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Before You Divorce, Why Not Try a Parenting Marriage?

This viable alternative to traditional marriage is worth exploring.

Last week, I wrote an article entitled, “How You Can Stay Together Without Being Together?” In it, I asked unhappy couples who have waited out the holiday season (but are now poised to file for divorce) to instead explore an option they probably didn’t know existed.

Other cultures around the globe have practiced it for centuries. It’s a union that’s undoubtedly driven by our most primal instinct to procreate, but that we are so far removed from that we’ve forgotten it.

I call it a Parenting Marriage, and, unlike the love-based nuptials we refer to as “traditional marriage,” it’s a purpose-driven model in which the focus is on raising happy, healthy children.

When couples that have fallen out of love find themselves in the tough spot of choosing between divorce or staying unhappily married “for the kids,” a Parenting Marriage can be the perfect compromise. And why shouldn’t there be another alternative?

It seems odd in an era when we have so much choice in everything — from trivialities like gum flavors to what to watch on TV and which cereal to eat for breakfast — that there are only two options for something as major as a flagging marriage: stay and suffer, or split.

I’ve specialized in divorce for the past 16 years. I’ve written two books on the subject and I’ve met with hundreds of people going through the process. It’s occurred to me over the years that our marriage paradigm has sorely needed a makeover.

My last book, co-written with journalist Vicki Larson, The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, was part-commentary on how we’ve outgrown marriage as we’ve practiced it for the past 200 years or so, and part-suggestion on how to help it to be more pertinent.

As Vicki and I researched marital trends, we were actually pleasantly surprised to find that there were more variations on the theme than we’d realized. Many couples were in fact, already personalizing marriage to fit their needs.

In addition to the Millennials pushing for Beta Marriages (short-term trial marriages), victims of the recession opting for financially secure marriages, or trailblazing-spouses living apart from one another (in what’s known as LAT marriages), we discovered that there were websites where people could actually meet for the sole purpose of being co-parents (sans romantic love), such as Modamily and PollenTree.

This was mind-blowing to us. It seemed so impersonal and wrong! But as we explored this idea further, it started to make a lot of sense.

We found that there was research by heavy-sociological-hitters like Robert Emery and Andrew Cherlin supporting the notion that what children need most is a stable environment and to know they are loved. Children don’t need their parents to be married or to love one another.

So if this is true for people who come together to raise a child, can it be true for people to stay together to raise a child? The short answer is, “Yes, absolutely,” but there are caveats to consider.

If the relationship has devolved to the point where there is fighting and tension between co-parents, this may not be the right option for you. However, if you have what’s known as a “good-enough” relationship, this may be worth looking into.

The following are the stories I promised you about 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.

While we discuss seven alternatives to “traditional marriage,” in The New I Do, the model I'll focus on in this article is the one I developed some years back working with a couple that was quite stuck.

Myron and Tina*

Neither wanted to get divorced and miss out on seeing their kids every day, but Tina, who suffered from postpartum depression, didn’t want to be sexual with Myron any longer.

Some men in that situation wouldn’t think twice about having an affair but Myron had no interest in other women. He just wanted his wife back. She let him know in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t “coming back,” and she even pleaded with him to go have an affair so he’d leave her alone.

In time, as painful as it was, Myron began to accept that despite his wife being physically present in the house, she was not emotionally the same person he married. After grieving a bit, he was able to accept that he would need to find another woman to get his intimacy needs fulfilled. Tina’s only request was that he did not bring women home to the house and she preferred to keep their lives as separate as possible when they weren’t co-parenting.

Because they were both lawyers, they had the means to reconfigure their house to make it two separate units. This way, they had their autonomy but they still lived “together.”

I dubbed it a Parenting Marriage because the focus of their relationship changed from the traditional “romance-based” marriage to one that was purpose-driven. They were able to adjust well, as were their two kids who were 8 and 6 at the time.

The last I heard from them, Tina was happy being the mother of two active kids and off the hook for conjugal responsibilities and Myron had a long-term girlfriend who understood the setup and was fine with it. The kids stayed 100 percent in the main house but Myron saw them every night and, once a month or so, they all went on family outings together. They’ve been living like this since 2011.

Lanie and Monica*

The next couple that came in with a similar predicament was a 40-something lesbian couple, Lanie and Monica. They fell in love and got married in 2005.

