How Independent Should Spouses Be?

"We hardly see each other, and we each have our own lives," Lyudmila Putin told a reporter last week as she and her husband announced their divorce.
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Late last week, as they were leaving a ballet performance at the Kremlin State Palace, Vladimir Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, announced their plans to divorce.

"Our marriage is over," President Putin told a reporter who'd asked him why he and his wife seem to spend so little time together.

Indeed, their trip to the ballet was the first time the couple had been seen together in public in more than a year. Back in May 2012, Mrs. Putin appeared at her husband's inauguration, but even then they greeted each other as though they'd not seen one another in a long time. An article in the Daily Beast said Mrs. Putin had disappeared from the public eye five years ago, and no one really knows where she's been living since then.

"We hardly see each other, and we each have our own lives," Mrs. Putin said.

***

Having separate lives, of course, is not always a death knell for a marriage. A 2006 article about the Clintons reported that they spent, on average, just 14 days together a month—and that was before Hilary's travel-heavy tenure as Secretary of State. As Jessica Grose reported in a 2011 Slate piece, non-celebrity couples can also withstand stretches of time apart: She pointed to research on the wives of fishermen and truckers who say their marriages improve in some ways while their husbands are away.

In fact, the general consensus from a wide range of relationship experts—gay and straight, religious and secular—is that independence is good for a marriage. One of the more harmful myths about marriage today, they say, is that your spouse can and should fulfill your every need.

Iris Krasnow has written several books about marriage and relationships, including 2011's The Secret Lives of Wives, for which she interviewed 200 women who'd been married for more than 15 years. One of the keys to a happy marriage, she found, is for both spouses to have fulfilling lives outside the relationship.

"If you depend on someone to make you happy, that's a ticket for divorce," Krasnow said in an interview. "When I see a marriage withering after 30, 40, 50 years, I say, 'What are you doing to your own soul to feel fulfilled, to feel purposeful, to feel like your life has purpose beyond being a spouse, a mother, a homemaker?'."

The book my husband and I read as part of our pre-marriage counseling—Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts by Christian writers Les and Leslie Parrott—makes this point from the very first chapter. The Parrotts identify "My Spouse Will Make Me Whole" as one of the top four myths about marriage. They write:

Couples who swallow the myth that their spouse will make them whole become dependent on their partner in a way that is by all standards unhealthy. These couples cultivate what experts call an enmeshed relationship, characterized by a general reliance on their spouse for continual support, assurance, and wholeness. It is usually coupled with low self-esteem and a sense of inferiority that is easily controlled by their partner.

Though writing from a different cultural perspective, Dan Savage, author of the Savage Love column and founder of the It Gets Better project, also sees the danger of expecting a romantic partner to fill a person's every need. The bulk of the advice he offers in his column and on his podcast is based on the idea that most human beings have a wide and idiosyncratic range of desires that may not be able to be met by just one person. He repeatedly warns couples to talk about possible infidelities before they get married: Cheating, he says, is "a relatively common thing (so people should go into marriage prepared to work through it)." He's talking about sex here, but that's almost a red herring; he's really telling couples to prepare to not have all their needs met by each other.

Though they all agree on the inherent limitations of marriage as a deliverer of contentment, Krasnow, the Parrotts, and Savage differ in how they think couples should deal with the inevitable fact that no spouse—no matter how wonderful—can make a person completely happy.

Krasnow says the answer is periodic time apart, from regular "girls' nights out" to entire vacations apart. It's a philosophy she has applied to her own 25-year marriage. Each summer for eight years, she would go off to the Adirondaks to be a camp counselor, leaving her husband in Maryland by himself.

"You come back and things can be hotter than ever," she said.

My husband's and my pre-marriage counseling didn't go so far as to recommend summers apart. It did, however, emphasize how important it is for my husband and me both to maintain close friendships with people besides one another, and to draw our identity and purpose not from our marriage, but from our faith.

Savage's solution is, famously and controversially, to make some marriages "monogamish." He believes that some couples would be better off if each member were allowed to stray occasionally. "If you are expected to be monogamous and have one person be all things sexually for you, then you have to be whores for each other," Savage told the New York Times a few years ago. "You have to be up for anything." If your partner is not "up for anything," according to Savage's understanding, you're justified in wanting to look elsewhere for sexual satisfaction.

***

I know nothing about the Putins' marriage, of course. (That's one of the things Krasnow emphasized in her interview with me: "You never know what's behind the covers," she said.) But it's clear that there's a bit of a power imbalance: One spouse is a SCUBA-diving, horseback-riding, action-man world leader, while the other is a former flight attendant who not only gave up her career for her husband's, but also actively dislikes the lifestyle her husband's job requires. "I don't like publicity, and flying wears me down," Mrs. Putin said in last week's interview.

The Putins' broken marriage could appear to be a failure of the mutual independence philosophy. The couple "each have our own lives," as Mrs. Putin put it, and that separation drove them apart. But mutual independence assumes that both spouses are seeking and enjoying their independence. In Krasnow's model, both spouses are making meaningful use of their time apart. In the Parrotts', both spouses are part of a broader community and belief system that brings them satisfaction and fulfillment. In Savage's, both spouses agree to and participate in "monogamishy." With the Putins, it's not so obvious that this essential mutual buy-in took place. Perhaps, then, the Putins shouldn't blame their separate lives, but rather their lopsided lives.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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