Dear Lisa: Let us offer you some hope

Lisa of broken daughters recently wrote a post in which she admitted that even though she is in a wonderful relationship with a wonderful young man, she is scared to death of marriage and can’t picture herself married. Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with people choosing not to marry, and plenty make that choice. It’s just that Lisa’s reasons are as follows:

“But I’m afraid of marriage. I’m afraid of what marriage is to me, what I have been taught marriage is. You see, I only know two extremes: The fundamentalist marriages, and the supposedly terrible secular marriages. I don’t want to be a submissive, meek wife and lose everything I dream of these days. I don’t want to go back to where I’ve been. I don’t want to waste everything I sacrificed just to end up back in the old ways. And I also don’t want one of these marriages the fundamentalists talk about: The man lazy and fat, cheating on his wife, going to swingerclubs, terrible kids. It’s all I know, and I want neither.

I realize there’s got to be more but I just can’t imagine what it would look like. I have just tasted freedom and marriage seems like a prison now.”

And so I would say to Lisa, take the time to enjoy that freedom and don’t feel like you have to get married, now or ever. But realize that you are right – there is more. You may not be able to picture it right now, but it is out there.

I was also, like you, given a dichotomous view of marriage growing up. There was the “good” married couple following “biblical” gender roles and patriarchal authority structures, and there was the “bad” married couple, where the woman “wore the pants” and the man was reduced to an emasculate house guest. I think part of the problem is that those who live a patriarchal lifestyle and have a patriarchal mindset are incapable of imagining a marriage based on genuine equality, where the husband and wife are partners and friends, and instead think that if the man isn’t in charge, it must be the other way around. Another part of the problem is the fallacious idea that if you don’t do things the “biblical” and “godly” way, your life will be horrible and an utter ruin. Both of these ideas are wrong. 

I’ve been married for a while now, and have two children, and my marriage is part of the “more” that Lisa has so much trouble imagining. It stands outside of the dichotomy I was given growing up. My husband and I are partners and friends, and we make decisions together. We communicate, we find compromises when we disagree, and we hold each other in mutual respect. He is not emasculated by the fact that I am his equal. We parent together, love together, live together. It’s called an “egalitarian” marriage, one based on equality and partnership, respect and love.

And so I thought I’d ask my readers to help me out here. Can you join me in helping Lisa envision some of the “more” she knows must be out there? Can you give her some idea of what an egalitarian marriage looks and feels like? Please leave a comment with some of your thoughts and experiences.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Musical Atheist

    I’m not married, but I’ve been with the man I love for more than seven years now. We live together and are engaged to be married. It’s a long engagement, because we don’t have much money. We are lovers and best friends. I rely on him, share painful secrets with him and know that he won’t condemn me, even if he judges my actions. I do the same for him. He is twelve years older than I am. We are both atheists, and I am bisexual, while he is straight. We currently choose to be monogamous and neither of us has cheated on the other.

    I want to give an example of how his love and commitment showed itself in a way that is most important for me. When we had been together for a year, my contraception failed and I got pregnant. I was in my first year of university, so this was disastrous timing. After a great deal of heartache, we decided to keep the baby. We knew already by that stage that we were in it together for the long term, although we would have chosen to have children later, when I had graduated and we had some money. Sadly, I miscarried in the second trimester. The traumatic way in which this happened left me with PTSD, which affected our sex life badly for more than a year – three out of four times we tried to have any kind of sex, I would become intensely vulnerable and start crying. This was very difficult, as sex is important to both of us, and our erotic connection is very deep. This is how we dealt with it: we would stop, I would put some clothes on or wrap up in the duvet to feel safe, he would hold me. We would talk about it, have a cup of tea and do something else, like watch some comedy, to relax and change the emotional space. After a while, I would feel recovered and we would resume making love, either in a little while, later in the day or the next day. When I expressed my frustration at the way my PTSD was impacting our sex lives, he told me that it was ok if it was this way for the rest of our lives: he loved and desired me, he knew I loved and desired him and he wanted me to feel safe. His totally nonjudgemental support made it possible for me to continue the sexual relationship that was important to us both, until it had completely recovered.

    I love him passionately, we consult each other on difficult decisions, and nobody has the final say – we come to an agreement, because we’re adults and we have a lot of love and goodwill. He supports us more financially while I am in grad school – I worked more while he was writing a book. I trust him deeply. We have both made mistakes and let each other down, but we work through it with talking and patience, because we love each other too much to do it any other way. The thought of losing him makes my heart hurt.

    This definition of partnership doesn’t have to appeal to Lisa – that’s ok. A lasting relationship is something you create one day, one joy, one grief, one act of kindness at a time, not a pre-existing mould you step into.

  • Andrew

    I don’t know if I can add anything at all to your list, except to offer a male perspective to back up what you say about not feeling emasculated by equality with a female partner. I LOVE the knowledge that my wife is my equal – she brings depth and richness and perspective to our relationship that a subservient partner would never be able to. Not to mention that I get the warm and fuzzies from watching her achieve the things she sets out to do, and knowing that I’ve supported her in doing so. I think men and women are much less different than many men and women imagine, in that regard.

    More broadly, I suspect that there are many types of successful marriages, but that most of them probably share most of the qualities you discuss in your post. They’re like the nutrients that can feed many different plants.

  • Stony

    I would point out to Lisa that she has been sold a false dichotomy. I am agnostic and not a churchgoer. My husband is nominally Christian — not nearly as steeped in it as I was — but also not a churchgoer. That doesn’t instantly turn us into strip club going, swinging, drugged out Satanists. We could do so, because we’re adults, but we choose not to, because it’s not who we are. There is no Satan waiting just outside the bubble of conservative faith, there is just air, and it’s not even poison! The only battle against the forces of evil we take part in is the battle for the soul of our lawn against the wily deceiver that is nutgrass. And even this isn’t an affliction….the nutgrass is just trying to survive, and it’s not its fault it happens to be better equipped than our St. Augustine grass.
    I have a marriage as close as one can get to equality, and it would not survive any other way. I lift him up, he lifts me up. I’m proud of him, he’s proud of me. And we fight really well, I think, and that’s important, too. I know I have a voice in the marriage, and it gets heard, as does his.
    Contrast that to my first and “more godly” marriage to my fundamentalist husband. My needs were not acknowledged, let alone met. My career was considered secondary, even when I was employed and he was not. And even though I worked, ALL the housework fell to me, including taking care of the lawn and my beater car. He was the head of the household, you see, and his involvement in the day to day was not required since he had uttered the words “I do”. Fighting or arguing was forbidden, so I swallowed all the hurts and sore feelings. Nothing got aired, and I was never heard. My best friend told me when I divorced him that I was going to hell. Sounded like a vacation to me.
    Which marriage would I wish on Lisa, or anyone??

