We need a contract for co-parenting, not just marriage

Readers of  The New I Do know that we present parenting marriages as a model and parenting prenups as a way to really plan to become parents.
Here’s a wonderful article by philosophy professor Laurie Shrage that ran in Aeon, which we are reprinting here by permission.

When I was in graduate school in the United States in the early 1980s, a member of our women’s support group informed us that she was pregnant. Although she was single and not in a serious relationship, she told us she intended to have the baby and raise it herself. She decided not to tell the genetic father, as she feared that he would pressure her to get an abortion, or disappear and then later try to enter the child’s life. She preferred to parent alone.

My mother was in a similar position, even when she was married to my father. In the US at the time, it was common for fathers not to be involved in raising the children. What we would now call a ‘traditional marriage’ never really spelled out any principles for shared parenting, except to assign all basic childcare to wives. A father might be called upon occasionally to back up a mother’s disciplinary rules, but I felt somewhat lucky that my mine was never enlisted for this role. When my parents separated, there was no question about who would get the kids: the wife, my mother. Once my parents divorced, my father was around even less, and never got to know my children (my eldest was 12 years old when he died).

These scenarios – being a single parent by choice, and raising children in a marriage and after a break-up – point to the fact that the institution of marriage often fails to facilitate the complex and shifting nature of parenthood. The modern family is changing, and an increasing number of people are choosing to have children outside marriage in the first place. In 1970, 11 per cent of all births in the US were extramarital; by 2014, it had climbed to around 40 per cent. In countries including Norway, Sweden, France, Mexico and Iceland, more than half of all children are born outside of marriage.

This trend troubles some observers, who think that marriage is necessary for the stability of the family. But people become parents under many different circumstances, and often these circumstances aren’t conducive to marriage anyway. Is there an alternative that adds a degree of financial and emotional security to the lives of parents and children?

Yes: akin to a public marriage contract, we need an official ‘co-parenting agreement’ and associated civil status, which not only enshrines the rights and responsibilities of each parent in respect of their children, but also sets out the principles by which they relate to one another and make decisions.

Although children benefit greatly from having the ongoing support of several adults as they grow up, they don’t necessarily need this nurturing from people who commit to marriage. Their parents simply need to cooperate effectively, to respect the relationship the other has with the children, and to contribute in comparable ways to caregiving and family finances. In the United Kingdom, parents who are unmarried, separated, remarried or step-parents can already enter into a ‘parental responsibility agreement’ that aims to establish the terms of shared custody of the children. This includes obligations to keep co-parents informed about a child’s basic wellbeing, and to assist with providing housing, schooling, medical care and other costs.

However, I think that we need to take the notion of official co-parenting a step further – to include parents who might never intend to marry or live together, or who don’t wish to enter into an emotionally intimate relationship. In the US, organisations such as Family By Design and Modamily have sprung up to help single adults find a suitable co-parent for forming a family ‘minus the couple’, as a New York Times article put it. But without the state’s legal recognition, co-parents must draw up their own agreements. Such privately negotiated contracts could fail to protect the rights of weaker or vulnerable parties, or might reflect the quality of legal advice one can afford.

Of course, like marriage, entering and continuing a public, formal co-parenting agreement should be voluntary; parents should always be free to enter into private or informal arrangements, if they wish to do so. But without an institutionalised public option, we expose families to the risk of nightmarish conflict, especially when relationships break down.

When people become parents, they might not be able to anticipate all the ways in which their interests could be interfered with or undermined. Particularly after a break-up, parents often use tactics that they might admit are unfair, and would be incensed if used against them. But when access to their kids and involvement in their lives is at stake, moral consideration for the other parent is not a priority, even for otherwise decent people. Among my friends, and friends of friends, I have seen one parent use a partner’s lack of US citizenship as a bargaining chip to gain access to the children. Another took advantage of the circumstance that her same-gender co-parent had not obtained legal parent status. Yet another elected to move residence far away from the other parent, which made shared arrangements impractical. Many of us know similar stories.

