As has been widely documented, the nature of marriage in Canada has changed considerably in just a few decades. A 2006 Statistics Canada report revealed that for the first time in our history, fewer than half of Canadian adults are defined as legally married. Thousands of “I do’s” are evolving into a chorus of “I don’t.”
According to the same Stats Can report, more than one-third of current Canadian marriages will end in divorce before the couple’s 30th anniversary.
It’s easy to lay the blame on the hardships of modern living: our lives are seemingly more stressful than ever before, so it might make sense that fewer marriages survive in that environment. Toronto divorce attorney Andrew Feldstein sees many separations occur because the lives of North American adults present more obstacles to partnership. “I think marriages are very challenging these days,” he says. “And now, there’s an alternative option to staying married.”
Sarah Chana Radcliffe agrees. “We started off by de-stigmatizing divorce,” says the marriage counsellor and author of the parenting book Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. “But we’ve gone too far. In secular society we don’t have a reason to work a marriage through anymore. Because there’s no stigma [against separation], we’ve lost our values of marriage.”
But for Noel Biderman, president and founder of AshleyMadison.com, a website that arranges covert affairs for married adults, it isn’t just the easy exit clause that has so many couples wanting to be singles again. He argues that more marriages are turning out to be semi-permanent in part because the choice to enter into wedlock in the first place is our own.
“Not so long ago, people were married in arrangements made by their parents. It’s only recently that we’ve fallen into marrying because of love, which isn’t sustainable,” Biderman says.
Despite the choice being our own, the 2001 census says that 80 per cent of adults 25 and over have willfully signed on to ’til-death-do-we-part, some more than once. How does a person swear to love and protect, and then have their mind change so dramatically? After having been in the divorce business for nearly 15 years, Feldstein has garnered a few theories.
“The concept of marriage is that it’s supposed to last a lifetime,” Feldstein says. “But your interests at 30 may be different from those at 50. Does [a couple] grow together or do they grow in separate ways? It’s very difficult to predict. You can wind up strangers just sharing a home together.”
Biderman, the man behind the slogan “Life is short. Have an affair,” and owner of the self-proclaimed “most controversial site on the web,” argues that our society puts marriage on an unrealistic pedestal. “Society has this idealized version [of matrimony],” he says, “but you have to deal with the human condition. We stray, and it hurts to be lonely, and we are biologically driven to change things.”
The moral question at the heart of Biderman’s business is that of monogamy. Despite the taboo of infidelity, Biderman does have data on his side: while statistics are often unreliable, various published studies on the incidence of adultery place their estimates at anywhere from 40 to 60 per cent of all marriages. The massive success of Biderman’s empire speaks for itself; AshleyMadison.com boasts over 4.7 million members, with a new adult joining every 15 seconds.
“We definitely know that humans aren’t genetically engineered to be monogamous,” Biderman claims. “Our society has a choice. We can say that sex and monogamy are so important to a marriage, and then we have really catastrophic divorce rates. If you look at other cultures—Japan and France are good examples—where there are purportedly much higher rates of infidelity than in Canada or the U.S., those cultures seem to have really low divorce rates. Maybe they just have a better paradigm.”
Despite media scapegoating, Biderman maintains that his site has actually helped many marriages. “I hear back from my members, ‘Thank you. I’m a better partner because of [AshleyMadison], I’m a better parent,’” he says.
But not everyone believes that non-monogamous matrimony can be beneficial. “I don’t see how a non-monogamous marriage could really work for anyone,” Radcliffe counters. “They [the couple] are really reducing their intimacy—they aren’t having the connection they could have.” While Radcliffe acknowledges that couples will inevitably “lock horns” and have marital issues, she maintains that counselling and courtship efforts are solutions, while infidelity is not.
“As soon as you get casual and start to take your partner for granted you create a very serious crack in the marriage,” she advises. “Couples need an island of protected time together. Date night once a week is mandatory.”
While marriage counselling is a rapidly growing discipline, Biderman is skeptical. “The data shows that marriage counselling has proven time and time again to fail people,” he says. “Counselling fails more often than it succeeds. Many people love their kids, love their partner, but have a void in the bedroom. They are one of the millions of people in sexless marriages. [Humans] have a need for physical connection, for active sex lives.”
For the millions of users on AshleyMadison.com, infidelity could be a solution—or, as Biderman notes, an affair can help adults questioning their marriage realize whether they want to remain with their spouse or not. And while divorce is a complex procedure that can be emotionally taxing, Feldstein agrees that it is the best solution for an individual unhappy in their relationship. “The ideal is to have a family with a child with two happy parents,” he says, in response to critics of divorce. “But is it better to have a child in an unhappy home, with two parents who are constantly fighting? What sort of educational message does that give a child?”
With the frequency of adoption, single-parent households, and common-law parenting, perhaps the ensuing generations will take the traditional concept of marriage with a grain of salt. But for some, the nuclear family remains the target model for relationships. “Children have an inborn need for their mother and father in the same household,” says Radcliffe. “They don’t feel whole once their parents split up.” When asked about the possible positive effects of a couple embracing an open relationship or a “swinging” lifestyle, Radcliffe advocates a traditional view of matrimony. “When people embrace weird concepts of marriage, it’s the children that suffer the most,” she says.
Biderman disagrees. Happily married, and with two children of his own, he says he admires the bravery that it takes to explore non-conventional options in a marriage. When asked about Club Wicked, the Toronto venue for adult swingers, he says he approves. “Swingers have found the courage to tell their partner that something is lacking for them sexually,” he says. “My guess is the data will show that those are the couples that end up staying together, not the ones in monogamous marriages.”
Perhaps the only thing that Feldstein, Biderman, and Radcliffe agree on is that marriage should be considered more seriously before couples take the leap. Radcliffe has even compiled a pre-marriage quiz for couples who are considering tying the knot. “On it, there are questions about how you manage money, how you manage anger, and how you deal with responsibility,” she says. “When the feeling of being in love dwindles after a few months of marriage, you are basically left with a roommate who is either going to be a good one or a bad one.”
Across Canada, adults fall in love, and fall out. They get married, and (over 30 per cent of the time) they also get divorced. The logic behind these patterns is hard to decipher, but it may be that the problem is not so much the marriages in question, but marriage itself. As Biderman, the poster-boy for adultery, astutely observes, “The only way to save [many] marriages is for the institution to evolve.”