  • Melissa

    I can only imagine how hard it would be to imagine being in a respectful long term relationship. I never even tried, I knew what my job/role was and I obeyed. Gradually our relationship changed to an equal partnership, and it has been an amazing experience. Being in a relationship founded on equality and mutual respect, means that both of us work together, there are no roles to fill. When we have disagreements I can express my opinion and feelings without any fear of retaliation. We each have friends without the other being jealous or controlling. We go places and do things alone and together, and without having to get permission of jump through hoops. There is no rush, no deadline. You can take all the time you need to be who you want to be and figure out what feels right for you in a relationship. You are a whole, complete and special person with or without a permanant significant other in your life at any given moment. Keep up the great work! And on those nights where you lay awake and wonder if there is any way you could have made your parents be pleased with you, take a deep breath and let it go. You are an amazing person, someone that any sane parent would be proud to call their child.

  • Red

    Oh yes. With pleasure will I respond to this.

    First, let me say that I am a second-generation egalitarian. Although my parents don’t call themselves egalitarian (because they tend to resist labels) they have spent 35 years in what is essentially an egalitarian marriage, and they have NEVER ONCE experienced any bad side effects from in. (By the way, my dad is a conservative pastor and they were both raised in church). Their marriage looked like this: both of them worked and spent time raising me when I was little. They made all decisions together (I never, ever saw them come to a stalemate on a decision, and I am 28 years old). My mom was naturally more quiet just because of her personality, but you’d better believe that when she spoke up with her opinion, my dad was all ears. They agreed on a lot of things, but they also learned from each other when they disagreed, rather than falling into argument and indecision. My dad stayed responsible, happy, and engaged in the marriage and in the running of our home, and didn’t feel at all useless, confused or emasculated just because he viewed my mom as an equal partner. Men who do that have been raised to believe they are privileged, and becoming disengaged is just their way of pouting because they didn’t get life’s special cupcake.

    Fast forward several years to my marriage. My husband and I are both firmly committed to each other realizing our dreams. We both look out for the other’s best interest, making sure each of us have the time and energy we need to do the things we enjoy. We have arranged the work and home care division based on our strengths and our current life situation (he happens to have a good job right now, I happen to be in the middle of a demanding school program, so he works full time and I stay home, but after I have my degree that may very well reverse). We are making no hard-and-fast plans regarding who will stay home to raise kids (because we don’t know what our situation will be then) but our hope is to both work part time and stay home part time. We are like my parents in that we work out all problems and come to mutual decisions. We have been through church splits, financial disagreements, and disagreements over when, how and how many kids, and through NONE of these VERY BIG issues have we needed someone to make a “final say.” We have needed outside friends to help us see each other’s perspective, but that only aids us in coming to mutual decisions :)

    The most important thing is that we LOVE being married to a best friend. I admire and respect his free spirit and the fact that he chooses to attach it to me, and he loves my free spirit and the fact that I choose to attach it to him.

  • Amethyst

    “The man lazy and fat, cheating on his wife, going to swingerclubs, terrible kids.”

    Not sure if this is remotely helpful, but this actually describes the reality behind the facade of a lot of “perfect” fundamentalist families. I was semi-aware of this growing up in fundamentalism, but I’d see it and think “How much worse must it be in worldly families?” And then I grew up and realized that there was no correlation between religious affiliation and functional families. Functional (not to be confused with perfect) people will have functional relationships. An emotionally healthy man will want a woman who is an autonomous person with her own ideas, plans, goals, and personality. (Assuming he’s straight. An emotionally healthy gay man will want a man with those traits. lol)

  • machintelligence

    On a lighter note: if you want equity in marriage, split the chores 60/60. Because everyone feels that they are doing more than their fair share.

    • Elise

      I love that! 60/60!

  • John Small Berries


    My wife and I have been married for nearly twelve years now. Neither one of us is from a Christian Patriarchy (or even Fundamentalist) background – to be honest, the idea of a marriage in which only the husband is permitted to make substantial decisions is foreign (and genuinely horrifying) to me. I can’t even imagine being married to someone I didn’t consider my equal. My wife’s expertise, knowledge, opinions, and feelings are as important to me as mine are to her.

    We both work, so in order to make things equitable, we share the household chores as well (and generally switch off so neither of us is stuck doing the same thing every time: if she cooks, I wash dishes, and vice-versa; one week I clean the litterboxes and she vacuums the carpet, then we switch the next week; and so on). Of course we have our particular areas of expertise: for example, if an electrical outlet needs replacing, I do that; if new drapes need hemming, she takes care of it. But for the things that either of us can do, we share the burden as equally as we can.

    For all major or moderate decisions, we discuss it and see what we can both do to make it happen. For example, my wife was tired of working in an office, so we lived for a few years on a single income while she went back to grad school to get her Master’s and Ph.D; now she’s a university professor. It was a short-term sacrifice which I was happy to make in exchange for her having a career which she enjoys. Sometimes, of course, we’ll decide that we can’t make a thing happen, but if our situation changes, we can always revisit the decision.

    There’s the occasional conflict, of course – two individual human beings can hardly be expected to have exactly the same opinions 100% of the time, or remain unburdened by miscommunication – but they’re minor, quickly resolved, and not held as grudges or thrown back in each other’s faces for years (as I saw my parents doing over and over again).

    Ours is certainly a “secular marriage”; though I was raised Methodist, I’ve been an atheist since long before we got married. She was raised by Methodist and Baptist parents, but is now kind of an agnostic who’d like to think there’s some kind of existence after death. Our marriage is not guided by any religious rules, but by mutual respect and love.