Because marriage generally does not cover the terms of shared childrearing, public co-parenting contracts would offer a social insurance scheme for both ‘traditional’ and non-traditional families. An official contract would help to safeguard parents’ basic entitlements, such as the right to be involved in the lives of one’s children and to appropriate forms of child support from each co-parent. If and when cooperation among the co-parents breaks down, the existence of an agreement can guide courts or mediators in negotiating new agreements for shared parental responsibility.

The process of formalising one’s status as a parent would also encourage people to think through and communicate their expectations right from the start. When we cross the threshold to parenthood, surely it’s sensible for society to nudge parents to reflect on and discuss who will make career sacrifices to be at home with the children, how the children will divide their time if the parents have separate households, and how important decisions will be made that affect a child’s future.

Of course, it can be hard to know precisely what to expect in advance of something as momentous as having a child, and the contract doesn’t have to lay it all down in detail. But the point is that future decisions would take place in the context of a formal commitment and a public declaration about the primacy of the co-parenting relationship in one’s life. Such an agreement would also provide an incentive for parents to work things out to their mutual benefit – in part because they know that ending the arrangement has tangible consequences.

In short, one’s rights as a parent, and the relationship with one’s children, shouldn’t be contingent on the ups and downs of one’s love life. Co-parenting as friends, or at least as collaborators, is good for children, adults, and society. If a civil institution of co-parenting had been available, both my mother and my friend from graduate school might not have had to go it alone.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

‘Please have sex with someone else’

Let’s say you’re in a long-term marriage, one that’s pretty satisfying. You love your spouse, your spouse loves you, but you have a lot of things on your plate — work and kids and other things — and you’ve lost your sexual mojo. Would you tell your spouse, “Please have sex with someone else?” non-monogamy

That’s exactly what Saira Khan, a panelist on the popular British show “Loose Women,” told her husband earlier this year.

“I’m 46, I have a busy life and have two kids. I am so lucky. … We used to have a fantastic sex life. I still love my husband, we cuddle up and it’s lovely. We’ve been together for 11 years, but I’m not interested [in sex]. I don’t want to. … I’ve lost the desire and I find myself making excuses from around 6 p.m. … As soon as he comes home, I panic and start saying, ‘I’m so tired!’ I’m embarrassed to say this but I said to him you can go with someone else if you want. I want to make him happy. He’ll kill me for saying this … Am I the only one?”

That’s a rather brave thing to do, although perhaps some might say ill-advised or worse. (For the record, hubby Steven Hyde would have nothing to do with it.)

But it does offer a rather interesting — if not generally socially acceptable — solution to an age-old problem: sexless marriages.

To read more, click here.

Beyonce and Kanye are not making marriage ‘cool’

No one should ever look to celebs as marital models — even long-term couples like Jeff Bridges and Kevin BaconBeyonce-marriage-lemonade

So it was interesting to discover that Beyoncé Knowles and Kanye West are evidently making marriage “cool” again, at least according to a recent article in the Atlantic. Except marriage has never been “cool” or uncool,” although marriage has traditionally been pretty uncool for women. And if there ever was a time when marriage might have been considered “cool,”  it would have to be when the Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex couples had the same right to marry as anyone else. Love is love, people. That’s cool!

But the article states that the latest musical creations of Beyoncé and Kanye are revealing “an unexpectedly complicated picture of imperfect yet committed monogamy” and giving “voice to the struggle of reconciling marriage with cultural forces and personal urges at odds with it — forces and urges both stars’ careers have until now often exemplified.”

It’s great that they’re talking opening about the struggles of monogamy. It is a struggle for many people. We should be talking about it.

Beyoncé’s marriage to to Jay Z (Shawn Carter) has been plagued with rumors of infidelity while Kanye has long touted a hyper-masculinity and sexual prowess that wouldn’t quite fit into most happily-ever-after scenarios, even to sex tape-queen Kim Kardashian.

Read the rest of the article here.

Hillary Clinton, affairs and marriage

The conventions are over and there were a few speeches that will never be forgotten, Melania Trump‘s for one and Michelle Obama‘s for another. And then there was Bill Clinton’s about his wife and Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Of course Bill praised his wife. But as he did, many couldn’t help but wonder about their marriage, given his many public scandals over his indiscretions (and who knows how many private ones), and the fact that Hillary has continually stood by her man. Bill and Hillary Clinton

In fact, Bill addressed that directly: “She’ll never quit on you.”