After they adopted their daughter Mia in 2007, their relationship subsequently went downhill to the point where they could barely tolerate each other’s presence. Tensions were high, but neither woman wanted to be the one to leave. They were concerned that Mia would feel abandoned and neither wanted that to happen. So they stayed together and suffered.

Then Lanie met Kelly and it seemed like a natural time to step out of the marriage. But she couldn’t go. “There are two reasons I can’t leave: The first is that I’m afraid I’ll scar her for life and she’ll never forgive me, and the second is, I don’t want to miss out on tucking Mia in each night.” Not only that, but the financial reality was something they couldn’t escape as they had lost their home in the Great Recession.

Monica knew that Lanie had started dating Kelly, but she didn’t care. As far as she was concerned, their marriage was dead and had been for a long time — long enough for her to grieve its loss. She was relieved to have Lanie out of the house more and in a better mood. Kelly knew about Monica and was fine with the setup, too.

Lanie and Monica were able to give their marriage a new purpose instead of breaking up the family unit. They changed their focus from a love relationship to one where they focused on co-mothering Mia.

In the beginning, Lanie felt self-conscious and she didn’t want anyone to know — especially Mia. Part of her reluctance to be more open about it was she wasn’t sure her new relationship would last, and she was terrified to share the truth.

But this made her feel like she was being hypocritical and living a lie. Eventually, she realized that her 7-year-old daughter would view it as acceptable if she did, too. She also began embracing the idea that she didn’t need to apologize or justify her choices to anyone outside the family.

When the two moms eventually shared with Mia that they were not an in-love-couple anymore and that Lanie had a new special person who might come over sometimes, Mia’s biggest concern was that they wouldn’t all stay together. They assured her that she wouldn’t have to move and that they’d all still be a family, just with a new member. As they hoped for, Mia was fine with that. Last I checked in with them, their lives were humming along nicely.

Kathy and Greg*

Another middle-aged couple from Northern California who came to the brink of divorce were Greg and Kathy. Both had been married before, but they believed being older and presumably wiser they’d have the marriage thing figured out this time.

Kathy had two kids from her previous marriage; he had none. They had a son together fairly soon after their wedding. Life was good until their son turned 7, and the unspoken resentments that had been building couldn’t be contained anymore. One day they had a huge blow-up, and Greg moved out. Divorce seemed inevitable.

After 18 months of living apart, Greg realized that even though he got to see the kids fairly often, he was feeling extremely isolated. Kathy had been the social connection for him when they were married and, without that, he had virtually no contact with friends.

He swallowed his pride and called his estranged wife one day, asking if he could move back in — not as her husband, but more as a roommate and co-parent. Given how hard Kathy found it to make ends meet financially, she welcomed him back.

Both knew it was important to have written agreements in place to delineate things like how to handle parenting responsibilities, finances, and caring for the household. They also talked about how to handle this change with their kids and with friends and extended family.

They decided that the inner workings of their relationship weren’t anyone’s business, so they agreed that they would keep their unusual arrangement under wraps except with their closest friends. That was seven years ago.

Kathy believes it works well. “We stay out of each other’s way, we respect one another, and don’t have heaps of unresolved anger toward each other. We’ve learned to deal with conflicts as they arise and not let things fester. That helps immensely.”

While neither dates, they are free to with certain parameters, including not bringing the person into their house. Both believe life is so much easier now than when they lived on their own, but, as she says, “I’m sure this arrangement would not have worked if we had not had the year and a half apart.”

The time gave them the perspective they needed to move back in together in a different way. They don’t know what the future holds, especially when their son goes off to college in eight years, but they aren’t worried. They know they will figure out the next move as the time gets closer, just as they figured out the other challenges they faced along the way.

Another Variation on the Theme: Claire and Jorge*

Claire and Jorge, a Connecticut couple, divorced not long after their son was diagnosed with autism. Both were in their 30s at the time and their children were young. “This was challenging enough to our marriage, but having a special-needs child made everything exponentially harder,” Claire says. Not only wasn’t (Jorge) helping, he was one more person who needed me to take care of them, and I just couldn’t do it.”

