Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Starter Husband

The Starter Husband
You'd never buy a car without test-driving it first right? So why settle into a lifelong marriage before trying one on for size?By Gretchen Voss

I'm just really not ready to be committed like this." That's what Andi said to Tucker, her husband of 11 months, after she came home from a crazy day at work two years ago with an overwhelming urge to quit her marriage. Today. Right now. "This just isn't for me."

She spoke stoically — no tears, no histrionics. She had been imagining this moment since she moved out of their condo a few months earlier, but she wanted to ease him into the inevitable — to somehow tiptoe her way through the minefield of Tucker's emotions. But now, having scored a direct hit with those crushing words, she watched Tucker crumple against the dining-room table. "I don't understand," he said, over and over. "We're married."

"Look, we can do this now, or we can do this five years from now when it's a lot messier," Andi said, softening her voice but not her position. "I want a divorce." The guy didn't really do anything to deserve this, she thought, looking at Tucker's ashen face. He must think I'm a monster. Watching her husband shuffle to the door of her temporary apartment, Andi felt awful.

But mostly, she felt unbelievably relieved.

"I was married for like, two seconds." That's what Andi says to me today, her enormous kohl-rimmed blue eyes crinkling as she recounts her drive-through union. "It was literally an entry-level marriage." We're sitting in a cafe in a funky Boston neighborhood known for its liberal attitudes and alternative lifestyles — this is where gay couples raise their children — and yet women are actually swiveling in their seats, doing indiscreet 180s to get a look at the impeccably coiffed, blonde-haired woman saying such things.

Hearing her words, I flinch slightly. We're talking about an event that's supposed to be a turning point in life, and she sounds so cavalier. And yet, Andi is only articulating what the one in five women under age 30 who get divorced every year must think.

After graduating from college, Andi jetted off to culinary school in Paris, then switched to journalism, where she climbed the ranks, moving from one semi-glamorous job to the next — all the while hooking up, dating, dumping, and moving on. She's a perfectly modern gal, a gorgeous mess of neuroses and contradictions — the kind who never pictured herself married by 27, divorced by 28, and remarried with two toddlers at 35.

But along the way, she met Tucker. "He was what I was supposed to marry. He was what everybody else in my life wanted for me and what the world tells you you're supposed to want," she says. "I got sucked into the idea. I was in my 20s, and I felt like there was so much pressure from my family to find the perfect person. I just felt like, God, I'd be stupid if I didn't do this."
Within months of promising to love and honor and cherish Tucker forever, she knew she had made a huge mistake. The problem? He was boring. "Wholly uncomplicated," as she puts it. The kind of guy who reads Tom Clancy books on the couch and watches Adam Sandler movies while dreaming of white-picket fences. Going to depressing French movies, leapfrogging over the less ambitious on the company ladder — those were the things that excited Andi. "The idea of spending my life with someone like that seemed stifling," she says. "It finally just got to me that he was so . . . sunny."

I hoist my drink in that you-go-girl kind of way, but I'm struck by her casual disregard for the institution. Marriage used to be a big deal. How could she slip in and out of it so easily? She'd plodded along for nearly 12 months, passive-aggressively avoiding her relationship by consuming herself with the restaurant openings and black-tie benefits that were part of her job. But then Tucker started talking about having children. "To me, once you have kids, you can't get out," she says. "When he began asking about a family, I felt like that was too final of a commitment. That's when I had to say, 'OK, I've got to fish or cut bait here.'"

Her own parents split up when she was 3, and she didn't want to condemn another generation to that hell. Andi and Tucker got divorced almost a year to the day after they had vowed to be together forever.

"Oh, my God, it was so easy," she says, exhaling loudly. "I realized, I can get out of this, and he can get out of this, and we can get on with our lives." They sold the condo and split the profits, and that was that. She felt bad about hurting his feelings, but she never doubted her decision. I raise an eyebrow. "Never," she repeats.