Which, of course, perplexed and irritated many from the beginning, and it was even a topic in the primaries when Hillary was accused of enabling Bill’s infidelities by Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Then GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina questioned if the Clintons have a real marriage, stating, “If my husband had done some of the things Bill Clinton had done, I would have left him long ago.”

Making many of us once again wonder, what is a “real marriage“?

Writing in the Washington Post,

The harder the Clintons have worked to preserve their marriage, the less easily that marriage has fit into easy stories about what true love should look like. … If I hated the choices Clinton’s husband, other politicians, the media and the American public forced her to make in the 1990s, the Clintons’ marriage also taught me that marriage is a mystery — not merely in that it’s perplexing, but that its power lies in part in the fact that any given marriage is not comprehensible to outsiders.

Thank you! Because it’s true — not every marriage fits into what we think, or have been told, “true love should look like” and, yes, relationships are often incomprehensible to those outside them. The problem isn’t with marriage and relationships per se; it’s more about the collective belief that there’s any “should” when it comes to love and marriage. Love is complicated and hard to define, so how can it look like one thing for all of us? And that means living with a partner’s sexual transgressions isn’t all that bad for some people as long as they’re getting other things from the marriage.

Read more here.

If you have love, do you need commitment, too?

Recently there were two stories that addressed the “happily-ever-after” version of marriage many of us expect, or at least want to believe.

Actress Drew Barrymore and her third husband, art consultant Will Kopelman, are divorcing after two children and three years of marriage. At the same time, a Maine couple were being honored for their 77-year marriage and, as nursing home residents, for “their achievements and contributions to the community” until the wife passed away last month.

According to the vice president and director of communications for the Maine Health Care Association: “It was pretty obvious that in everything they were a team. Who’s married that long now? I mean, really. That was really impressive.”

Dos commitment matter?It’s only later in the article that we learn why they might have lasted that long — the wife’s “tolerance for the things (her husband) did” was the secret to their long marriage, which was not without its struggles: “He was very headstrong. If there was something he wanted to do, he was going to do it.”

Hmm, should we actually celebrate that?

When people are asked why they want to get married, an overwhelming number (88 percent) say love is a “very important” reason to get married. A close second is making a lifelong commitment (81 percent).

Yet, we are often fuzzy on defining commitment — a number of people say commitment is very important in their marriage yet if their spouse has an affair, well, bye-bye commitment and hello divorce. Clearly, commitment will only go so far.

Still, society tends to emphasize how important commitment is in marriage and if someone divorces, especially for seemingly “trivial” issues, his or her character often comes into doubt. Thus, commitment takes on a moral value: the more committed you are, the more you love your spouse.

But is that true?

Love should be enough

Anca Gheaus, a philosophy professor whose work I’ve come to admire, questions those assumptions. In fact, she questions if love shouldn’t matter more than commitment in a marriage.

There are two types of commitment, she notes — the promises and the behaviors, and attitudinal. Marriage has both; it’s a contract, with spouses-to-be promising each other certain things over the course of the marriage as well as the daily negotiations that build trust, but it also indicates that spouses think about “each other and their relationship as central to their idea of a good life, and, in least in love-based marriages, to their identity.”

But, she questions, why is it important for people to commit to other people and a relationship just because it’s part of how they see themselves and their life?

“It may be true that most of the things that give meaning to people’s lives are those to which they are usually committed. But commitment does not seem to be necessary for meaning; being engaged with people and activities about which one cares is enough.”

Is commitment, then, really important in a marriage? True, commitment may keep spouses from splitting if more tempting partners or activities that would take time and energy away from the relationship suddenly appear. But, she notes, a more likely reason commitment matters is because it’s hard to live with someone else day in and day out, and commitment keeps a couple going and working toward a life plan together even when things are tough and they may not want to.

Does that mean we really need commitment? With all due respect to the Beatles, wouldn’t all we need is love? If someone loved us, wouldn’t he or she be kind to us and do nice things for us and hang around because of that love? And wouldn’t we do the same?