Claire worked full time as did Jorge, a law professor at a local college, but guess who had the bulk of the childcare responsibilities? Claire, as is often the case in dual-income couples. No matter how many times she asked Jorge to help, he always had the same excuse: “I have to work late.” Her anger began to fester and grow until she told Jorge he needed to leave. Then she filed for a divorce.

Not realizing what he had until Claire threatened him with the “D” word — and not wanting to lose the life he had built with Claire — Jorge begged her to go to counseling with him, promising that he would turn his behavior around.

Claire pursued the divorce and reluctantly agreed to go talk to someone, although now she harbored additional resentment over the fact that he had ignored her for so long and it took getting to this point before he was willing to change.

Because of their son’s disability, as well as his increased involvement in caring for the kids, Jorge never actually moved out of the family house, even after their dissolution was finalized.

Rather than getting worse, things between them actually improved. Jorge stepped up his paternal responsibilities and Claire saw that they made a really good co-parenting team.

Two years passed and their coordinated efforts of raising their 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old autistic son together continued to work well. On what would have been their ninth wedding anniversary, they decided to get remarried.

That was 15 years ago. Their marriage is actually stronger today than ever before and both kids are happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. Their children have genuinely benefitted from their parents coming back together in this new way.

Carl and Emily*

This young Utah couple had a 5-year-old girl whom they loved dearly. Despite their love for her, they couldn’t revive the love they’d once had for each other. It seemed that the life—the soul, if you will—of the marriage was gone with no sign of getting it back.

Carl and Emily contacted me after reading an article I’d written on Parenting Marriage. They asked me to help them set up parameters they could live by in order to continue raising their daughter together and begin leading their own lives.

We worked for a few months on an agreement, covering topics such as how and what to tell their daughter, time with her (calling it “on-duty” and “off-duty” parenting), time in the house, finances, and agreements on dating.

This arrangement worked very well for a year but stopped feeling right when Emily met someone she felt serious about. Interestingly, while she was willing to continue with the arrangement, it was actually Carl who forced the issue of moving on.

Although Emily’s new mate was accepting of the agreement she and Carl had, the Parenting Marriage agreement was getting in the way of his potential new relationships. It became too hard to watch Emily move on while not being able to himself.

After 15 months of successfully carrying out the Parenting Marriage plan, he filed for divorce and they are currently pursuing a marital dissolution. It’s not what either really wants but Carl felt he had no choice if he wanted to move into the next chapter of his life.

Because they had already been living with a shared custody arrangement, their daughter will likely have an easier transition into two separate homes than other kids for whom the change may feel like a bigger jump.

Mike and Annalise*

Finally, this New Mexico couple, who also contacted me after first reading about this new model, called and told me that they wanted to have two houses within a mile of each other so their kids could go back and forth easily (they could walk or ride bikes to each house without their parents worrying).

We only had two or three sessions and then they went radio silent, so I contacted them to find out what happened. Mike told me that they decided they would stay in their marriage and try harder to make it work.

There were a couple of main reasons for this. One, It seemed silly and wasteful to them to pay for two homes when they could use that money to go to counseling and dig deeper to resolve their differences. Two, they ultimately realized that they didn’t want to tell friends or family for fear of being judged, and they didn’t want to live a lie.

Time will tell if their marriage will work out, but it was in trying on the Parenting Marriage on for size that they got the clarity they needed about which direction they should move.

Last I checked, they were still together.

Should You Explore This Option?

An important lesson that all these couples learned is that how they feel about their partner is much less important than how they act toward him or her.

I’m aware that this model may be upsetting to some people, especially those who can’t or don’t want to remove love from the marital equation. Don’t forget that many divorced couples—couples who no longer are in love with each other—are wonderful co-parents when they put their children’s needs first. Don’t forget that gays and lesbians, who for so many years were unable to marry and who often had complex family arrangements with surrogate moms and sperm-donor dads, have been wonderful co-parents regardless.

Over-the-top weddings, gold wedding bands, and marriage certificates do not bind a couple; having children together does. Putting your kids’ needs first isn’t the right option for everyone, but it is absolutely worth exploring. I appreciate that you took the time to look into this novel option.

*Names and geographic locations have been changed and in-depth details have been omitted to protect each couple's anonymity.

If you’re interested to know more about this alternative, then please join me on a free webinar to learn how.

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