What do you do when you feel that the love you once shared with your mate has disappeared with no possibility of revival, but you adore your children and can't imagine spending even one day apart from them?
Until now, the options have been:
1. Stay miserable in your marriage in service of giving your kids a stable home;
2. Work "harder" on the marriage in therapy and convince yourself that if you can somehow see your spouse differently or tap into the part of you that fell in love with him or her, you'll be fine;
3. Have an illicit affair that makes being home seem more tolerable;
4. Divorce and just accept that you can't see your kids every day (but feel consoled that you get to talk to them on a daily basis).
Maintaining a romantic bond for years on end is challenging, but adding kids to the mix and keeping a romantic connection the entire length of the relationship is extremely challenging, if not impossible (even with all the great advice books out there on the topic).
We all know the cliché of the spouses who grow apart after having kids (he wants sex, she's too exhausted; he feels rejected, she's resentful), then the man has what we call a "mid-life crisis," he has an illicit affair with a 20-something young thing, and then he leaves his wife (who also happens to be the mother of his children) to goes on to relive the good old carefree days, while she stays in the family home caring for the kids.
Although he has momentary guilt, he's mostly having fun but the ex-wife feels downright kicked to the curb and used. I hear women say things like, "How dare he leave me! I gave him the best years of my life!"
Some version of this happened to my parents and as a therapist I see this scene play out over and over.
Admittedly, there is no good choice when your marriage as you knew it is over. There are just less bad options.
The alternative I'm about to propose doesn't offer a cure-all for the troubled relationship, but it does provide a better lifestyle option for what my co-author, journalist Vicki Larson, and I believe matters most -- the children.
It's called a Parenting Marriage and it is pretty much what it sounds like: A non-romantic union centered around raising healthy kids.
Some of you might be thinking, "That's not what marriage is supposed to be about." Others of you might be thinking, "That's what we already do. How is this Parenting Marriage different from traditional marriage?"
A Parenting Marriage is different in some significant ways, not the least of which is that it's a conscious choice the couple makes together, not simply a holding pattern they have fallen into.
Three Reasons Couples Stay Stuck in A Bad Marriage
The first reason couples stay stuck in their marital rut is that they want to avoid having a difficult conversation about their marital blahs for fear of hurting their spouse. Yet the hurt and devastation caused by not talking (and having the cliché nightmare ending) is far worse.
Another reason is that it's not socially acceptable to stray from the love-based model that lasts forever. In fact, we deem a marriage "successful" by how long it lasts. How ironic that we hold those who have unhappy and unconscious marriages as acceptable or even normal, but we ostracize those who create conscious agreements to change the purpose of their marriage.
The third reason is that there has never before been a map or language to help people create a Parenting Marriage. It's like the difference between having GPS and not having it: couples might eventually find a place that feels right in their couplehood but with this marital GPS, they can see exactly where they want to go and how to get there.
Marriage is changing in so many ways these days and the rigid paradigm of Ozzie and Harriet is going by the wayside at breakneck speeds.
People are beginning to realize that they have the option to stay single or to get divorced without shame; they have the option to marry later or marry several times without shame. Now, couples are starting to see that they can renegotiate the terms of their marriage without shame.
While a Parenting Marriage isn't right for every couple, it's certainly worth looking into.
Here are the key elements:
1. Both spouses agree and accept (and this acceptance is crucial) that the marriage they used to have is over. That is, the love-based relationship is over.
2. Both spouses agree that the primary purpose of their marriage now is to be good co-parents and raise healthy kids in as stable an environment as possible.
3. Together, both spouses will tell the kids honestly and openly about the changing nature of the marriage so that they don't have to wonder.
(Note that some couples need a temporary break -- a time-out, if you will. One couple lived apart for 18 months.)
4. Both spouses agree on the terms of their new marriage. Examples include one sleeping upstairs, the other downstairs; agreeing on a schedule of time with the kids; agreeing to separate financial obligations other than those that impact the family (mortgage, insurance payments, etc.); agreeing that in their free time, they can go anywhere, see anyone and do anything they wish; that each can have another relationship but that no one is introduced to the kids without prior permission.
For more information on how to consciously convert your tired old marriage into a Parenting Marriage, pick up a copy of, The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels or visit the website: http://thenewidobook.com.
I'm also happy to provide a free 30-minute assessment to couples who might want to explore this option. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A similar version of this article was published previously on another site.