    Regarding your characterization of the sort of men one finds in “secular marriages”, I’m hardly “lazy and fat” – but I’ve known some Fundamentalist Christian men who are. I’ve remained scrupulously faithful to my wife – but how many preachers and pastors have been caught having affairs? I’ve absolutely no interest in going to a “swingerclub” (and, honestly, know nothing about the people who do). And though neither my wife nor I have any interest in having kids, I’ve known some terrible children from pretty much all religious walks of life.

    It’s not the belief system or the religiousness/secularity of a marriage that determines these things, but the individuals themselves. With the right person, regardless of what kind of marriage you have, it’ll be a good one. With the wrong person, it’ll be a bad one no matter what kind of marital rules you try to follow.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I have never yet met an atheist married couple that fits the description of the “Secular marriage.” I’ve met plenty of dysfunctional families, but they’ve all been religious (even if they don’t actively worship). I’m sure that dysfunctional atheist families are out there, but that hasn’t been my personal experience at all.

    My husband works hard because he loves his family and he wants to do his part to take care of us. I work hard for the same reason. My husband keeps himself in shape because he cares about his health. I keep myself in shape for the same reason. When we need to make decisions, we do it through consensus – that might sound hard or inefficient, but it really isn’t. After over 10 years together, we don’t need to have a complete discussion every time a problem comes up because we know each other so well. And, frankly, we’ve found that most problems have a “right” answer (within the context of our shared values), so one person will usually realize that they were wrong as soon as we give our reasons. Maybe there will be some big issue where we arrive at a stalemate because there’s no “deciding vote,” but it’s been over ten years an we’re still waiting.

    • Ariel

      Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of seriously dysfunctional marriages were religious, if for no other reason that when a marriage starts to become dysfunctional, nonreligious people are more likely to consider divorce as a valid way to deal with it.

  • Dianne

    I’ve been with the same partner for over 15 years now, including raising a child together for almost 10 years. Longer than the average marriage lasts, right through three of my uncle’s marriages. One of the things that makes the relationship work is that we aren’t bound by anything more theoretically unbreakable than a lease agreement. We stay together because we like and love each other and have common interests and the trust that has built up over the years.

    Marriage always felt like a prison to me too. So…I didn’t do it. That doesn’t mean being alone unless that’s what you want.

    • Lina

      I’m in a similar spot – I’ve been married for 18 months, but for the duration of our relationship, my wife and I have been in an open relationship. Regardless of whether we are acting on that or not, the freedom to is what enabled me to commit to marriage. I too had some fear of marriage potentially being a prison or a trap, and this was our way around it…no better or worse than anyone else’s, but another consideration.

  • http://Love,Joy,Feminism Northstar

    Twenty-two happily godless egalitarian married years here. My husband is as decent a sort as you’ll find: hard working, great father to accomplished, confident girls, none of that smokin’, drinkin’, cheatin’, lyin’ stuff here. Just home every night with us, a family man, no god required. I’m a former advertising professional, homeschooling mom, shelter animal owner, library volunteer and generally overall decent person — you know, the usual atheist things. ;-) We are good friends and good partners together. We realize two heads are better than one for important decisions — we don’t fight, we debate. We persuade. We are on the other’s team. Oh, sure, one can’t but snap every now and then; nobody’s above being human. But we’ve been there for each other for when we’ve really had a setback, without recrimination. That’s what love is about.
    Both my husband and I grew up in strictly Catholic households and I can contrast them with my marriage. My mother — now elderly — complains bitterly about my father’s control of the purse. Fifty years she’s been complaining. When I tell her it’s up to her to make a change with him, it falls on deaf ears. That’s just not how it’s done. She’d rather be unhappy for a lifetime, apparently. She also felt very bitter that she, a very smart woman, was tied down with children she didn’t want. Imagine what it did to our heads, growing up, knowing she wished we weren’t there. And she more or less made sure we knew. It didn’t make us grateful she had us, if that was the intent; it made us feel ashamed and unwanted. For my husband’s family, it was a sadder sort of revelation about the effects of an imbalanced marriage; at the untimely death of my husband’s mother, his father was suddenly forced to care for a gaggle of children without the slightest knowledge of how to cook, shop or clean. How terrible it must have been, to have to go through all that at once.
    The upshot is, I can’t imagine having a marriage unlike mine; it makes us happy and secure. I know I am valued, as he is valued; I know we are partners and better together than apart.

  • Kacy

    I’ve loved reading about everyone’s marriage experiences in these comments. My only advice for Lisa is to take your time with the dating scene before jumping into marriage. There are no perfect men, but at the same time there is no reason to settle or feel you need to get married.

    You can easily figure out a man’s views on women and household equality by discussing these things and simply asking your perspective marriage partner. I grew up hearing the Focus on the Family bit about the importance of gender roles and the evils of an egalitarian marriage, but then I took a Sociology class called Marriage and the Family in college. I learned that women were happier in egalitarian marriages, and I knew this is what I would want my marriage to look life.

    I found a man who was on board with the idea, and we have been happily married for 5 years and have 2 children. We have a “time-value” view of earnings to the marriage, so although he goes to work and I take care of the kids while he is away, he joins me in all the house and childcare duties when he comes home. When the house is clean and the kids are in bed, we are both “off duty” for the day, and he works just as hard to make this happen in order to give us time together as a couple.

    I think such a model could work in either a Christian or a secular marriage, but both partners need to be committed to equality. Many mothers in my mom’s group (some Christian and some non-religious) complain about their husbands not pulling their weight in household duties, so this problem isn’t limited to just Christian marriages. My husband does the dishes, sweeps and mops the floor every night, puts my oldest child to bed in the evenings, shops for groceries with the kids to give me some quiet time, does diapers, and is a completely loving husband and father. Marriage can work, but it takes a shared respect and love for one another.

  • AL

    I have a question for you and your happily married readers. You see lots of marriage advice books for people who want a Christian “fundamentalist” relationship, but I don’t see many books with advice about how to have an egalitarian, secular marriage. I think even people who don’t grow up fundie might struggle to find examples of truly functional egalitarian relationships in our dysfunctional patriarchical culture. My partner and I sometimes feel lost for how to actually create the kind of relationship we want to have because we just don’t know how to. Are there any resources you would recommend to help someone develop the emotional and practical tools needed for an egalitarian relationship?

