I’m happy to report that I’m riled up again. A good thing, because it makes me do useful things, like finishing books and writing this here article.
It’s not a good thing because usually what gets me riled up is a good woman stuck in a bad spot.
Not so long ago, I met such a woman. She’s smart, healthy, tall, educated and dazzlingly beautiful. Her poetry attests to a nimble intellect, an expansive soul and an observant eye for the truth. A rare individual.
What I did not understand was how she got married to a man who ended up abusing her, cheating on her and blaming his cheating on her (“This is what you deserve”). She had two children with him and is still going through a rancorous divorce 2 years after separating, and is in a pretty tough spot financially and emotionally.
How does crap like this happen to good women — smart women who know better?
Well, it can happen in a lot of ways:
- You fall in love, put your frontal lobe in a jar and marry a guy you later on find you don’t know all that well.
- Some dude pursues you so doggedly that you just give up after a while.
- You’re stuck in a bad living situation and use marriage as an escape route.
- Your parents treated you poorly so you marry a guy who fits that love template ’cause it feels like home, albeit a shitty one.
The reasons for women marrying the wrong guy are as numerous as the millions of divorces filed in the US every year. Since my neck and butt will hurt if I type out that whole list, perhaps a shorter checklist of things to do before you get married would be more useful.
There are some similarities between this list and the one I wrote for men a little while ago, with one big difference: you ladies should be even more vigilant, since you have more to lose. A ‘starter marriage’ can derail your career path, saddle you with children you can hardly support, kill the carefree idealism that made you so appealing, tax your mental health, and consume your most irreplaceable asset — your youth and beauty.
Do I have your attention now? Oh good. One disclaimer before we start: having never been married, I have exactly zero experience in that arena. However, I do know good choices from bad ones, so here are some ideas to help you make better decisions:
1) Do not say yes if you’re deeply in love.
Is it a good idea to buy a car if you’re drunk? Is it a good idea to put an offer on a house when you’re high as a kite? Then it’s also not a good idea to accept a marriage proposal if you’re in love with someone.
What?!? Isn’t that the reason to get married? Isn’t this the culmination of every white-wedding dream I’ve had as a kid?
No, no, no and hell no, sister. That’s some weird bill of sale that the romance books have sold you. Up to very recent times in human history, that’s not why people got married. And, judging from the 50%+ divorce rates in this country, it’s not a very good reason to do so.
Why? Because the most reliable aspect of falling in love is that you will fall out of it. Guaranteed. On average after 18 months, according to scientists.
Generally, you should not make big-ticket decisions in a state of acute intoxication. And being in love is very much a state of acute intoxication.
Brain imaging studies of people in love show that their mind functions as if they’re kinda nuts. Whole parts of executive judgment just plain fall out of your cranium.
What should you do instead?
Being in love is drunkenness and impaired judgment. It tends to peak early, then decline — regression to the mean. Real love tends to build over time, not decline. Only if the crazy love has already worn off and you still find yourself putting up with his smelly socks around the house, his nighttime flatulence, impaired listening skills — and you somehow think he’d make a fine father for your children, then go for it.
Marriage is a vast edifice deserving of a strong foundation. Don’t build it on the flimsy leaves of infatuation.
2) Do not marry a man you’ve known less than 18 months.
Since I know most of you are going to ignore the first tip, at least give yourself this safety hatch. 18 months is the average time it takes to fall out of love — i.e., about the time it takes for the fog to clear from your eyes and to see the guy for who he really is.
Sure, doing something impulsive can be fun sometimes: “Let’s go to the Shotgun Chapel in Vegas and get married!” Kind of like going bungee-jumping on a dare — if the bungee cord is broken, or if there is no bungee cord at all and you’re just heading into a freefall splat. Keep your impulse buys to small things, like a teddy bear or piece of Teuscher chocolate, not men who can potentially ruin your whole life. Guys make for poor impulse buys.
3) Get a prenuptial agreement — especially if you’re making good money.
This advice used to be the sole domain of men, but times have changed. A survey revealed that women in New York City make more money on average than the men. And if you’re Oprah or J.K. Rowling, whom are you going to find who makes more than you?
Now I know you’re different. And I know you and your boy really, really love each other.
But you know what? Nobody goes to the altar not really, really loving each other at that moment. Hate to break it to ya, but it ain’t all that special.
