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.

Yes, you can write your own marital contract

The idea of a marital contract sounds new, but it actually isn’t.

The debut issue of Ms. magazine, in 1971, which was an insert in New York magazine, included an article on “How to Write Your Own Marriage Contract” by Susan Edmiston, who interviews two couples who created their own marriage contracts.

Why? Despite the cries of today’s men’s rights movement, marriage was not so great for women in the 1960s:

Margaret Sanger and second husband J. Noah H. Slee in 1927. The couple had a marriage contract in which they agreed to live apart.

Margaret Sanger and second husband J. Noah H. Slee had a marriage contract in which they agreed to live apart.

  • We could be fired if we got pregnant (until 1978)
  • Sexually harassed at work? Too bad (until 1977)
  • We couldn’t get our own credit card (until 1972)
  • We couldn’t refuse to have sex with our husband (until the mid-’70s in some states, in all 50 states in 1993)
  • We couldn’t get a divorce without having to prove fault (until 1969)

 

Not surprisingly, it was the wives who insisted on the contracts to deal with what clearly were marital inequities.

One couple, the Shulmans, created a marital contract after they had kids, when their previously egalitarian partnership fell into old gendered patterns, which despite how far we’ve come, baby, since then, still occurs today. (It also was a way to salvage a marriage doomed for divorce, and was roundly mocked by Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and Russell Baker.)

The other couple started off with a contract, one that dealt with chores, cooking and finances. When their daughter was born, they renegotiated their contract again to include childcare, which the wife, psychologist Barbara Koltuv, admits was a struggle — one that I’ll bet most women can relate to:

The hardest thing was being willing to give up control. What we call responsibility is often control, power, being the boss. When I was really able to recognize that my husband’s relationship with Hannah is his and mine is mine, everything was all right. He’s going to do it differently but he’s going to do it all right. We’ve been teaching her all along that different people are different.”

But marriage contracts between spouses date back farther than the ’60s and ’70s.

Social critic Mary Wollstonecraft was philosophically against marriage but married William Godwin in 1796 after they discovered she was pregnant (she died in childbirth six months later), yet they had a “highly unconventional marriage during which they lived far enough apart to permit the continuing exchange of letters.”

Abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone and activist Henry Blackwell created a contract when they wed in 1855, mostly in protest of coverture, in which women lost their legal existence to their husband once they married.

So did birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and her second husband, oil billionaire J. Noah H. Slee, whom she married in 1922. She wanted autonomy so they had a LAT, living apart together, arrangement, first in separate homes and then in separate parts of the same house.

Finally, Jackie Kennedy allegedly had a contract when she wed Aristotle Onassis in 1968, in which she declared her independence as well as separate homes and separate bedrooms within their shared homes. (It was also a safety marriage).

OK, we no longer have coverture and we have more egalitarian marriages than ever before, and thankfully women have financial independence. So do we really need individualized marital contracts?

Before you say yes or no, let’s look at what Edmiston includes in her article’s “utopian marriage contract” — agreements about birth control, having/adopting children, how children will be brought up, whose job will determine where and how the couple lives (including separate bedrooms or homes), how child care and housework will be divvied up, how they will handle finances, and sexual rights and freedoms.

Given how many of those are things couples still argue about today, and as women debate if they can have it all or just lean in, why would anyone, especially women, be hesitant to create a plan that honored both spouses’ needs and expectations?

Unless perhaps the dirty secret is that we really don’t want marital equality. As Alix Kates Shulman, profiled in that 1971 Ms. article, wrote just recently:

The idea’s limited success is hardly surprising, given the economic, social, and psychological arrangements that continue to impede equality, in marriage and out. Such strains doomed my own marriage, along with half the marriages in America. Probably not until the polity is more child- and woman-friendly, not until men and women are equally valued — economically and otherwise — not until free or low-cost quality childcare is universally available, will the ideal of equality in marriage be other than radical.”