    • MrPopularSentiment

      I think that a big reason for this is the nature of each type of relationship. In a complementarian/patriarchal marriage, each spouse has a role to play, so it makes sense to offer up a “user manual” of sorts. But in an egalitarian marriage, it comes down to respect for your spouse’s individuality, and that would make for a really short book.

      That being said, we’ve found some parenting books that have helped quite a bit. Books like “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” go through setting limits and cohabitating without being a jerk. And while specifically geared towards the parent/child relationship, I think that the lessons are absolutely applicable to adult relationships as well.

    • Rosie

      There are also books on other topics (specifically, communication) that can apply to creating an egalitarian marriage. My husband and I have found the Compassionate Communication (also known as NVC) tool to be particular helpful in our relationship. And really, I think a marriage can be just about anything two people decide to make it be…but the two people will have to communicate to figure out what they want to make. So if you learn how to communicate well, you can make up all the rest as you go.

    • Rosa

      I really like Harriet Lerner’s books. They aren’t about marriage, they’re about relationships in general, but they’re highly applicable to partnerships.

    • Stony

      I kind of like John Gottman’s books best, and they are secular if I recall correctly.

      • teaweed

        John Gottman is awesome! And yeah, his books are secular.

  • victoria

    I’ve been married for just shy of ten years now. Here’s what my relationship looks like:

    I would say that we’re definitely an egalitarian relationship even though we haven’t done every task evenly at all times over the course of our marriage. There’s nothing that one of us has a greater say than the other on — finances, child-rearing, day-to-day plans, where we live, religion, etc. Our marriage is very low-conflict, partly because we’re very similar people in terms of personality and values, and partly because we’ve both created an environment where each of us can express any kinds of concerns to the other one and we won’t dismiss it or take it overly personally.

    In practice, this is how things work for us day-to-day:

    * Whenever one of us really wants something, it pretty much happens. If I want to take a class, he rearranges his schedule to handle the childcare. If he wants to buy a new computer, we both shift our spending to make it work. This works for bigger things too — if one of us has a big goal (going to work for a start-up, going back to school for a degree) we hash out logistics and things have always worked well so far. Generally we both have veto power on medium-to-large things but rarely exercise it without a darned good reason. When there are conflicts we talk until we get to consensus. I can’t think of an issue where someone’s gotten a “big win” and the other has been unhappy.
    * Of course, there are some things that you can’t really compromise on; where you live and having kids (and how many) are a couple of them. We haven’t really had disputes on the latter, but in our case we’ve made a move for his career, and the condition he attached to that was that I get to choose the place and timing of the next move. Neither one of us has “authority” over the other’s religious choices, nor over our daughter’s.
    * We had equal say in how we handle our daughter’s schooling. We also discuss child rearing issues. We don’t do things exactly the same way, and we don’t always agree, but neither one of us undermines the other. I work fewer hours than he does so I do a little more childcare, but we pretty much split the primary childcare responsibility down the middle when we’re both home (less of an issue now that the kiddo is school-aged and can pretty much look after herself for most things). I tend to maintain the calendar but we each take time off work for school holidays and sick days, take her to the doctor, and take her to school and friend social stuff as it works for both of us. That doesn’t all fall on me.
    * We’re both “allowed” to go out alone in the evenings as often as we want. But neither one of us really wants to inconvenience the other, so in practice this ends up being maybe once or twice a month for each of us.
    * Household chores are generally divided based on capability, inclination, and other obligations. There are certain chores that one person normally does — I am particular about the laundry so I do that; I have back problems so he takes out the trash; he’s more of a morning person so he unloads the dishwasher and makes school lunches; I’m home earlier so I cook dinner most weeknights and he generally does it at least once on the weekend. Both of us vacuum, dust, go grocery shopping. We both have times when we’re frustrated about the domestic workload but the understanding is that we have a shared obligation to get things to a minimum standard and the person who wants things done “better” is the one with the responsibility to do it.

    Sorry for the novel, but I think this is the sort of thing you were looking for. I’ll also echo others who said that marriage didn’t change a whole lot for them.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      That’s interesting, and I just wanted to add that I don’t think that an egalitarian marriage necessarily means that you have to do all things in equal parts. For example, my husband works retail and there are times during the year when he doesn’t get very many shifts. I, on the other hand, work in an office, so my working hours are regular. Also, there are tasks that I’m better suited to and tasks that he’s better suited to. For example, I LOVE doing our finances, so I’m the one who tracks our spending and makes our budgets – but then we talk about it and I take his needs/ideas/desires into account, and sometimes we will change things based on our conversations.

      While I was on maternity leave, I was technically a stay-at-home parent, but he’d take the baby for 1-2hours every day when he got home from work so that I could do “me” stuff (like read a book, or take a bath). Now that I’m back to work, we divide our evenings into three parts – 1) When he is watching the kiddo so I can go have fun, 2) When I am watching the kiddo so he can go have fun, and 3) When all three of us spend time together. The ratios change depending on the day – sometimes we have errands to run and that messes things up, or sometimes one of us had a bad day and just needs some extra “off” time – but it stays pretty even over time.

      For discretionary spending, we actually have an allowance system. This was because when we moved in together, he was a really bad impulse spender and I was so frugal that I never spent anything on myself at all. We decided that neither of these positions was healthy, so the allowance helped him cap his spending and helped me spend a reasonable amount guilt free. For bigger things, we also have a “sink fund” savings account, and we decide what to spend that on by talking it over. Usually, it ends up being spent on things like super fancy new computers for him, but then I get his old ones when he upgrades, and since I don’t play the sorts of games that require amazing graphics, that actually works really well for us. Other than that, we like to spend that money on stuff that benefits the whole family, like travel.

      And we do both go out with friends occasionally, or sometimes I like to go to lectures in the evenings. If one of us started taking advantage of it and leaving the other behind with the baby too much, we’d put a system in place. But that’s just never been an issue.

      For everything else, like I said, we share our core values. Whenever there’s a disagreement, we just talk it out and we nearly always quickly find that one person has the right of it according to those values. When not, we try to find a compromise.