Andi takes a throaty slug of her second raspberry martini, picks at her fish taco, then sits back in her chair. "I think marriage is the new dating and having kids is the new marriage," she proclaims loudly, as yet another woman dining with her partner turns to stare. "It's true. I wouldn't have married him if I didn't think I could get out of it."

how it sounds, Andi is not a first-class bit**. She's the type who will hunt down the most perfectly thoughtful baby gift or whisk you off to a much-needed mani-pedi after your boss goes nuclear on you. But when it comes to relationships, her attitude is pure pragmatism: Clearly she'd screwed up — best to press delete. And I bet there isn't a married woman out there, if she's really honest, who hasn't flirted with the thought of doing the same. I know there have been days in my own five-year marriage when I've dreamed of reclaiming my freedom. Not many, but a few. But then I wake up, not just because I love the guy — and I'm damned lucky to have him — but because I'm married. That is supposed to mean something.

Andi was my introduction to the concept of an icebreaker marriage but certainly not my last. Burning through a starter husband is almost becoming a rite of passage: While newly-marrieds everywhere fear the one-in-two-marriages-fail statistic, the more relevant stat is that while the median age at which a woman first marries is 25, the median age at which she first divorces is 29. In fact, 20 percent of marriages fail within five years, and of those, one in four end within two years. So much for until death do us part.

I don't have to look far in my own life to find human faces that bear out the numbers: One of my best friends from college barely scratched out a two-year union following her six-figure Hawaiian wedding; my brother managed to eke out almost 29 months before he and his betrothed packed it up for Splitsville. Their divorces were good things, believe me. Still, I was miffed that they got married in the first place. These relationships were never the stuff of happily ever after.

Of course, our generation can afford to chuck the Cinderella story when the glass slipper doesn't fit. While our grandmothers were forced to remain shackled to unhappy unions for monetary reasons, most women today have the financial wherewithal to cry uncle and bolt whenever we get uncomfortable.

For some, a starter husband is like a starter home — a semi-commitment where you're willing to do some of the surface work, like painting the walls, but not the heavy lifting, like gutting the whole foundation; he's just not a long-term investment. Others compare a starter husband to a first job, where you learn some skills and polish your resume before going after the position you really want.

In our everyday life — one where we're encouraged to pursue the bigger, better anything (witness the average college grad who now burns through seven jobs before turning 30) — how can you commit to something, or someone, forever? "That's a huge promise. We live in an incredibly fast-paced consumerist culture," says Pamela Paul, author of the book The Starter Marriage, who herself was divorced less than a year after taking her vows at age 27. "Ours is an H&M culture, where you go out and buy 10 cheap items for the season, then toss them, rather than investing in one beautiful coat you'll wear for another 10 seasons. More and more women have that throwaway mentality with their first marriage — the 'I want it now' attitude." Until, of course, you don't.

And that's just our prerogative, says Generation Me, fingers poised above the do-over button. We can pick and choose among limitless possibilities seemingly unattached to consequence because today's 20-somethings are living out an extended adolescence in a manner unlike any generation before them. We're still knocking around and figuring it out, often on our parents' dime.

"Simply put, my 20s were freaking me out," says 29-year-old Elisa Albert, a wavy-haired brunette and adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University. "I felt unqualified to be barreling into adulthood alone — I felt at loose ends in regards to my career, my ability to support myself, even my post-college social identity. I was lonely and scared. At the same time, I'm watching Sex and the City and going, OK, so should I spend the next 20 years getting my heart broken and pretending that it's all in good fun? Or should I marry this dude I'm dating, have a gorgeous party, and make my parents really, really happy?"

She chose wrong.

It all started over a steaming cup of coffee in a New York City diner. Elisa's mother suggested she give a family friend a call in the wake of his sibling's death (Elisa's own brother had died a few years back).

"We talked about our brothers, which was intense, and then somehow we went from there to falling in love and having this 100-mile-an-hour courtship," Elisa says. "We were talking about naming our unborn children after our dead brothers. It was totally crazy."