Could it be that we women don’t really want an equal partnership? Many married moms have said they’d prefer to work part time, echoing what the rest of society believes is ideal for kids, while the majority of men would just prefer to work outside the home. And maybe, as Koltuv discovered, it’s just too hard for women to give up control.

Can we have egalitarian marriages when one spouse works full time and the other works part time, when one spouse is unable or unwilling to give up control? Or does equality even matter as long as both spouses are happy with the arrangement?

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

Forget about wedding planners; you need a marital planner

A month or so ago, Vicki offered to work with a newlywed couple to create a marital plan. She got a polite, thanks but we’re just too busy and [new husband] isn’t too interested anyway.

Susan recently posited a similar question her friend about to marry. “Oh, we’re good,” the bride-to-be told her.  marital planning

Of course. The engaged and the newly married are indeed busy and may indeed be “good,” if not great. It isn’t called the honeymoon phase for nothing.

But one has to wonder why there’s some hesitation — if not outright fear — to sitting down with the person you are promising a lot to — sexuality fidelity, everlasting love, the rest of you life to — and talking about the hard stuff, like money, sex, kids, chores, in-laws.

And that is why we see articles like 8 Things No One Tells You About Marriage (why are they holding back!?) and 5 Things I Wish I Knew About Marriage (Before I Got Married).

Actually, there were lots of people who would have gladly walked brides- and grooms-to-be through some of the challenges most, if not all, marriages face … if they actually were interested.

Sadly, many are not. In fact, between 30 percent and 50 percent of couples who are offered premarital education aren’t interested, and only about 30 percent of couples in general get premarital counseling. In some ways, it makes sense — when you’re newly engaged and planning your wedding and things are going great, talking about the hard stuff seems unnecessary and just one more thing to do. Why bring up problems that don’t exist, especially when “counseling” sounds like something couples need when things aren’t going well? And, in truth, even premarital counseling has its drawbacks.

Except that’s not the only way to approach it. Why frame it as problems? Why not see it as asking questions — what do we want to do in the next three years? Do we want to have kids and, if so, when do we want to start trying? What if we can’t conceive? Should we be freezing eggs or embryos now, or would be adopt? Are we both OK with having to move to further one of our careers? How are we defining infidelity? What does commitment mean to us? At what point would we get outside help, like marital counseling, if one of us asked for it?

Because even if you’re busy and disinterested now, we can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll likely be talking about some of those issues at some point. And lack of commitment, infidelity and conflict are why many couples divorce, even those who have had premarital counseling.

We know, it sounds like a lot of “what ifs.” Life is actually full of a lot of “what ifs,” many of which are out of our control. That said, if you are starting from a marital baseline, it’s a lot easier to revisit and readjust agreements when life throws you curve balls — and it will — without a lot of shock, resentment and disappointment. And in some cases, addressing the tough stuff before saying your “I dos” may make it clear that you aren’t really a good match after all. Yes, that is frightening.

So we get it. Young people often just don’t think like that. I know I didn’t. When Vicki was 20 and about to marry my high school boyfriend, she probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to premarital counseling or marital planning. And when she interviewed Elizabeth Gilbert when CommittedA Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, her follow up book to her best-selling Eat, Pray, Love, came out, she pretty much admitted that she, too, wouldn’t have followed her book’s sage advice when she was in her 20s: “I would have read it with such contempt … it wouldn’t have done me any good. … I’m not sure it will do any good for young people. My place is among people who have awareness.”

So, if you’re in your 20s or 30s and thinking about marrying, do you want awareness, or do you want to spend time reading — or writing — articles on what you wish you knew before you tied the knot?

Just compare it to all the planning that goes into most weddings, as A Practical Wedding’s Meg Keene does:

Wedding planning is fraught with stupid questions. Chairs, for example, or what length your gown should be. Marriage is fraught with things that really do matter. Taking some time in the middle of the planning to talk about the reality of your lives together, and to ask yourselves hard questions? Well, that’s a gift. So if you can, go find someone, and talk.

