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We’re coming up on Mother’s Day, and that means the “mother as hero” rhetoric typically heats up.

I have the utmost respect and compassion for parents. As a mom, a single divorced mom, I know how hard a job parenting is. It’s harder than anything I have ever done and probably ever will do. single moms heroes

That said, I am not a hero. My kids, now young men, may think I’m pretty cool as far as moms go, and have been generally kind about the ways in which I failed them — and fail I did. I don’t expect them to consider me a hero, but they can if they want. But no one else should.

Parents, moms or dads, single or married, are not heroes; we’re just people who decided to have children no matter what — our age, our health, our relationships status, our education, our income, our race, our religion, our gender. And once you make that decision, whether by birth or surrogacy or adoption or fostering, we are just doing the job we signed up for, and doing the job we signed up for does not necessarily make you a hero.

Mixed messages about single moms

A few months ago, GOP presidential hopeful Ohio Gov. John Kasich said, “single women with children are the real heroes in America.”  A tweet from Bernie Sanders from last October proclaims: “When you talk about heroes and heroines, at the top of that list is the single moms of America.” Meanwhile, former GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush found himself backpedaling about his hurtful comments about publicly shaming single moms in the 1990s.

Single moms are both reviled and worshiped. This is a bit of a problem.

According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, nearly seven out of 10 people polled said the trend toward “more single women deciding to have children without a male partner to help raise them” is bad for society. But, it’s happening anyway. About a third of children in the U.S. live with an unmarried parent, according to the Pew Research Center. While many of those parents are single, 59 percent of all births outside of marriage occur to parents who are cohabiting. Still, more than 40 percent of births today are to single moms, and many of them are living in poverty.

Then we have politicos calling us heroes while proposing extreme measures to hurt them. Despite what Kasich says about single moms, he has approved measures that restrict reproductive rights among other things important to all women since taking office in in 2011. Hey, thanks for supporting your “heroes.”

I think most single moms would happily forego being called a hero if they had the right to govern their own body and lived in a country where their elected officials created policies that allowed them to raise their kids in healthier, happier ways — from affordable childcare to universal preK to paid sick leave to equal pay.

What about dads?

Calling out moms, single or not, as heroes is hurtful because it ignores single dads and dads in general. There are 2.6 million single dads — they’re doing what they need to do, too. Why aren’t they called heroes?

Granted, while they may not get the title, they do tend to get a lot more praise for being out and about doing “dad things” with their kids — it’s a real double standard, according to studies — which upsets some single moms.

When Richard Johnson posted on Life of Dad’s Facebook page about the struggles of raising his daughter by himself after Mom skipped out, he got all sorts of kudos and media attention, from Cosmo to Today.

Writing in Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams, somewhat incorrectly, notes “you don’t see a whole lot of viral posts using the word ‘hero’ repeatedly to describe mothers,” but later states:

imagine if we extended the same the awe and respect for mothers raising their children alone that we do to guys like Johnson. Imagine if we supported families of all different configurations, and applauded the hard work of both men and women who show up for their kids every day.

Yes, we should support families in all sorts of configuartions, because that’s what we look like noways. Regardless, dads seem to get praise for doing when they should be doing — caring for their kids. As Monica Bielanko writes at Babble: “A dad wearing his baby on his chest isn’t cause for celebration, and it doesn’t mean he’s the BEST. DAD. EVER. It just means he’s doing his job.”

Maria Mora writes on SheKnows:

From characterizing watching kids as “babysitting” to acting like changing a diaper is grounds for Parent of the Year, our culture tells dads they’re superheroes for doing … normal stuff. It’s worse with single dads, who elicit the sympathy factor and project some kind of powerful allure simply by managing to feed, bathe, clothe and hang out with their children. Single dads, don’t get me wrong. You’re doing a great job. This stuff is hard. Every parent deserves to be praised, and every parent deserves to be supported. But I’ll hold the confetti next time a single dad takes his child to dance class or bakes cupcakes for a birthday party. That’s called getting it done. That’s what we do.

So … if moms don’t want dads to be celebrated for “getting it done” and “doing … normal stuff,” why is it OK if we call moms heroes? Calling one parent a hero to the exclusion of the other sets up an unhealthy and unnecessary divisiveness exactly at a time when more men are hands-on dads, when we’re talking about more egalitarian partnerships and when even so-called poor “deadbeat dads” are actually finding meaningful ways to be involved in their children’s lives. The “moms are heroes” label is divisive and ignores what men do.

What about the childfree?

And it’s not just divisive between moms and dads; it basically excludes women who don’t have children, whether by choice or by chance.

If motherhood allows women to become heroes, how can women without kids become heroes? I pondered this a few years ago, noting that Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert did not want kids, which she detailed in the best-seller that catapulted her into near-goddess stature. Yet, no one called her a hero for making that decision — a decision an increasing number of women make. Aren’t women who know that they’re not cut out for motherhood and avoid it — thus saving their children from potentially unhappy childhoods — heroic? That’s a brave choice considering the stigma and shaming childfree women face.