So take a deep breath, recognize your humanity (read: fallibility) and concede that, in this country, you’ve got a 50-50 shot that this is going to work.
Girl — you have no idea who you’re marrying until you marry him. It’s like trying to practice swimming on dry land: no amount of preparation does you any good until you take the plunge.
So be smart about it, and if you truly love him and love yourself, line things up beforehand to avoid a rancorous split should things go sour. Divorce is a terrible, awful, miserable thing — especially if there are worldly goods and children involved.
And if you’ve been smart, savvy and industrious enough to build yourself some wealth, protect your life’s work. You do not want to be paying alimony to some unemployed deadbeat you no longer like, let alone love.
4) Consult your female and male friends before making the final decision.
The Eastern masters say that a knife can’t cut itself, a tongue can’t taste itself, and you can’t see a mountain you’re standing on. It’s simply not possible.
Similarly, you are too close to yourself to see clearly what you’re getting yourself into.
So you need someone else to give you perspective: is marrying this guy the best thing since Nutella, or more like deep-fried Twinkies? (For those unfamiliar with the magic of Nutella: it’s the nectar of the gods.)
Your girlfriends will give you one perspective, and you should listen to their aggregate voice vs any one of them. One girl could be jealous or vindictive, but the unified chorus has something worth hearing.
But what you should really listen to is what your guy friends say — especially exes whom you trust (if you have any). We guys notice things and know things about other men that women simply cannot see. It’s like we’re dogs who can hear ultra-high frequency sounds, or honeybees who can see ultraviolet markings in flowers. Women simply aren’t equipped to notice some of the dead giveaways of shady behavior in guys.
So make sure your guy friends spend time with your man and observe him. Then ask for their honest opinion, and listen to it. If your guy friends think your beau is a bad egg, they’re probably right.
I know backing out of a promising relationship is hard, but it’s your whole life we’re talking about here. If he’s wrong for you, it’s 10,000 times easier to make the tough decision now. Afterwards, you have a girl’s night out, a pint of Haagen Dazs and a perhaps a fling and you’re good to go. Whereas later, it will involve colossal pain, splitting belongings in half with an axe, fighting over child custoday and paying mountains of money to Dewey, Cheatham and Howe.
So consult reliable outside opinion before taking the plunge. And listen to what your guy friends have to say.
5) Make only promises you can keep regarding monogamy.
Do you believe in Santa Claus? No? Oh, you’re no fun. But he’s in the mall! With kids sitting on his lap! Is that not proof enough?
No, because you know better. Santa Claus is a figment of the imagination, a fanciful mental construct with no basis in reality. You don’t believe in that stuff nor rely on it.
You know what else is a fanciful mental construct without basis in reality? Monogamy. As far as anyone can tell, it does not exist anywhere in nature. Anywhere. No, not even in ‘swans that mate for life’ — geneticists have definitive evidence that even they do their fair share of flitting about.
Okay, so there is this one species of slug. And when the male and the female mate, they actually fuse and become one slug. If that’s your idea of a healthy relationship, be my guest. But other than that, every other species has excursions, technically called extra-pair couplings.
Some have ’em more often than others. Chimpanzees and bonobos, for example, tend to go bananas with their voracious sexual appetites. Gorillas, not so much (although each alpha male keeps a nice harem, which isn’t strictly monogamy in my book). Prairie voles are primarily monogamous, and montane voles are primarily horndogs.
Keep in mind that only 3% of all mammalian species form any kind of monogamous relationship at all. We are part of that 3%, and fall somewhere between the chimp and gorilla in our appetites. As the scientists would call it, we are primarily monogamous with excursions.
Long story short: there will be excursions. Count on it. For both you and him, with the man slightly more likely to do it than the woman. Forever’s an awfully long time to be sleeping with just one person.
Now I know that conventional wisdom holds that women really want monogamy — it’s the guys who have the problem keeping their dicks in their pants, right?
Except that there’s this worldwide genetic study showing that 10% of the people in the world have a biological father different from the guy they call Dad.
That means that if you have 200 friends on Facebook, 20 of them are bastards. Literally.
We’re not going to get into all the science of it right now, but suffice it to say that women are just as capable of extra-pair couplings as men. They may do it for different reasons, but they still do it.
So make sure you cover this before you get married. It is possible to have sex outside of your primary relationship and still love one another and still have a great family life. And it need not be guilty and surreptitious — or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, going whole hog swinger mode. Just make sure you only make promises you can keep. Cheating is more about betrayal of trust and breaking of a promise than some bodily act.