From an outsider's perspective, you could see trouble ahead: They crashed between breakup and make-up like a game of pinball. But during one warm-and-fuzzy reconciliation, they decided to get hitched.

Suddenly, the relationship snowballed into something bigger: getting married.

"I totally bought into the wedding-industry machine," admits Elisa, who spent more time obsessively planning every detail of her nuptials for 300 at a Malibu estate than she did working on her master's thesis. From the five-star vegan menu to the Japanese lanterns to the playlist, Elisa's focus was all wedding, no marriage.

"I had a totally misguided notion of what a wedding was about," she says. "You work toward this giant event, have an enormous party, then an hour after you get married, reality sets in. I was like, Oh, sh** — that didn't really solve anything."

You can almost forgive a girl for focusing on the party and forgetting about the hangover. After all, it seems that we don't have a clue what the heck marriage is anymore. Like a fat promotion to the corner office, we aspire to it — the sparkler on my finger means I'm a success, receiving the final rose means I win — but what is the prize again? For that cluelessness, apparently, we can thank our single moms and alimony dads. "We are the children of parents who divorced in the '70s and '80s," says Paul. "Divorce is out there as a familiar possibility."

My own parents' bitter divorce — many, many years in the making — played out right around the time of my engagement. I knew all too well what the seamy underbelly of marriage looked like, and it had made me incredibly cautious about commitment — it took me seven years of dating my husband before I could consider the concept of "forever."

Still, it's a legacy that cuts deep. "We were both like, We're going to do this right! Divorce is for losers," Elisa says of her and her ex's attitude toward their own parents' divorces. But she knew in the back of her mind that there was a plan B, that marriage was not necessarily a binding contract. And when she realized that she didn't even have a clue what a good marriage looked like, let alone what one felt like, she didn't hesitate to produce her Get Out of Jail Free card. "It was a constantly pitched, keyed-up hell," she says. Their downstairs neighbors left a note on their door: "I don't know what the hell is wrong with you people, but you need to stop screaming at each other."

Pulling the trigger was easy; dealing with the fallout was not. "Every time I ran into somebody I knew, I wanted to die," Elisa says. She briefly moved back to her childhood home in L.A. to regroup. "Even if they were nice, I just felt this pity from them, like, 'Oh, my God, you fu**ed up big. Wow, that sucks.'" Looking for guidance, she joined a divorce support group out in the Valley. It was an eye-opener. "It was full of women in their 50s with kids and mortgages," Elisa remembers. "They knew their marriages were doomed straight out of the gate but stayed shackled to them for 20 years."

Confronted with that alternative, Elisa's confidence in her decision was restored. Today, three years later, she considers her first husband the perfect warm-up for the real deal. "I could not be more grateful for that experience," she says. "I'm in a really good relationship right now, knock on wood, and I would never have been capable of that without my first marriage — learning how relationships work."

It's easy to write these women off as callous or self-absorbed. And yet on some level, they just might be pioneers: Why stay put in an empty shell of a marriage — an arrangement on paper only — instead of calling it what it is? "This generation is reinventing marriage," says Paul.

"I think women our age are like, We're either going to fix this, or we're going to end it, and that's for the better," says Kay Moffett, coauthor of Not Your Mother's Divorce. She married her own starter husband in a funky, flamingo-filled Florida wedding at 27, then divorced him four years later after realizing she could never make the real commitment of having children with him. But don't call her divorce a failure; in this enlightened world, it was simply a relationship that ran its course. "I think maybe we're moving more toward a serial-marriage society — maybe you have three marriages in your life and several different careers. That's where I'm heading," she says.

Still, even unapologetic Andi admits that the process is not always easy. "On the one hand, I felt empowered, like, Woo-hoo, I have the rest of my life in front of me. But there were moments of, Oh, my God, I'm a divorcee — does that mean I'm all washed up?" she says. It's why, she suggests, she turned to drinking heavily for several months after her breakup, trying to reconcile those thoughts — and perhaps, I suspect, dull some of the pain she's so sure she never felt.

