In the old days, there was a specific script that everyone in our culture was given, and that just about everyone followed. Those who didn’t follow the script were thought to have something wrong with them. It went something like this: graduate from high school and, if you were lucky, go on to college. Then graduate, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, and live happily ever after. It was standard issue, one-size-fits-all social structure.
Not only was it boring, but the truth is that, while the model worked well for some, there was a large portion of the population for whom the paradigm didn't work at all. These folks had to either be untrue to themselves in order to make it work, or make it appear to the outside world that it was working.
The good news is that a lot of the rules that used to govern what marriage and family should look like are changing. Millennials are focusing on career first, delaying serious relationships and marriage, and even having kids out of order (meaning having kids first then getting legally hitched—or not). Millennials aren't the only group changing the paradigms. The numbers of gray divorces and gray marriages are up
For those who don’t mind bucking social norms—or who may even like being trend-setters—doing something different is not a big deal. However, for those who have always been more comfortable going along with the crowd, living outside the box will be more of a challenge.
Need is the Mother of Invention
A lot of marital rules changed during the Great Recession. People who wanted to divorce but couldn't afford to split up had to figure something else out when the economy started to take a nose dive.
Because almost everyone was impacted in some way by the recession, society-at-large understood if their neighbors, friends or cousins had to stay together for the kids despite the loveless relationship. We temporarily increased our tolerance for out-of-the-box coupling and family.
Four years ago, I co-authored a book entitled, The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics Realists and Rebels, in which journalist Vicki Larson and I studied the evolution of marriage.
When we set out to write the book, we were going to make the case for why marriage needed to be updated to fit who we were as a culture; a culture of expansion and choice. We were going to argue that the shame-based, unquestioned model of monogamy and "'til death do us part," needed to be challenged as that mold had become too small for us. We were going to advocate for an updated version of marriage.
As we began to research marital trends, we were shocked to see that, behind closed doors, marriage had already been changing and people were already making up their own rules. Instead of being a book that solely made suggestions for these changes, we were able to report on seven alternatives (yes, seven!) to traditional marriage already in place.
Because I have written other posts about these changes, I won't go into all of them here. Instead, I want to highlight the one alternative that I have seen take off in big numbers. That is the Parenting Marriage.
Staying Together for the Kids Might Actually Be OK
Have you ever heard anyone say, if it weren't for the kids, I'd leave? Did you judge them for saying that? Did you, like me, wonder what kind of tension they were subjecting their kids to, or what kind of bad example they were setting?
Well, going back to the recession, few people could even say, "If it weren't for the kids, I'd leave," let alone do it. People were losing jobs, houses were upside down, complete retirement funds were wiped out. There was nothing to do but stay and try to make the best of things by living separate lives.
In 2007, I facilitated my first Parenting Marriage. The couple I worked with couldn't decide whether to stay or go due to the financial repercussions it would have, and, after months of going back and forth, I finally suggested that they do both: Stay and go. We created new agreements and together determined what their new marital arrangement would look like.
I will admit that it felt blasphemous to me (I'm not one who likes to buck social norms). It was going against all the rules: Rule #1: you marry for love; Rule #2: you stay for love; Rule #3: if you fall out of love, you stay (and suffer) for the kids.
Yet, I had to let go of what society dictated what "should" happen and follow what was best for these clients. In their case, staying for the kids despite not having the romantic aspect of the marriage was the least bad option.
Not long after that, another couple with the same quandary came in so I shared the process with them. Then another and another and another. It was working.
When two people co-parent well together, and when these two people will do better financially and in other ways by staying together, why can't they?
In actuality, people have been doing this for years by slipping into an unhappy, sexless, shame-ridden (if anyone knew we lived like this, they'd be appalled) existence. This is a Parenting Marriage by default rather than by design and, although it works on the surface, the feelings that go with it are less than happy and healthy. The Parenting Marriage by design not only gives couples permission to live this way, it provides a roadmap and allows them to live in this arrangement above board unapologetically.
