You're not happy. Perhaps your spouse is unhappy. You can’t remember the last time you were physically or emotionally intimate. You feel empty. You want out of your pain. You want to leave but you have kids together or you’re financially dependent. What do you do?
Does your marriage have to be over or can you stay? Is it shameful to stay when you know you “should” leave? Is it unfair to take advantage of what is working in your marriage when the love and romance aspects are not working? These are some of the questions my clients ask me.
But I have a question for them: Why does a marriage have to end when the love changes or even dies?
While a healthy marriage in our culture begins and ends with love, this leads to getting all (or most) of our other needs met as well. Does it make sense to throw everything away when this one emotion changes—especially when kids come into the mix?
Asking this question from the narrow lens of Western culture, the answer is that staying in a loveless marriage is a disservice to yourself, your children and society at large. By staying in a loveless marriage, you are being phony and you are not modeling a healthy (love-based) relationship for your children.
If, however, you look at marriage from a more historic and worldly view, placing love at the center of one’s life is absurd, makes no sense, and for some is even considered dangerous.
In researching The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, with Vicki Larson, my co-author and I learned that there are dozens of other ways that people couple and create family, and this has been true since the beginning of time.
To illustrate my point, here are some examples:
A woman of the Na culture in southwest China gets impregnated by a man sha may not even know and may never see the father again. Instead, the child is parented by the mother and all her siblings.
In areas of Africa, a woman may take on a female husband so she can be a mother even if she is unable to bear children (Hmm, sounds like gay marriage has been around for longer than we thought!).
In the Cantonese culture, daughters may be married off to dead people to ensure that they will have an affiliation with a male descent line (this is crucial since a single woman is not entitled to be cared for otherwise).
In Papua, New Guinea, a relationship is formalized when the couple starts eating together.
In parts of Sri Lanka, a couple is married when a woman cooks for a man.
Here’s the thing: we made marriage up in the first place! Different cultures have made up different things and, as a result, there’s a large variety of rules on how to come together.
So, what would happen if we took marriage and family back to the drawing board in our culture and created a whole new set of rules? Well, it’s already happening.
Millennials are still basing their relationships on love but they are rejecting the outdated norms. They are messing up the established script we once held as gospel: graduate, find a mate, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, and stay married until death do you part.
These days, it’s pretty much anything goes. As long as you couple for love, the sequence of events no longer matters: more couples are not marrying and instead living together, and more are having children before they tie the knot. Although there are protections marriage provides that these young people won’t benefit from (and may regret not having later), so far, our social structure has not come apart at the seams.
The most surprising trend we discovered in writing The New I Do was that some are even taking love out of the family equation. There are actually websites out there already for people who want to come together to have a child. Rather than advertising yourself as loving biking, hiking and photography, as you would in a personal ad, members say things like, “I’m of German and African descent, I’ve got brown curly hair, blue eyes and I come from good stock.” Whoa! Is that even legal? Is it ethical? It’s certainly not normal! And don’t the children suffer from not knowing what a love-based relationship is?
Yes, it is legal. I can’t think of a single defensible reason why it’s not ethical. No, it’s not normal (but that’s not necessarily something to aspire to).
Children get to experience two people who really like each other and get along as co-parents work well together care and nurture them. They get a stable home life that works.
Stay As Long As You Like
There are many of you out there suffering—some silently, some not-so-silently—in your unhappy marriages. You feel you can’t leave either at all or right now. I want to give you permission to stay. Stay and change your perspective, stay and change the rules, stay for your own benefit and stay for your kids’ sake.
One woman told me last week that she was comforted by my "giving her permission to stay.” She said a tremendous amount of pressure was taken off her simply by my pointing out that she could build back her career and then make her move. This might take three or four years. She could also wait until her youngest son is out of high school and then exit. Or she could stay forever if she wanted to. Her husband, who’s been having affairs for years now, likes having her home to take care of the house and kids, so this idea works for him too.
My client went from feeling disempowered and demeaned to empowered and in charge. She no longer feels trapped or like she is cheating the marriage system. She is more present as a mom. She’s more alive and now she has something to work toward. Had she not come to see me, it never would have occurred to her that there was another legitimate option besides staying and suffering, or leaving.
Transitioning to a Parenting Marriage or planning a solid exit strategy is not unethical, immoral, or unhealthy. It is, in most cases, the responsible thing to do.
All it takes is willingness and an open mind. Other people will undoubtedly judge you and some will tell you that you are doing something wrong. Yet, that’s what happens whenever anything new is endeavored.
That said, there are couples for whom the strategy of changing the rules and biding your time won’t work: If there are addiction or mental health problems or if there is abuse (physical, emotional or sexual). You may not have the luxury of staying or of staying longer. I recommend you consult with a local therapist to assess whether it’s safe to stay.
My hope is that this alternative will ease the problem of needing to choose between two really bad options: staying and suffering or divorcing.