10/08/2014 12:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Marriage Advice Just Doesn't Work

SaulHerrera via Getty Images

Look at any website or magazine geared toward women and you'll most likely see all sorts of advice from "experts" -- everything from "9 Ways to Save Your Marriage" to "10 Marriage Rules You Should Break" to "21 Secrets to a Happy Marriage" -- to prevent a marriage from sliding into complacency and perhaps divorce.

The secrets, tips, tricks or rules will no doubt cover the usual suspects -- go on date nights, appreciate each other more, boost communication, resolve conflict better, laugh together and schedule sex (or maybe have sex, period). 2014-10-08-Fotolia_13491317_XS.jpg

While I don't have any objection to that kind of advice -- who doesn't want to have more sex or laughter? -- the underlying message is that if couples just try harder (or maybe just the women, as saving marriages seems to be women's work), things will turn out great and you'll once again be the loving, happy and lusty couple you were when you first met.

Honestly, how much faith do you actually have that it will?

As Albert Einstein is famously -- and incorrectly -- quoted as saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Regardless of who said it, it's true. The problem isn't that couples aren't working at their marriage; the problem is that all that work will only go so far because the traditional marriage model itself is broken.

Rather than telling couples to "work harder," "work harder," and "work harder" -- when throwing the same tips, tricks and secrets at it clearly isn't working -- why not tell them to try something different?

What might that look like?

Sex up by opening up
You're in your fifth, 10th or 20th year of marriage and your sex life is ho-hum, if you're even having a sex life anymore that is. You've tried new positions, all the latest sex toys, sexy lingerie, watched porn, maybe even dabbled in a little BDSM. It helped for a while and then, boom, you're back to your old habits. What would really invigorate your sex life is to have sex with someone else. No, I'm not suggesting an affair; as exciting as that might be, it's often incredibly damaging to a relationship. But you don't need to cheat to fulfill your sexual desires.

While researching for our book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, Susan Pease Gadoua and I heard from numerous couples who opened up their marriage for awhile. True, they struggled with jealousy, but giving each other the freedom to explore new partners honestly and safely not only brought them closer and made them feel sexier, but it also made them feel proud that they broke from the norm and forged a new path. It was "a badge of courage" they said. Who can argue with that?

Stay connected by living apart
About 20-something years into her marriage, my mother moved to Miami, bought herself a condo and got a job -- leaving my dad and our Yorkie in New York City. The two came down to visit her for a long weekend every month for about 10 years, when my dad finally joined her and they lived in somewhat peaceful marital bliss until they passed away. My mom was a marriage rebel, although I didn't realize it at the time.

I wouldn't necessarily suggest that you do what my mom did, but living with someone 24/7 can create all sorts of conflict, disappointments and resentments, not to mention that couples start taking each other for granted. Why not give each other space and live apart, whether permanently in separate spaces, temporarily or sporadically? Research indicates couples that live apart feel just as stable, satisfied, committed and trusting as couples that live together do -- and often more so. Other studies reveal that women who don't live with their partners retain their sexual desire much more than women who do. That alone makes the arrangement mighty tempting.

From lovers to co-parents
Perhaps you are miserable in your marriage and at the brink of divorce but one thing stops you from making the leap -- your kids. If your kids are young, that's a valid concern. But as research has indicated, it isn't divorce per se that's bad for kids -- it's conflict, and it's just as damaging to kids if that conflict happens in intact families as divorced families. So much for staying miserably together "for the kids." But there are other concerns, financial among them, that often keep parents stuck in miserable marriages.

Thankfully, there's an alternative to divorcing -- a parenting marriage. Instead of viewing yourselves as the soul mates you once imagined each other to be, see yourselves in an entirely new role -- co-parents. Instead of expecting your spouse to fulfill all your needs, remove romance from the equation and replace it with respectful and loving co-parenting.

The truth is kids don't need their parents to love each other in order for them to thrive -- they need their parents to love them, as well as have a conflict-free and stable environment. Becoming good co-parents can give kids exactly what they need. And isn't that what you want for them, too?

Interested in learning about other ways to re-create your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September 2014).