The toughest part of being in an unconventional union is managing other people's expectations.
In the classic film Harold and Maude, Harold, who is 20, decides to marry Maude, who is 80. His mother, a rich socialite, is mortified. She sends him to a psychiatrist, a priest, and an uncle, hoping they will convince him to change his mind. Each adviser reacts with disgust, and Harold doesn't budge. "What will people say?" his mother asks in horror.
Amy Rosenberg is a licensed psychologist who provides individual, couples, family, and group psychotherapy for individuals across the adult lifespan, ranging from young adults to geriatrics. I place emphasis on establishing a safe and trusting therapeutic relationship in an effort to help clients facilitate meaningful life changes, to ease suffering, and to work toward achieving personal goals.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
"I don't care what people will say," he replies. "This is insane!" she shouts. Harold's beloved shares his interest in—or, more accurately, obsession with—death and funerals in a way that no one else around him does. In Harold's mind, that makes her the perfect woman despite the vast age difference between them. Sadly, Maude passes away before Harold can marry her, but, given the couple's resolve, it's easy to imagine that they could have lived happily together (for a while, anyway). Their union certainly would have been atypical according to contemporary norms that present the archetypal couple as heterosexual, young (but not too young), stably employed, close in age, and well-matched in race and other social factors. But Harold and Maude clearly didn't care what outsiders thought.
In real life, such confidence can be difficult for star-crossed lovers to achieve and maintain. When people buck conventional ideas of coupledom and partner up with someone others consider inappropriate—too old or too young, the wrong race, class, or religion—or when they structure their relationship in a way that seems unorthodox—a husband who's a stay-at-home dad, a wife with a much higher salary—the perceptions of friends, family, and strangers can threaten their happiness.
"Social norms are driven by emotions of contempt in the observer and shame in the person or people being observed," says Jon Elster, professor of social science at Columbia University. "The contempt forms when the observer is faced with something that feels wrong, whether that feeling is justified or not—and often it is not. When a couple is judged or ostracized, their marriage can be destabilized."
So how can such couples stay afloat? It takes a stubborn and rebellious personality—like Harold's—to decide to pursue an atypical relationship in the first place, and if you've got two such personalities in one couple, tensions might run high regardless of social pressure. But those character traits can also be advantageous, helping people stick to their decisions and achieve their goals.
Ultimately, if partners remember the foundation upon which they built their relationship—what attracted them to each other in the first place, how their attraction developed into love, and why they decided to seal that love with mutual commitment—they have a good chance of creating a bond that can withstand the disapproving masses.
Living Apart: Janice and Michael Edelstein
For the almost 19 years that they've been married, Michael and Janice Edelstein have had the same routine: Monday through Friday, he lives and works in San Francisco while she manages their lakefront home in Tiburon, a suburb about 40 minutes away. ("You have to cross bridges and mountains to get there," Michael says. "It feels like another world.") On Friday afternoons, he takes the bus to Tiburon and they spend the weekend together. On Sundays, she drives him back to San Francisco, they share a meal, and she returns to the suburbs. "It's not for everyone," says Michael, "but it works for Janice and me."
They developed their arrangement early on in their relationship, out of respect for their different dispositions: Janice, 69, loves the outdoors and hates San Francisco; Michael needs both city- and country-living. Also, Michael, 67, had recently moved his clinical psychology practice from New York to San Francisco and was still trying to establish himself. He frequently saw clients at night, and for him it was simply more convenient to have his office close to his living quarters.
For the most part, people around them are supportive of their unusual setup. Janice has two grown daughters from a previous marriage and two grandchildren who live nearby; she spends as much time with them as possible. (One of her daughters has staked a claim on Michael's weekend time in Tiburon; every Sunday, she goes for a run with him.) In the city, Michael regularly sees his sister, who lives within walking distance of his office. Having a network of understanding family members helps buoy their relationship, as does receiving positive feedback about their situation. "I have clients who, when I tell them about it, say that it sounds like a terrific arrangement," Michael says. "My women friends think it's sort of neat," Janice adds. "I'm pretty independent."
Nevertheless, Janice does feel indirect external pressure at times. It comes from an awareness of the couples around them and a sense that she and Michael stand a bit outside of their community. "Being able to get together as a twosome with neighbors or friends on a more spontaneous basis—that would be relaxing," she says. In addition, she sometimes wonders whether the physical distance they have from one another on the weekdays has created a less tangible distance within their relationship. "I don't doubt what we're doing," she says, "but I think we would have more challenges to overcome together if we lived together, and that that could allow us to grow together in a different way. It could make us closer."
For Michael, these are nonissues, but he does feel some tension because of Janice's concerns.
To combat any negative feelings that arise, they make a point of speaking on the phone twice a day or more, and they capitalize on their weekend hours with one another.
According to Aaron Ben-Zeév, president and professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel, this is a key to success in a relationship structured like the Edelsteins. "They have personal space, which everyone needs, and intense togetherness during the weekends," he says. "Often negative emotions arise because of perceived changes in the degree of closeness between a couple. This kind of regimen has shifts between closeness and togetherness built in."