But while premarital counseling gets you to talk about all that hard stuff, marital planning gives you a road map for what you actually want your marriage to look like. After all, as Vicki says, you’re not just creating a life together — you’re creating a certain kind of life together. Your life.

Isn’t that what you want?

Want to learn how to create a marital plan? Order The New I Do on Amazon, and follow on Twitter or Facebook.

Why you need a marital plan

You’ve finally met someone special, someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. Congratulations.

Perhaps you are one of the thousands of couples who said “I do” this wedding season. Whether you end up making it “until death” or not, the intention to spend decades with someone — no matter how well you may know him or her — can be daunting. Few of us would go on an extended journey without at least some planning, yet that’s how we typically embark on our marital future.

Many people ask, “Where is this relationship going?” after several months of dating or living together. The end goal seems to be marriage, with little thought to what happens after that. And, as you know, there is a lot that happens after the wedding day.

While no one can guarantee that your marriage will be as happy and healthy as you hope — or expect — it to be, wouldn’t you feel better committing to all those years together if you had a better idea of where your marriage was going?

Believe it or not, you can; it’s called a marital plan, a framework for your marriage that you and your spouse-to-be create together so you can define and agree to what will make your marriage a success. It’s like a road map for your combined goals and dreams, with specifics on how you plan to accomplish them, and when. It holds each of you accountable. Marital planAnd it’s a way to measure your marriage’s success by something other than longevity — the only way we currently consider a marriage successful.

If you truly believe your partner is special — and I’m presuming you wouldn’t be marrying him or her otherwise — then you don’t want to just create a life with him or her; you want to create a specific kind of life. Your kind of life.

That’s what we  present in our book The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. But, we are not alone in believing that marital plans are the way of the future for anyone considering marriage, or even renegotiating an existing marriage. I chatted with two family and divorce attorneys who are big proponents of marital plans — Mark Ressa, who practices in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Michael Boulette, who practices in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They see couples at the opposite end of the happy wedding day, when all those dreams and expectations have been dashed with hard and unanticipated reality. While no can predict everything that will happen in a marriage — it’s understandable that Kris Jenner may have had no idea her husband of 23 years, Bruce, would transition into Caitlyn — there are many familiar and contentious issues in a marital arc, such as chores, kids, finances and sex, that can and should be discussed early and often as couples move from childfree dual-earners to (perhaps) dual-earners with kids to empty-nesters and all the variations in between.

A shorter version of our conversation ran in the Huffington Post; here’s our chat in its entirety.

Q: Why do you like the idea of a marital plan?

Ressa: Most couples contemplating marriage are focused on spending their lives together without fully considering what that means. Before they exchange “I do’s,” rarely do couples articulate in a meaningful way what their expectations are for the marriage. What do they want to see happen in the first three to five years? Are they on the same page about having children? What about intimacy issues; what are their expectations? Marital planning provides an opportunity to discuss these issues beforehand, see if both parties are on the same page and, more importantly, set expectations and plan how to address expectations that are not met. If the marriage does not last, at least a marital plan can be a reference that gives insight into what they had originally intended.

Boulette: I began representing clients in divorces in 2010. One year later, I got married.  With that kind of juxtaposition, you almost can’t help but start drawing parallels, look at the cases you’re working on and think, what would happen if my marriage broke up? I started discussing them with my wife. The more we talked about our “future divorce” the more I learned about what she values, what she wants out of our marriage, and what she wants out of me as a partner and as a parent to our daughter.

I’ve started to see marriage planning as an innovative solution for a number of the problems plaguing modern relationships (and the law that governs them). It’s a way to:

  •  increase marriage rates among couples that may not feel ready for marriage (in its current form) but who want to create a relationship that’s more than just roommates
  •  incorporate changing social norms around what marriage means and to embrace a variety of different “meanings” of marriage without writing any one meaning into our laws
  •  help reduce the conflict in divorce by allowing couples to create their own ideas of fairness when they still have each other’s best interests at heart

Q: How do you see a marital plan differing from a prenup?