If motherhood is the only way women can be seen as heroes, something is very wrong.

Idealizing motherhood

My last objection to calling moms heroes is because it idealizes motherhood and thus perpetuates the myth of what a “perfect” mother is and does, and then punishes her when she can’t, or doesn’t, live up to the ideal. Haven’t we moms had enough of that?

I remember when author Ayelet Waldman wrote an essay in the New York Times about loving her husband, author Michael Chabon, more than their four kids, which led to maternal outrage — and her 2009 book Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace.

“If you work, you’re neglectful; if you stay home, you’re smothering. If you discipline, you’re buying them a spot on the shrink’s couch; if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. If you buy organic, you’re spending their college fund; if you don’t, you’re risking all sorts of allergies and illnesses,” she writes about the struggles of being a good mom — albeit a privileged mom.

What about mothers from the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere who leave their children behind to raise the children of America’s middle- and upper-classes; are they good mothers?

As for dads? The requirements for being a good dad are a lot less — or at least very different — than what’s required of moms. Except, as she told me, we moms have fabricated our own requirements, which has done nothing but stress us out. Amazingly enough, we have not progressed very far from then.

Putting moms on the hero pedestal sets up all moms for failure — even when we’re not failing.

My potential heroes

Despite all that, I thought if anyone could be called a hero, it would be parents who go over and above — foster parents, those who adopt special-needs kids. So I was surprised to read that they don’t want the moniker either.

“Foster parenting is hard work and it isn’t for everyone, but mostly we’re just typical people doing our best to love our children and raise them right,” writes foster mom Jasmine Schmidt. “Pushing us up onto a pedestal distances us and makes fostering appear out of reach to the average everyday Joe.”

Same for adoptive parents. “Adoptive parents are not heroes. We are parents, just like any other parents,” writes Tracy Hahn-Burkett.

Same for moms of special-needs kids. “(S)omewhere along the line ‘we are equal’ became ‘we are better.’ We toil more, we mother more, we are superhuman,” writes Mary Evelyn, who has a son with spina bifida. “It’s a myth — and it sends a dangerous message. Dangerous because it tells the world that only a special kind of person can raise a son or daughter who is different. Dangerous because it increases our loneliness when we remove ourselves from the world of everyday motherhood — a world we still live in, even if it sometimes seems far away.”

I wish all moms a happy Mother’s Day next week just like I’ll wish all dads a happy Father’s Day next month. Parenting’s a tough, tough job no matter what; it’s often a rewarding job, too, and I hope it’s a joyful job. Maybe your kids will call you their hero one day; their opinion is the only one that matters.

Want to learn how to create an egalitarian marriage? Order “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and  follow The New I Do on Twitter and Facebook.


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I was standing in line at the grocery store this weekend when I watched  a paramedic truck and a fire truck pull up to the front. In hurried about five men, and I watched as they began talking and administering to a boy, around 13- to 15-years-old, who was seated at the front of the store. He didn’t look in any sort of distress, but still.

It took me a few minutes to get up to the cashier, but when I finally got there I asked, “Is he OK?”

“With all those people looking after him, I’d say he’s OK,” she said.

She was right. I admit it — I am a nervous mom, and I told her as much.

And then she added, “I wish his mom would show up.”  Dads_parenting

It was perhaps a typical answer, and that’s what was so dis-
turbing. Mom? Why not his dad?

We auto-
matically assume that his mom would be the one to take care of him and that he’d want his mom, or at least expect her, to be there to be there. Not to say that she wouldn’t or he wouldn’t, but about his dad? Wouldn’t Dad want to be there, too, to make sure his son is OK?

Therein lies the paradox of caregiving. We think women are naturally cut out for it and actively choose it — and sometimes they are and do — but we often doubt men’s ability and desire to do it, and are also suspect of men who actually do it. And that’s why, in 2016, caregiving is still overwhelmingly done by women, and therefore underpaid and undervalued. Sadly, many of the predominantly immigrant women who look after America’s children have left their own behind. And when it comes to unpaid caregiving, it’s not just women who chose to become moms, and pay a huge price professionally, emotionally and financially for that decision; it’s also women — married or not, moms or childfree — who tend to be their parents’ or partner’s caregivers, or both.

Where are the men?

Despite the fact that 1 in 6 custodial parents are dads and there are about 2.6 million stay-at-home fathers, as well as the millions of Gen-X and Millennial men who are hands-on dads, we still don’t tend to see men as primary — or even equal — caregivers. They “help out.”

This needs to change, as Unfinished Business author Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in the Atlantic:

It’s clear that American fathers are increasingly serving as “lead parents” and doing so without the social norms or workplace policies necessary to support them. Just as they hinder women’s equal participation in the workforce, rigid gender roles keep men stuck in harmful cultural stasis. Subsumed by a culture of overwork that penalizes them for taking time off for family-care responsibilities, men too face dire consequences from our failure to value care. Failing to involve men in the conversation about care as a core component of gender equality only calcifies harmfully rigid social norms about gender overall.

