There’s nothing wrong with a starter marriage

All too often, divorce is portrayed as a tragic event — or at least a major failure. But it’s time we shift our thinking and begin to appreciate the value in the lessons learned.

April 25, 2019
Couple embraces after moving into new home

The words “starter marriage” are kind of a put down, right? There’s — at very least — a little bit of ribbing in the phrase.

It suggests that you just weren’t mature enough for a relationship that can go the distance. Or that the fit between you wasn’t the kind that could weather the tests of time.

Well… so?

As I wrote in our welcome post, here at Brighterside we reject the idea that divorce has to be a great tragedy.

Afterall, when we exchange vows, how many of us can guarantee that our relationships are going to have decades-long staying power?

If you could ask a room full of divorced people whether they thought separation or divorce would happen to them, very few would say yes. Most will have walked into church or temple, city hall or mosque on their day of their wedding full of optimism about the path ahead.

And so they should. If we weren’t a little over-confident and naive, would anyone tie the knot?

Related: 7 Communications Secrets that Make Relationships Last

As the authors of a book called The New ‘I Do’ see it, there’s nothing wrong with trying marriage on for size. Therapist Susan Pease Gadoua and journalist Vicki Larson are careful to note that they don’t suggest people knowingly marry the “wrong” person to check marriage off some sort of to-do list, or because of pressures put on them by others.

Rethinking ‘until death do we part’

But they do suggest subtracting the “until death do we part” thing from the mix. “We need to stop seeing marriage through a narrow lens… Marriage should be considered successful by what it has accomplished, not by how long it lasts.”

If instead, more couples went into marriage with an understanding that they’re going to give it their very best and see how they do after a few years, the authors argue, there would be a lot less grief for those who discover the relationship has run its course in that time.

“What we like about a starter marriage is that it can help couples align expectations, create a plan of what each partner will contribute to the marriage, clarify goals, and strategize what will happen if one or both don’t want to renew the contract. Waiting until death when you already feel that you’re dying in a marriage isn’t helping anyone achieve a healthy and satisfying partnership.”

It’s also worth noting that when people first started vowing “until death do we part,” life expectancy was somewhere around age 40. Also, in those days marriage was most likely a strategic and economic union between two families, designed with economic stability and the continuation of a family line in mind.

Today we need each other less to put food on the table, but want more complex and nuanced things from our romantic partnerships instead. It’s harder to know if we’ll continue to grow in the same directions and meet each others’ needs year after year.

Related: ‘Who will I be if I’m no longer with my partner?’ The tricky business of marriage and identity

I married my university sweetheart. We value each other to this day — especially since we have two great kids together — but our emotional needs would eventually prove quite different. I think we both changed over the course of our time together, and we definitely didn’t have a crystal ball to show us that before we walked down the aisle at the tender ages of 23 and 25!

A growth opportunity

While my marriage lasted more than the handful of years that typically define a starter marriage, the opportunity for growth is certainly the same.

In The New ‘I Do,’ Gadoua and Larson cite the wisdom of author Pamela Paul, who wrote in The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony that “Like a starter home, a starter marriage can teach you a lot about what to look for, and what to avoid, the next time around.” Author Sascha Rothchild said a starter marriage could also be called, a “learner marriage,” in her book How to Get Divorced by 30.

But beyond what we learn about what we hope to find in a mate, there’s the critically important aspect of what we learn about ourselves.

With even a little introspection, divorce can be an incredible springboard for personal growth. It can propel us to take better care of our emotional health, exploring issues — perhaps through therapy — that put us on a stronger footing for ourselves and any future relationships.

I’ve met and interviewed divorced folks whose divorces prompted them to take up new hobbies, dust off old ones, apply to law school, learn to fix a lawn mower and just generally become more capable and confident.  

If a short marriage helps people to get there, how wonderful to arrive sooner with so much of life still ahead.

Related: How to deal with other people’s grief about the end of your relationship