Divorce is a tremendous transition that has repercussions for years on both parents and kids. If you can avoid it, why wouldn’t you?
In some cases, divorce clearly cannot (and should not) be avoided: Examples include cases that involve domestic violence, repeated betrayals and addictive illnesses in which the addict refuses treatment.
There are also less dramatic (and traumatic), but nonetheless chronically toxic marriages (death by a thousand cuts, as one client put it) that do harm, if for no other reason than that they model unhealthy relationships for the kids. Sometimes those can be healed with therapy, but often, by the time couples come in (according to John Gottman, couples usually wait at least six years before getting help), they have so much scar tissue, it’s hard to repair.
Divorce can provide a welcome relief to these types of painful existences. Still, it’s hard. The good news for our coupling culture is that we have more choices than ever before in how we do coupleship.
In researching recent marital trends for The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, my coauthor, Vicki Larson, and I uncovered several ways that we, as a culture, have outgrown traditional marriage—that is, marriage as we’ve practiced it in the West for the past 200 years or so.
We were surprised to find that there were, in fact, many more variations on the theme than we’d realized. Lots of couples were personalizing marriage to fit their specific needs on a behind-the-scenes and informal level. By doing this, they managed to gain the best parts of what they needed from marriage while avoiding the terrible aspects of divorce.
For example, in addition to the Millennials pushing for Beta Marriages (short-term “trial” marriages), we saw those with less financial stability opting for financially secure marriages, or trailblazing-spouses living apart from one another (in what’s known as LAT marriages).
Many of these alternatives were borne out of the Recession because people didn’t have the means to break up the family and go out on their own. The interesting thing is that many of these models have continued. And, younger couples have gotten creative when it comes to forming partnerships and family. For example, we discovered that there were websites where people could actually meet for the sole purpose of being co-parents (sans romantic love). Sites like Modamily and Pollentree.com.
Much of my work during those Recession years was helping clients in unhappy relationships (but who had kids and therefore felt they had to stay) reshape their marriages into something they could not only live with, but that they could feel good about. I began calling this a Parenting Marriage.
Changing the rules of traditional marriage was mind-blowing and it seemed so impersonal and wrong! But as I explored this idea further, it started to make a lot of sense. I found that there was research by heavy-sociological-hitters like Robert Emery and Andrew Cherlin supporting the notion that children don’t need their parents to be married or to love one another. What children need most is a stable environment and to know they are loved.
Is a Parenting Marriage Right for You?
If your relationship has devolved to the point where acrimony is high (fighting and tension between spouses), and you can’t cooperate with each other on anything, this may not be the right option for you. If your spouse engages in a behavior that makes it hard—or even impossible—to trust him or her, I wouldn’t recommend implementing a Parenting Marriage.
If, however, you have a marriage where the passion has diminished and you’ve grown apart, but you get along fine and co-parent well (a “good-enough” relationship), a Parenting Marriage may be worth looking into. In some cases, those of you who have experienced a betrayal may be able to practice a Parenting Marriage as well, in order to take a time out so-to-speak and decide where to go from there.
The following are the stories of couples for whom this option has worked. Each of these couples was able to navigate going from a traditional marriage to a Parenting Marriage—even if it was just used as a tool temporarily.
Saul and Allison
This couple, both in their late 30s, had two kids. They grew apart after the kids were born, mostly because Allison liked to party and Saul didn’t. While Saul wouldn’t say that Allison was an alcoholic, he didn’t like how social she was. He began to distance himself from her more and more. When she would go out with girlfriends for dinner, he would stay home with the kids. They found they had less and less to talk about other than their two kids.
When they stumbled upon the Parenting Marriage concept, they both knew this was the right option for them. It would take the pressure of being romantic partners off of them while allowing them to continue to stay in the same house and share parenting responsibilities. They could then enjoy their “off-time” to have separate social lives. A win-win for everyone.
Marianna contacted me in a panic after she discovered that her husband had been unfaithful. She kicked him out, but quickly realized that, because they had six kids, she needed him to stick around.
Kicking him out was impossible from a childcare perspective, yet letting him stay home made her feel like she was weak. Seeing him was a painful reminder of the hurt he had caused her. Any direction she went in made her feel miserable.
When she saw that this new option existed, she felt a huge sense of relief, telling me that she felt like she had “permission” to keep him around for the day-to-day necessities to be taken care of, but she also had some time to think about what the right decision would be.
She described it as putting the “pause button” on making a decision she was in no emotional position to make. It also alleviated her shame of keeping him around.
J.R. and Kay
While this couple had been in love for several years, they went through hell trying to have a child. Years of fertility treatments, adoption agencies and lawyers took a toll on their relationship. By the time Sweeney was adopted, they had no interest in being romantic. At first they slid into a Parenting Marriage (this is what I call doing a Parenting Marriage by default rather than by design), but J.R. happened to read one my articles and saw this as the perfect solution.
“We’re doing this anyway, so why not just call it what it is!” he wrote. Transitioning to an overt agreement made both feel more confident in their decision to have this kind of set-up.
A Parenting Marriage is a great option for anyone who is in a marriage that has died but where there are kids; a partnership that has respect but not love, cooperation but not romance. While it’s definitely not for everyone, it is certainly worth looking into either as an ongoing solution, a temporary agreement or even for a “time-out” in order to get stabilized after a crisis.