Ressa: Pre- and post-nuptial agreements, if enforceable, dictate what happens in the event of a divorce. Marital plans document the parties’ intent and expectations about how they will move through life as a married couple. A prenuptial agreement largely deals with financial issues; a marital plan, instead, focuses on lifestyle choices.

Boulette: Marriage planning is a paradigm shift. If prenups are about protecting yourself from your spouse, marriage planning is about creating a life together and deliberately choosing the sort of relationship you want to have over any number of alternatives. Prenups are often a work-around for state divorce laws that might put one partner’s wealth at risk. Marriage plans reach beyond the financial into questions of what you want from your spouse as a partner, as a friend, as a co-parent, what you’re seeking from the marriage emotionally, physically, even professionally. And also what you’re willing to give — what you’re committed to investing to make the relationship and the family work.

Q: From your perspective as a family lawyer, what do couples ignore or misunderstand when they tie the knot?

Ressa: Most couples do not consider what happens in the event of a divorce, how the standard-one-size-fits-all divorce laws would apply in their circumstance. Rarely do I hear of couples who are about to marry — other than the small percentage who actually enter into a prenuptial agreement — contemplate financial, wealth acquisition or parenting issues.

Boulette: In first-time marriages, no couple really has any idea of what laws would govern their relationships in the event of divorce. But I don’t think that antiquated divorce laws are necessarily driving divorces or reducing relationship quality. Because getting married is so easy, at least from a legal standpoint, many couples avoid hard questions: “What if the marriage doesn’t work out?” “What if I (or you) fall in love with someone else?” “Should we prioritize both our careers equally or the one with the greatest earning potential?” Ignoring these questions can create conflict later on, and in the most extreme scenario could lead couples to question whether the relationship is right for them.

Q: In what ways could a marital plan help them?

Ressa: A marital plan forces couples entering into marriage to openly discuss issues that might create points of conflict in the future. Additionally, couples should contemplate, discuss and agree on what happens in the event an agreed-to expectation is not met. For instance, what if the parties’ intimacy expectations deviate from the marital plan? Should that trigger a requirement to discuss the issue through counseling?

Additionally, as divorce lawyers we see increases in divorce filings at multiples of seven years. You have heard of the seven-year-itch? It is real. There are also reports indicating marriages begin to come undone approximately six years prior to either party actually filing for divorce. Putting those two observations together, what if marriage plans required a therapeutic, marital counseling wellness check approximately five to six years before the aforementioned divorce-filing bumps? So a marital plan could provide the opportunity to apply some preventive medicine to maintain the health of the marriage.

Boulette: Marriage plans promote exactly the sort of “hard conversations” I mentioned before. But more than that, they provide a touch point to channel these discussions to a productive end. If you create a marriage plan and, for whatever reason, the relationship does end, you, as a couple, have created a road map for how to leave the relationship with dignity, mutual respect and exactly the sort of fairness so many divorcing couples aspire to.

A plan also comes with the added benefit of being able to revisit and revise as needed, rather than relying on shadowy recollections of a conversation you had years ago. Say two years into the marriage, life has thrown you a curve ball. That’s OK. Have a new conversation. Make a new plan.

Q: Could couples just create these marital plans by themselves?

Ressa: Couples can always DIY; most divorces are resolved by litigants who are self-represented. There is nothing to prevent a couple from creating their own marital plan.

Boulette: Of course. Nothing about a marriage plan has to be legally binding. No one would bother to get a prenup if they didn’t think it could be enforced in court, but a marriage plan can be valuable for any number of reasons even if its completely unenforceable in the event of divorce.

But if the goal is a legally binding agreement that you’ll be held to should one of you want to end the relationship, a lawyer is an important part of the equation. Prenup laws (which are inevitably the legal avenue through which marriage plans will be enforced) are such a patchwork from state to state, not just in how the law is actually written, but also in how courts interpret them. Add to that the wrinkle that marriage plans reach well beyond established law to touch on parts of couples’ lives where prenups are not traditionally enforced, and this isn’t a DIY project.

Interested in creating a specific kind of marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us onFacebook.

