The Real Modern Family

The possibility of longer, more vibrant lives is unbelievably exciting and terrifying, and because of my work, it takes me straight to the marriage questions: with the average American woman getting married at the age of 27, what does a 120-year marriage look like?
05/09/2013 06:49 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

There's a billboard on Hwy 101 in San Francisco that reads, "Someone is Alive Today Who Will Live to be 150." 150! Evidently, this attention-grabbing headline is based on the work of Sonia Arrison, a technology analyst and author of 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith. The possibility of longer, more vibrant lives is unbelievably exciting -- and terrifying. After all, as eager as we are for this fountain of (relative) youth, our social norms are nowhere near ready to adapt.

Because of my work with divorcing couples, the thought of living 150 years takes me straight to the marriage questions: with the average American woman getting married at the age of 27 -- always with the goal of "'til death do us part" -- what does a 120-year marriage look like? And with divorce rates hovering around 50 percent for first marriages and higher for second or third, how many wedding cakes can a 150-year-old expect to cut?

To be sure, many of the changes resulting from doubling our lifespan are already in the works. The expectations of marriage, gender roles and family are much different now than they were just a few decades ago. They have to be. These deeply valued institutions are changing with the times. I say that's something we should embrace.

Just take the basic building block of our social structure, the family. The word family still conjures up images of ma, pa, a couple of kids and dog. It's a nice image. A, please excuse the pun, familiar image. It's also grossly inaccurate. Only 60 percent of children live with both their biological parents. Most of us, at some point in our lives, will find ourselves with the title of "step-something." Stepmom. Stepson. Step-grandpa. Things just aren't like the old days. Why would they be? Back when the traditional wedding vows were developed in the 16th century as part of the "Book of Common Prayer," we were lucky to make it to 40 years old! This gives "'til death do we part" a whole new meaning.

Given these changes, we need to find new names for all of the different family structures that permeate our world. We've done it for blended families, but that's just one type. What about recently divorced folks, especially when one or neither of the parents are married, what do we call them? In the best cases -- the cases we should encourage -- they fit every dictionary definition of family but one: they no longer live in the same household. But so what? What they share creates a lasting bond: memories, common goals, and usually DNA.

Even if you don't want to call them a "family," we should call them something. But what? I've settled on the term "gethers." Yes, it's a word I made up. And yes, I realize it's not perfect. But it does a decent job of representing that, while you may not be together anymore, you are still connected. You're not quite tethered and certainly not always gathered, but you're somewhere in between. You're gethered. When you're gethered you are committed. In most cases, committed to your children, their quality of life and their futures. You work together to coordinate and pay for after-school activities, to attend school and family events, and to generally just make your children's life as seamless as possible. After all, why should the children you love be forced to live two separate lives, one at mom's house and one at dad's? Gethered parents understand this and build a relationship, agreements and habits that work for the long-term.

I know what many of you are thinking: easier said than done. And you're right. It's far from easy. In fact, it's far from fully understood. But these gethers are up for the challenge. They're trying their best to put kids first. They're figuring it out by experimenting and keeping a positive attitude. And their having success.

Someday, your child or grandchild may live to be 150 years old. My hope is that, by then, instead of stigmatizing families that don't fit our out-of-date, historical view, we celebrate the love they create and nurture by working hard to stay gethered, even if they're no longer together.