Other cultures don’t get so bent out of shape when it comes to extra-pair couplings. Russian, Japanese, French, Swedish, Brazilian people — heck, most of the rest of the world — have such matters already baked into their mores. Go figure out what works for them, and then figure out what works for you. The Tao is all about seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it would be. Know what you’re capable of.
6) Do a thorough background check.
Remember my friend Willow? Of course not, ’cause I never told you about her. Here’s the story: Willow’s an ultra-successful, exceptionally beautiful doctor who had just finalized the divorce with her nutso husband. She felt unshackled for the first time in a long while and started to date again. She meets this guy Bruce, who in short order professes his undying love for her, gets on his knee and asks for her hand.
Now Willow’s 36 with 2 lovely daughters, so she doesn’t want any more kids and is kinda liking this whole freedom thing. Re-marrying sounds eminently pointless. Moreover, she lives in Seattle while he lives in San Diego. No way no how is this gonna happen.
Except that it did happen — she said yes and moved to San Diego. Within a few months, Bruce started to disappear without a trace for days on end. This is when Willow finds out that Bruce also likes boys — a detail he had glossed over during their courtship.
Ladies — in the era of Google and a hundred other online search tools, I strongly encourage you to do a complete and thorough background check on your boy before throwing any party with lawyers involved. If there’s anything at all suspicious, dig deeper and get to the truth. Especially if you met through non-friend channels — the internet, random meeting in a bar, some Roman orgy you happened to be at — hire a private investigator and get the truth. Your lifetime partnership deserves at least as much due diligence as a routine loan.
7) Be extra-careful if you’re extra-susceptible.
The statistics break my heart: a lot of women of adult age have had some history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. It sucks. And if you’re one of those women, you need to be extra careful about the men you let close to you. Good men are protectors while bad men tend to prey on the susceptible. If you can’t tell the difference between a protector and predator — well, you probably shouldn’t be getting married in the first place. If you’re going to do it anyway, consult friends who can help (see #4 above).
Other things that make you susceptible: coming off a long relationship; death in the family; low self-esteem (either chronic or from a recent event, like getting fired); coming into boatloads of cash or fame after long privation; recent illness; long dry spell (what constitutes ‘long’ for you); any kind of major stressor to the psyche, whether positive or negative.
Hope this helps. Just remember: big decisions merit big preparation. Know your own fallibility, seek trusted outside counsel, and do your homework. The life you’ll be saving is your own.
Dr. Alex, Oh, what a wonderful and wise man you are. You skillfully put into words so that we mortals have a clearer understanding of the concepts of human relationships. I have been trying very hard lately to think with my head and not my heart (and for some, not their…..well, you know) If only common sense would prevail over the high of emotional attachment. Keep those emails coming. Sometimes we need to hear it many times in order for the light to come on. Thanks a million, Elaine
Hey there Dr. B,
About this background check…Give more info that one can use besides hiring a private investigator. I’m a bit technologically challenged and it would be helpful to give us women in the same boat some resources and specific sites that would help.
That would be much appreciated!
Oh, I hope you are doing well! I look forward to your letters. Today’s was sooooo true. Being 58, (no wait 59! ) I still have to be reminded of staying grounded in the truth of humanity and how we operate.
“Because the most reliable aspect of falling in love is that you will fall out of it. Guaranteed. On average after 18 months, according to scientists.”
I remember that coming out of Helen Fisher’s Why We Love; don’t recall the primary source off the top of my head.
Dr. B, I love your sense of humor, and the fact that you like and are good at helping and educating people. But I think that if and when you get married, your ideas about monogamy might change somewhat. It is hard, but that is what the vows are all about. I did not cheat during my 11 years, and I work in a beauty shop, and talk to a good cross section of people. I know that talk is cheap, but many people over the years have told me that they are faithful and beleive their mate is as well. I know also they might also be saying what sounds good in public, but I beleive most of them. And it also appears that for whatever reason, unfaithfulness is harder on men than women. But I beleive marriage is the foundation for a successful family, which is the foundation for a successful society. So maybe a person should not take vows if they know going in that they cannot honor them. Having a cake and eating it too has never been proven to work in that respect.
Dr. Ali B.,
I love this checklist! It is so helpful and affirming!