What the Ashley Madison hack tells us about monogamy

The Ashley Madison hack is still topic No. 1 in the media — from divorce attorneys predicting a “Christmas in July” boon to their business, to potential extortion threats and suicides because of the sensitive information leaked, to continued shaming of those whose names were found on the site’s database — and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon.  Ashley Madison

Our heart goes out to every spouse who has just discovered that his or her wife or husband had been using the site — no one is ever prepared to discover a spouse’s infidelity. Although all infidelity isn’t the same a one-night fling is not the same as a long-term affair, or multiple one-night stands — the discovery is the same.

But even if you are, thankfully, one of the many people whose partner is not part of the leak, it doesn’t mean that you can ignore the Ashley Madison hack and its fallout. In fact, rather than ignore it, you should embrace it. It’s the perfect time for you to sit your partner down, look him or her straight in the eye, and start a discussion — not about infidelity but about monogamy. Yeah, monogamy. Before you do that, however, you need to have a heart-to-heart with yourself and figure out how you feel about monogamy.

  • Are you good at it?
  • Have you ever been bad at it?
  • How many times have you been bad at it?
  • Do you like it?
  • Has it been hard? When and why?
  • Do you willingly choose it?
  • If you could have an open or monogamish partnership, would you want it?

Granted, these are hard conversations to have with ourselves let alone our partner. And, let’s face it — we lie to ourselves, too.  But it may be among the most important conversations you will ever have if you want or already have a romantic relationship.

When Vicki spoke with The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating author Eric Anderson a few years back on why monogamy is failing men, he told her that the assumption of monogamy puts everyone, men and women, into a sexual straitjacket:

The way cheating men see it, it’s either cheat or don’t cheat, but telling their partners they want sex outside the relationship, or telling their partners that they actually cheated, is viewed as a surefire way of achieving relationship termination. It’s very important to remember that when men cheat for recreational sex (I’m not talking about affairs here) they do love their partners. If they didn’t love their partners, they would break up with them.”

Which is why you often hear professions of love from people who have been caught cheating. Many of us want commitment and a safe, loving place to come home to and still have some wild sex on the side.

And, that may be more of us than we think. Just look at how infidelity has impacted your life — have you experienced it with a partner or within your family or among your friends or co-workers? Despite a certain number of duplicate accounts and fake accounts, there were 33-plus million people on Ashley Madison — that’s an awful lot of people. And there are many people who are cheating the old-fashioned way, with co-workers or one-night stands while out of town, without the help of AM. What does this  tell us about monogamy, sexual fidelity and traditional marriage? According to a recent study, the chance of someone getting some on the side while in a committed relationship ranges between 46 percent and 76 percent. As study author Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier says, “These numbers indicate that even if we get married with the best of intentions, things don’t always turn out the way we plan.”

Exactly.

So, what to do, what to?

To us, it seems pretty clear — talk about monogamy. Talk about what you like about it and what you don’t. Talk about what scares you about consensual nonmonogamy. Read about people who have explored consensual nonmonogamy or, if you can, talk to them. Question your own beliefs about monogamy. How many people do that?

While doing research for The New I Do, one of the couples that opened up their marriage told us:

For a lot of people, it doesn’t even occur to them that they can be anything other than monogamous, and they get into a situation and then realize they maybe feel differently. I also feel monogamy can be dangerous even without sleeping with other people. Just having a sense of your own sexuality, being attracted to other people, being able to flirt with other people; when you can’t do that, it just shuts down a part of you. It changes who you are in your marriage and so long-term, that can be really damaging.

That’s true. It’s really hard for some people to talk openly and honestly about their attractions to others, about desire and fantasies, sex and pleasure. Yet because we can’t do that, we cause each other and ourselves a lot of pain — as much pain as those who are cheating, maybe even more. We are saddened by the continuing comments to our post on sexless marriages that’s more than a year old. Suffer, cheat or divorce are their only options — they think. Who will help them realize, no, there’s another option — consensual nonmonogamy? Why is that not even being presented to them? Why isn’t it accepted if they choose it?