"One of the things I feel about our arrangement—and I think Janice shares this," says Michael, "is that during the week I miss her, and as the week goes by I look more and more forward to seeing her. And when I do see her, it's like a little celebration. It's the romantic kind of love that people have early in their relationships, and in some ways it's like we're still dating."
Child Bride and Groom: Danae and Colin Castellaw
Colin and Danae Castellaw met when Colin was a tender 12-year-old and Danae an even more tender 11-year-old. They had what Danae calls a brief "middle-school relationship" in their small town in Washington. The pair broke up before high school and then got back together during their senior year. Colin spent his first semester of college in Oregon and then transferred to Washington State University, where Danae was already enrolled. It was at the beginning of their final year in college when he asked her to marry him—by scrawling the words "Be my wife?" on a fishing bridge over a lake and rowing her by in a canoe. Now they are settled in Boise, Idaho, where Colin, 24, works as a teacher and Danae, 23, works in public relations.
After Colin proposed, the couple paddled back to Danae's family cabin, where they were staying with her parents and sister, to break the news. "My sister was happy, but you could tell my dad was kind of bummed," she says. "He was worried that we wouldn't be financially ready." (At the time of the wedding, neither had a job, and Colin was enrolled in graduate school.) Her mother expressed reservations too. She had married at age 18 and became a mother at 19, and felt she knew firsthand that Danae and Colin weren't mature enough. Colin's family, which includes a long line of high-school sweethearts, was supportive. But he did get some flak from his friends, who poked fun at him for settling down. "It was good-natured," he says, "but they were testing me."
As for Danae's friends, they pointedly told her that there was no way they would be able to handle being wives yet. "I wanted to say to them, 'Well, you've been living with your boyfriend for four years—what's the difference?'" she says. And complete strangers freely offer their opinions, such as, "Isn't that a little young?" or "Whoa, that's kind of rough—do you have kids?" or "You do know that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, don't you?"
"When I hear comments like that," Danae says, "it kind of stings. I just try to make it clear that we're fine." According to Elster, the negative opinions of others often cause self-doubt in the people being judged. "Such judgments can make you feel inferior for no sound reason whatsoever," he says, "and those feelings can be very difficult to deflect. It's possible that some couples develop an 'us against the world' mentality in response to external judgments, but the opposite force is much stronger—the force that could damage the marriage."
In the case of Colin and Danae, "us against the world" seems to work. "You have to have a stock response," Colin advises his bride. "Tell people, 'He's just so awesome that I had to lock him down,' or some variation of that. That way you don't let anything anyone says shake you up too much." Neither of them lets outsiders' commentary upset them on a deep level. "I never doubt my decision," says Danae. "Colin and I are good friends, we always have fun together, and we put each other's needs and feelings before our own. It's a mature bond."
Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education, believes that the best way to ensure a passionate marriage is, in fact, to marry young. "Some sociologists who are looking at the statistics argue that 22 to 25 is the optimal age to marry," she says. "When you're still growing and you can grow with another person, you get to have experiences together that will bring you closer. You can travel the world together when you're still impressionable, you can find out who you are within the context of your relationship. That creates a very powerful attachment that aids long-term stability. It's a myth that you have to find yourself first, or establish a career first, before you marry."
Happy To Be Child-Free: Jennifer Kelley and Joshua Ruddy
Chicagoans Jennifer Kelley and Joshua Ruddy, both 37, feel like a full and satisfied family. But with no kids on their horizon, others sometimes view them as incomplete.
When Jennifer finished college, she worked as a nanny to one child, whose new sibling came along about halfway through the stint. She had never been particularly interested in having kids, but after that job she knew for sure. "I remember thinking back then, 'Hell no!'" she says.
She and Joshua met the following year, when they were both enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Massachusetts. Joshua picked up on several indications that Jennifer was the one for him. "When we went to our first major league baseball game together, I caught a home run," he says, which he interpreted as a fortuitous sign. "Later I found out she had a larger collection of Monty Python videos than I did. But when I heard she didn't want to have kids, that's when I decided I wanted to marry her."
Neither felt any immediate pressure to have children. Jennifer's friends and family already knew about her inclination, and no one questioned Joshua. Jennifer was working as a waitress when they married, in 2000, and Joshua was a bicycle mechanic, so relatives expected them to save up before starting a family anyway. Later, as they became more settled—Jennifer is now a reference librarian at a college and Joshua is an accounts manager for a bike manufacturer—they started to hear comments, mainly from Joshua's coworkers and players in his soccer league.
Often the remarks were laced with disapproval, or even a kind of resentment. "Having kids is a norm, and if you're not a part of it, you're immediately put on the defensive," Joshua says. "It becomes about explaining why you're deviant, which is of course much different than explaining why we don't want kids."
