On Crowd Nine
I’m a 43-year-old woman in my second marriage with a man who’s also on his second marriage. We are both determined to make this marriage our last! We have a scheduled date night. We make sure sex happens weekly. I’d like to know whether there are other things we can do to keep from walking down the aisle a third time. — Hopeful
In some marriages, somebody could lose consciousness and it wouldn’t be all that noticeable.
Date nights are good for keeping the marital jets firing, as is having sex weekly, but regular dates and sextivities don’t change how being married is like subscribing to Netflick. No, my copyeditor isn’t day-drinking, and yes, I mean “flick.” Netflick would have only one movie, and you and your partner would be forced to watch it every night of your life together…until one or both of you shrivel up and die of boredom or start dialing jackals with law licenses (aka divorce lawyers).
What can help is making your married life more like single people’s lives – uh, in ways that don’t remodel your vows into something more along the lines of suggestions. In a New York Times op-ed, social historian Stephanie Coontz explains, “Single people generally have wider social networks than married couples, who tend to withdraw into their coupledom.” Though marriage “can provide a bounty of emotional, practical and financial support … finding the right mate is no substitute for having friends and other interests.”
Disappointingly, Coontz trots out a view widely (and uncritically) accepted among researchers: “On average, married people report higher well-being than singles.” And sure, there are studies that conclude this. However, social psychologist Bella DePaulo points out rather glaring flaws in some of the research making this claim. For example, she observes that even respected developmental psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington couldn’t see her faulty reasoning in concluding: “Happily married couples are healthier, happier, wealthier, and sexier than are singles.” The problem? Hetherington is comparing a subset of married people – HAPPILY MARRIED people (as opposed to ALL married people) – with ALL single people. I put this in perspective in a 2013 column: “Yes, shockingly, happily married people are happier than clinically depressed single people.”
In fact, people who are unhappily single – who feel “distress” about being single – tend to be those who’d previously been married (and especially those newly divorced or widowed), notes Coontz. About the single-’n’-miserableness of the newly divorced or widowed, you might think, “Duh…they’re lonely or grieving!” Some or many might be. But I think Coontz is onto something in advising married people to “cultivate the skills of successful singlehood.” (Conversely, “people who are successful as singles” – meaning socially connected and relatively content with their lives – “are especially likely to end up in happy marriages, in large part because of the personal and social resources they developed before marrying.”)
Coontz suggests you bring other people into your marriage – though not like they did in the ‘70s at those suburban parties with all the couples dropping their keys into a bowl. She’s talking about friendships with people beyond your spouse, and ideally, not just one or two others but a whole group. Research (by evolutionary social psychologist Stephanie Brown, among others) consistently finds being socially connected increases individuals’ personal well-being and is even associated with better physical health. Likewise, “maintaining social networks … after marriage” can also “enhance and even revitalize your marriage,” writes Coontz.
As for how you two could put this into practice, you might start by making some date nights double-date nights. This might seem like a bad idea – a date-night romance- and intimacy-killer. However, Coontz describes a date-night experiment in which researchers “assigned some couples to spend time by themselves and have deeply personal conversations,” while others were set up with a couple they’d never met “and told to initiate similar conversations.” Afterward, all of the couples “reported greater satisfaction with their relationship,” but only those who’d been on the double date reported feeling more “romantic passion” for each other!
Because it seems “the more” really is the (maritally) merrier, you and your husband could also host regular dinner parties, cocktail hours, brunches, and/or game nights. However, it’s also important that you each maintain individual interests, activities, and friendships. Ironically, regularly spending less time together – as well as following wise advice from Coontz to each maintain your ability to be self-reliant – should help you avoid going your separate ways. It’s great if your relationship starts to remind you of an iconic one in a classic movie – but not if the movie is “Cast Away,” starring Tom Hanks and a volleyball he draws a face on so he won’t be all alone on a desert island.