  • H

    Hah, Machintelligence is right!
    I have been in a happy marriage for 15 years, got married very young (19), but always with the expectation of having an egalitarian marriage. We are both atheists. We don’t have any children, we weren’t sure we wanted to for the first decade or so, but it is wonderful. We are best friends, share the joys and burdens. We make decisions together; it isn’t always easy, but we both make our cases. Usually the person who cares more is the one who gets their way, but it also depends on reason (such as, we can’t afford that, that dinner is not very healthy, etc).
    We can sit together in companionable silence or have long philosophical conversations, or talk about popular culture, or plans for the future. We don’t agree on what the best music or movie or books are, although we do have a lot in common there. We both take the time to do special things for each other from time to time, just to remind the other person that we are thinking of them (although he’s a much better romantic than I am) and tell each other what we love about each other. We try to focus on what we like about each other, rather than what annoys us. And when we see each other after being apart, we can’t help but smile.

  • Elise

    I just want to chime in on something hitherto untouched: How the first year of any marriage will be an “adjustment”–especially in an egalitarian marriage. I beg you Lisa, however, not to be frustrated by this. In fundamental marriages where the wife will swallow up her needs, in egalitarian marriages, the moving-in-together part will involve some more successful negotiations, and some drag-out fights as both partners figure out how to live together successfully and blend into each other’s families.

    So at the first fight, rather than saying to yourself “Oh no, my old pastor was right: secular/egalitarian marriages are horrible!” Think to yourself “Does he otherwise respect me? Was he willing to compromise on other things? How does he take care of the household chores/finances?” An egalitarian marriage will have the answers “yes, yes, XYZ chores”. The rest will settle down to mutual respect and general satisfaction and teamwork. It did for me and many other friends.

    Has anyone else had a funny first year and then growth to happy egalitarian marriage?

    • Rosie

      For us, living together before marriage was when all the big adjustments happened. Some would say the “lack of commitment” in that situation would lead to an easier break-up. But we were committed to always talking things through (even if that thing included a potential break-up), and the lack of formal paperwork enabled me to be more aggressive about speaking my needs than I would have felt comfortable with in the context of a marriage (thanks to my evangelical upbringing). By the time we signed the papers, we’d pretty well defined our relationship the way we wanted to, and so getting married didn’t, in fact, require us to also take on the social baggage accrued to that term.

    • Mogg

      I thought I’d chime in here as I’m in the middle of that process now.

      As a background, my partner was raised in the Anglican church but his father died when he was a child and his mother and one sister converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses when he was a teenager, at which point he started the process of questioning which ended up with him ultimately becoming an atheist in his twenties. I was raised in an Evangelical-style church from which my family progressed to a fully fundamentalist, patriarchalist group when I was 19, studying and still living at home (which is quite normal here in Oz; universities don’t have many live-in students so living with your family is the cheapest way to get by while you’re getting an education). I didn’t escape from the fundie group until I was in my early thirties, although I was by no means a true believer for several years before I left. I was terrified of never finding a relationship as I didn’t fit that particular fundie group’s mould of a good wife and so was labelled “unmarriageable” and also terrified that a relationship would mean that I had to give up myself. I had had several more or less severely dysfunctional relationships as I went through the process of leaving the church and finding myself, in the process becoming an atheist.

      My partner and I were in out late 30′s when we met about a year and half ago, and this is for both of us the first relationship in which we have progressed to living with a partner. Through a series of events it ended up being the best choice for him to move in with me when we had been together for about a year, firstly on a temporary basis, but fairly quickly the situation changed so that a permanent move in was both practical and desirable for us both. Before that we saw each other every weekend and often during the week as well, and talked on the phone almost every night.

      It’s weird, and taking some work on both out parts to make the changes necessary for two independent people used to living alone or in a share house to make a home together, particularly as it is in what is legally and by several years’ experience MY house, not OUR house. My partner has had moments where he has felt like he doesn’t belong because the house is already full of my furniture and clutter and my soon-to-be-former housemate and good friend hasn’t yet moved out (long story). I have been trying to be aware of this and make room for my partner both physically and psychologically – rearranging my cupboards so that he has room for his clothes, emptying and tidying the shed, and letting him arrange some of the kitchen to his liking and bring some of his utensils in, stuff like that. We’ve been planning to renovate the back garden as one of his loves is gardening, and we’ve made several trips to the local tip to get rid of junk so that there is room for some of his things. We are only just starting to work on finances together, and that will take a while, but things like future job planning and whether or not we attempt to have a child are starting to be discussed. This process would probably be easier if we had both moved into a new place together, but that’s not how things worked out.

      You know what, though? It’s absolutely amazing. We are equals in worth and decision making, we both have jobs and do chores, we both make decisions, we each look out for the other, we are inspired by each other. We understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses as much as is possible in the relatively short time we have been together, and can encourage each other, support each other, be a cheerleader or counsellor or just give hugs when needed. We are lovers and friends and have no need to feel threatened by the quirks of the other because we have good communication and made that a priority quite literally from day one. We don’t have any hard and fast rules about who does what chores except that I reserve the job of cleaning up after the cats and dog as they were mine before we met. We manage to get far more done together than apart, though.

      I never would have guessed that something like this could come my way. I was afraid that I would have to settle for a traditional life of man and wife, children and a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. Now, I may end up with that not because I’m forced to but because I’m in an amazing relationship and we choose to do that together. The nature of the relationship makes all the difference. I may be too old to have a child (which prospect devastated me five years ago and I can accept with little regret now as I know that my worth as an individual is far more than my ability to reproduce) or we may decide not to have one. I may end up going back to studies, he may look for a job interstate or overseas – who knows? We’ll discuss it, and decide on how we’re going to do it if that’s what we want to do. We haven’t yet decided if we want to marry, but if we do it will be on the basis of more convenient legal kinship status, not for family or social pressure or because we want to be the centre of a big event (urgh!). Or, although at this stage I think it is unlikely, we may decide to go our separate ways. In that case we are both quite mature enough to do so without attempting to destroy each other in the process, and we will have had at least a year and a half of an absolutely wonderful relationship.

      • machintelligence

        I wouldn’t necessarily worry about being too old. Unless you have gone through menopause, you can most likely have children. My wife and I were in our very late 30′s when our first child was born and over 40 for our second. I strongly recommend having amniocentesis done, though, as the probability of chromosomal abnormalities increases steeply later in life.