“As long as love, understood minimally as the inclination to seek another’s companionship and advance her well-being, exists, commitment is not necessary. One need not be committed to one’s beloved in order to suspend any cost-benefit analysis of the relationship … the appearance of more desirable partners will not be a reason to leave the marriage if one loves one’s spouse. … A world where the goods of marriage were achieved without commitment, out of love alone, would therefore be a better world; marital commitment seems to be a second-best solution to securing the goods of marriage.”

Of course, love is fragile and can disappear, too; that’s in part why spouses commit to each other — to kind of “lock in” some future love. But, is that what we really want — someone to be with us out of commitment than out of a deliberate decision to be with us because they love us? Does it really build character to keep staying with someone we no longer love? Love may be a better way to be with someone because “love is a direct reaction to the reality of the beloved” and is in the moment and has nothing to do with the promise you made three, 10 or 77 years ago to stick together “until death.”

Again, this speaks to the beauty of a renewable marital contract, in which spouses would have to react to “the reality of the beloved” every so often and decide — are we still in because we want to be here or not? Are we loving each other in the way we want to be loved?

Why stay together?

Barrymore and Kopelman evidently are no longer in love. Would commitment be reason enough for them to stay together? “Well, they have young kids,” you might be thinking, “and they should stick it out for them.” But, does their romantic and sexual relationship have anything at all to do with their ability to parent their children? No. If anything we’ve seen how love and sex — or the lack thereof — make spouses miserable.

If commitment matters at all, it should be the commitment to the children, not necessarily to each other. So they could transform their marriage into a parenting marriage until their daughters Olive, 3, and Frankie, 23 months, become 18 since they’ve acknowledged that the girls will bind them together forever. And that is exactly what binds a couple — kids, more than a desire to “lock in” a future together and much more than love.

Does their decision to split make them any better or worse than the Maine couple who stayed together for 77 years — seemingly at the expense of the wife’s self-esteem and perhaps happiness? Yet, that marriage is being celebrated for longevity, whether love was still present or not, while Barrymore is seen as a failure because this is her third marriage.

Demanding commitment in a marriage is basically saying we know our partner may stop loving us at some point but we still want him or her to hang around forever. Or, we may stop loving our partner — now what?

Want to learn how to create a marriage based on your values and goals? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and  follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

Is getting married an accomplishment?

Natalie Brooke — who is engaged to be married — bemoans the fact that once she got a ring on her finger, that’s all people wanted to talk about — not the many real accomplishments (her education, career, etc.) she’s had. Marriage isn’t an accomplishment, she says. Getting married is a big deal, she notes, but society might want to “re-evaluate what aspect of women’s lives we put the most value on.”

She writes:

You don’t have to have a brain, drive or special skill set to get married. You just have to have a willing partner. … That’s not to say that there is no accomplishment related to being married. I believe success comes into play not when the man gets down on one knee or when the couple stands at the altar and says “I do”, but rather when the husband and wife are able to weather through financial woes, illnesses, having kids, and the general stresses of everyday life. Staying together in an era when over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce is certainly an achievement.

Photo by Desiree Fawn

Photo by Desiree Fawn

She is wrong about the divorce rate; it’s only 50 percent for those aged 50 and older, the so-called gray divorces, but its between 30 and 40 percent for younger couples. Still, she is right about (some) of what she says. You don’t need a special skill set to tie the knot although you do need some know-how — communication, conflict management, etc. —  to stay married (and get through life in general).

Needless to say, her article caused a bit of a kerfuffle, with people arguing that is is indeed an accomplishment because, as one blogger wrote, “marriage is not a private act or just your personal life but a new brick building up society.” We might need to re-evaluate that thinking as fewer people are getting married — now what?

For Claire King, marriage is an accomplishment because, “You win the game of life.”

Pause for a minute and read that again: Marriage equals winning … at life. Hmm, OK … Isn’t staying alive winning the “game” of life?

King continues:

What marriage means to me is that I get to build the world the way I want it to be by furthering my genes, propagating my values, and propelling them into the future long after I’m gone. I think that’s a hugely important responsibility that one should be proud of and that others should revere.

Of course, one does not need to be married to further genes or propagate values, but let’s not quibble. Do childfree or adoptive couples, who don’t further their genes, win? And honestly, I’m not sure I want to revere furthering her genes and values until I know what they are!