Then she met David. He was supposed to be her rebound relationship. Three years later, she realized that she wanted to have kids with him — and that was the clincher.

Andi lifts her 2-month-old daughter up to her breast in the middle of the café. I ask if her second husband is The One, since they have kids and all. "I'm happy, but I try not to think about it," she says. "It's like, if I thought I had to have my hair the same way for the rest of my life, I'd freak out."


John said...

The Starter Husband

The first husband - a start up, a way to warm up for the real deal…..I think this article shows what a sad state of affairs "marriage" is really in today and makes us reflect on the question of what do we really want out of life and marriage. The concept of marriage used to mean finding someone you could share life with forever, being happy, even through ups and downs were always present in Andi’s situation. Nevertheless she found out that she had a way out, the same for her husband. I think we failed when we started expecting our children to GET married, to be happy ands prosperous, but never TEACHING them what "being married" really MEANT, what it was all about and entailed. A good point is raised: being married is one thing, but having children with someone you don’t connect with is another. Andi choose right..

Whenever a problem comes up, or things get boring, what's our first solution? Get distance between you, get a divorce! And I reflect on that and why that comes to our minds first. I feel it has to do with choices and future expectations. Although we had those dreams and expectations when we first made the commitment to marriage, we can still sway in our feelings about tomorrow. What else can we do? We don't know how to effectively communicate with our spouses, and we are scared that things will never change, so we want out. Anything would be better than our current situation, right? But if we make that final decision to divorce, there's no going back. And that's as scary as heck too, as Andi shared with us.

As far as "starter husbands", if you go into a marriage thinking of it only as a "starter", well, it's bound not to work. This is not helpful to you and definitely not fair for the man. You can't gain any experience on how to make a marriage work, if at the first sign of trouble or hesitation, you bail out, because you always had in the back of your mind, oh, it's only my "starter husband". “Next!”

brian said...

The Starter Wife sounds just like me. I was still in the Marine Corps when I made that fateful jump into sh.t. I was getting out of the Corps after medically retiring and things went well for about 2-3 yrs. I mean it wasn't the Huxtables or nothing but it was good. We had a beautiful baby girl and I think that just dragged our marriage out more, sadly. I thought having a kid might make our marriage better, but it got worse. She was so material and I was into sports, work, and trying to go to school. It was never he enough so we parted ways and divorced. After the divorce, we became like best friends. I hope if ever I get married again, it will be better because of the things I learned from the first.

Wolfgang Amadeus said...

This article is the most hypocritical piece of work I've ever encountered. A starter wife? Why start a marriage and tell someone that you love them and will stay with them to death if your only going to get out of it a month later? Everyone gets scared in relationships and the fear of the unknown or fear of the same repeating task makes many marriages fall apart and dissolve before the person even had the chance to prove they were the same as when they were dating.

Described easily this article is opinionated but it has the information that most first marriages end in a divorce as evidence. A first marriage ending in divorce isn't evidence, thats just saying if your married the first time your more likely to stay with the second person if you get a divorce from the first. The problem is that marriages are being given up on too easily and instead of both sides trying to make it work its normally one side holding it together while the other tears it apart. Marriage is supposed to be mutual, dating is the test run. Marriage is suppose to be sacred a vow that you cherish and always keep, not something you one day decide isn't worth anything to you! If a decision is made to get married then that decision should be stood by because if it isn't then whats the point of being married anymore?

peace and love said...

The presentation of this piece is very different from others. As much as I disagree with the actual context even though it didn't make me nearly as angry as the Trophy Wife article, I think it's imperative to point out that this was a calm, even plausible approach to her argument. She doesn't tear down the counter-argument, she provides her own.
Now after saying that, I do feel obliged to point out my personal conflicts with the article. I don't like the idea that divorce is so accepting. I don't necessarily think divorce is a bad thing, but I think it's one of those well, I need to get out situations for one of numerous reasons and supported with much more concrete problems than I think it's time for this to be done. The way Gretchen Voss treats marriage and divorce is something not that big of a deal. She starts the article by having a sub-header comparing marriage to a car. It's a bad sign when a personal possession such as a car is being compared to the idea of marriage. Voss goes on and on about these starter husbands and starter marriages. My biggest problem with that is why would you even get married to begin with? Why can't you just date somebody before taking the official plunge into a commitment? And how unfair is to the other person who is probably not treating marriage as some sort of test-drive?