      • Mogg

        Oh, I’m not particularly worried yet, just aware that the decision needs to be made pretty soon if there’s to be a good chance of it being an actual decision rather than an inevitability. I would be absolutely be having an amnio because of the age factor. I work in health and my first job out of uni was at a specialist women’s hospital, so I’m fairly aware of these things.

      • machintelligence

        Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound patronizing. The only disadvantage to being older parents was being mistaken for grandparents (did we really look that old?

      • kisekileia

        machintelligence, that’s not strictly correct. Fertility goes way down and the risk of birth defects goes up significantly after age 35. A lot of women who don’t start trying to conceive until after 35, and especially those who don’t start trying to conceive until after 40, are never able to have biological kids or can only do so with extensive fertility treatments.

      • machintelligence

        @ kisekileia Oh, come on, I used weasel words and an anecdote — what more do you want? :-)

  • B

    I’ve read Lisa’s blog for awhile, so the first thing I would say is: which of the fundamentalist teachings you heard *did* end up making correct predictions? You’ve switched to a much more secular life and as far as I can tell, it has been better in every single aspect. I assure you that the same is true for marriage.

    As for my marriage, we have moved around a lot on the spectrum of marriage types (I was much more conservative when we married, but also more ambitious, so we had a vague idea that I should “obey” but also that he was going to be the at-home spouse), settling on a very traditional-looking but actually egalitarian relationship (I became disabled and he willingly stepped up to handle the breadwinning while I have spent the last few years caring for our home). In actual fact, the marriage was always egalitarian. A good marriage, in my experience, is just a matter of going through life together. If you have a best friend for whom you feel sexual attraction and have compatible intentions for life…you shouldn’t have to be afraid of marriage to that person.

  • Camilla

    I see all this fretting about sexual fidelity in men… why aren’t the women worried that they might get bored/lonely themselves and stray? It’s got to happen, right? Perhaps thinking of cheating as a male problem makes it more mysterious and hard to fathom… like a male elephant going into musth, rather than just a human doing something that humans of both genders do at statistically significant rates.

  • Karen

    Thirty-two years of egalitarian marriage here. I entered it with high hopes, but without good modeling: my parents’ relationship was weird, with my father wanting an egalitarian relationship and my mother wanting a patriarchal one. Mama was always “submitting” to what my father wanted (never mind that he would have gladly worked out a compromise if she’d just so much as squeaked!) and then whining about it to me, their only child. I guess it gave her a feeling of security. Or something. At any rate, I entered an egalitarian marriage without quite knowing how to go about it, but with a wonderful husband who coached me and encouraged me.

    We split chores based on skill and inclination. I have health issues, and he’s been an absolute rock supporting me as I deal with them. Early on we chose not to have children, for many reasons, and he gently and understandingly helped me keep to the agreement when I heard my biological clock ticking LOUDLY. (We would NOT have been good parents; this was a good choice.) There’s never been anyone for either of us but each other. We each have our own hobbies and interests, and we encourage each other in them; we also learn interesting things from each other.

    Mind you, there were some difficult times. Some of them were caused by him taking on more projects that he could personally deal with at one time. Some of them were caused by my mental health issues. We worked through them. We’re stronger for them. Sometimes you have to live, day-to-day for a few days/weeks/months with the mantra, “we will get through this.” And eventually, you do.

  • Kas

    It almost seems like she believes that she is obligated to marry her first boyfriend. If this isn’t her first major relationship, I think the advice still stands. There’s no rush to get married, is there? And no reason to just because it’s what is “done”. Don’t worry so much about feeling like you have to jump into your first major relationship with all the trappings of a formal marriage. You never have to get married, certainly not to your first serious relationship.

    I know that it works for a lot of people, but I’m always worried when people marry young to their first adult relationship. I’ve seen it go very badly on all sides.

    • Andie

      Yep, clearly she should follow her heart, which is saying ‘eh, not this one.’

  • Larry Clapp

    I’m 43, male, and married going on 10 years, before which we were together for 2 years. See the story of our meeting here ( I was raised United Methodist but frankly it never really “took” and I can’t say I ever really believed any of it, so far as I can recall. I haven’t been to church regularly since my teens.

    Our relationship is very good, very happy, very loving, and very equal. We decide important things together. Frequently conversations begin with “what are your thoughts on …”. We believe that the core of our relationship is good communication. When we met, I was working in a job that was 100% travel: I’d fly out Monday morning and fly back Friday evening, to spend the weekend at home, and then do it again the next week, and the next, etc. We spent out first two years like that, and spent hours per week on the phone, talking. Now, 12 years ago, cell phones didn’t have built-in free long distance, they had “roaming” and it was expensive. But my job gave me a $50/week phone allowance, which didn’t go very far on hotel phones ($1/minute!), but did keep us comfortably in pre-paid calling cards. My point being, we talked a lot. A lot. And we got to know each other pretty well.

    So, communicate.

    A good tool for this is The Ungame. ( My wife and I played it on our first date.

    This has kind of turned into advice, which probably isn’t what you want. Back to me / my marriage. :)

    We communicate, we work things out, we discuss, we respect each other. We don’t hold grudges … though frankly we’ve little to hold grudges over, since we don’t get angry (with each other). We occasionally get *frustrated*, but we don’t let that turn into *anger*. And when other facets of our lives cause us stress, we don’t take it out on each other; rather the reverse: we turn to each other for comfort. I remember thinking, before I got married, that far from being worried or nervous, I felt like marrying Roxanne would be like curling up in a warm blanket on a cold day.

    And frankly that’s how it’s been.

    Joyous, loving, happy.

    And I’ll be so bold as to assert that she’d agree.

    On other fronts, *before* Roxanne, I dated a woman for 5.5 years. It was great for a while, then it wasn’t, and then it sucked, and then we broke up. That experience taught me some valuable lessons; one of the biggest was Don’t Settle. If someone isn’t right for you, or you can’t really see yourself marrying them, don’t get married just because society thinks you should, or they think you should, or for any other reason than that you both want to. Your current Significant Other might make someone else a great spouse, but if they aren’t right for *you*, or you aren’t right for *them*, don’t do it.

    Another big lesson was, being in a bad relationship for a couple of years teaches you to recognize and value the good ones when they come along.

