Q&A with Pepper Schwartz: The new relationship landscape

Avvo, Divorce, Marriage

The environment in which we relate to each other romantically has undergone quite a few shifts in recent years, with the rise of social media and online dating, evolving civil rights for the gay and lesbian community, and growing acceptance of non-monogamy as a dating strategy. AvvoStories recently posed a series of questions to renowned relationship expert and sexologist Dr. Pepper Schwartz, asking her to weigh in on the current state of romance, marriage, divorce, and how we are connecting with each other in the midst of societal and technological change. This is the second excerpt from that interview, in which Dr. Schwartz discusses relationship longevity and how expectations for would-be life partners have increased over time.

AvvoStories: In the last 100 years, the average lifespan in the United States jumped by more than 30 years. Given that we now are living almost twice as long, is it reasonable to expect relationships to follow suit? If a relationship fails to last for three, four or more decades, is it really a “failed relationship”?

Dr. Pepper Schwartz: We are not actually living longer, it’s just more of us are living into old age than ever before.  50 years ago, an exceptional person could have lived until 90—now it can be expected if you are healthy and have reached the age of 65. However, point taken; the fact that we can expect to live longer and healthier does change the equation.

I think this can explain the fact that the only age group which had a real increase in the rate of divorce this last census was people over 50; before, people would have thought they should stay in an unhappy marriage if they were “old” and expected very few more years. But now, 50-year-olds think they could have 40 more years—and they are unwilling to spend that much time with someone they no longer love. I do think this longer timeline means that people could have several long marriages that did not last a lifetime and consider them “successful” in a number of ways. Longevity is not the only measure of a relationship and sometimes a divorce is the best answer when people have changed, circumstances have changed and one or both people no longer love each other or enjoy each other’s company.

It is quite a high order to ask people to change in compatible ways for more than sixty years. Some lucky couples can manage just that, but inevitably many people will grow apart and sometimes come into direct conflict over challenges and disappointments that happen over a long life cycle. Some will surmount these problems but others will find that they have to divorce to live the life they want to lead.

AvvoStories: During your years as a relationship expert, have you noticed any changes in how relationship expectations for both men and women have changed? If so, what have been the major drivers of that change (economic, social, etc.)?

Dr. Pepper Schwartz: It has become clear to me that both men and women’s expectations of what makes a worthwhile marriage have increased exponentially. My parents’ generation wanted solidity, respect, economic advancement (or survival) and a good partner to parent with. They wanted love as well, but they did not expect it would always be romantic, nor did they think they would get a “soul mate.” That phrase did not really exist, in fact. Young men and women now want a soul mate connection AND someone sexy, romantic and successful. They will settle for less, but yearn for all that and more. If they have a chance to better their “game,” they are likely to take it. We now have about a fifth of all marriages as a third marriage or more.

What is interesting is that this new standard of sexual and romantic needs has affected older men and women as well. This is accompanied by changes in public attitudes about divorce- it is no longer regarded as highly stigmatic and people will support their friend no matter what the conditions of the divorce are—for example, if someone leaves their husband or wife at an older age it is upsetting to the friendship group or family- but they will not ostracize that man or woman and they will usually include the new couple back into the social life of the group.

AvvoStories: What other different or new factors are causing couples to split up or divorce?

Dr. Pepper Schwartz: Women can leave or be left more easily because they can have jobs that support them, they are having smaller families, and courts no longer punish the leaving party economically except in the few “fault” states that still take a moralistic approach to divorce, and you see every social trend working towards more, not less, divorce.

Also, men as well as women are now looking for a partner who earns well, to help the family achieve middle class status or wealth. Women may find themselves in the breadwinner category more often than they are prepared for, and it is still true that few women want to be the major earner of the family.

I would add that a certain number of marriages will be broken up by extra-marital sex, and that this is more commonly available these days both by the internet but also because more men and women are working together, traveling together for work (especially in corporations) and therefore are more tempted than they would have been when only men were doing these jobs.