There have been moments when they've wondered whether it would be fun for Jennifer to be pregnant, or when they've found the idea of decorating a nursery or buying baby clothes appealing. According to psychologist Christine Meineke, author of the book Everybody Marries the Wrong Person, couples like Jennifer and Joshua would do well to check in with each other on the issue from time to time, in case one partner's desires transform. "Anytime one partner feels the need to revisit the decisions that they're basing their relationship on, he or she should do so," she says. "Couples can redefine a relationship as many times as they need to."
But whenever they do review the idea, Jennifer and Joshua return to their original conclusion. "For us, not having children affords us a wide range of freedoms," Jennifer says. "I like that we have more control over our lives than seems possible if you have kids. We have the ability to say no—no to a job, for example. If we wanted to quit our jobs and be hobos and travel around the world, we could. It might be difficult, but if we had kids it would be impossible. I also like not having to worry in the visceral way my friends with kids seem to have to worry."
Both are involved in children's lives. They have nieces and nephews with whom they interact regularly, and Joshua volunteers at a writing center for underprivileged kids. It's knowing that they can enjoy children in certain situations while remembering what they ultimately want that keeps them at peace about their decision. And what do they do with those why-don't-you-have-kids-yet comments? "Shrug, laugh it off, and move on," Joshua says. "It's the best way to deal with it."
The ability to brush off the judgments of others is essential for any couple that wants to be happy, Ben-Zeév notes. "If a couple pays less attention to outside ideas of who they are, and more to their own ideas, then they will be able to cope much better with external pressures," he adds. "Being able to ignore outside opinion signifies a high degree of togetherness and unity."
Marriage with Baggage: Jessica Setnick and Greg Schon
The red flags were flying high when Jessica Setnick and Greg Schon announced their engagement four years ago: Greg had been married before—not just once, but twice—and has three children. Jessica is 15 years younger than Greg. And they practice different religions. Many, including those who really wanted to be happy about the news, deemed the betrothal doomed.
Greg felt uneasy around Jessica's family and friends. "I was self-conscious about the baggage I carried," he says. "But I love Jessica, and I felt I could trust her, and I knew that's what was important."
Jessica's brother's wife even sat her down one day, as a family representative of sorts, and asked, "Does it concern you that Greg has been married and divorced twice before?" But by that time, Jessica's early jitters had long since disappeared. "I told her that all I care about is that I'm his last wife. If he's learned what he needed to from those past relationships, then that makes me even happier."
When outsiders suspect you'll be on "divorce watch" as you walk down the aisle, it's hard not to doubt your own resolve at least occasionally, however strong. But Jessica and Greg have created an emotionally rich reality that is far from the perceptions of those who assumed they were headed for failure.
Greg, 52, an architect, and Jessica, 38, an eating disorder counselor, host Greg's two younger children, 13-year-old Derek and 14-year-old Peyton, every weekend at their house in a Dallas suburb. Both of Greg's ex-wives live in neighboring suburbs, and all four adults, along with the husband of one of his exes, are active in the children's lives.
What keeps the couple content is their dedication to making their complicated situation work. "Greg and I talk about our anniversary as the day that we became a family," Jessica says. She refers to Greg's ex-wives as her "ex-wives-in-law," and she enjoys spending Thanksgivings at the home of the first one and going to the children's sports events with the second. When Greg's father died, his first wife, Ann, cooked dinner for them and left Easter baskets for the kids because she knew that Jessica and Greg would not have time. "There's a generosity of spirit among all of us,"Jessica says.
Getting along as one big modern clan hasn't always been easy. Jan—Greg's second wife and the mother of his two younger kids—initially struggled to accept Jessica. Eventually, though, she recognized Jessica's devotion to the children, and came to appreciate that. As Greg puts it: "Part of the reason Jan has softened toward us is because she's seen how much the children have grown and how good Jessica is at dealing with them when they have problems. Jessica has a natural ability with kids, and I've learned a lot about parenting from her."
Being a stepmother is very rewarding for Jessica. "They are my real children," she says. "I take pride in their accomplishments. I've known them since they were tiny, and I've watched them grow. Recently, Peyton was embarrassed to give me a good-bye hug at the mall, and it made me feel great—I realized I was a real mom. I know their relationship to Jan is special and I would never try to replace that, but I have my own special relationship with them—they even tell me things that they won't tell Greg. I just love feeling like I'm tight with them."
Having overcome the odds so far (second and third marriages are, statistically speaking, less likely to work out than first marriages) is an accomplishment worth building upon. Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., author of Stepmonster, points out that truly friendly, as opposed to merely civil, relations with a partner's ex are actually quite rare. "All the parents and their personalities must be aligned, and all of the people in the picture need to show equal levels of commitment,"she says. "It's very hard for women to share children."
And whatever their level of involvement in their partner's offspring or satisfaction level, stepmoms like Jessica continually face negative judgments: "There's an enormous cultural suspicion of stepmothers," Martin says. While they realize that others may still see their arrangement as bizarre or even threatening, Jessica trusts that she and Greg are the best judges of what works. "What other people think about me is none of my business," she says. "I have a happy situation and just because not everyone knows it doesn't mean it's any less true."