    I keep drifting back into advice, but hopefully some of this has been useful. :)

  • Rosie

    I’ve been married for about 12 years. We lived together for about 2 years prior to formalizing the relationship (mostly for the sake of the family, but it does make the tax forms easier too). We were monogamous for the first five years or so, then we re-negotiated into a polyamorous arrangement. Of course, there are as many ways to be poly as there are ways to be married; we talked it over and figured out what kind of poly agreement would meet both our needs and so far it’s working. If ever it isn’t anymore, we’ll re-negotiate. This is our invented life. We make it up as we go.

    I have many friends in many different kinds of relationships, but the common denominator in the successful ones seems to be communication. Some are monogamous, some poly, some with children, some without. Some of the poly couples actively seek outside partners, some don’t. Some couples seem to enjoy their children more than others. I think the most important thing to realize, for someone coming out of a fundamentalist background, is *there aren’t any rules*. There’s no hard and fast template for a relationship. That’s scary because it also means there’s no “guaranteed” formula for success (not that what’s sold that way works anyhow, but whatever). It’s also freeing, especially if the template you were sold never fit you to begin with.

  • Rod

    Lisa…. My question to you….. do or did you really believe that ALL non-christian and not-like-you-were-taught marriages were filled with … what, abuse, debauchery, unfaithfulness…..? It is pretty insulting to the millions of couples, many of whom you have read of above, to think that their marriages, because they were not formed the way you were taught, were worthless or somehow less than the type of marriage you were taught was “right”?
    This is not meant as criticism exactly, but the world, and everything in it, is not black or white, but many many shades of grey.
    I hope you can see that almost everything you encounter will unfold to show you those subtleties.

    • Rosie

      I’m not Lisa, and I can’t answer for her, but I was raised in a similar fashion. Even after I knew in my head that the world wasn’t all that black-and-white, that plenty of people broke the rules and still led decent lives, it wasn’t easy for me to feel or imagine myself doing the same. When one internalizes these kinds of teachings, the simple knowledge that they’re wrong doesn’t really go very far toward living a life free of them. So hopefully seeing all these stories of all these different kinds of egalitarian relationships will help Lisa (and others like her) to more fully imagine what’s possible in the wide world.

      • Lisa

        That pretty much sums up the problem. There is a vast difference between “knowing” and “feeling”. I ‘know’ the world isn’t black and white, but I ‘feel’ like I have to think in those categories, and live my life according to it. It’s something you just can’t get out of your behavior. Just like I still feel guilty when I ‘let’ a man do the dishes, or when I make decisions, or when I spend money on something just for me and so on. It’s anchored pretty deep inside of me and trying to get rid of it is a bit like trying to pick the lentils out of a bowl of green peas (cindarella anybody?).

      • Mogg

        Hey Lisa, I hope that you will find, like me, that the black and white fades into shades of grey over time. Do you have people in your life who are from quite a different background? Hanging out with them or finding out a bit more about them may help your mind to start making the adjustments. Meeting my first fellow student who had a non-married long term partnership and my first openly homosexual work mate made a huge difference for me as I worked day-to-day with them and found that their lives were just as normal as mine. The same thing goes with people who have different ways of arranging their marriages – if you can, spend some time with friends who have more egalitarian relationships. Normalisation and learning by observing and figuring out what works for you are important, and it takes time. I hope it works out for you!

      • Lisa

        Oh ALL of my friends and actually, my entire environment is very different from my old life – as in, I’m living in the normal world now hehe
        See, the thing is: I learned to see all those “worldly” things as normal when it comes to other people. My best friend changing boyfriends every 6 months? Her problem, her life, go for it! My gay friend? His life, go for it! My muslim coworker? Her life, her faith, go for it! But when it comes to me, really JUST me, I seem to fall back into old habits. I think that’s the biggest problem… But I’m not in a rush!

  • Beguine

    I’ve been married for about 4 years now, though my husband and I lived together for about 5 years before that. Before that, we were best friends for about two years. I personally found this approach worked, and think it’s important to know that you’re compatible with the other person in terms of day to day approach to life, sex, spending habits, home maintenance, etc. BEFORE you sign up to raise children with someone and let them make major medical decisions for you. This doesn’t mean he ‘won’t buy the cow since he’s getting the milk for free’ or that you’ll fall out of love. We’re still as nauseatingly affectionate with each other as we were when we first admitted we had feelings for one another. We fight rarely, and I feel like the fact that we’ve spent a lot of time devoted just to each other will give us a stronger foundation to deal with the stress of child rearing in a year or so.

    We both work outside the home, and both have demanding jobs that we love (I’m training to be a doctor, he’s a government contractor). This makes household chores a bit more of a burden since we don’t have someone devoted to keeping things neat full-time, but the benefits are that we both have goals and achievements that are just ours, and we don’t have the mismatch of emotional needs that can occur when one person spends an exhausting day interacting with coworkers, customers, etc. and the other spends an equally exhausting day with no one over the age of four to talk to. We split chores based on our strengths rather than gender lines. I do the laundry and he pays the bills because I find managing money stressful and annoying and he feels the same way about folding things and realizing you’re out of clean underwear again. However, I do all the yardwork because he has sensitive skin and bug bites leave him with two centimeter-wide welts and joint aches, and he does the day to day cooking because I get home later and don’t have the patience to cook anything other than dessert.

    I’ll note that it’s okay to defer to the other partner even in an egalitarian marriage if it works for you on certain issues. He’s more careful with money and we both know it, so I will defer to him on when we can afford to splurge on a vacation or a dinner out. I’m better at knowing when things have hit a crisis point and it’s time to seek expert help, so he defers to me when I say we need to hire a plumber instead of handling it ourselves or take a sick pet to the vet, or similar. It’s okay to let someone be the boss in the areas where they shine, as long as that works for both of you and one person isn’t getting trampled.

  • Beguine

    Oh, as to the specific ingrained stereotypes/fears:

    1) “The man fat and lazy…” Well, I put on weight when I was stressed out in grad school, but he teaches kung fu in his spare time and both of us exercise and have started to eat healthier as we hit the big 3-0 and realized it was time to stop ‘eating like kids’. My husband and I are both hardworkers at work. By the standards you grew up with our house is a bit messy so I guess you could get to ‘lazy’ from there, but it’s not horrible and that’s why we’re considering hiring a maid service.