So as the painful fallout from the Ashley Madison hack continues, think what would happen if more of us admitted, openly and loudly, that we struggle with monogamy. There would be less pain — whether from acting on desires or not acting on desires — and  a lot less shame. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Interested in learning how to have an open marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

 

Can you be single but with someone, too?

Perhaps you saw the recent Huffington Post article, “I want to be single — but with you.” It’s likely you did because it was shared more than 27,000 times, liked by 168,000 people and garnered almost 900 comments. Being single together

The gist of the post by Canadian writer Isabelle Tessier is this — she wants to have all the joys of a committed relationship but without giving up her freedom and her sense of self that being in a relationship often takes away, or at least diminishes, and without the drudgery of being together 24/7. She writes:

I want you to have your life, for you decide on a whim to travel for a few weeks … I don’t always want to be invited for your evenings out and I don’t always want to invite you to mine. Then I can tell you about it and hear you tell me about yours the next day. I want something that will be both simple and at the same time not so simple. … I want to make plans not knowing whether or not they will be realized. To be in a relationship that is anything but clear. I want to be your good friend, the one with whom you love hanging out. I want you to keep your desire to flirt with other girls, but for you to come back to me to finish your evening.

Is Isabelle being selfish, as many of the commentors suggested? Or is she realistically seeing the dark side of couplehood? After all, marriage has been called a greedy institution — it sucks up time you could be spending by yourself, with friends, with relatives, volunteering, exploring and growing.

When Vicki wrote “Want to stay married? Act like you’re divorced” a few years ago, she distinguished the difference between acting single within a relationship — single people have a lot of expectations, typically unrealistic, about marriage, and that does more damage than good — versus acting divorced, with all the benefits of expectation-busting hindsight. I firmly believe the latter makes it feasible.

But, Isabelle doesn’t necessarily mention marriage, so it’s unclear in what context she wants to live her life fully. But live it fully is clearly what she wants.

Can Isabelle have that? Perhaps, especially if she becomes a LAT, Living Alone Together. It’s one of the models we identified as working for many couples in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, and it’s one Vicki knows a lot about; her mom up and moved away from her dad for about 10 years to establish a life of her own several states away, making her a marital renegade. And, although it was not some well thought-out plan but rather a slow lifestyle choice, Vicki, too, has chosen to live apart from her partner.

As one can expect, Isabelle’s post garnered some flack — everything from she doesn’t know how to commit to her wanting her cake and eating it, too, to being “attachment phobic, juvenile, narcissistic” and everything in between — because a good number of people don’t like alternative views of what something “should” look like. It’s really hard for many people to envision something different than what they know. Worse, they don’t even want to question, well, would this be better? No, even people who probably jump at the latest technological gadget still fall for a relationship that looks like everyone else’s.

Standing up for her vision of freedom is Salon writer Rachel Kramer Bussel, who says:

What I see is a woman being practical, both about what she wants, and what’s realistic. … She’s talking about trusting someone enough to not need to monitor them or your relationship status. … she wants to know that her partner can handle themselves while they’re away, and that she can too, and that maybe in their separateness, they will learn things about themselves they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, in the same room.

And according to recent research, that’s likely true; couples that live apart feel happier in their relationship than couples that live together, and feel more committed and less trapped. When you live apart, you actively work on that commitment and trust; it’s never taken for granted. That’s the kind of work relationships need — not “date nights.”

And there are a lot more of us than one might think.

Sharon Hyman, who is making a documentary about people who choose that lifestyle, wonderfully named Apartners: Living Happily Ever After Apart, has started a Facebook page for like-minded people to share stories, discuss issues and research, and explore out-of-the box approaches to love, whether unmarried or married. Please join us.

Maybe Living Apart Together isn’t quite what Isabelle wants; after all, she says “I will want to go home with you. I want to be the one with whom you love to make love and fall asleep.” Ah, but that happens in LAT partnerships, too. Just not every night.

Interested in individualizing your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.