How to co-parent as true partners

Many people made fun of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s conscious uncoupling a few years ago. But it’s evident that they have influenced a number of other newly divorced celebrity parents who are raising kids together to put aside their anger and differences and come together for their family. (Sienna Miller even admits to doing the nightly bedtime routine together with former partner and father of her daughter, Tom Sturridge, while Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner take vacations together with the kids.

Could this happy co-parenting stuff happen before a couple gets divorced?

Of course —  a lot of couples have figured it out when it comes to parenting their kids. But many, many more have not and guess what happens? Conflict. And guess who suffers? Right, the kids.

Which is why one of the chapters on The New I Do is dedicated to a parenting marriage, a slightly different take on platonic parenting. But what both do so beautifully is this: anything related to the kids — from when and how to have them to how to raise and discipline them — is talked about and agreed upon. No surprises, no hidden agendas, no frustrations, no resentments  — well at least a lot less of all of that.

Merle Weiner, a law professor at the University of Oregon, proposes that the state should create a legal parent-partner status that binds parents — married, cohabiting, living apart, romantic partners or not —  with certain mandatory obligations in order to give their children what they need to thrive.

Whether you agree with any or all of the above, there is one aspect that is essential in making these sorts of arrangements work, and that is understanding your family-of-origin issues.

If you don’t want to end up like Jancee Dunn, who was almost at the point of divorce, as she writes in her new book, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, because she and her husband  had “dreamy conversations” about their baby when they were pregnant, but never discussed  the day-to-day practicalities, then you might want to read Hoefle’s book. As she writes:

As tensions rise between parents, their ability to parent effectively is compromised, and as a result, both the children’s behavior and their emotional health are put at risk. Because we are a culture convinced that kids are the ones who need fixing (thankfully this trend is changing), it’s reasonable that parents place the discord in the home at the feet of the kids, rather than on the state of the individuals doing the parenting. With each passing year, parents grow further and further apart, until they are either sabotaging each other openly or have entered into a quiet battle of wills, otherwise known as a power struggle. Without a course correction, not only are the children impacted in a negative way; the marriage suffers enough that parents consider divorce their only remedy for an untenable situation.

As a woman who has raised two children in a marriage, truer words were never said.

To read the rest of this post, please click here

Is sex really essential for marriage?

Back when my Susan and I were doing research for our book and interviewing engaged couples about why they wanted to wed (most were already living together), one groom-to-be mentioned sex among the many reasons.

“You want to marry for sex?” his fiancee asked, somewhat horrified.

He immediately got sheepish as he defended himself: “Well, they asked us to check off all the reasons, so, um, yeah …”

I’m with him; most of do expect sex with some sort of regularity to be among the many perks of tying the knot — or any monogamous romantic relationship for that matter. Unless you have an open relationship or an adulterous one, monogamy typically limits who we can sleep with.

But is sex a marital requirement? Does sex really matter all that much?

It clearly does to those spouses who want it and don’t get it, or not enough of it, as so many have written to my personal blog and The New I Do blog. And marital expert after marital expert, and couples counselor after couples counselor will likely tell you the same thing. According to the National Marriage Project, sexual satisfaction is even more important than kind words and acts in a marriage. When I reported on its findings, I basically agreed: “This is a no-brainer, too.

But, what if sex doesn’t matter?

For one couple, it actually doesn’t. Married for 25 years, the couple hasn’t had sex for 20 years — and they’re OK with it, or at least that’s what they told the Guardian.

According to the husband, “we’re very cuddly and close to each other and still as interested in each other and do as much together as we ever did.”

Well, OK — who doesn’t appreciate “cuddly” and “close”?

The wife, however, as content as she was with the arrangement, had moments of wondering if she was missing out on something, but not because she believed she was; she was just concerned about what others thought.

To read the rest of this post, go here.

 

The romance and danger of our love stories

Perhaps you grew up loving fairy tales, where the beautiful princess ends up living happily ever after with a handsome prince. Maybe you watch rom-coms where the guy and girl end up together despite impossible odds. Maybe you’re addicted to The Bachelor or The Bachelorette and what happens to the lucky couples. When love stories end predictably, how does that make you feel? How do you feel when they end unpredictably, like last year’s La La Land?

Maybe you’ve never thought much about it. Mandy Len Catron has. The English professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., loves love stories. Throughout her life, she especially loved the love story of her parents, a meet cute between the new football coach and a cheerleader asked to interview him for the school newspaper. So when they divorced after three decades of marriage, when Catron was 26, she began to look deeper into her own nearly decade-long relationship, which was faltering, and what she thought she knew about love. In 2015, she wrote a Modern Love essay for The New York Times, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” — one of the most-read of the series — and now has a just-released book, How to Fall in Love With Anyone, part-memoir, part exploration about the love stories that we absorb and perhaps allow to dictate our ideas of what love “looks like.”

As she writes in her charming and engaging book:

For most of my life, I’d conceptualized love as something that happened to me. It isn’t merely the stories we tell about love that encourage this attitude, but the very words themselves. In love, we fall. We are struck, we are crushed. We swoon. We burn with passion. Love makes us crazy or it makes us sick. Our hearts ache and then they break. I wondered if this was how love had to work — or if I could take back some control. Science suggested that I could.

