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Marriage

It's Okay to Stay Together for the Kids: The Co-Parent Solution

Divorce with children is hard so why not stay and co-parent? Lots of people are.

Key points

  • Marriage and family are changing rapidly.
  • More couples are realizing that they don’t have to be confined by the traditional marriage paradigm.
  • If you're contemplating divorce but you have kids, a parenting marriage is a great option to explore.

The holidays are over and you can now turn your attention to your flagging marriage. But the reality that you have kids is a complication that you don't quite know how to navigate. Leave, and turn your kids' lives upside down, or stay and live a pretend life, all the while your spirit dies a bit more every day.

I know your story because I have heard it many times. Certainly, your particular situation is unique, but every couple with children whose marriage (that is, romantic connection) is over experiences this same dilemma. It’s a very tough decision to make when you are standing at this crossroads.

You can’t fathom not seeing your kids every day, but seeing your spouse every day fills you with dread. You feel trapped. But you can pick up the key to open the door any time by getting a little creative.

Kids Complicate Marriages
They complicate divorce even more, but there’s a workaround.

It’s called a Parenting Marriage. And, while it’s not for everyone, it’s been a lifesaver for many couples. Here’s why:

  1. They get to see their kids every day
  2. Their kids don’t have to go back and forth between two homes
  3. They don’t have to sell the home and or divide up family assets
  4. They can actually create a plan for a divorce (if they believe that’s what will ultimately happen).

If you’ve never heard of it, a parenting marriage is one in which you and your spouse agree that, since the romantic aspect of your relationship is over, you will change the nature of your relationship. It’s like changing your job description. Rather than having your intimate relationship be the focal point of the family unit, you agree to focus on working together as co-parents.

Does This Idea Bother You? Excite You? Offend You? Scare You?

We invented our modern-day marriage. In fact, if you look at marriage throughout history and in different cultures, you’ll see many variations on the theme. What other cultures view as “normal,” and acceptable, we view as strange and vice versa (Indian Matchmaking is fun to watch, if you’re interested in checking out a culture with arranged marriages, for example).

For those of us in Western cultures, the current social mandate is for two people to live in the same house, raise a family, stay together forever, and remain faithful to your "one and only.”

Fewer and fewer people, however, are agreeing to be bound by these outdated social mores and they are instead personalizing their marriages. And why not?

Change Is Scary and Hard

When a person contacts me and tells me they are so happy to have found this concept, they sometimes tell me they are afraid to talk to their spouse about it for fear that she or he will not go for it. In fact, they express fear to even bring it up. It’s not uncommon, especially when the spouse realizes that the only options are divorce or a parenting marriage, for the resistant spouse to actually come around and warm up to the idea. Given that we’re reaching what I believe is a tipping point, our culture will soon be embracing this concept. Here are five tips I wrote about in a previous post (Sexless Marriage? Got Kids? Why Not Try a Parenting Marriage) to help you bring the subject up to your change-averse husband or wife:

1. Start Slowly. Unless it's clear that you both are done with the marriage, don’t start at the end. Start at the beginning: Let your spouse know that you are not feeling great in the marriage the way things are. Tell him or her that you’d like to go talk to a professional to learn more. Ask him or her to read and get more education on the subject.

2. Be Honest. Be as open as you can be in telling your spouse that the concept is of interest to you. Trying to sugarcoat or soften your request can serve to annoy your spouse, rather than compel him or her. Present the idea in a very matter-of-fact tone.

3. Expect Resistance. For some of you, your mate will recoil as if insulted. If this happens, you can ask your spouse about their reaction. Some may say that it sounds strange or it’s not right. You can ask: "If every other couple on your street were doing it, would it still sound strange?" Finally, point out that you are already doing it by default rather than by design.

4. Remain a Team Player. You won’t easily be able to implement a parenting marriage if you don’t have a good foundation as a co-parenting team. You both want what’s best for the kids so between that and the pressure to be romantic with your spouse removed causes many couples to become better-than-ever co-parents.

5. Give It Time. One definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results. One spouse wants a parenting marriage and the other either doesn’t want it or is highly resistant to it, letting more time pass can help. Seeing that keeping the status quo isn’t likely to bring change is often what brings the other spouse around.

No Path Without Pain So Make an Educated Decision

When your marriage reaches a breaking point, there is no path without pain. Stay, go, or get creative: All avenues entail trade-offs and losses. The reason I like the parenting marriage is that I feel it is the least bad option for those who get along and co-parent well enough. Please don't create a parenting marriage if you're going to stay together and continue your fighting. You will do more damage to your kids. (See the work of Paul Amato or Robert Emery.)

I recommend that you do more reading on this topic. I’ve been noticing more information coming out about this alternative: This article from The Modern Love section of The New York Times came out in January 2022; a mention of the parenting marriage was made in Women’s Health Magazine in November of 2021; and I stumbled on this cool story about a family in New York from 2017. Even the Oprah Magazine, March 2019, also had a great article on alternatives to traditional marriage and family. Change is definitely in the air.

Mental health professionals, clergy and coaches, who are aware of these options can help guide you in your process. You don't have to try to do this alone.

Conclusion

Marriage and family are changing rapidly and more and more couples are realizing that they don’t have to be confined by the traditional marriage paradigm any longer. If your marriage isn’t working, and you have kids, a parenting marriage is a great option to explore—and more couples are.

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