The guess who said...

This article was definitely an eye opener. It has now confirmed my thoughts of marriage and I don’t ever want to get married. Seems like a waste of time. I think the problem with people staying married today is one it is too easy to get a divorce now and two, people lose the “excitement or passion” faster. They don’t try to make it work. I did like this article though. A year ago I had a cousin who got married and with in six months they were separated. Know one in my family knows why, but after reading this article it gave me an insight to what his wife may be feeling and how he might have acted. Allow me to clarify. My cousin acted like Tucker in this story and his now ex wife, was Gretchen. I think because divorce is in some ways glamorized, people won’t take it as seriously ever again and that is sad.

Bryant said...

This article brought to my attention, John Locke and "The Second Treatise of Government." This sounded so liberal in my point of view; it seemed as if these women were going through some sort of "American Revolution."

First there was this feeling of equality, and as blatant as it may sound, the women were speaking of instance as equally as I've heard men speak of the same instances. Most of my roommates, and ex-roomies would love to have themselves a few "starter girlfriends." John Locke probably would have viewed this as the equality between men and women if there were to be such a thing.

Second, there was this sense of Freedom, where a woman could finally do some of the things men do. As mentioned before, men think of "starters", therefore, it's only right that women have the freedom to think of "starters".

And finally, there was this "Right to Rebel" sort of thing going on since these women were so cruelly liberal. I mean, marrying for short periods of time was such a taboo subject, and is still considered to be even today, but the fact that these women aren't following the norms of "till death do you part". Instead, it's as if these women are rebelling the literal meaning of that phrase. John Locke would probably be impressed with society's women today.

i.c. toowell said...

The problem is the institution. Americans remain fixated on the need to be married without any regard for the preponderance of evidence indicating its overwhelming failure rate. Why get in to these entangling legal scenarios when simply living together provides effectively the same concept developed in this article? I think the answer is two fold. First, our misguided clinging to religious tradition somehow gives a stamp of approval to marriage but frowns upon cohabitation, even in this seemingly enlightened time. Second and this may sound sexist, but there seems to be such a priority and significance placed on the wedding and all its trappings, especially by the bride to be. I think many times couples get so wrapped up in the planning, details and nuances of the wedding itself they fail to focus at all on the reality of what marriage and living together really entails. The legal concept of marriage also seems to legitimatize and encourage offspring. These children then fall prey to the machinations of divorce and suffer all its ramifications.

If the heavy hand of religion and the materialistic obsession with weddings were to magically disappear then maybe the concept of “trial marriage” (by simply living together) would take hold. Our legal system would be freed of much of its backlog, monies otherwise spent for weddings could be used productively, potential brides and grooms could really find happiness and most importantly, innocent kids could be spared such tragic abuse.

Aaron said...

Unfortunately we see this everyday. The starter marriage. "Just practice" as many will refer to it. Regretfully marriage is no longer considered a sacred bond as it was originally intended. Today it is simply the next step after a relationship has matured. Years ago, divorce was seen as a horrible thing, today its a simple fix to a complicated problem.. A problem that needs to be talked about and solved not by divorce but through communication. Divorce these days is too easy. A few signatures, a couple hours in legalities and viola. Problem Solved...or is it? The problem usually lies inside the individuals not because of each other but because of their inability to hold a relationship. I speak from experience...My parents were married for 4 years before they divorced. Since then their faulty relationship has more or less cursed me. I believe their inability to withstand the toils of marriage was bestowed in me which leads to my caution/fear of serious relationships. This article wasn't really anything new to me but basically put into words exactly what I've been seeing for ages. Marriage is not taken seriously anymore. In the days where you can get a "drive up" wedding how can it be?