One thing she noticed when her Modern Love story, based on research by psychologist Arthur Aron, went viral was that people were eager to discover a “secret” to finding love:

[W]e prefer the short version of the story. My Modern Love column had become an oversimplified romantic fable suggesting there was an ideal way to experience love. It made love predictable, like a script you could follow.

Even Catron didn’t come to love her current partner until months after they tried Aron’s research themselves, when they’d gotten to know each other better. (As an aside, Catron and her partner used the questions posed in The New I Do to create a relationship contract that, she writes, “gave us a sense of control” as they merged their lives; Thank you, Mandy!)

We do, of course, have a love script of sorts — meet, date, fall in love, live together, marry, buy a house, have kids. It’s an outdated script; nowadays, many couples have kids first, or buy a house first while living together or apart, or never marry, or never have kids. The romantic script isn’t guiding us so well anymore — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is, as Catron beautifully explores in her book, we still buy into it. Our view of love is limited, something that her fellow UBC professor Carrie Jenkins explores in her book, What Love Is and What It Can Be.

To read more, please click here.

 

To stay in love, you need a contract

As a writer, nothing is more satisfying and affirming than when your writing positively impacts another person. Of course, the entire reason for writing The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels was to impact people — to make them think consciously about their romantic decisions. Which is why Mandy Len Catron’s most recent Modern Love essay was so gratifying — the University of British Columbia professor and author of the just-released book How to Fall in Love With Anyone, used our renewable marriage contract when moving in with her romantic partner.

As you can imagine, it got a lot of comments. Many were negative — but I would expect that. Trying something new and different is scary. Nevertheless, that’s what I wanted to address.

The contract reminded some commentors of the Roommate Agreement that Sheldon Cooper, of the popular TV show Big Bang Theory, created with Leonard Hofstadter that detailed their rights and responsibilities as friends and roommates, and that Sheldon attempted to create with his girlfriend, Amy. I never saw the show, but since that episode aired in 2015 and The New I Do was published in 2014, perhaps the show’s writers were inspired by our book as well. No way to know. In any event, the idea of a marriage contract dates back to at least the 1850s and they were always insisted on by the wives (and any woman who has ever lived with a man probably understands why).

Click here to read my responses to a few of the 286 comments her essay gathered that exemplify some of the main reasons people balk at a relationship contract.

An open marriage is just a marriage — not necessarily happier

“Is an open marriage a happier marriage,” a recent New York Times magazine cover story written by Susan Dominus asked. With a headline and topic like that, of course it went viral — as if no one ever considered that consensual nonmonogamy has existed for decades and, yes, it might actually be a good thing for the couples who want it and choose it.

Monogamy is a choice, but admittedly one few of us rarely question — we generally just assume it’s a given once we get serious with someone. Still, isn’t it a bit specious to ask if open relationships are happier? Some may be and others may not, and who defines “define”?

There were more than 1,600 comments, prompting a follow-up story in the Times — “We choose each other over and over because we want to: Readers share their open-marriage stories” — in which numerous people speak of their experiences of engaging in ethical nonmonogamy.

The follow-up article’s intro states:

For nearly a year, Dominus reported on couples engaged in consensual nonmonogamy (what some involved call polyamory), and returned with a collection of fascinating stories about jealousy, love, desire and trust, all within the loose confines of an open relationship.

I am not in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship nor am I poly nor am I an expert in either. That said, I spent months researching consensual nonmonogamous relationships for The New I Do and spoke to numerous people who opened up their marriage or who chose it from the get-go because they’d never even consider getting married without monogamy being discussed and mutually agreed to, and even I know that being in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship hardly has “loose confines” — most people who mutually agree to choose it have explicit agreements on what’s OK and what’s not OK; even if they don’t, successfully navigating it requires a lot of communication and transparency. It’s hardly “loose.” (I think I would find it exhausting, which is why I prefer to be a serial monogamist.) Finally, consensual nonmonogamy is not exactly the same as being poly, although being poly is most definitely one way to be consensually nonmonogamous.

I have to imagine that irks poly people. You just can’t lump every consensual nonmonogamous person into a little box, nor can you lump poly people into being “in the lifestyle.”

To read the rest of this article, read Vicki’s blog post here.

What Emmanuel Macron’s unconventional marriage can teach us

Emmanuel Macron made history recently  — at 39, he’s the youngest man to be elected president of France. While many might applaud that, as well as his centrist policies over the nationalistic views of his former opponent, Marine Le Pen, others were astonished by the 25-year age gap between Macron and his wife, Brigitte Trogneux. True, it’s the same age difference between Donald and Melania Trump, but in this case it’s Trogneux who’s older. That has some people celebrating his win as a win for feminism.

At the same time, the couple has sometimes been teased and taunted; some have circulated rumors that he’s gay. Others have labeled Trogneux a “cougar.” To Macron’s credit, he has stated that this sort of language just illustrates the “rampant homophobia” in French society and the “rampant misogyny” against older women in general.

