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.

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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.

Did Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt need a parenting prenup?

No matter how you feel about the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt divorce — including the desire to not have to think about it, celebrity divorces or divorce in general — there is one thing all parents should pay attention to.

The reason they split, we’re lead to believe, is because they couldn’t agree on how to parent their six children: Jolie wants to homeschool their children so they can become “worldly” as the family travels throughout the world and among their homes in France, New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York City, and Pitt supposedly wanted them to be enrolled in school. parents divorce

That’s just one small part of being a parent — school is important, yes, but there are a lot of other factors that go into how parents will have and raise children, from how many they’ll have to how far apart they’ll be born or adopted to religious instruction to discipline to who’ll care for them to activities and sports. In other words, there are lots of things to think about when a couple decides to become parents — and a similar process must happen when a man or woman considers whether to become a single parent. But, here’s one thing that doesn’t happen when one decides to become a single parent — there’s no one else’s opinions, feelings, thoughts, desires to take into consideration. But if you’re raising children as co-parents, there are a lot of things that need to be decided together.

Except, are parents fully deciding together how they will raise their children?

What is a parent’s responsibility?

OK, most of us are not living the life of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. But, any couple deciding to have children together or even those couples who didn’t decide but suddenly find themselves pregnant, have a certain responsibility to figure out what they’re doing and why  … ideally before their child is born.

Of course, things change once your kids are born and then start to grow. Learning challenges may suddenly appear or an illness. So, having a parental plan of action isn’t set in stone; you have to be flexible. But a parenting plan is a baseline.

Apparently, it wasn’t just how the kids were going to be schooled that helped lead to the Jolie-Pitt split; it also was how they were being disciplined. Both Jolie and Pitt admitted he was the stricter of the twobut perhaps just with their boys. “I am with the boys,” Pitt once said. “Girls do no wrong so I don’t have to be.” As a former girl myself, I would beg to differ.  Girls do plenty of wrong and I’m actually surprised by his rather sexist view.

Nevertheless, discipline and schooling are two huge issues when it comes to raising children and if couples become parents without having some sort of a meeting of minds, they are setting themselves up for trouble — and perhaps divorce. Divorce per se isn’t bad for children, but if the parents are still fighting, well, we know from studies that conflict is what’s harmful to kids. And because Jolie is fighting for full physical custody of their children and Pitt has reluctantly agreed to that for now, continued conflict for them is not out of the question. Guess who will suffer?

Given all that, it’s clear the old way of becoming a parent is no longer working for us or our kids. There’s been some talk about a “new ethic of responsible parenthood,” which sounds great on the surface although I have some problems with what’s suggested on how to create that.

Yes, there needs to be policies that give parents the support they need, but the onus is on every person who decides to raise a child to plan for parenthood, especially if they’re co-parenting.

Are prenups for kids?

Jolie and Pitt allegedly have an “iron-clad” prenup for their substantial wealth. How ironic, then, that they don’t create a “prenup” for what seems to be even more precious — the well-being of their children. Those six kids have a right and a need to have access to both parents (assuming that doesn’t put them into a harmful situation) equally. At the same time, each parent should have a right to be an active partner in deciding what’s best for his or her children. Neither is likely to happen now.

That’s why divorce can be so painful.

Many of today’s marriages are based on having children — so-called high-investment parenting (HIP) marriages. But that’s not enough. In The New I Do, we address what a prenup for a parenting marriage may look like; in fact, we call it the true definition of planned parenthood. A prenup for kids may seem silly — honestly, who has one? — and perhaps even unnecessary. Except, there are no guarantees in life, love or marriage. If your kids matter to you — and I’d say most parents would say they do — and you want to make sure you have a say in how they’ll be raised, whether you’re cohabiting, married or in a parenting partnership, please don’t wait until things fall apart (and none of us think it will) and you and your co-parent are unhappy or angry or both or worse; make a plan. Now. Your children will thank you for it one day. Or, just as good, perhaps they’ll never even have to know.

Want to learn how to have a parenting plan? 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.

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.

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.