    2) …Cheating on his wife, going to swing clubs… ” Nope! We communicate honestly about sexual needs and wants, and we both strive to meet the other in the middle. There’s some masturbation when 0ne person’s drive is higher than the others that week, but there’s no going outside the marriage. I’ve heard of people that have deliberately opened their marriage, but neither of us would want the added health risks and emotional risks when we’re both satisfied with each other.

    3) “…Terrible kids” Well, we don’t have ‘em yet, but an older friend in a similar marriage has a bright, friendly, well-mannered five year old son who thrived in daycare and now kindergarten where he made lots of friends while they both worked. When they are home with him after work, they made sure that the time they had together is high quality (working on homework, talking about their days, doing fun projects together), and he’s very secure in his knowledge of his parents love. If anything, our friends that come from a more religiously conservative background our struggling more, and I honestly think the patriarchy-lite background is partially to blame. The dad seems annoyed by the fact that he has to put aside work or pleasure for his child and doesn’t step up enough to help his wife out, in my opinion. I blame the patriarchal structure that led him to expect that dealing with children would be his wife’s problem.

  • Molly

    I’ve been married for 14 years now (together for 17) and my parents have been married for 38 years. None of us are Christian or ever have been. All of us are very happy! I just wrote about marriage in a blog post for my anniversary that was based on remarks I find puzzling about marriage from fundamentalist Facebook friends. Lisa, maybe you will find it helpful too:

  • Slow Learner

    I got married two months ago; my wife and I have been together for a little over two years, and were friends for several years before that.
    We can have blazing rows sometimes, because we are both strong-willed, stubborn people. But we always make peace, and so far we have always found a compromise we can both be happy with. Equally, we have supported each other through some difficult times, and found that we can achieve huge amounts when we work together.
    She has a lot of ability with tools, and crafts, and materials – I am good at finding information, at dealing with electronics, mechanical things and bureaucracy. She has drive to achieve things, to have projects, but left to herself gets overloaded and burns out. I am laid back, some might say lazy, and left to myself would achieve little I wasn’t thoroughly committed to.
    Between the two of us, however, we achieve more of both of our aims AND she is more relaxed and happy.
    There are other aspects which work similarly, but I feel that’s a good start at describing our partnership.

  • Christine

    I can’t give any comments on secular marriage, but I can definitely talk about an egalitarian one. Before I start, however, I want to make a comment. I know that a lot of fundamentalists don’t think that pre-marital counselling is necessary, because you’re both Christians, and therefore think exactly the same things and/or the man will make the decisions and the woman will listen and/or you can just pray any problems out (I never understood why). There’s a reason that it’s the norm. Do it. (That being said, we didn’t do counselling, we did a seminar through my church that covered the same things. You do NOT want to get married and discover that you’re not on the same page about budgeting/if you’re going to have kids/who does the household chores.) Not only did we not live together before we got married, but we didn’t even share bank accounts – we would pay each other back for certain things, to keep the budgets balanced. Granted, we’ve only been married three years, so this might not be a recommendation for the lack of practice.

    We, at this point, have fallen into a very “traditional” marriage in terms of gender roles – he’s working (we’re living on his studentship as he gets his PhD) and I’m staying home with the baby. I do most of the cooking & cleaning, the budgeting and shopping. Most of the shopping that he does is due to his student status – either it requires a bus ride, which he pre-pays for with his student fees, or there’s a student discount. HOWEVER, when he comes home, I don’t even need to say I’m tired, he’ll notice and take the baby so I can have a break (or even just so I can finish making dinner). We figure that I’ll eventually get an outside job (however two engineers does not make for a good two-income home when there’s children involved, the hours are consistently awful). We sit and discuss our schedule for the day to work out what will be done when, so that we can both do what we want to do. Oh, yeah, and I’m going to be earning (on paper) more money than him this year, because I picked up a consulting job. The money all goes into the same bank accounts, and the budget dictates where it comes out, not who earned it, not him vs me. I admit that I have a fair bit more control over where the money goes than he does, but that’s because I’m the one who has time to go shopping. He doesn’t want to have to sit down with me every time our not-so-little girl needs new clothes (about every 2-3 months) and discuss what she needs and how much I should spend. If there’ s money in the budget spreadsheet, I can spend it.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here (much) is that we fight. It happens. When one of us feels neglected, or belittled, or like our needs aren’t met, we sit down and discuss it. Note the lack of the word “calmly” in there. It’s painful, but we talk it out, try to find a compromise, and hopefully emerge with a better relationship. Disagreeing with each other is healthy, and being allowed to acknowledge that disagreement is a sign of a healthy relationship. Not everyone will end up disagreeing about stuff that they care about, but knowing how to do so is crucial in a marriage where you both get to be whole, worthy people. People change (healthy people are allowed to do so!), and you might disagree later rather than sooner.

    • Larry Clapp

      > I know that a lot of fundamentalists don’t think that pre-marital counselling is necessary, because you’re both Christians, and therefore think exactly the same things and/or the man will make the decisions and the woman will listen and/or you can just pray any problems out (I never understood why). There’s a reason that it’s the norm. Do it.

      Agree. My wife and I did it before we got married, and found it useful.

  • OurSally

    If you are happy the way you are, then stay that way. We did that too; because we wanted to have children we decided we ought to get that bit of paper, so we would. But we were worried we might start being like our parents, so we wrote down how we wanted to live, and we both signed it. And we stick to it.
    What our agreement contains:
    Shared housework (he does A, I do B, with the option to swap)
    Same contribution to household finances (except in baby-pauses)
    Separate bank account for household
    Shared childcare
    etc etc
    Good, we fight like cat and dog sometimes, but roughly we stick to this and it works for us. Write down your list of what you expect and discuss it. Don’t sign anything until you have agreed!

  • Angela

    Hi Lisa. My husband is culturally Jewish, I was raised as Christian, and we are both atheists. My daughter is 14 and an atheist, although we have told her “this is what we believe, you can make your own decision”. We have a pretty egalitarian marriage; in fact because I work about an hour from home and my husband only a few minutes, HE is the one who picks up the kids when they’re sick, etc. We both do laundry and cook, more on a whoever-isn’t-exhausted basis than on a rotation, and we both work. We’re pretty happy. Not only could I never stand being a submissive wife, but my husband has no interest in marrying a doormat.

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