And those calcified “harmfully rigid” and gendered social norms are why we automatically think a mom should show up to care for a child in need of medical assistance instead of a dad. Does this bother anyone but me? I hope it does.

Changing the conversation

Slaughter heard from many men, including gay men, in the wake of her much-discussed “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” article, who told her, “How dare you frame this as a woman’s issue?” and “I am not any happier with my role as a mandated breadwinner than women used to be as the mandated caregiver. I want to be able to spend more time with my children.” That, thankfully, made her reframe the discussion. Now she advocates for getting rid of language like “stay-at-home mom” and “stay-at-home dad” and instead talk about “working fathers” and “working mothers.”

Which is great and a start, but in order to make it work, people will have to follow that talk with action, and that isn’t as easy as it seems, as Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet has long written about. As long as men still feel like outsiders — and women treat them as outsiders, or worse — on the playground, in parenting groups/activities and in the classroom, and women feel conflicted about being the secondary caregiver, we’re just not going to get very far.

Changing reality

Maybe we moms don’t really want to give up being the No. 1 person our child wants when he or she is sick or sad or overwhelmed at the end of a long way or just excited to share something. Maybe dads don’t really want to be home with the kids, which a recent Gallup poll indicates. And if we continue along those lines, then we will never reach some sort of equitable solution and caregiving will still be seen as women’s work. Despite the essential role caregiving plays in society, it is not given the status it deserves. Until it is, I’m convinced women will never reach equality. And, sadly, men will still be pigeonholed as breadwinners.

It’s time to change that.

It already happens, somewhat, when couples divorce and split physical custody. Divorced dads often take on tasks they’ve never had to deal with before so they’re forced to become more hands-on. Some may struggle with it, but at least they get to do things their way, which wives often don’t allow their husbands to do. Many divorcees notice how their former husbands become much better dads once they’ve split.

Rather than encourage divorce, however, why not create a society in which caregiving is honored and degendered? Which is why I am advocating for mandatory caregiving. Countries like Israel require everyone who turns 18 to serve three (men) and two (women) years in the military. It’s part of their civic duty.

What if we make caregiving a civic duty? What if we required every American, when he or she turns 18, to be trained in caregiving — for the young, the sick, the disabled and the elderly — and then spend two years actually caregiving, in a monitored situation? Like AmeriCorps, participants could get help in college and healthcare costs in addition to the gaining marketable skills. This could help those in lower socioeconomic groups who might not be able to afford college or a trade school. But it also would require all men to become caregivers. And if that happens, society — and men themselves — will actually see men as capable caregivers. It would also strip away the fear we have about men who have an interest in caring for other people’s children.

I call this carenting — making childrearing and caregiving a communal responsibility.

Society may indeed see men as equal caregivers — one day. But societal change moves really slowly, and given the caregiving crisis we already have and that will grow once the majority of boomers hit retirement age — which is soon — I can’t think of a better way to move the issue along in an equitable way. Can you?

Want to learn how to create an egalitarian marriage? Order “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and  follow The New I Do on Twitter and Facebook.

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This probably has been a hard week for childfree people. San Francisco just approved six weeks of fully paid parental leave, coming on the heels of New York City’s law requiring up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off for new parents and California Gov. Jerry Brown boosting paid-family leave benefits. Parental leave

Well, hey, wonderful, you may be thinking with a tad of sarcasm. I don’t have kids, by choice or chance, or I never want to have kids — why should I applaud policies that promote people who have kids when we end up covering for them when little Liam or Emma gets sick or is in a play or has a parent-teacher conference?

It’s a burden

Childfree people, whether single or partnered, don’t like the extra burden often placed on them because of other people’s parental duties. It’s “newest form of workplace discrimination,” according to Marie Claire.

Just look at what Amanda Marcotte writes in her Slate article, “Family-friendly workplaces are great, unless you don’t have kids:”

At their offices and workspaces, the demand from parents for time off means single women without kids are routinely pressured into working late, scheduling vacations for off-seasons, and otherwise picking up the slack that the work/life balance leaves undone by their colleagues.”

And that makes things feel very unequal, as Laura Carroll, author of several books on childfree living, writes in Fortune:

When it comes to work-life balance, the “life” part has often been synonymous with personal time related to parenting. Workplace culture has regarded caring for one’s children as the most valued personal time outside work. Typically, what non-parents do with their personal time has been viewed as not as ‘important’ as parent time. There’s also the common assumption that with no kids, people must have a lot of free personal time, and the work-life balance does not really apply to them.

I get it. Really, I do. But the workplace is no friend to working mothers. In fact, as Claire Cain Miller writes in the New York Times, “employers rate fathers as the most desirable employees, followed by childless women, childless men and finally mothers. They also hold mothers to harsher performance standards and are less lenient when they are late.”

Thankfully, some of the new parental leave measures extend to everyone who needs to take time off to caregive, even to care for a seriously ill family member. While you may not have experienced that yet, trust me, you will — if not for a parent then perhaps for a partner or a sibling. Especially if — sadly — you’re a woman, because caregiving is overwhelmingly female, and thus underpaid and undervalued.