Should modern marriage have modern goals?

(This article was inspired by a recent interview Susan had with FoxNews radio personality, Vipp Jaswal that may be heard here)

Marriage-1074x483

Are you happy and fulfilled in your marriage or are you pre-
tending? Do you
fantasize about life as an “independent?” Would friends and family be shocked if you announced that you and your spouse were divorcing?

Of the 60 percent of intact marriages (give or take a few percentages), many are not what we would consider good or healthy relationships. Yet, people stay because they made a commitment, or because they’re afraid to leave the kids with the other parent, or because they would face financial ruin if they split up.

 Given that we now live in a time of so much choice, older people aren’t staying so much any more. Gray divorces (those Americans over 50-years-old) have doubled since 1990.  But what if, rather than change your marital status, you change the status within your  marriage? What if rather than focusing on having the “love of your life,” who fulfills all of your needs, you focus on having a high functioning relationship that fulfills a good portion of the key areas in your life? What if you could preserve your legal union but expand your life from this home base?

Of course, not every marriage could handle these kinds of changes and, before elaborating on this idea, I feel it’s important to distinguish between a “bad” marriage and a “good enough” marriage.

In a “bad” marriage, one or both people feel unsafe in some way or things do not improve despite attempts to help the relationship (or, your partner blocks you from getting help in which case, the marriage is surely doomed).

A “good enough” marriage is one in which you and your spouse have a basic trust of one another as co-parents, for example, or you feel comfortable relying on each other financially, socially or simply as a roommate.

If your marriage is good enough, try talking to your mate about changing your agreements and goals for the marriage.

An example of this is transitioning from a love-based partnership to a purpose-based relationship. One Colorado couple, Cynthia and Dennis, went from having a “traditional” marriage to a Parenting Marriage because they decided that the romantic part of their relationship had expired but their kids were still young enough that they both wanted to be as present as possible. Since they co-parent well together, this arrangement has really worked well.

Some couples have chosen to live in separate homes, while others have agreed that they won’t have children and they’ll focus on creating wealth by being DINKS (double income, no kids). Still others will stay married in order to share experiences, travel, co-exist in the house, or take care of each other. Betsy and Warren Talbot exemplify the couple who at one point were focused on earning to their maximum potential. They are traveling the world and have started a blog/website called Married with Luggage. Last we heard from them, they were in Spain.

In researching our latest book, The New I Do Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, we uncovered seven alternatives to the love-based model we’ve come to equate with conventional marriage.

They are: Starter Marriage, Companionship Marriage, Parenting Marriage, Living Alone Together, Safety Marriage, Covenant Marriage and Open Marriage  (link is external).

With the exception of the first model (which is not a legal option because it’s against public policy to plan the demise of a marriage), all of these options are being practiced in one way or another with people throughout the Western world (even in the U.S!).

These alternatives have helped many people remain in their marriages by allowing couples to taper their nuptials to their own needs. If marriage in general is going to survive, it surely needs to change. If you feel your marriage needs some changes in order to survive, you may want to research one of these options.

Tweaking the way we relate within the institution of marriage is truly a way to have your wedding cake and eat it, too.

Redefining love and marriage in the 21st century

Valentine’s Day is upon us, and while many still struggle with the perfect way to celebrate the day, most will follow some sort of tradition — roses, chocolates, a fancy dinner out, jewelry, lingerie (and perhaps some handcuffs, given this weekend’s opening of the much-awaited film Fifty Shades of Grey). tnid_flowchart_val

Despite that, there are some major shifts afoot in the way we love, partner, become parents and indulge our sexual passions. Given that, here’s what we predict, based on current trends and research, love and marriage will look like in the years ahead.

Experiments in non-monogamy

Monogamy has long been assumed to be the default if you’re in a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, few have questioned that — until recently. More Millennials are exploring, or at least interested in exploring, the idea of ethical non-monogamy.

