I find that there is a lot of confusion out there about what a marriage is, what it isn’t and what core foundation is required for a happy and fulfilling long-term romantic relationship of any kind. When marriages and relationships fail it’s most often because people didn’t have a clear idea of what exactly such an arrangement is, confuse it with something else entirely and don’t realize that both partners must bring to the table, at a minimum, their flexibility, loyalty and internal drive of contribution.

Like in many areas of life, trouble occurs when what people think is true in actuality turns out to be false. One of the areas that this occurs a lot is in personal romantic relationships and especially in the social construct called marriage. When one or both partners entering in to marriage are lacking a correct understanding of what it is and what the base requirements are, the result is a deteriorating relationship and eventually, as is often the case, protracted and messy divorce. Statistics show that about 40% of first-time marriages end in divorce, and as the number of re-marriages goes up so does the chance of a divorce in each subsequent re-marriage.

While many psychologists and family therapists will correctly state that often marriages fail because individuals are lacking conflict-coping and communication skills, I believe that for many couples who find themselves on the rocks the issue is much deeper than just how they talk and the words they use.

Some people who subscribe to the evolutionary-biology course of thinking will state that monogamy – and by extension a marriage – is unnatural and all the troubles originate there. There is certainly some weight to that argument, but such an outlook must be considered in the framework of the animal kingdom, and humans are not gorillas or wolves or dolphins; human animal is unique in that we have ability to override our physiological inklings. In addition, because it takes so much longer to bring a child to self-sufficiency than say a gorilla the mating strategy for humans doesn’t need to follow that of animals. In fact, all societies that have succeeded and progressed above the hunter-gatherer lifestyle have done so largely in part to the institution of a mating strategy that is based on coupling. The Masai, often referenced as the society where there is no marriage construct, are a worthy tribe to investigate for ethnographers but living hunt-to-hunt with no possessions beyond a spear and loin cloth and starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together is a bit dated for a 21st century environment.

Before we can address what the structure and requirements for a happy and fulfilling marriage are, it’s important to define what marriage itself is. I caution you to examine your sensibilities here and consider that what you think marriage should be might not coincide with reality, and as we know from experience when our beliefs about the world are disjointed with what the world actually is, things tend to break.

What is marriage?

Despite whatever the romantic notion of marriage is perpetuated by the Hollywood and the uninformed, at its core marriage is a business contract between two consenting adults. In prior centuries the contract was based on politics among the royal classes, and on social and economic standing among courtiers and peasants. Of course in the modern western world marriages most often occur between two lovers, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the whole arrangement is rooted in a business-like formal agreement.

To make it more palatable, this is my current perspective on what a marriage is: marriage is a social construct describing a specific type of a business contract among two consenting adult individuals who are in love with each other.

I would like to stress that presented with this definition, there is very little ambiguity that the establishment of a household with two partners is really not that different from a joint-venture business where spouses are equanomous partners. In other words, if you wouldn’t have your significant other for a co-founder in the business, you’ve got no business marrying them!

Of course there is no clearly right or wrong way to live in a marriage. To use a business analogy, there are many different business structures that provide for a plentiful and happy sustenance and existence to both founders and employees. In marriages alike, each household must find a way that the institution of marriage works for their individual family unit. I must agree with you that defining marriage in a form of a legal business contract is perhaps the quickest way to kill the mood, so to speak, but deluding ourselves that it’s something else is just setting up for a guaranteed failure in the future.

Marriage is not about equality

Now that we have a clear definition for what marriage is, let’s dispel the myth that partners in marriage are equal. It sure sounds nice, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, dare I say, there is not a single successful and happy marriage out there where both partners are equal. This is just a reality of life: people have different skills, abilities, inclinations and ambitions. Of course there are some core requirements that apply equally to both partners – like respect, safety, autonomy, etc. But to start a marriage with the consideration that partners are equal is a set up for disappointment, or worse.

Marriage is a partnership, and so both partners bring to the table the skills and values and contributions that they each have. It’s not necessary for such contributions to be equal – just that collectively both partners provide the necessities for the relationship and household to flourish. To add complexity to the equation about equality, it’s difficult to evaluate individual contributions against each other: is doing laundry a greater contribution than paying a mortgage? What about long-term financial planning vs. child rearing? Patching up a leaky roof and cooking dinner are both important – regardless of how equal or unequal the two tasks might be.