Years before Brooke’s article, Rachel W. Miller said you bet getting engaged is an accomplishment:

While saying relationships aren’t an accomplishment might be done in an effort to remind women that, despite what rom-coms tell us, there is more to life than whether or not you can snag a husband, I think this sentiment unintentionally reinforces another rom-com trope: that relationships are equal parts magic, luck, and “meeting cute.” We’re told that if we just show up at the right place at the right time, everything will fall into place. Relationships are more than just showing up, and I’m okay with calling anything that requires doing more than just showing up an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Of course, for some the desire would be to snag a spouse of the same sex but, again, quibbles. But Miller says, yes, she worked hard to put a ring on it — she didn’t have casual flings or drunk text, she moved across the country to be closer to a serious prospect (after a month of dating), learned to communicate and negotiate after moving in together, etc. That may or may not be hard work, but it isn’t an accomplishment if you end up engaged after all that because there’s no guaranteed end result. She could have done all that and still not get engaged.

When George H.W. and Barbara Bush celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary recently, many people congratulated them on their “accomplishment” — seven decades of wedded bliss!! (well, we don’t know that for a fact). Writer Kristin Noreen questioned whether accomplishment is the right word:

If after being married 71 years, you’re still in love, that’s fantastic luck, but I wouldn’t call it an accomplishment — that’s like giving adults blue ribbons for perfect attendance. To me, developing a vaccine is an accomplishment. Running a marathon is an accomplishment. Learning to walk again after a brain injury — something I have actually done – is an accomplishment. Raising good people is an accomplishment, I’ll give you that.

I agree with her blue ribbon analogy; if we go into marriage assuming that it’s “until death,” then you can’t call it an accomplishment until you actually make it until death. Isn’t this what you signed up for? You don’t get any kudos for doing your job and keeping your marital vows/promises; you just remain married. It’s not as if evil forces are conspiring against you and your marriage; no, you either wake up every day and say, “I choose to be in this marriage” and act accordingly or you don’t.

Except, and this is a big exception, a number of people don’t. They don’t consciously choose their marriage and their spouse; they stay in sexless, loveless, unhappy marriages that are full of anger and contempt because of the kids or because they’re afraid of what they’ll lose in a divorce or out of lethargy or because they value commitment over their spouse  — thus they can treat him or her like crap but still feel proud that they’re keeping their commitment. If those marriages last 50, 60, 70 years, is that really an accomplishment? Screw that!

A few years ago, right before she marked her 10th wedding anniversary to Gavin Rossdale, Grammy award-winning musician, The Voice judge and fashion designer Gwen Stefani called her marriage “my biggest accomplishment.” Of course, we all know how that played out. Despite the ugly way in which that marriage ended, they had three children together — thus furthering her genes. Accomplishment?

I’m not sure why we consider longevity to be the only marker of a successful marriage or lifelong love to be the best kind of love. As far as I know there isn’t any research that indicates love that lasts forever improves us in any way — makes us smarter, more resilient, more creative, kinder or a better person — or in some way betters society. If it did, then, OK, I’d be more inclined to say that lifelong love — not necessarily lifelong marriage — is an accomplishment.

Until then, I’m happy to congratulate couples on their wedding anniversary. And if they indeed make it until death, then yes — it’s an accomplishment. Someone died, and thus that marriage — by the traditional “until death do us part” requirement — has met its goal. Mission accomplished!

Too bad one of the spouses won’t be around to celebrate it.

Want to define what will make your marriage a success? Learn how by ordering The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

After her husband cheated, here’s what a mom of six did instead of divorce

Melissa*  was devastated when she learned that her husband, Jon,* had had a tryst with her brother’s wife (and her best friend).

This single act was like an Atomic bomb going off in the middle of the entire family. Nothing would ever be the same. Nothing. But, because they had six children under the age of 15 together, they were inextricably tied to each other for the next decade or so.

Although Jon admitted it was a really stupid thing to do (and, of course, swore he’d never do it again) Melissa felt like she couldn’t let him off the hook that easily.   She was angry, hurt, sad and scared.  She wondered, “How could he be so stupid?” “Why would he have hurt me so deeply?” And, if he did it once and she forgave him, what would stop him from doing it again? After all, they’d see each other at family events.

