One spouse is not enough

When I was in college I had a very sweet and cute boyfriend. “Do you think about getting married?” my Grandma asked me. “We all think Dave’s neat. It helps when you get married young — you grow up together.”

I understood where she was coming from. After all, she and my grandpa met in high school and were together for more than 70 years when he passed away a couple of years ago. But even at 21, I knew that her path was very different than any I could imagine for myself.

I am part of a generation that is marrying in a culture very different than any before us. We are seekers and adventurers. We attend college and graduate school in record numbers. We are unprecedented in our travel — exploring farther and more exotic locations. We dabble in religions, lifestyles and jump from job to job and career to career — all in the name of personal growth and fulfillment. How often do we read of late-life career reinventions, or parents sailing around the world when the kids fly the nest? We love nothing more than stories of people turning their lives around through weight loss and found spirituality and simpler living.

And yet we expect our marriages to survive through all these changes.

That is asking a lot of one person. For many, it asks too much.

This is where my 10-year marriage contract comes in.

Instead of seeing marriages that end as failures, what if we got realistic and embraced the fact that we often have loves for different periods of our lives. Say, a first, early marriage for the years that we become young adults, launch our careers and explore the world. A second with whom to have a family and build wealth, and yet another to fulfill our needs as we age. Or any variation the couple decides on.

When each of these unions end, we can graciously accept them as wonderful successes — relationships that supported a particular life chapter.

After all, multiple long-term relationships is how most of us live today: Dwindling numbers of us marry our first loves, and in fact are urged to “sow our oats” and “play the field” — tasting as many romantic flavors as we can before settling into one that is juuuust right. Most of us have longterm relationships before we marry, and if we divorce, go on to find love again.

Let’s embrace this reality and stop trying to shoehorn relationships into a marriage model that we, as a society, have long outgrown. The institution of marriage has changed and evolved throughout history. Today, far fewer people marry than ever before, and the numbers of people who divorce is high and stuck. Marriage as we understand it is dead, and ripe for a change.

I see this stark contrast between generations when I look at my own family. My grandparents married nearly three generations ago, and like most couples throughout history, their paths were very much intertwined from early on. They were from the same small community in Illinois, they both came from farm families and were committed to raising their four children together on their own farm, and eventually enjoying their eight grandchildren. They spent their lives with a similar set of priorities and values, attending Methodist church each Sunday and hosting weekly bridge club with friends from high school — couples who also met when very young.

When I reflect on marriages of previous generations, I appreciate very much the intimacy and stability they enjoyed. But I have a hard time applying that model to my own life. By the time I met my husband at age 25, I’d had two boyfriends, one major heartbreak and I had lived abroad three times in three different countries and backpacked around a bunch more. By then my newspaper career had already taken me to Georgia, Bulgaria and then Phoenix. And while my travels and ambition may be extreme, my sense of seeking and adventure are not.

Looking back, I see how much I needed to date Dave, who taught me that good and kind men can love me. But I knew instinctively that had I settled down then I would have resented him and adventures I would have missed, and that our visions for our young lives differed widely. I went on to be for a few years with a man who was my professional peer, but we parted ways when he decided to make a life in another country.

My husband really was juuuust right. For a time. Equally ambitions and having just come off of a year backpacking around the globe, he was as eager to have children create a home as I was. And so for the years we were together we set out to accomplish our goals: We traveled around the country and world, built our careers, nurtured friendships, and had two beautiful children who we equally adored. We also had a ton of fun.

But life changes. And people change. In our case, a terrible accident was the final cleave in a relationship already suffering at the hands of two sets of diverging priorities.

Divorce is horrible and painful. But maybe it would be less horrible and painful if we accepted that it is a likely outcome for many couples. Let’s embraced a marriage model built on reality – and not a model designed for generations past.



**My 10-year marriage contract has been mentioned in:**

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Emma Johnson is a veteran money writer, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, REAL SIMPLE, Parenting, USA Today and others.

The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children (Penguin, 2017), was a #1 bestseller and was featured in hundreds of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, and the New York Post, which named it to its ‘Must Read” list.

Her popular blog, and podcast Like a Mother, explore issues facing professional single moms: business and career, money, sex, relationships and parenting. Emma regularly comments on these topics for outlets such as CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Doctors, and many more. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” one of “20 Personal Finance Influencers to Follow on Twitter” by AOL DailyFinance, “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and “Most Eligible New Yorkers” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker on gender equality, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality.

Emma grew up in Sycamore, Ill., and lives in New York City with her children.

8 thoughts on “One spouse is not enough

  1. I love that you’re challenging “the way it’s always been” with a fresh view and thought-provoking questions. Life is definitely evolving and who knows what will become of marriage as we move into the future. It sure does seem to work for so few people …

  2. Or maybe marriages can be like the strongest of friendships that allow for differences of opinion, and are flexible and able to withstand change. Because we value the friendship and prioritize that, and to some extent we can grow around one another, despite disagreement, because we find there is something inherently more valuable in preserving the friendship.

    But maybe I’ve just read too many Jane Austen novels. “Muah.”

    1. Yes, that is also very much an option. And that has been the goal for a couple centuries. Again, that simply does not work for most people. But lovely when it does.

  3. Hi Emma,

    I want you to know how much I have enjoyed your blog since finding it via Huffington Post (I think) a few months ago. I am by my rough calculation 20 years your senior, divorced 13 years, with three grown sons, and yet I still get so much out of reading your thoughtful, well written essays.

    The level of acceptance in your writing is admirable, infectious and for me, therapeutic.

  4. Hi JP, What a very lovely note. Thank you and please keep chiming in here. I appreciate your perspective as it comes from someone of a different age and stage of divorce.


  5. Hi Emma, I’ve read a lot of your posts on your website, and love your honestly and humor and persistence and really really admire your professional success. And as a married-for-over-a-decade with kids kinda gal, I read your idea about the 10-year marriage contract with great interest. However…and I know your post above is a musing and not a legal brief…I see a nearly insolvable contradiction above where you say over the course of our lives we could have one early-on love, one love w/whom to create and raise a family with, and one to grow old with. You and so many people I know divorce when their kids are young (often under 10 with so much child raising yet to do) — this is the most difficult time for a marriage, raising young children, with so much stress about parenting and money and individual expectations and professional commitments and so on. The partner expectations are so weighty for parents. Maybe love and passion and romance are just incompatible while we play out our roles as parents of young children.

  6. I certainly don’t have an answer. I just hope we continue to consider various options to the traditional concept of “marriage and raising kids”, as you have initiated doing in your post here. Perhaps someday we as a society will find many different solutions that work, that are more accepted, that are easier to handle, emotionally and socially.

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