How to Get From There from Here
Chances are that if you're reading this post, you're interested in creating a Parenting Marriage of your own. While I'm more than happy to support you in creating this arrangement with your spouse, I want to let you know that a Parenting Marriage is not right for everyone. There are a few scenarios where a Parenting Marriage is not likely to work: A. Where there's active addiction in one or both parent; B. Where there are mental health problems with one or both spouses; C. Where there's domestic violence and, D. Where one spouse is against the concept of a Parenting Marriage.
A Parenting Marriage works best for those who feel they have outgrown their traditional love-based marriage. It works best for those who agree together that a Parenting Marriage is what they want and need and that this is what's best for the kids. It works best when both people co-parent well together and when both have a certain level of emotional maturity and can live in gray, rather than just black and white.
These two scenes describe the worst-case and the best-case scenarios. But a Parenting Marriage can also be implemented if the following traits are in place OR there is a willingness to grow in these areas:
The two parents get along well most of the time, they co-parent well together for the most part, and they can put the needs of the kids above their own needs and, therefore, make necessary agreements. An example of this would be understanding that you'll be spending less time together as a family and that your spouse may go out on their "off" time to be others socially. This may bring up jealousy or a feeling of being left out. Although you may not like it, you can accept it. Keys to making a Parenting Marriage work are being flexible, open-minded and resilient.
How Do I Bring The Idea of a Parenting Marriage Up To My Spouse?
A question I have been getting quite a lot lately is from those who have found information about the Parenting Marriage but who don’t know how to get their spouse on board.
If you have already done your homework and you believe in your heart that a Parenting Marriage is right for you and your spouse, but you don’t know how your spouse is going to react to the idea, you may want to introduce the idea slowly.
Perhaps start by mentioning that you aren’t as happy in the relationship as you used to be and ask your spouse if he or she feels the same way. If your spouse is on the same page, you may want to ask him or her, "If the kids weren't part of the equation, would we still be together?" If the answer for both of you is "No," you may want to evaluate together why you have stayed. If the answer is finances, staying is easier, I didn't want to make the kids go between two homes, or, "I didn't know what else to do," there's a good likelihood that your spouse will be receptive to the Parenting Marriage concept.
If the answer to your statement that you're less than happy in the marriage is one of shock, indignance (how can you say that?), or emotional shutdown, then bringing up the idea of changing the terms of your nuptials will not likely go well. At least not initially. Giving people time to chew on a new concept almost always helps and is certainly better than foisting something radically different like this on your mate.
Another thought would be to pick up a copy of one of the books I suggest at the bottom of this post and read the concepts—either alone or together—and discuss them with your spouse.
In cases where you get resistance from your spouse, you will probably do better to seek out a supportive (and knowledgeable*) therapist who can help facilitate a conversation about a Parenting Marriage. Be aware that not all therapists are knowledgeable or supportive so you will want to interview professionals with this in mind.
Do's, Don'ts and Questions
Top Don'ts When Introducing the Parenting Marriage Concept to Your Spouse:
1. Don't Ambush—rather, ease in slowly.
2. Don't be pushy—give your spouse time to integrate the idea and imagine living in this new way.
3. Don't demand—if your spouse isn't ready or willing to look at a Parenting Marriage, you may not ever be able to implement it.
Top Do's When Introducing the Parenting Marriage Concept to Your Spouse:
1. Ease in slowly
2. Be curious—"I wonder if this might work?" or, "Do you think we could try this?"
3. Invite—this always feels better than being given an ultimatum.
Top Questions to Ask When Introducing the Parenting Marriage Concept to Your Spouse:
1. Do you feel that a romantic aspect of our marriage is working?
2. Do you feel that our co-parenting teamwork is working?
3. Would you be willing to try something new?
4. What resistance do you have to the idea?
5. If you knew everyone on the block had a Parenting Marriage, would you be less reluctant to try it?
Suggested Reading List:
- The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels
- The All or Nothing Marriage
- The Parenting Marriage Workbook
- How To Fall in Love With Anyone
- Mating in Captivity or The State of Affairs
*The Parenting Marriage concept is relatively new so not all therapists will have heard of this. One person told me that their therapist actually said, "Are you crazy?" when they brought up the idea to her. This is not someone I would recommend talking with to set this up!
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