And if you think you’re being penalized because of working mothers, just wait until your co-workers’ parents start aging. Liz O’Donnell addressed this beautifully in the Atlantic recently.

There are currently 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the majority are women. And yet there are very few support programs, formal or informal, in place to support these family caregivers, many of whom are struggling at work and at home. Working daughters often find they need to switch to a less demanding job, take time off, or quit work altogether in order to make time for their caregiving duties.

Just look what you have to look forward to!

Let’s just call it family leave

O’Donnell believes the conversation shouldn’t be limited to the need for maternity leave or parental leave, but family leave and other accommodations “that will enable workers to care for their aging parents without their lives falling apart.”

I agree — we have a long way to go to helping those with kids or those who were once kids themselves, and who have parents. But, what about the bigger picture? What about not seeing this as something parents need — what about thinking about it from what children need?

Well, people who have kids should be prepared and financially able to care for those kids before they have them, you may be thinking.

You’re not necessarily wrong to think that way. But, what are we actually talking about when we talk about children? They are the future. They are the people who may flip our burgers before going on to make Academy-Award-winning documentaries or write best sellers or discover a cure for an illness that’s long eluded us or entertain us with the next must-see Netflix series or teach the next generation or develop new technologies that will make our lives better or perhaps even be our caregiver when we’re old. Today’s children are tomorrow’s society, and yes, childfree people should care about that because it will impact everyone’s life  — with kids or without — in one way or another and most likely in many ways.

This is not to say it’s OK for workplaces to discriminate against the childfree. Discrimination in any form is never OK. But caregiving the most vulnerable among us matters. “The measure of a society’s health is how well it takes care of the youngest generation,” the late psychologist and author of All Kids Are Our Kids Peter L. Benson said.

If you think of it that way, wouldn’t we, parents or not, want to make sure that all kids are taken care of so they can reach their potential? Which means we should be more empathetic to their parents. You know, a “it takes a village” kind of thing. I wonder what your parents desperately needed while they were raising you as a child. Why don’t you ask them?

Want to learn how to create a marriage based on your values and goals, with kids or without? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and  follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

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This week, there were two stories that addressed the “happily-ever-after” version of marriage many of us expect, or at least want to believe.

Actress Drew Barrymore and her third husband, art consultant Will Kopelman, are divorcing after two children and three years of marriage. At the same time, a Maine couple were being honored for their 77-year marriage and, as nursing home residents, for “their achievements and contributions to the community” until the wife passed away last month.

According to the vice president and director of communications for the Maine Health Care Association: “It was pretty obvious that in everything they were a team. Who’s married that long now? I mean, really. That was really impressive.”

Dos commitment matter?It’s only later in the article that we learn why they might have lasted that long — the wife’s “tolerance for the things (her husband) did” was the secret to their long marriage, which was not without its struggles: “He was very headstrong. If there was something he wanted to do, he was going to do it.”

Hmm, should we actually celebrate that?

When people are asked why they want to get married, an overwhelming number (88 percent) say love is a “very important” reason to get married. A close second is making a lifelong commitment (81 percent).

Yet, we are often fuzzy on defining commitment — a number of people say commitment is very important in their marriage yet if their spouse has an affair, well, bye-bye commitment and hello divorce. Clearly, commitment will only go so far.

Still, society tends to emphasize how important commitment is in marriage and if someone divorces, especially for seemingly “trivial” issues, his or her character often comes into doubt. Thus, commitment takes on a moral value: the more committed you are, the more you love your spouse.

But is that true?

Love should be enough

Anca Gheaus, a philosophy professor whose work I’ve come to admire, questions those assumptions. In fact, she questions if love shouldn’t matter more than commitment in a marriage.

There are two types of commitment, she notes — the promises and the behaviors, and attitudinal. Marriage has both; it’s a contract, with spouses-to-be promising each other certain things over the course of the marriage as well as the daily negotiations that build trust, but it also indicates that spouses think about “each other and their relationship as central to their idea of a good life, and, in least in love-based marriages, to their identity.”

But, she questions, why is it important for people to commit to other people and a relationship just because it’s part of how they see themselves and their life?

“It may be true that most of the things that give meaning to people’s lives are those to which they are usually committed. But commitment does not seem to be necessary for meaning; being engaged with people and activities about which one cares is enough.”

Is commitment, then, really important in a marriage? True, commitment may keep spouses from splitting if more tempting partners or activities that would take time and energy away from the relationship suddenly appear. But, she notes, a more likely reason commitment matters is because it’s hard to live with someone else day in and day out, and commitment keeps a couple going and working toward a life plan together even when things are tough and they may not want to.

Does that mean we really need commitment? With all due respect to the Beatles, wouldn’t all we need is love? If someone loved us, wouldn’t he or she be kind to us and do nice things for us and hang around because of that love? And wouldn’t we do the same?

