Bill and
Hilary Clinton's marriage alive for so long.
Each used the other for a political and financial
partnership that has reaped huge rewards for them both over
the years. Why
should Bill getting caught with his pants down on numerous
occasions destroy the empire they've constructed?
Personally, I don't endorse the
screwing around approach.
I know most people can't maintain firm and rational
control over their adultery.
They explore outside the marriage too often, conduct
full blown affairs they cover up with lies, or stupidly
flaunt their mistresses. Whatever the marriage might have
had going for it gets
flushed down the toilet.
In Asia, it's quite common for rich men to have
"projects" on the side.
Their wives may know about them, but look the other
way as long as the husband continues to honor the terms of
their marriage agreement and not embarrass the wife by devoting
too much time to his other entree.
It's all too easy to become addicted to juggling
multiple partners, and addictions destroy relationships and
As an example of a tasteful way to
conduct fresh explorations, I think of the movie Same
Time, Next Year, iin which Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn,
both happily married to other partners, conduct an affair
over a 26 year period by meeting at the same hotel at the
same time the following year.
They never see or call each other in the interim.
Each adds something that's missing to the other's
life without compromising the primary union.
In an ideal relationship, your spouse provides
you with enough emotional, spiritual, and physical support.
Screwing around in the name of saving that union
becomes a lame rationalization.
What's to save?
You've now brought yourself to the point of what's
left to destroy.
For everyone else stuck in an average though profitable
union and not willing to end it to find something more
profitable, an illicit tryst performed rarely with someone you'll
never or hardly ever see again could breathe new life into
an otherwise dead corpse.
Or at least yield a few fresh insights.
And if it won't, you can stop kidding yourself
the union has any mileage left. You can bail out
before the gas tank is completely empty.