Melissa’s head was a constant swirl of questions and confusion. She felt tremendous pressure to make a decision. She kicked Jon out for a day but quickly realized that it would be impossible to run the household and get all the kids taken care of without him.  

Although Melissa let Jon back home, she made it clear that she was probably going to ask for a divorce. The mere thought of this sent her into a tailspin of deep depression. There were no good choices. She was facing having to choose between a rock and a hard place.

That is, until she found out about the Parenting Marriage concept.

Suddenly, there was another option on the table. Rather than having to choose solely between staying (being angry and untrusting, or trying desperately to put it all behind her quickly—which she knew she couldn’t), or leaving (which would create a whole new set of challenges), there was another viable alternative.  Melissa described this new concept like a “pause” button.  And, she said, it gave her room to breathe and a renewed sense of dignity. She added that, for the first time since this all happened, she felt like she was on an upward trajectory and she felt better right away.

Melissa reached out to me to let me know what this Parenting Marriage concept gave her:

1) My power back. All the infidelity therapy stuff really encourages you to get the healing done rather quickly and while I forgave him intellectually, my heart just wasn’t there. This buys me time to continue raising my kids in the exact same way while explaining to my husband that I can’t give him my “romantic” heart right now.

I’m pretty introspective and I like to have a long time to think about things and figure out what’s best. This option allows me to say “don’t make any passes at me right now. We are in a parenting marriage which means we are focusing on the kids while I figure out if this is what I want.”

2) If I never fall back in love with him, he is used to living like this and the decision can be his if he wants to or not. It removes the shock of a potential split. It allows us to ease into it.

3) We have a high needs teenager that needs us both right now. It is my stepdaughter and his daughter and she is in and out of alcohol/drug treatment. Splitting right now would not be good for anyone, but especially not her.

This type of situation could work quite well for us. Our marriage has always been very respectful (besides the infidelity), we fight fair, and we put the kids first.

The knee-jerk reaction when someone cheats is to split up and eventually divorce. [Shifting] to a parenting marriage allows time for introspection…I don’t know, maybe it’s not healthy, but I haven’t felt this good since it happened. It removed the shame and the fear of a possible divorce when I’m not even sure that’s what I want. Really, it’s strange, by putting a label on it from romantic marriage to parenting marriage, it removed the pressure I was feeling to just “get over it” and allows me the time I need to heal from this.

Thank you again,

Melissa

Parenting Marriage isn’t right for everyone. Perhaps it isn’t right as a long-term solution.  But, making a decision as big as whether to end your marriage from an overly emotional place doesn’t usually end well. This option is giving Melissa a chance to step back from all the drama, put any decisions on hold, and wait until her head is clearer to decide what’s next.

*(not their real names)

How to stay together ‘for the kids’

It’s January, and we’re in the middle of  Divorce Month.

If you are not among those motivated to file, you may wonder why anyone would split up in the middle of their kids’ school year. It doesn’t seem to make sense.

If, however, you are considering divorce, you would likely say that the holidays were more than you could stand in a loveless (and likely sexless) relationship; you may have wanted out months ago but, as fall approached, decided you didn’t want to ruin the kids’ holidays, or have to share the news with your extended family. Now, however, you feel like enough is enough. With the turning of the calendar page, many people’s first resolution is to move forward with a filing, determined to make this the year to be true to themselves and take charge of living the life they want to lead. Waiting much longer, they’re afraid, might do them in completely.  

With fingers perched on the button that will change the fate of their marriage (and their life), the last thing they want is for someone to come along and talk them out of it or try to make them feel awful or ashamed about wanting to make a break.

We have no agenda on whether people stay or leave their relationship. In fact, Susan has a saying: “The world doesn’t need more married people. The world needs more authentic and happy people.” But as we discuss in our book and as we have discussed before, there is a little-known but growing alternative to divorce.

Divorce does not harm kids, per se. There’s ample research that divorce isn’t the worst thing parents can do to kids: Fighting terribly and subjecting them to your vitriolic hatred toward each other is the worst; staying married in such a state is actually worse for kids than if you actually got divorced. There are many people who divorce and, because they handled their emotions well, the children also did well. There are also many couples that do significant damage to their kids by staying in an unhealthy relationship and trying to “make it work.”