“As long as love, understood minimally as the inclination to seek another’s companionship and advance her well-being, exists, commitment is not necessary. One need not be committed to one’s beloved in order to suspend any cost-benefit analysis of the relationship … the appearance of more desirable partners will not be a reason to leave the marriage if one loves one’s spouse. … A world where the goods of marriage were achieved without commitment, out of love alone, would therefore be a better world; marital commitment seems to be a second-best solution to securing the goods of marriage.”

Of course, love is fragile and can disappear, too; that’s in part why spouses commit to each other — to kind of “lock in” some future love. But, is that what we really want — someone to be with us out of commitment than out of a deliberate decision to be with us because they love us? Does it really build character to keep staying with someone we no longer love? Love may be a better way to be with someone because “love is a direct reaction to the reality of the beloved” and is in the moment and has nothing to do with the promise you made three, 10 or 77 years ago to stick together “until death.”

Again, this speaks to the beauty of a renewable marital contract, in which spouses would have to react to “the reality of the beloved” every so often and decide — are we still in because we want to be here or not? Are we loving each other in the way we want to be loved?

Why stay together?

Barrymore and Kopelman evidently are no longer in love. Would commitment be reason enough for them to stay together? “Well, they have young kids,” you might be thinking, “and they should stick it out for them.” But, does their romantic and sexual relationship have anything at all to do with their ability to parent their children? No. If anything we’ve seen how love and sex — or the lack thereof — make spouses miserable.

If commitment matters at all, it should be the commitment to the children, not necessarily to each other. So they could transform their marriage into a parenting marriage until their daughters Olive, 3, and Frankie, 23 months, become 18 since they’ve acknowledged that the girls will bind them together forever. And that is exactly what binds a couple — kids, more than a desire to “lock in” a future together and much more than love.

Does their decision to split make them any better or worse than the Maine couple who stayed together for 77 years — seemingly at the expense of the wife’s self-esteem and perhaps happiness? Yet, that marriage is being celebrated for longevity, whether love was still present or not, while Barrymore is seen as a failure because this is her third marriage.

Demanding commitment in a marriage is basically saying we know our partner may stop loving us at some point but we still want him or her to hang around forever. Or, we may stop loving our partner — now what?

Want to learn how to create a marriage based on your values and goals? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and  follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

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Perhaps you remember the memorable words spoken by then-President Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

“That woman” was White House intern Monica Lewinsky, with whom Clinton later acknowledged having an “improper physical relationship.” At the time, there was discussion over what an “improper physical relationship” actually meant (as well as the meaning of “is”), and whether oral sex fit under what a U.S. District Judge’s defined as when a “person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”  Infidelity

OK, fine. But, is that all? Can you have “improper” sexual relations virtually, say on massively multiuser online role-playing games (MMORPGs) or by cybersex chatting, sexting or even watching pornography excessively?

What about improper emotional relationships? How are those defined? Are those as bad — or worse?

I bring this up because the language and definitions around what is considered dangerous behavior in a romantic relationship are slippery. Which makes getting a handle on how many people are engaging in infidelity really hard to do (in addition to the fact that a lot of people aren’t always truthful about what they’re doing sexually). If we don’t all have the same definition of infidelity, how can we ever know how many people are actually fooling around (if that matters)? More important, how can know for ourselves what’s cheating and what isn’t within our own relationship, and how can we expect a therapist to help us?

Which is why a recent study, “Defining infidelity in research and couple counseling: A qualitative study” interested me.

Infidelity has been a topic of interest in scholarly literature for at least the past two decades, but humans have been talking about it, and engaging in it, since biblical times. Depending on the research, anywhere between under 2 percent to more than 85 percent of couples are cheating.

But, again, what does that mean if we aren’t defining infidelity the same way?

Three ways to look at it

The study breaks down infidelity, unhappily, into three distinct activities: sexual intercourse, extra-dyadic sexual activities and emotional betrayal.

I say unhappily because each of the three definitions presents dilemmas. Even something like defining sexual intercourse, which seems pretty straight forward — penis, vagina, penetration — can be problematic for couples in consensually non-monogamous relationships and who don’t equate romantic commitment with sexual fidelity. Infidelity for them is probably not going to have to do anything with penetration but something else.

Same with extra-dyadic sexual activities, a broad category for sure, including:

masturbation in the presence of another, oral sex, sexual play, kissing, flirting, visiting strip clubs, pornography use and having sexual fantasies about a person other than the partner; cybersex can include exchanging sexual self images, online dating, online flirting, and using online pornography.”

Hey, even former President Jimmy Carter admitted to lust in his heart; was that cheating? For marital counselors, the study notes, this is nothing but a “wide field for potential conflict.” I’ll say!

Defining emotional infidelity — surprise! — isn’t any easier. Some might say it’s when one person is being secretive about a behavior or a relationship with someone else that upsets the other partner. But if you just focus on secrecy and the sense of betrayal, the study notes, well, “in theory, any behavior that is kept secret or evokes a sense of betrayal can be defined as infidelity.” This is a problem, too, because we don’t always share everything with our romantic partners and that needs to be OK. (I sometimes hid new shoes or a blouse in my closet for weeks before eventually wearing it so if my hubby asked, “Is that new?” I could say, “Nah, I’ve had it for a while.” Secretive? Yes. Ridiculous? Of course. A betrayal? I sure hope not. And yet being secretive about money can be damaging.)