Marriage is based on contribution

From what I’ve observed, happy marriages aren’t a result of equality among partners. Instead a happy household is one in which all participants contribute what they excel at, and everyone reaps the benefits as a result. Children should be raised with such contribution mindset, and potential spouses must be evaluated for such traits prior to marriage. To follow on a previously established paradigm of a marriage and household as a business, it’s imperative that since all participants reap the benefits of a stable and functional family each in turn contributes what they excel at. Provider earns a living, care taker takes care of child rearing, children contribute by providing assistance to adults and contribute by providing the joy of spontaneity and a fresh perspective on things.

Marriage is based on loyalty

Would you go in to business with a partner who would turn around and sell your patents to a competitor for pennies on the dollar? Of course not, and yet every year many people decide to enter in to the business contract of marriage with unreliable partners and those who are still in the process of sorting out their loyalties and values. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the time to learn what each of us needs to be happy, fulfilled, satiated. It is premature, however, to enter in to a contract with someone prior to arriving at a decision as to what your and their goals, direction and boundaries are and how much compatibility is really there beyond a few hobbies and physical attraction.

Ultimately of course we are loyal to ourselves first – doing things out of obligation is not a happy life – but when we enter in to an agreement with others the obligation extends to also include the by-laws of such contract. Most of the time what is best for the individual and what is best for the household are aligned, but in some instances it’s important that the loyalty to the family and marriage partnership overrides individual’s desires. Most often when people think of loyalty in the context of a marriage the first thing that comes to mind is sexual exclusivity. And while that is important for most marriages, there are many very happy and fulfilled partners who are living in so-called open marriages, where one or both partners are free to explore their sexuality with others within pre-agreed boundaries. Unfortunately sexual exclusivity and loyalty isn’t the same thing.

There are many marriages where partners are sexually exclusive but whose loyalties lie outside of the household – careers, travel, education, entertainment, socializing, expensive or time consuming hobbies. Of course all of those are important to pursue, but only so far as they contribute to the well-being of the partnership. To avoid the trap of a miserable life or divorce court it’s very important to be clear and forthright about where each partner’s loyalties and commitments lie. It’s very easy to confuse the behavior for loyalty even when there is no connections: workaholic who is paying the bills, princess who is obsessed with playing house. Both of these would bring contribution to the table, but since their loyalties lie outside of the family (work and self-entertainment respectively) there is no guarantee how long such relationship will last or how stable it will be. Eventually circumstances change and when that happens both partners need to adapt to the new environment.

Marriage requires flexibility

There is a certain subset of the population that is unable to adapt to life’s changing circumstances. They are the individual who, given a well matched environment, achieve extraordinary success. And yet these same so called successful people who’ve “made it” fall apart as quickly as the situation around them changes. It’s true that most people don’t like change they don’t choose but there is a world of difference between longing for a better environment and complete collapse because the situation is no longer ideal.

The inability to adapt, re-prioritize things leads to self-destructive spiral of behavior driven by an individual’s need to escape. This inflexibility is often missed entirely in failed relationships because although it’s the root cause, in many cases the dividing wedge is attributed to a symptom of this inflexibility: missed opportunities, lack of structure required in a new environment, living the lifestyle of a 20-year old frat-boy while failing to integrate entertainment and socializing in a constructive way in to one’s life with competing responsibilities. Examples abound: the workaholic who would rather stay in the office on a Friday night than have dinner with his family; someone for whom a romantic date is a dinner and dancing with their spouse and 30 of their closest friends. So what if a joint bank account only has $600 in it, purchasing a new $250 fishing rod on sale for $220 is a good investment because it will last a lifetime.

In addition, substance abuse also falls under this category because when circumstances change, an inflexible individual will need a way to help alleviate anxiety resulting from dealing with new environment. Substance abuse and over-socializing offer a distraction and self-medication options that are attractive precisely because they carry little stigma in the westernized first-world environment.

Avoiding failure

If you’re looking for a long-term relationship or to start a family, I hope you come away with a clearer perspective about what a marriage is, what it isn’t and how to make sure yours is a lasting success. Even though it does require some work to select a good partner and sort out through the terms of your marriage agreement upfront, the pay off is well worth it in the long run. If you fail to consider the points mentioned above about the importance of contribution, flexibility and loyalty to the success of a long-term romantic relationship or marriage and as a requirement for a happy and thriving household – I have an excellent divorce lawyer I can recommend.