Take Chris Messina, the 30-something entrepreneur who brought the concept of hashtags to Twitter. He declared that he is in a monogamish relationship, a term coined by sex columnist and author Dan Savage to define romantic partnerships that are mostly monogamous, but that can openly accommodate sexual relationships outside the partnership. He certainly isn’t the only one who is questioning monogamy’s stronghold, but he identifies the reality for young people navigating today’s technology-driven world:

We’re now living in a period of great (though unequally distributed) abundance where our basic needs are sufficiently met, and reproduction is a choice. As a result, the reasons to be with a single mate for life are less urgent. And with the advent of connected mobile devices and the internet, we’ve entered into the era I’ve dubbed Big Dating. Big Dating unbundles monogamy and sex. … But fear not: just because a viable alternative to “happily ever after” is in ascendancy doesn’t mean monogamy is irrelevant. To the contrary, it just means that there’s now more than one option for building meaningful and satisfying relationships.

They are also taking a new look at infidelity. While in days past many of us might assume infidelity is a ticket straight to divorce court, soon-to-be-wed couples we spoke with said they wouldn’t necessarily jump ship. In fact, one study found that half of the newlywed women surveyed said they expected infidelity would be part of their marriage while other studies found that a good percentage of newlyweds under the age of 35 have already had affairs.

All of which means sexual fidelity may not be as essential to a successful marriage as it was in the past.

 Co-parenting without love

First comes love, then come marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage, the old song went. But not for Millennials; 52 percent say being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life while a mere 30 percent say the same about having a successful marriage, according to a recent Pew study.

Fertility clinics are full of 30- and 40-something professional single women who are freezing their eggs as an insurance policy while they weigh the possibilities of becoming choice mothers, as Jillian Dunham detailed recently. That may skew younger as companies like Google and Facebook helping to pay for the costs of egg freezing for their female employees, many of whom are young.

While the conversation lately has been about how many socioeconomically disadvantaged women are having children outside of marriage as well as the rise in choice motherhood, don’t be surprised if we start talking instead about how more young couples are finding that it’s a much better deal — and a heck of a lot easier — to find someone who’ll be a good person to co-parent with than it is finding a soul mate.

Websites like Modamily.com and Coparents.com, which help match men who are interested in being dads with women who are interested In being moms, are making it easier to enable couples, romantic or not, to come together for one purpose — have kids and co-parent. It’s a model that’s worked well for many years for same-sex couples, but is now also becoming attractive to heteros. As one child psychologist noted, “Compared with conventional parenting where the mother and father have to constantly be ‘in love’ in front of their child, co-parenting doesn’t include the ‘strain’ of marriage. Also, a child conceived in a co-parenting scenario has access to two loving parents, who have made a conscious effort to conceive this child and may be more financially ready.”

For a generation that values good parenting, non-romantic co-parenting may offer their kids the stability they need to thrive.

Multiple partnering

Forget marriage where “until death do us part” is the marker of its success. Many of us aren’t marrying that way, according to a recent Pew study that found that 40 percent of newlyweds in 2013 had already tied the knot before. It’s clear we aren’t living up to that ideal, if forever actually was an ideal.

Millennials are open to short-term marriages, or “beta marriages,” after which their union could be formalized or dissolved without a lot of drama or expense. It’s a step above living together because, let’s face it, the government gives married couples about 1,000 perks. Beyond that, people don’t know what to make of people who cohabit while we all understand what it means to be a wife and a husband. Cohabiting couples just don’t get treated the same, nor do they see themselves as the same as married couples.

As Helen Fisher notes, that’s how we used to do it: in hunting-gathering societies, men and women paired two or three times in their short lives. “Across prehistory, serial pairing was probably the norm — as it is becoming once again,” she says. Given that we are living longer than ever before, with some predicting that we may live to 150 years or more, multiple partnerships are almost a given, especially since more than half of Millennial men and women believe a marriage can be successful even if it doesn’t last forever.

But don’t worry — despite all these changes, you can still celebrate Valentine’s Day the traditional way.

Want to win a free copy of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels? Seal Press is running a contest on Goodreads through Feb. 23. Enter here and good luck! You can also download an eBook  for just $1.99 though March 15.

Interested in learning about ways to re-create 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.