Whose definition?

Making things worse, the researchers note, is that the way researchers gauge what constitutes infidelity “is overly reliant on hypothetical infidelity scenarios,” which tell us little about what we’d actually do if, say, we discovered that our partner had a one-night stand, or choosing definitions from preset behaviors (“Infidelity is x” or “Infidelity is y”), instead of letting people define it for themselves.

Since marital therapists themselves struggle with defining infidelity, it’s inevitable that when their views and their struggling clients’ views differ, their personal definitions “will necessarily influence how infidelity is worked with in the therapeutic space.” This does not make me feel good about how a marital counselor can help couples, especially if he or she is dismissive about something one spouse considers to be cheating. While I hope to never be in that situation again, I can now look back and feel somewhat better about my gut reaction at the time when my then husband and I were in therapy for his infidelity — “Our therapist is clueless!”

Since infidelity is socially constructed, the study suggests that marital therapists, rather than rely on an “ultimate definition” or a “true” meaning of infidelity, should consider the “impact of different possible perspectives and their usefulness for the couple.” In other words, let the couple themselves define the transgressions as infidelity or not.

Yes! At the same time, I believe it’s essential that therapists also understand that there are many other ways to betray a loved one beside infidelity — denying sex, indifference, emotional neglect, contempt and lack of respect among them. All I have to do is read the many comments by spouses in sexless marriages on my blog and on The New I Do blog to see how damaging a sexless partnership can be and how some infidelity occurs because a sex-deprived spouse sees no other way to have his or her sexual needs met other than divorce, which many people with young children don’t want to do. But if a couple like that ends up in therapy, the transgressor will, of course, be cast as the bad guy or gal, and not the spouse who has been denying sex and intimacy for years. Sorry, but that isn’t right.

What do you want?

So as we’re entering the wedding season, I would encourage all spouses-to-be to talk about infidelity and be clear with each about what’s OK and what isn’t. And — and this is a big and — talk about what you will do as a couple if your sexual needs start to differ, whether because of illness or menopause or whatever.

If you’re already married or living together, it’s not too late to have this discussion. In fact, it’s an ongoing conversation. You have every right to set boundaries that honor your needs and desires in an intimate relationship and so does your partner. That means allowing him or her to express those needs to you with honesty and transparency — even if they’re not something you really want to hear. Better to talk about that now, when your heart is open, than later, when you may discover a side of your partner you wish you never knew.

Want to explore consensual non-monogamy in your marriage? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

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For some, the big news this week was that President Obama was in Cuba or the latest mishegas from Donald Trump, but in certain circles, the big news was about divorce.

More men and women are against divorce, according to a new poll, which came out right around the time that actress Jennifer Garner said her divorce from Ben Affleck “hasn’t been nearly as bad as you might imagine.”  divorce

Wait, what? How can something that is seen so negatively by society at large be not so bad for an individual?

Divorce was not something I thought I’d experience or wanted to experience, and yet when I did experience it, like Garner, it wasn’t all that bad.

Well, let me reframe that. When I divorced in my 20s as a childfree woman, no one flipped out about it. Yes, his parents and mine expressed some concern — his more than mine because his mother went to church and my parents were not religious — and both of us felt pretty devastated for a period, but we had no children and therefore we were not seen as “ruining” other lives beside our own.

When I divorced the second time, mom to two boys, 9 and 12, it was a very different story. In some ways a similar story to Garner’s — she’s mom to three children, Violet, 10, Seraphina, 7, and Sam, 4 — but not quite. She has millions to help her provide for her children (although even nannies can be problematic) and I did not. That obviously makes a difference financially if not emotionally. And when if you’re divorcing with kids, it’s much, much harder. You’re not only worried about yourself but about them; how will divorce impact them, how will you be able to co-parent, are you going to be able to survive, etc. Because of all that, we went to marital counselors, I went to a therapist on my own, I read a bazillion surviving-the-affair books, and I did a lot of soul searching. By the time we split, I knew it was the right decision, and we split as amicably as we could.

Which is to say, after the initial pain and grief, divorce wasn’t all that bad.

Fast forward to today and we have conscious uncoupling and divorce selfies; divorce is becoming kinder. So I’m curious why so many suddenly disapprove of the idea of divorce, and whether it matters if the couples have children or not. To me, that’s a big difference — does society really worry about childfree couples? — one that sadly doesn’t get answered by the poll.

What’s the deal?

Why we dislike divorce

Two years ago, M. Christian Green, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and a former lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, wrote that divorce doesn’t just affect a couple and their immediate family — friends, neighbors and entire communities are impacted as well. A divorce among those close to us makes us feel vulnerable, and we question our own marriage — if a couple we thought were perfectly happy together splits, well, what about us?

According to my New I Do coauthor Susan Pease Gadoua, “we want couples to obey ‘the status quo’ so we know what to expect.” If a marriage lasts a lifetime, “we feel safer.”

