Do Marriage Pacts Ever Work?
I sometimes worry that my own marriage pact has hindered my chances of being in a committed relationship and that I have always been waiting for Q
When I talk about a marriage pact, I mean an agreement with someone that, if you're both still single at a specified, future age, you'll marry each other. Reddit threads exist chronicling numerous successful enactments of such pacts with a "best" friend or romantic interest from youth. Most use the age of 30 or 35 as a cut-off date. My own marriage pact has slightly different parameters.
I met Q in 1993 (when I was 23) in a hotel lobby in Venice, Italy. Both American, we were overseas for work. We dated for a while, trying the long-distance thing but eventually decided, despite how much we wanted it to, our relationship didn't make a lot of sense.
Our pact is that if we both turn 65 still single, we'll get married and live in a house overlooking the Mediterranean in Spain.
Q has a high-risk job that requires spending months (sometimes years) in various locations across the world while I have a full life and two careers in New York City. Our pact is that if we both turn 65 still single, we'll get married and live in a house overlooking the Mediterranean in Spain. We've remained in contact through the years, occasionally meeting up for a week or two.
I've often wondered if such a pact has a chance of working out or if it's just a silly, romantic fantasy that will most assuredly blow up in our faces. Through the years, I've rarely talked about it to anyone. I sometimes worry that its existence has hindered my chances of being in a committed relationship; that I have always been waiting for Q.
I talked to Alexandra Solomon, PhD, therapist, host of the Reimagining Love podcast, and author of the forthcoming book "Love Every Day," about these concerns. First of all, she told me, when we think about how people find each other and who falls in love with whom, we almost always have highly romanticized notions of being swept off of our feet, falling head over heels, being out of control.
In reality, though, she continued, to be in an intimate partnership is "to make the choice every single day to keep showing up for it."
In that sense, a marriage pact can be a highly practical, pragmatic idea.
"Maybe there's a fairytale, but maybe it's also just about making an agreement and following through on your agreement," Solomon said. She talked about the imbalance that exists when partnering up; that scenario where one person likes the other more than that person likes them back. A marriage pact sets forth an agreement that, on some future date, those two people agree to want each other equally.
"Maybe there's a fairytale, but maybe it's also just about making an agreement and following through on your agreement."
"Which speaks to just how risky and frightening the whole prospect of falling in love is," Solomon said, "And people find all kinds of ways to mitigate how tender that feels."
There is, of course, another side to this. While marriage pacts can be a way to provide safety in an unsafe-seeming dating world, they can also be a reaction to someone's fear of attachment, Patricia Pitta, PhD, clinical and couple and family psychologist, told me.
This fear could come from unsuccessfully navigating a secure attachment earlier in life (for reasons such as neglect, loss through death or traumatic separation). More than likely, she said, these people have poor attachment styles (avoidant or disorganized).
While I may argue with the use of the adjective 'poor,' I agree that I can indeed be avoidant (self-sufficient to the point of appearing detached; fiercely committed to my independence) and disorganized (perennially juggling a desire for and fear of intimacy). As can Q. We're both so steadfastly committed to independence that we wouldn't/won't give it up for anyone or anything.
If Solomon had someone in her therapy office who told her they were enacting a marriage pact, her first reaction would be to ask them what they're waiting for.
"Clearly there's enough interest in this person so why wouldn't you just make the investment now?" she asked. "Why delay essentially years of something that might be really enjoyable and wonderful?"
Always Looking for the Magic
Her response when I told her about my own pact was not what I expected. She said that since I connected with Q when I was young, free and full of my own sense of self that Q, in a way, will always carry inside of him the 23-year-old version of me.
"If you end up connecting at 65, you will get to not only have this chapter with him, but you will also have this reunion with your 23-year-old self," she said. "Because that's a self that he's known and there's something pretty compelling, magical and powerful, I imagine, about that connection."
"If you end up connecting at 65, you will get to not only have this chapter with him, but you will also have this reunion with your 23-year-old self."
