I call my generation the Shit Sandwich Generation. That’s because when I was a kid the most important people in the family were the adults. That was the cultural norm. By the time I became an adult, eager for my time in the sun, society in the United States decided that kids were the top priority.
I can see why the shift happened. Life got complicated, and dangerous, and more competitive, so it was no longer feasible to raise “free range” kids the way my generation was raised. On weekends as a teen I would leave my house in the morning, on my bike, and had no obligation to check in with my parents until dinner at 5 PM. I often say I was raised by television. Like E.T., I watched actors on TV to see how one should act and speak. I was in my twenties before a Princeton-educated friend pointed out that “brang” is not a word.
My entire college preparation in high school was comprised of one meeting with a guidance counselor in which he showed me where the college catalogs were stored, plus one day of SAT testing. The rest I had to figure out on my own.
So my generation is sort of the shit between two slices of awesome bread. We take care of the kids. We take care of the aging parents. And sometimes we take care of the grandparents.
Both of my parents died in the past few years. My grandparents were already long gone. And as fate would have it, last year I got separated, which meant losing my wife and step-kids all at once.
Sounds bad, right?
I got a lot of sympathy last year. Man, was that misplaced.
No one would choose the situation I found myself in, but I recognized it as a rare blank slate. I was free to reinvent my social life in any fashion I liked. And I had resources to do just that.
My wife moved only a block away and we remain best friends. The problem was never our feelings for each other but rather the restrictions of blending two sets of preferences. In 2014, marriage is still the best economic arrangement for raising a family, but in most other senses it is like adding shit mustard to a shit sandwich. If an alien came to earth and wanted to find a way to make two people that love each other change their minds, I think he would make them live in the same house and have to coordinate every minute of their lives.
A hundred years ago, if you and your wife enjoyed square dancing, you had everything in common. There weren’t any options to discuss. Those were simple times. But fast-forward to 2014 and every human wants to go a different direction. You want to take spin classes and I want to go golf. You want to do yoga and I want to go to the gun range. Every minute of every day involves one or both partners compromising. This is a first-world problem to be sure, but the effect is to rob you of your sensation of freedom. Members of the shit sandwich generation can go a full week without doing anything they choose to do at the moment they choose to do it. The kids need something right away, your spouse needs something, your boss needs something, and the house needs maintenance, and so on. The Shit Sandwich Generation is like puppets that have strings coming from above, below, and every side.
So there I was a year ago with a blank slate, no strings, and an option to create a life from scratch. It was a rare opportunity. The first principle I established for my engineered life involved recognizing that one person would never be the answer to all of my needs. So I looked at all the things I enjoy doing with other people and sought out the right people for those activities. The result is that no one is ever compromising. I only spend time with people who are doing what they want to do when they want to do it. And wow, does that make things nice.
Another pillar of my engineered life is full disclosure. I try to be honest about what I want from people. That’s a bigger deal than it sounds because life is normally full of hidden agendas, especially in the man-woman realm. Going into this experiment I thought my honesty would be off-putting. But it turns out that people prefer the flawed and honest version of me over my more “managed” personality. I did not see that coming.
The third pillar of my experiment is releasing my expectations about others. I try to enjoy people for what they are willing to share, as opposed to resenting people for what I thought they should be doing and aren’t. I could write an entire blog post on this topic, but for now let’s say that if you have unreasonable expectations of other people they will continually disappoint you. But if you can learn to find joy from whatever people have to offer, life is like a candy store. Most people are givers, but they don’t want anyone telling them what to give. Once you accept that reality, life is far more pleasant. Obviously this arrangement doesn’t work within marriage because marriage is mostly a bunch of unreasonable expectations you put on each other.
Another thing I didn’t see coming is that there are now more single than married people in the United States. That snuck up on me. So loneliness is more of a choice than a necessity in 2014.
I’m still early in my lifestyle experiment, but this past year was the most fun of my entire life. No other year comes close. My ex and my step-kids are still nearby and in my life, so that part is good. And the life I have engineered so far is nothing short of wonderful. If I told you what a typical Tuesday looks like for me these days, you’d cry.
I don’t think traditional marriage is going away anytime soon. But it probably isn’t a coincidence that there are more single and divorced people than ever. Traditional marriage is the biggest obstacle to happiness in the United States. I give it twenty years before society acknowledges it to be a bad fit for modern times.
In the future I think you will see organized groups of “friends” that share duties to make all of their lives easier. One friend might enjoy raising kids and hate working a traditional job, so that friend stays home and does childcare for several single parents in return for a share of the collective income of the group. That is just an example, but you can see how one might engineer a better system than marriage.
If you disagree with anything I’ve written today, look around the next time you are on vacation. When you see couples vacationing with friends they usually look happy. When you see a married couple having dinner together – just the two of them for the ten-thousandth time – they both look like they came from a funeral.
Marriage is probably a great solution for 20% of the public. The rest of us need better systems.
P.S. Apparently someone can be a certified genius. 😉