Astro and Danielle Teller’s book Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage also questions the status quo when it comes to marriage and divorce; as they told me, “society, rightly or wrongly, believes it will get what it wants if it gets people to get married and stay married.

People thinking about divorce are generally profoundly unhappy, they say.

America has taught us that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human right — yet because our society feels threatened by divorce, it does not particularly want to attach that concept to the dissolution of marriage. We want to talk about love and happiness on the way into marriage, but after the exchange of rings, we demand an old-fashioned narrative, one of self-sacrifice, loyalty and hard work.”

That’s true, and often it’s the women who are told, implicitly or not, that it’s their job to make their marriage work.

‘Not as bad as you might imagine’

But I want to get back to Garner’s statement that divorce is “not as bad as you might imagine.” Of course, that’s her experience — not necessarily yours, mine or anyone else’s. That said, she does qualify it with “as you might imagine,” which makes me think without a doubt that’s because of what we keep hearing about divorce. The societal narrative is that something must be wrong with you if you can’t make your marriage work — you’re not committed enough, you’re not willing to do the hard work, you’re deeply flawed or incredibly selfish, etc. — instead of acknowledging that, hey, sometimes people make mistakes. It also places longevity higher than marital quality; you can treat your spouse like crap for years and he or she may put up with it for whatever reason (fear, dysfunction, lethargy, etc.), and society will toast you for having a successful marriage because you made it until one of you dies.

What’s perhaps most disturbing about the survey is that we still seem to view divorce as a moral failing, that if you just tried harder you’d be able to do it! Rather than the therapist/societal mantra of “work harder, work harder, work harder,” I wish someone (besides The New I Do) would say, “try something different.” What I’ve discovered from my own experience with several marital counselors as well the ones Susan and I presented before, they are often not equipped to do that. They don’t know how to suggest, say, opening up a marriage that’s been sexless, or living apart together to maintain connection as well as freedom, or removing the sexual/romantic part of their relationships so they can co-parent their kids. We’re just not fully there yet. And that’s why society continues to shame and blame people, even though they often do whatever they can to keep it together — 58 percent of men and 37 percent of women wait five years or longer to divorce because of their children. But, let’s not forget that by the time those unhappy parents eventually divorce, they’ve subjected their kids “more problematic parenting practices as long as 8–12 years before the divorce than do parents who do not divorce.”

Who’s benefiting from that?

Still, I wonder what’s behind the bump in those who look down on divorce. Any ideas?

Want to learn how to try something different rather than “work harder” in your marriage? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

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Recently I read an article that stated that getting married is not an accomplishment. Natalie Brooke — who is engaged to be married — bemoans the fact that once she got a ring on her finger, that’s all people wanted to talk about — not the many real accomplishments (her education, career, etc.) she’s had. Getting married is a big deal, she notes, but society might want to “re-evaluate what aspect of women’s lives we put the most value on.”

She writes:

You don’t have to have a brain, drive or special skill set to get married. You just have to have a willing partner. … That’s not to say that there is no accomplishment related to being married. I believe success comes into play not when the man gets down on one knee or when the couple stands at the altar and says “I do”, but rather when the husband and wife are able to weather through financial woes, illnesses, having kids, and the general stresses of everyday life. Staying together in an era when over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce is certainly an achievement.

Photo by Desiree Fawn

Photo by Desiree Fawn

She is wrong about the divorce rate; it’s only 50 percent for those aged 50 and older, the so-called gray divorces, but its between 30 and 40 percent for younger couples. Still, she is right about (some) of what she says. You don’t need a special skill set to tie the knot although you do need some know-how — communication, conflict management, etc. —  to stay married (and get through life in general).

Needless to say, her article caused a bit of a kerfuffle, with people arguing that is is indeed an accomplishment because, as one blogger wrote, “marriage is not a private act or just your personal life but a new brick building up society.” We might need to re-evaluate that thinking as fewer people are getting married — now what?

Marriage = ‘winning’

For Claire King, marriage is an accomplishment because, “You win the game of life.”

Pause for a minute and read that again: Marriage equals winning … at life. Hmm, OK … Isn’t staying alive winning the “game” of life?

King continues:

What marriage means to me is that I get to build the world the way I want it to be by furthering my genes, propagating my values, and propelling them into the future long after I’m gone. I think that’s a hugely important responsibility that one should be proud of and that others should revere.

Of course, one does not need to be married to further genes or propagate values, but let’s not quibble. Do childfree or adoptive couples, who don’t further their genes, win? And honestly, I’m not sure I want to revere furthering her genes and values until I know what they are!