Anonymous said...

I loved this article. It tells the truth and what real relationships are like. It even suggests how our grandparents or great grandparents were faced with; how most "were forced to remain shackled to unhappy unions for monetary reasons." This is actually the prime example of my grandmother, whose now deceased husband was verbally abusive and an alcoholic. However, she had no family, no money, her only job was helping with the farm work, cooking and cleaning; she couldn't leave him and take the five children out of the home, nor could she even drive until the age of 60. What could she have done? She did what she believed was best, stick around and put up with it!

While, today, most women are lucky enough to be financially able to get a divorce, when they feel its necessary. The example of the starter husband being like a starter home or perhaps job was an ingenius way of looking at it! Its true, at your first job, you learn what you need to know about that current position in hopes of making your later jobs better and what you are really interested in pursuing. My mother actually done this; she was married before my father shortly after she graduated college, got a divorce after around 2 years; so that in a sense was her icebreaker marriage or "dating". She waited a few years later then married my father and four years after that decided to have me, therefore by having kids would be the form of "new marriage!"

Anonymous said...

Today many people including both men and women don’t enter a marriage for life. To a lot of people marriage is sort of like dating. People are afraid of commitments and they don’t want to be tied to just one person for the rest of their life.
When it comes to women and marriage, it is not the marriage they are worried about but the actual wedding itself. Most women dreamed of big beautiful weddings when they were little girls and so they will agree to get married just so they can have that wedding of their dreams.
Today marriage isn’t taken seriously….it is more of a joke or a time is someone’s life where they feel needed and wanted. Maybe the reason people don’t take marriage seriously now is because everybody acts like an individual and can survive on their own without the help of others such as their spouse.
In past generations people married each other because they loved one another and they relied on one another to make it through life. Today people are independents and they don’t really seem to know what love is. They believe they are in love, but it only last a little while. Many people will tell another that they love them after only just one date. This is ridiculous; it is impossible to know whether you really love someone or not unless you spend a large amount of time with them and really get to know them. Marriage is something that should be taken seriously, not lightly.

Anonymous said...

I feel that divorce is what everyone is doing these days. If someone tells me that their
parents aren't divorced I am shocked but then when I actually meet their parents I
realize that maybe they should be. I understand why people are getting divorces more so
these days than they have in the past, for one thing divorce wasn't really accepted back
a couple of years ago and the second thing is people really rushed to get married. People
these days well at least people I know feel that if they aren't married by 25 then they
might as well forget about ever settling down and if they didn?t have kids by the time
they were 30 then they were never having kids. Todays society people are told that they
should be married with a family by age 30 and if they don't then they never will. I also
feel that people hurry up and get divorces within a few months to a year within their
marriage because like the article says they don't want to have kids because that means
your stuck with that person. Most people get it right the second time. I just think they
are rushed and don't truly think about it but the second time around they know what they
want and usually find it.

Paul Castle said...

The Starter husband By Gretchen Voss shows the attitudes towards marriage that exist today. The starter husband phenomenon is not only associated with women but men as well. This whole ideal is based on the idea of why work at something if there isn’t a quick fix then get rid of it, there is no use in putting in that much effort if you don’t feel like it. The idea that the idea of marriages that can be replaced just as easily as a pair of socks brings up a more important question, what has happened to the value structure of America. Granted I am all for if you are truly unhappy in a marriage that you can get out of it, but it should not be as easy as it is. You should have to at least have tried to have worked at it in the first place. Yes we live in a time that has become increasingly faster passed then the times before, but does that mean that our morals and values do the same. I have strong feeling towards this because I to have recently been married. I was married in June of 2006, and neither me of my wife fell that marriage is something that could just be thrown away like yesterdays newspaper. A marriage is like a garden the more time and effort you put into the more beautiful it will become. Like they said in the article Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a marriage.