I have two friends who have just passed the couples crisis, a kind of midterm exam for commitment in the 1980s. The crisis began, as it often does, when each part of this unmarried pair was offered an ideal job in another city.
These long-distance callings forced them to evaluate what they had assumed for the past year: their desire to be with each other. Neither could be absolutely sure that their own bond was strong enough to resist the centrifugal force of their work lives.
In the course of this crisis, two "I"s were put on the table, balanced against one "we": two jobs against one relationship. The tangible rewards of professional advancement -- money, status -- against the intangible rewards of a personal connection.
The crisis was even harder because my friends are still in their twenties, still young in an era when work comes first chronologically, and often emotionally. Nevertheless, these two concocted an elaborate plan of action including many basics in two-career coupledom -- a one- sided move, followed by a time of commuting, and then reunion.
When the crisis had passed, I was not surprised to hear that they had decided to get married. After all, they had already done the hard part. The pair had hammered out a compromise. Instead of demanding a sacrifice of each other, they had worked their way to a place of mutual consent.
The details were less important finally than the process. These friends -- lawyers in love, with due apologies to Jackson Browne -- completed their prep course for marriage in an era when the "institution" is really an open-ended negotiation.
I don't know quite how to chronicle this new pattern of negotiation. Not that long ago, in the peak days of traditional marriage, the family unit spoke with one dominant voice or one veto. Decisions about careers and geography were largely a game of follow-the-leader. In everyday life, household chores were also divided by hormones. Nearly every piece of work -- from kitchen duty to car repair -- was pre-labeled his or hers.
But in marriages between equals, where tasks are acquired instead of inherited, everything is up for grabs. Two people with two jobs, two schedules and two egos place a much greater strain on the day-to-day skills of communication and compromise.
I suppose that's why the early pioneers of "liberated marriages" tried to reorganize their lives with household contracts. They wanted to protect themselves against backsliding but also against uncertainty. The contracts sometimes read like transcripts of legal proceedings for joint custody of washers and dryers. Roles were set according to days, weeks and months instead of by sex, but they were set.
Now it appears that what keeps marriages between equals together is not a rigi formula of fairness but a tolerance for change, flexibility, a lot of give-and- take and negotiating.
When roles are no longer separate, they overlap and open up gaps in the everyday life of couples. When there is no single permanently assigned milk buyer, a family refrigerator can hold two bottles or none. On any given day, both, either or neither spouse may be in charge of the children's schedule or the laundry stubs or the social calendar. Over time, regular chores, such as bill-keeping or gardening, may belong to husband or wife, but the only permanent system that evolves is one for trade-offs.
This kind of marriage geometrically increases the amount of decision-making. He does not buy the car and she the rug; they do. She doesn't worry about the school system and he about the mortgage rate; they do. It triples the chances for a bad marriage to flounder on power struggles, misunderstanding and mutual withholding. It also improves the chance of a good marriage to thrive on connection, the sense of joint venture, mutual gratitude.
I don't know what will happen to my lawyer friends now, a pair who settled the trial of their pre-marriage so professionally, so personally. Surely they were lucky to find a solution to this contemporary crisis, and luck is a good sign for any couple. But their eagerness to negotiate, their willingness to work it out is even more promising. It is a proper way to begin a working marriage in every sense of those words.