But, because it is also true that a two-parent households typically have some significant advantages over two separate, single-parent homes, it’s worth asking: What if you could stay for the kids and lead your own life — possibly even having outside romantic relationships?

We know what you’re thinking: People do this already; it’s called an affair. We’re well aware that romantic affairs go on illicitly, but what we’re suggesting is that this can also happen in an above-board, respectful kind of way. It’s called a Parenting Marriage and more and more couples are turning to this option as a way to “stay for the kids” without staying stuck in a bad relationship. As spouses, you basically change your job description from lover, best friend and co-parent to co-parent, friends maybe, and lovers no longer.

During the past six years, dozens of couples across the U.S.have  transitioned from their traditional marriage to this non-traditional model. Many find it surprisingly workable. Of course, it’s complicated and the need for having clear agreements in place is paramount, but it can be done if you both want the same things and you have a “good enough” relationship.

To learn about couples who’ve made this option work, read more here.

Want to have a parenting marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do:Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

 

How Maria Bello can help you avoid Divorce Month

It’s January — known among attorneys as Divorce Month because more people file for divorce this month than any other month.

Few people get upset if there are no children involved in a marital breakup, but everyone — friends, family and even people who seemingly have no business in what’s basically a private decision — pays attention if a couple has young children.

Is there an alternative to divorce?

For some, yes, and actress Maria Bello is leading the way.

In her Modern Love essay in 2013 and her book, Whatever … Love Is Love: Questioning The Labels We Give Ourselves, which came out in 2015, Bello explores the many labels we place upon ourselves and each other and what we consider a partner. Maria_Bello

Two years ago, Bello began a romantic, sexual relationship with a longtime family friend, Clare, and ended her romantic, sexual relationship with Dan, the father of her son Jackson. She questions, why do we consider the person we have sex with as the most important partner in our life? And if we stop having sex with that person, but still remain married or in a relationship with him or her, does that change anything — even the ability to parent?

She writes:

It’s hard for me even to define the term “partner.” For five years I considered my partner to be a friend then in his 70s, John Calley, with whom I talked daily. He was the one who picked me up each time I had a breakdown about another failed romance. Because we were platonic, did that make him any less of a partner? … Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters who have lived together for 15 years and raised a daughter. Are they not partners because they don’t have sex? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. Are they any less partners?

Those are interesting questions to ask, questions we probably don’t ask ourselves.

She, Jackson, Dan and Clare spend a lot of time together in what she calls their “modern family” — it certainly doesn’t look like a nuclear family, an image we still want to cling to even though those families barely exist nowadays. She has what The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels would call a parenting marriage (although they’re not technically married); Bello is connected to Dan because they are parents to Jackson, now 14, and that will never change — parenthood connects couples forever, whether they are married or not.

As any divorced co-parenting couple will tell you, it’s challenging. She says:

(I)t’s so complicated for a family to shift around. And you know, the truth is, life is fluid. Relationships are fluid. They are not static. And as much as we want to hold onto an idea of what they’re supposed to be, people grow and change and often in different directions. And then what do we do with that? Some people just throw out the love, and some people can make it work. … And I’m not saying it’s easy for us, you know? Some days, like, we can’t stand each other — all of us, and then some days, it’s different. But we communicate as much as we can. We talk about it. It’s certainly not easy, but the only other option is throwing out what we have. And what we have is something very special.

Her comment about throwing out the love reminds Vicki of the conversation she had with San Francisco Bay Area therapist Valerie Tate, whose uncoupling ceremony with her husband, Clark, before their son and loved ones was featured on ABC’s Nightline. Rather than throw out what they had — a rich history that once included romantic love for each other — they shifted the nature of the relationship and what they were fighting for; instead of struggling to maintain their intimate relationship, they just focus on raising their child together.

Look at how most of us end romantic relationships — with anger, hurt, accusations, resentments, vengeful thoughts and more days than not when people “can’t stand each other.”And that is often how we divorce as well, with kids stuck miserably in the middle. We know from studies that it’s conflict, not divorce per se, that hurts children. What can we do that lessens that conflict (besides conscious uncoupling)?

