san fransisco, california. | therapist. author. sister. wife. passionate about making the world more authentic one person at a time.
My husband and I were married late in life… or so we were told by countless people willing to share their ideas on an acceptable timeline of marriage. It’s truly fascinating what people will share without solicitation. (Admittedly, I have been guilty of this behavior and I give a giant apology to the world for any lapse of decorum.) Did those interested parties even consider that we were applying enough pressure to ourselves? Non, mais ce est la vie!
Mr. Stern and I were both afraid to dive into an institution that churned out so many broken families and we feel that a healthy amount of fear is good. For years, we listened to the complaints and delights of our married friends and constantly weighed the pros and cons of Until Death Do Us Part. Undoubtedly, driving everyone around us crazy. But the fact remains, the nuclear family has had its fair share of issues for well over a half-century now.
We cheerfully celebrate our two- year anniversary tomorrow, mostly ignoring the fact that half of our friends are sending their children to high school… and in some cases, college. While I have never been one to celebrate Valentines Day, I do celebrate the fact that I waited for the one I couldn’t live without. Ah, love, sweet, love! (And yes, I recognize that we are still in the “honeymoon phase”, but I will work to maintain this phase until I draw my last breathe. It’s worth it.)
As Valentines Day approaches, let’s learn a little about someone who has built a successful career out of the challenging side of relationships. Allow me to introduce you to Susan Pease Gadoua, a woman who is working hard to modernize outdated marriages. She is the creator of an organization called, Changing Marriage, which provides marriage and divorce support, and she is the co-author of the book The New I Do. Susan spends much of her time counseling people who are in love, or out of love, and those who are really not sure. To all the hearts out there, spoken for, or otherwise … enjoy the first post in the j. jane Valentine’s series.
How did you choose the life you lead and was it a conscious decision?
In some ways it was conscious and in other ways, it wasn’t. I’d been in private practice for close to ten years when, in 2000, I decided I wanted to work with people in transition. That’s when I founded The Transition Institute of Marin. My first group was women going through all kinds of life changes (an empty-nester, just moved and divorcing). My second group was all divorcing women and that’s when it hit me that this was such an underserved population.
I began working almost exclusively with divorcing women and couples. There has never been a shortage of attorneys or financial professionals for divorcing people but, for some reason, there is still a paucity of emotional support. It’s been extremely gratifying to work with the clients, but it also led me to develop a program (the Phoenix Method for Divorce Recovery) and create a network of trained divorce mental health professionals.
Was there a fork in the road that distinctly determined your lifestyle and/ or career?
It was after hearing countless people tell me that they felt they had done something wrong because they had a “failed” marriage (I hate that term, btw), and were being marginalized by others, that I became compelled to help people heal from the shame that comes with divorce.
Ironically, at the same time that these people were being judged for their marriages ending, I was being asked what was “wrong” with me because I had not yet gotten into a marriage. I bought into the belief that I was flawed and, at times I even wondered why I didn’t just marry someone so I could get these family and friends off my back and be seen more as an equal. But, after meeting an amazing man at age 42 and marrying him when I was 43 (Michael was 45 – first marriages for both of us), I’m certainly glad I held out.
It occurred to me that my personal and professional experience highlighted what a one-size-fits-all paradigm we have. Anyone who doesn’t get into marriage and stay married to the same person their entire life is doing something wrong! That seemed very small-minded to me.
The pain I felt personally, as well as the pain others shared with me, created my passionate belief that we need to update the institution to be inclusive of more people as well as to set couples up for success.
Can you share the concept of your latest book The New I Do and explain the reasoning behind the different “models of marriage”?
Yes, absolutely! The premise of The New I Do, co-authored with journalist, Vicki Larson, is that, as a society, we are clinging to a paradigm that is really damaging us. We’ve raised the bar so high as to what marriage is and what a spouse should be, that it’s next to impossible to achieve it.
Even after the numbers tell us that this model is broken, we have refused to look at changing it. Yet, many other cultures throughout the world and throughout history have created—and continue to create—family in all kinds of interesting ways.
Vicki and I uncovered seven alternative marriage models that couples are currently practicing. Most of these folks are not talking about their alternative arrangements for fear of judgment from others (there’s the shame piece again!). We wanted to name what’s really happening and normalize it so that others, who may want to create an alternative marital lifestyle that fits better with their needs—will feel more freedom to do so.
There are certain aspects about marriage that have gone unquestioned—until now! Aspects such as “until death do us part.” We are living longer than ever before and we have more lifestyle options than ever before. Since the divorce rate is so high, it’s time to start exploring healthy alternatives to the “happily ever after” ending and to stop measuring the success of a marriage by how long it lasts and instead look at what it accomplished.
In addition, we all assume that marriage is monogamous, yet some reports say that as many as 70 percent of marriages have experienced infidelity. We need to have conscious conversations about monogamy rather than relying on outdated assumptions that often leave a wake of devastation behind.
The New I Do is not an advice book. We don’t tell the reader what they should do. What we do is point out areas that are clearly not working for far too many. Then we challenge the reader to make conscious decisions before jumping into marriage (or remarriage, as the case may be). The reality is that we can change how we marry and, if we want to see the institution survive, we must change it.
If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
Relax. Be more confident in yourself and your skills. Be less apologetic. Be more bold. (I know that’s four things but fear has run more of my life than I care to admit!)
If you could only give one piece of marital advice … what would it be?
Rather than search for your happiness by marrying Mr. or Mrs. Right, do your own internal work to become Mr. or Mrs. Right. When you are a more balanced, mature and authentic adult, you will attract the same. In my experience, and that of many people I’ve spoken with, there’s still a great deal of pressure to find the person who will complete you (your “better” half!). In reality, it simply doesn’t work that way.
What is your best advice on how to live a graceful life?
Be authentic, assertive, and kind.