As a person who has spent all of her life looking for whatever evidence of magic she can find, I concur. Solomon talked about how our (mine and Q's) marriage pact was (and is) a reflection of how we just couldn't figure out how to make life work differently.
"Part of the problem of this big global world and one of the side effects of women's liberation and women being able to have these fantastic and big lives is that we don't just marry the boy next door or the person that our parents choose for us," she explained.
Instead, we have these big lives, but that also means sometimes we cannot figure out how to make our big lives align with someone else's. Solomon explained it as an unresolvable tension of figuring out how to carry both the part of us that craves ambition and the part of us that craves intimacy.
"Those are two really strong pulls that don't always fit well together," she said. "A marriage pact can be an attempted pragmatic solution to what is an otherwise unsolvable problem; I cannot figure out how to get my body and your body in the same place at the same time."
Family Pacts and Other Scenarios
Sometimes a marriage pact is about one (or both) of the people wanting to see if there's anybody better out there, and if not, then settling for each other.
"But," Solomon said, "for you and Q, it has been about you liberating each other to go have your adventures and saying, I'll see you when we're ready to retire."
Solomon also told me about a young woman in her 20s who made a pact with a female friend (they're both heterosexual) that if neither of them has a baby by the time they're 30, they'll have one together.
"The pact can be used as a 'safety gap' that no one else could ever penetrate and the end result is that you feel as poorly attached as you did in your formative years."
"This youngest generation, Gen Z folks, really have creative imaginings of what family and partnership looks like," she said. "I think it's an exciting time and we're going to see creative and adaptive family structures that are formed for all kinds of reasons."
As for platonic friends who decide to become romantic partners down the road: they have a wonderful foundation to build on, she said. Their story will be the story of 'we waited for each other, we chose each other, we made sure we were both ready for this'.
The downside to this waiting is that it could potentially thwart your development socially, said Pitta. "The pact can be used as a 'safety gap' that no one else could ever penetrate and the end result is that you feel as poorly attached as you did in your formative years."
But Is It Dishonest in Any Way?
There is a difference between privacy and secrecy, Solomon said. Privacy is the inner chambers of your soul that you may or may not invite someone into, but cause no harm, while a secret is something you actively hide.
"If you only have one foot in your relationships because you're just biding time, then that does feel like it'd be helpful for your partner to know that they don't have all of you," she said.
For me, as much as I appreciate connection and closeness, it's not something I've ever needed on a day-to-day basis. I have always been able to, as Solomon put it, "fill my bucket in other ways" which can be potentially threatening to a potential partner.
What if both Q and I make it to 65 and do end up together? What if it's horrible?
"It rests a lot on self-awareness and understanding about what you count as a meaningful life," she explained.
A marriage pact, though, is not the only thing that might make someone not fully available. There are also traumas, addictions, busy careers or just getting over an ex. If she were talking to somebody whose partner had a marriage pact, she'd tell them that now they know the risk and the best they can do (if they decide) is keep showing up as their most interesting, loving self and hope the person with the pact is able to invest in the relationship.
"Love is not enough for a successful relationship," said Pitta. You need to have all the ingredients or, at the very least, be committed to improving the areas that are lacking. These include communication, respect, empathy, mutual values and goals, romance and a good sexual connection.
What if both Q and I make it to 65 and do end up together? What if it's horrible?
There will be a transition, Solomon told me, from the idealized person I've been waiting for to a real person with quirks and annoying habits.
"You've been sparkling to each other, and there's something very beautiful about that. Any love affair that becomes a day-to-day relationship has to go through that little bit of shock as you navigate the transition," she said. Managing expectations is key. As well as accepting that there is no way to truly know how it will all shake out.
For me, I am okay with the not knowing, with waiting to see what might happen during the final chapters of my life. I do not regret the choices I've made or the life I've had up to now — marriage pact included — though I also recognize that I may have missed out on other amazing and fulfilling relationships because of it.
I remember that day in 1993 in the lobby of that fancy hotel in Venice as if it were yesterday; me dripping rain water all over the floor and Q running up to me asking if I needed a towel. How could I not? I'm standing right there. In all these years, I still haven't moved.