Who Needs Marriage?

By Brian Clewly Johnson

In this newish century, who needs marriage? Eight of my closest friends are in four marriages, each of which has lasted more than half a century. Admitting that fact is designed to dispose of any suspicions that I don’t support conventional marriage — if that’s what you think you want.

All eight of my friends, however, were young at a time when, if you wanted to leave home, bed your girlfriend, and build a life of your own (not necessarily in that order), you simply had to get married. And so despite the pressures these four couples have faced over the years — the differing evolution of their personalities, their often nomadic lives, and, in some cases, their challenging children — they’ve been able to keep their unions intact. I honor and love them for their tolerance and strength of purpose.

But when people ask me if I’m married, I give the answer Jeff Goldblum uses in “Jurassic Park”: “Occasionally.” Because after two marriages and three score years and 10, I simply don’t see the point of visiting that institution again.

I’ll go further: I’d say it has nothing to do with the fact that I may one day need someone to ask me why I’ve put the car keys in the fridge — again. If I were in my 20s, “savage with health and armed to the teeth with time” (as Philip Roth had it), I would still question why I should get married when a sensible pre-partnership arrangement could take care of any financial or offspring fallout if things didn’t work out.

Recently, I heard the actress Goldie Hawn explain why she and her partner of 33 years, Kurt Russell, never felt the need to marry: “If you need to be bound to someone, then it’s important to be married,” she said. “If you are independent, then it’s important to not be married.” She went on to say that, had they been married, “I would have been long divorced.”

That’s a live-and-let-live response if you want to be branded as someone who needs to be bound to someone. Yet I can’t hear today’s millennials of either sex confessing to such neediness. But, hey, what do I know? Other than having a daughter who is solidly in that demographic and determinedly independent.

Here’s the strange thing: When I describe the kind of relationship I now have with my partner, every married couple I know (and even those simply contemplating marriage) says, “We should have that!”

So, what is “that”? 

She and I live within what I believe is now called an “apartnership.” We’ve both been married before, usually for some happy years, but the need for independence, for not being bound, as Goldie says, brought those marriages to an end.

I guess the core of any successful relationship is simply enjoying each other’s company. But who says you have to cohabit?

My partner and I don’t live together, but we’re lucky enough to live at the beach. Her house is two sand dunes away from mine. Broadly, we like similar movies, books, places, people, and political ideas. We enjoy reading, eating, drinking, and traveling together — and at the same pace. We love our separately created children and grandchildren; we see them independently and, on special occasions, blended. We never quarrel about money because our finances are separate; on joint ventures, we split costs evenly. We love being alone; we love being together. When one of us is away, we know there’s no need for regular updates because we respect that the other person should have that independent time, free of any obligation to “stay in touch.”

“That’s terrific,” you might say, “but you’re older, you don’t have young children.” 

Sure, it’s easier for child-free people to live this way, but couples who are separated or divorced still manage to raise children through shared households. Be honest: In a conventional marriage, you start as a man and a woman, then you become husband and wife, and, finally, most couples slope toward domestic oblivion when they squeeze into that androgynous onesie known as “Mum ’n’ Dad” or “Mom ’n’ Pop.”

In an apartnership, each partner has time to be independent, each has a chance to be a man or a woman for a few days of the week — instead of being stifled in those passion-killing “girl jobs and boy jobs” (as British Prime Minister Theresa May instructs us) every day of the week.

Many married couples have, of course, evolved into apartnerships. The passage of time, the departure of children, the care of aging parents, the claustrophobia of propinquity, or, sometimes, the need for one partner to be based elsewhere for financial reasons — all or any of these produce pragmatic reasons for being apart. After only a short period of adjustment, however, being in separate rooms often gives the marriage more room to breathe — a second wind, in fact.

Finally, those four marriages I told you about? The couple with, in my view, the richest, most balanced relationship suggest that it’s due to their jobs: She’s an academic; he’s an airline pilot.


Brian Clewly Johnson is the author of two recent memoirs, “A Cape Town Boy” and “A Roller Coaster Man.” He lives in Amagansett.