The Alternative To Divorce that Has People Freaked

“The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert

Right after extended family vacations, therapists and attorneys see an increase in calls from couples that have had enough of their unhappy marriage and want to call it quits. January (after winter holidays) and back to school (after summer holidays) are busy for us.

Perhaps one or both spouses have been contemplating the fate of their marriage for a while —sometimes years. Stay? Go? Stay. Go. It’s utterly crazy-making. Then, they reach the invisible breaking point and begin the painful and arduous process of deconstructing the family.

But there’s another option that more and more people are paying attention to. It’s called a Parenting Marriage and it actually isn’t a new concept. A Parenting Marriage happens when the romantic aspect of the relationship has gone by the wayside but you have kids together and you don’t split up.

Not only have other cultures practiced it for years, Americans have been doing it unknowingly for decades. Just think about the 1950s when everyone had to keep up appearances, meanwhile, there were all kinds of negative vibes and illicit affairs going on.

I originally came up with this concept when I was working with a couple that couldn’t get unstuck from their loveless relationship, yet refused to break up. Both wanted to see the kids every day, tuck them in at night, help them with their homework and go on family outings.

The husband felt he was being held hostage by his wife who had zero interest in sex (but he loved her and didn’t want to have an affair — even though she told him to go ahead) and the wife saw him as “bothering” her and taking time and attention away from her first priority: the kids. She, in fact, hated sex and had since the birth of their second child.

I kept wondering why, in a time when we have more choices with what bubble gum to chew, don’t we have more options than simply to stay or go when it comes to something as all-encompassing as marriage.

We worked on this for quite a while. Finally, we figured out a way that they could reconfigure their house so they could both stay, but have a sense of separation (this was also during the Recession so the option to live apart was not feasible). We didn’t have a name for it.

My next couple with the same dilemma was a lesbian couple. They said almost the exact same thing: “We don’t want to be together but no one wants to leave, what can we do?”

I let them know what I had just crafted with this other couple and, although they were nervous about it, they decided to give it a try. It worked for them as well.

In the past six years, I’ve helped dozens of other couples create a Parenting Marriage. It’s worked for many and it’s a viable alternative to staying unhappily (perhaps having an affair and creating even more unhappiness and hurt) or leaving and breaking apart the family unit.

That said, there are couples this would not work for. Couples need to have a “good enough” relationship. This means they share parenting values and goals, they are capable of getting along and they have a certain level of emotional maturity.

There’s ample research out there that divorce isn’t the worst thing that parents can do to kids: Fighting terribly and subjecting them to vitriolic hatred toward the other parent is the worst thing for kids to be subjected to. Therefore, staying married in such a state is actually worse for kids than divorce.

I’ve seen many people divorce and, because they handled their emotions well, the children also did well. I’ve also witnessed couples do significant damage to their kids by staying in an unhealthy relationship and trying to “make it work.”

But, because it is also true that a two-parent household typically has some significant advantages over two separate, single-parent homes, it’s worth asking: What if you could stay for the kids and lead your own life—possibly even having outside romantic relationships?

What I’m suggesting in a Parenting Marriage is that you can have your cake and eat it too in an above-board, respectful kind of way.

Think of it as changing your job description. As spouses, you change from lover, best friend, and co-parent to co-parent first and foremost, friends maybe, and lovers no longer. The marriage is no longer based upon the emotion of love; it’s centered around raising healthy kids together.

It’s a great option but couples are nervous to try something different. I ask people to think about if half the neighbors on your block were doing a Parenting Marriage, would it be a good option then? If the answer is yes, that means you’re resistance is primarily around what others will think of you.

As Brene Brown says, “Dare to change the world. Just start with yourself.”

If this concept piques your curiosity, you may want to take this quiz to see if a Parenting Marriage might be a good alternative for you.

– Susan Pease
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