Would it be better to not throw away what you already have with the parent of your child, accept that “people grow and change and often in different directions,” and challenge yourself to do things differently? Would you still value the father or mother of your child as a parenting partner even if you were not having sex with him or her?

It’s a new year, when many people make resolutions to be better or do things differently. If you’re a parent and have been contemplating divorce, it’s a good time to consider following Maria Bello’s lead.

Want to have a parenting marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

You don’t have to have a ‘gray divorce’

Nothing will make you think more about what marriage is about than a divorce. But there’s divorce and then there’s divorce. When Vicki divorced in her 20s and they had nothing — no property, no savings, no kids — it was emotionally challenging, true, but that’s about it. If someone presented her with a way to make the marriage work, she probably would have said, Why? We made a mistake; it’s over!

But when she divorced at midlife with stuff (a house, a car, a dog and, most important, young kids) it was much more complicated. While many people argue about the stuff and money, the bigger issue is the kids: How will we raise them until they can be self-sufficient? renegotiate marital contract

Now a friend is in the midst of a divorce and her kids, at 21 and 25, are no longer “kids;” they’re self-sufficient adults. What does divorce mean at this point?

Are there alternatives that might be available for midlife couples who are struggling?

Yes.

While divorce is on the decline among younger couples, the so-called gray divorce — among those 50 and older — is growing. While most divorces are initiated by women, it hurts women more than the men — 27 percent of gray divorced women live in poverty compared with 11 percent of gray divorced men, according to a recent Bowling Green State University study.

While boomer women were renegades and feminists, and many of us had full-time careers while raising kids, we are still paid less than men are and many of us still resorted to traditional male breadwinner-female housekeeping roles when we married, which inevitably hurt us in the event of a divorce (a model that, despite all our progress, still seems to be the default for Gen-Yers and millennials). Plus, we live longer than men.

Knowing that, is there something else we could be doing?

In some instances, yes. Even if you didn’t create a contract at the onset of your marriage, you can certainly create one after the fact.

Vicki’s second marriage fell apart after the discovery of a long-term affair as well as other issues. Her initial reaction was to save the marriage because her kids were young, 9 and 12, and she was scared. She’d only worked part time since they were born, and they weren’t a wealthy family to begin with.

They could have transformed their marriage into a parenting marriage, giving their kids the consistency and stability they needed while separating the sexual/romantic aspect of their relationship from their parenting relationship, which is one of the models in The New I Do. Would that have worked? In the aftermath of a long-term affair, Vicki didn’t know. Would she have considered it if it had been presented to her by a marriage counselor? Absolutely.

Sadly, you are not going to hear about parenting marriages from marriage counselors, except from people like Susan, because it’s not in their frame of reference. Same with renegotiating the marital contract. Which is why Susan and Vicki have been presenting before local therapists, helping them help their clients.

A blog post from more than a year ago on this website has hundreds of comments from people in a sexless marriage (by their definition) exploring the many ways they have tried to cope — suffer, divorce or cheat. The option of opening up their marriage will never come up in a therapy session because traditionally, therapists don’t think that way. What we need is therapists who are not only able to consider suggesting an open marriage, but also knowledgeable enough to offer support and information to help those who may see it as an option.

But, let’s say there hasn’t been an affair or any sort of major dysfunction. Let’s consider middle-aged empty-nesters, suddenly staring at each across the breakfast table without the distraction of children for the first time in decades. Many couples might discover they have little in common with their spouse anymore, and any conversation that doesn’t involve the kids or household issues feels strained. This is especially true when husbands retire and they’re around 24/7. Which is why many older couples are willing to call it quits and move on.

Given the economic hit they’ll take, they could find other ways to be connected to each other while also creating space that honors their individual needs and “me” time. They could consider living apart together, again, another model in The New I Do.

None of this is to say we’re for or against divorce or marital longevity; most of us fall in and out of love with several people before we find someone we actually might want to be in love with for the rest of our life — if we even want that — and many people are much happier after divorcing.

But we are for letting people know they have options. Your marriage is yours to create and re-create. Go for it!

Want to re-create your marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.