“They both had to face hostile looks, even the reluctance of their respective families and also the view of our society about the age difference,” Philippe Besson, a friend of theirs, has said. “Especially when the woman is older, (people are) always suspicious.”

To which Macron has replied, “We do not have a classic family, it’s undeniable. But do we have less love in this family? I do not think so. Maybe there’s even more than conventional families.”

Read the rest of this article here.

Janet Jackson knows: Having a baby will not save your marriage

 A few months ago, singer Janet Jackson made news by becoming a first-time mother at age 50, to a baby boy Eissa. Last month, she made news again — she and her husband, Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana, have separated.

According to Page Six, a family source said Jackson became aware of cultural problems between them after Eissa was born and her husband, a Muslim billionaire, became more controlling, demanding that she tone down the overt sexuality of her performances and music videos, and cover more of her body, among other things.

Still, Page Six says, they hoped having a baby would help.

Oh boy.

They certainly wouldn’t be the first couple to hope that a baby would save a faltering marriage.

Years ago, couples were actually advised by marital counselors to have a baby because it would boost their marital satisfaction. Then, there were studies saying the opposite — that having a kid added stress to a marriage. Hello, marital dissatisfaction. Then research by Philip and Carolyn Cowan indicated that if both partners wanted the pregnancy — and didn’t slide back into traditional gender roles once the baby was born — the initial shock of new parenthood disappeared and their marriage would be back on a happy marital track.

Unfortunately, a lot of couples do slide into gender roles after the birth of a child.

It sure seems like Jackson and Mana both wanted a child, so presumably there was no disagreement there. But the cultural differences, and clearly a more gendered approach to parental roles, was probably the kiss of death to their union.

What could they have done differently?

Read the rest of this article here.

Is this truly the secret to a happy marriage?

Want to know what the secret to a happy marriage is? According to a recent Wall Street Journal article it may mean living apart together in separate master suites.

That may not be the answer you expected — communication, kindness, more sex, date nights, etc. might be more what you had in mind. No doubt those things matter, but at the same time it’s true that more and more people — especially older people — are interested in having a room, if not an entire apartment or house, of their own.

People who are divorced, widowed or never-married who want romantic relationships later in life are “motivated by the desire to remain independent, maintain their own homes, sustain existing family boundaries, protect the relationship and remain financially independent,” a recent study indicates.

But, as Susan Pease Gadoua and I detail in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, couples can choose a LAT arrangement from the start of their marriage.

Granted, this is a hard concept for many to wrap their heads around. They have questions — many questions. So, naturally I have answers to all of them, but let’s start with the top three myths people have about live apart together (LAT) relationships:

  1. Why even get married if you’re going to live apart?
  2. Living apart together is only for the wealthy.
  3. People who live apart are more likely to cheat.

There’s even a bonus question and answer (perhaps you can guess what it is)

Want to know whether these three beliefs are fact or fiction (or, as of late, alternative facts)? Head here to read more. We’d love to hear back from you.

Want to learn how to live apart together? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.

Margaret Mead was right — marriage should be temporary

Recently, sexologist and author Nikki Goldstein suggested that marriage should be a 10-year contract.

It better reflects how people are actually living these days, she says.

Currently, the only way we can determine if a marriage is “successful” is longevity. In other words, if someone dies, success! But we’ve all seen marriages that have lasted “until death” that were pretty miserable — why do we consider that a success?

Enter the idea of a limited-time marital contract.

I’m all for them. But why 10 years? That’s too short a time to raise children to adulthood (about 18 years, give or take) and too long if you just want to see if marriage is a good fit for you before you have kids (assuming you want them), a so-called beta marriage. Those are the two types of time-limited marital contracts suggested in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, 2014). But every couple should be free to determine how often they would consider renewing, renegotiating or ending their marital contract based on their goals and values; 10 years is a rather meaningless number.

Two-step version of marriage

Although suggested by various people throughout history, it was lauded anthropologist Margaret Mead who popularized the idea that a couple only needs to stay together to raise their kids; that’s their “job.” In the late 1960s, Mead suggested a two-step version of marriage — an “individual commitment” for youthful passion and sex (but no children) that could easily be dissolved or, if they wished, converted into a “parental commitment” if they were ready to have kids. She also believed once the children were grown and out of the house, couples might desire to split and find a different person to be a companion in their old age.

Why does this matter? For many reasons, but here’s one couples rarely think about nowadays as they search for a “soulmate” and marry for love (which, as historian Stephanie Coontz has famously written, destroyed the institution of marriage): the traits that you might want in a person to co-parent with may be different than the traits you want someone to spend your romantic life with. Which is why platonic parenting is catching on.

Ancient concept — and practice

The idea of temporary marriage, or a renewable marriage, is hardly new. In fact, temporary marriages have actually been successfully practiced for centuries, among Peruvian Indians in the Andes, in 15th-century Indonesia, in ancient Japan and the Islamic world and elsewhere. And proposals for temporary marriages have popped up in recent years in Mexico City, Germany and the Philippines.

Are we finally ready to actually adopt renewable marriages? I make an argument for it in Aeon. As we approach the wedding season, it’s a timely discussion.

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.