Unconventional relationship, independent marriage

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: no one except the people involved in a relationship really knows what goes on there, and sometimes they’re not all that sure either. That’s one of my core beliefs about relationships. Another is that I don’t believe that there is just one single perfect soul-mate match for everyone – if there were, the odds against their ever finding each other would be just enormous. Having said that, though, there are some people who match up so particularly well that they’re very, very lucky they’ve found each other. (I’m in that group, and it took two marriages for it to happen…so I think that makes my point.)

Relationships fascinate me, and unconventional relationships hold particular interest. In some ways, my view of them is similar to my stance on the far more serious topic of abortion – not my choice personally, but I respect and support your rights and your choice in the matter.

To return to my original point, though, I should note that I don’t have a lot of experience with the “unconventional” relationship myself. Some might say I don’t have a lot of relationship experience, period, having only had serious involvements with two men in my life (both of whom I’ve ended up marrying – and these days, I would suggest that second marriages really are pretty conventional). I’ll admit that I was open to the concept of a less conventional relationship after my divorce – living together, or an exclusive relationship that maintained a degree of independence and separate residences – but that’s not what I’ve ended up with, and I’m happy. For one thing, there are kids involved, and their sense of stability is important. For another, like it or not, there are certain ways in which a committed relationship without the proverbial “piece of paper” isn’t recognized legally or socially, and those ways matter. There’s also the fact that a public statement of commitment is meaningful (not to mention big business).

But just because you’re part of a married couple, that doesn’t mean you have to follow one specific model of marriage, especially in these modern times. You and your spouse can choose to live separately. You may choose to be childless. You may even choose not to “forsake all others” – and the others you’re not forsaking may be of your own gender (honestly, I hadn’t realized that marriages like this still existed) – but I grant you that you’re really pushing the conventionality (and institutional) limits at that point. However, one thing that these unconventional options have in common is that they’re all ways of responding to the need to retain an independent sense of self within a “coupled” context. On that note, the New York Times recently ran an article about one couple’s response to that need:

AT many weddings, the officiant talks about how a husband and wife should be like two pillars on a porch: separate but together. In their marriage, Jennifer Belle, a novelist, and Andrew Krents, an entertainment lawyer, take the separation part to the extreme. It is almost as if they are afraid of spending too much time together…

After they started dating — and even after marrying — she still put her writing before everything else. Mr. Krents, also a workaholic, barely noticed. They have never been the kind of couple to stare into each other’s eyes. They’re too busy staring into their BlackBerrys.

After their wedding, the two often and happily went their separate ways. In fact, they even started married life separately. She began their honeymoon alone (he couldn’t find his passport), checking into their suite in Venice and thoroughly enjoying herself without him… He found the passport, showed up four days later, and the honeymoon (what was left of it anyway) turned out to be blissful…

He describes her as an unconventional, sometimes unreachable, wife. “Dinner isn’t on the table at a certain time every night,” he said. “She’s out, she’s writing, she’s teaching workshops. Who can ever find her?”

She also has trouble tracking him down. “When we first started dating, he just wanted to make me happy and make my life better,” she said. “We would talk about my career and my books. Now, I feel like I have to make an appointment to call him on his BlackBerry to talk about myself for one second.”

…Now that they have two children, and she is working on another novel, the marriage has become “one big competition for time alone,” Ms. Belle said.
“Andy’s desperate to work all the time, and I want to work,” she said. “I spend a lot of time saying things like, ‘My work is important, too!’ I must say that 25 times a day.”

….For a couple that craves and fights for time alone and apart, how do they stay together? One way, they said, is by pretty much ignoring their relationship in the same way a writer ignores a blank page.

“I try not to think about marriage,” Ms. Belle said. “It just seems impossible to me. It’s wondrous. It’s like trying to understand the meaning of the universe.”

I’m already saying it again: No one really knows what goes on in a relationship…well, you know the rest. Whatever makes it work for you, seriously. I understand the craving to hold onto a sense of yourself, and I’ll admit that after a few years on my own, it’s a higher priority in my second marriage than it was in my first (and if it had been a higher priority then, some things might have been different). But looking at a relationship like this from the outside, it occurs to me that some of the aspects that truly define “marriage” to me – a sense of partnership, openness to compromise, and togetherness – don’t seem to be evident here. Granted, they don’t have to be evident to an outsider. They don’t even have to be evident to the couple, as long as they’re in agreement about what they want from their marriage. That’s one of the reasons for describing a relationship like this as “unconventional.” Whether it’s “healthy” is a whole different question.

I actually think that it’s a good thing that we’re living in a time and place where unconventional relationships don’t seem so out of the ordinary. What do you think?

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  1. This is a great post! Obviously, I’m glad unconventional relationships are more accepted these days, since they’ve been a trend in my life. My ex-husband and I remained childless, and were, while not nearly to the extreme of the couple you describe here, two people who often lived very much separate lives, really only connecting over going out to dinner together now and then. You mentioned that your first marriage may have gone differently if you’d focused more on your independent self. For me, I think the opposite caused our failure – we were so into our own things we forgot to remain connected to each other.

    In my current relationship, I choose to live with Lee even though we’re not married. Our committment is one to love, honor, and care for each other, and is one of fidelity too, but we’ve chosen at this stage to make it directly to each other without taking it to the legal system. I think we will marry someday, but I’m in no hurry. It’s almost as if after a failed marriage, I felt like “OK… we made the public committment, but then we ended up ‘uncommitting’ anyway,” and so to me I’m just not at a stage where I feel that step guarantees or validates our love any more than just doing our thing and living our lives together.

    Even though I’ve made lots of unconventional choices myself, I have a hard time understanding “open marriages,” even though I have a friend who has chosen to be in one. I respect her lifestyle choices, but just don’t quite get the point, I guess. But again, that’s me, and to each their own!

  2. Pam – I was one of those people who lose much of their sense of self in a marriage – the FIRST time. That’s one of the things I wish had been different, and IS different this time. Then again, I’m different too – marrying at 42 is a lot different than at 19!

    Tall Paul and I lived together for a year before we got married (literally – our wedding day was one year after we moved into our apartment), so the commitment was there already. Both of us were divorced before and understandably cautious, but I guess once we were in, we were in, you know? (Plus, we’re older than you. 🙂 Less time to wait around.) And the relationship really hasn’t felt any different since we did get married, and I think that’s good.