Years before Brooke’s article, Rachel W. Miller said you bet getting engaged is an accomplishment:

While saying relationships aren’t an accomplishment might be done in an effort to remind women that, despite what rom-coms tell us, there is more to life than whether or not you can snag a husband, I think this sentiment unintentionally reinforces another rom-com trope: that relationships are equal parts magic, luck, and “meeting cute.” We’re told that if we just show up at the right place at the right time, everything will fall into place. Relationships are more than just showing up, and I’m okay with calling anything that requires doing more than just showing up an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Of course, for some the desire would be to snag a spouse of the same sex but, again, quibbles. But Miller says, yes, she worked hard to put a ring on it — she didn’t have casual flings or drunk text, she moved across the country to be closer to a serious prospect (after a month of dating), learned to communicate and negotiate after moving in together, etc. That may or may not be hard work, but it isn’t an accomplishment if you end up engaged after all that because there’s no guaranteed end result. She could have done all that and still not get engaged.

What does marriage ‘accomplish’?

When George H.W. and Barbara Bush celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary recently, many people congratulated them on their “accomplishment” — seven decades of wedded bliss!! (well, we don’t know that for a fact). Writer Kristin Noreen questioned whether accomplishment is the right word:

If after being married 71 years, you’re still in love, that’s fantastic luck, but I wouldn’t call it an accomplishment — that’s like giving adults blue ribbons for perfect attendance. To me, developing a vaccine is an accomplishment. Running a marathon is an accomplishment. Learning to walk again after a brain injury — something I have actually done – is an accomplishment. Raising good people is an accomplishment, I’ll give you that.

I agree with her blue ribbon analogy; if we go into marriage assuming that it’s “until death,” then you can’t call it an accomplishment until you actually make it until death. Isn’t this what you signed up for? You don’t get any kudos for doing your job and keeping your marital vows/promises; you just remain married. It’s not as if evil forces are conspiring against you and your marriage; no, you either wake up every day and say, “I choose to be in this marriage” and act accordingly or you don’t.

Except, and this is a big exception, a number of people don’t. They don’t consciously choose their marriage and their spouse; they stay in sexless, loveless, unhappy marriages that are full of anger and contempt because of the kids or because they’re afraid of what they’ll lose in a divorce or out of lethargy or because they value commitment over their spouse  — thus they can treat him or her like crap but still feel proud that they’re keeping their commitment. If those marriages last 50, 60, 70 years, is that really an accomplishment? Screw that!

Does longevity really mean success?

A few years ago, right before she marked her 10th wedding anniversary to Gavin Rossdale, Grammy award-winning musician, The Voice judge and fashion designer Gwen Stefani called her marriage “my biggest accomplishment.” Of course, we all know how that played out. Despite the ugly way in which that marriage ended, they had three children together — thus furthering her genes. Accomplishment?

I’m not sure why we consider longevity to be the only marker of a successful marriage or lifelong love to be the best kind of love. As far as I know there isn’t any research that indicates love that lasts forever improves us in any way — makes us smarter, more resilient, more creative, kinder or a better person — or in some way betters society. If it did, then, OK, I’d be more inclined to say that lifelong love — not necessarily lifelong marriage — is an accomplishment.

Until then, I’m happy to congratulate couples on their wedding anniversary. And if they indeed make it until death, then yes — it’s an accomplishment. Someone died, and thus that marriage — by the traditional “until death do us part” requirement — has met its goal. Mission accomplished!

Too bad one of the spouses won’t be around to celebrate it.

Want to define what will make your marriage a success? Learn how by ordering The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

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Despite being born and raised Jewish, I am agnostic and therefore don’t spend too much time thinking about religion. Even in my research on marriage and divorce, when I come upon studies on how religion and prayer may influence marriages, I tend to ignore them. So do a lot of other liberal media — and perhaps that’s a problem when it comes to understanding the realities of people for whom religion matters. Soul Mates

It is, says sociologist Nick Wolfinger, whose latest book, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, was just published. It was co-written with fellow sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, a conservative and director of the National Marriage Project, whose “marriage is the answer to poverty” stance always makes me leery (because it isn’t the answer and can just as often be the problem). But I was pleasantly surprised by how balanced the book is overall (perhaps because Wolfinger, whom I’ve come to know, is a liberal and a nonbeliever) and how the authors acknowledge that religion is not a “magic bullet” when it comes to the real challenges facing minorities in the U.S. today, and there are many.

As they write:

“Sometimes the benefits of religion are modest, and in some categories, most notably marital stability — religion has no impact at all for blacks and Latinos. It is also the case that religious couples who experience disharmony — especially where she is religious and he is not — face worse on some outcomes, such as relationship quality. This is one of the reasons why we are convinced that religion is not the answer to all the challenges facing black and Latino families, or American families as a whole.”

Which could make you think, hmm, well, OK — why even talk about religion if it doesn’t offer all that much? But it offers something, and that’s what stood out the most for me as I was reading the book — religion offers people community.

Church as community

So rather than focus on the many issues — sex, marriage, infidelity, drugs and alcohol, unemployment, nonmarital childbirth etc. — the book addresses, I want to explore the idea of community as a force of good (and sometimes bad).

Community comes in many forms. As the authors note:

“Although organized religion is the primary civic institution in America that promotes good behavior for its members, it is not the only one. Quasi-religious or secular organizations may provide similar benefits. One example is Alcoholics Anonymous, which in addition to sobriety seeks to instill decent behavior in its membership.”

I have a problem with calling anyone’s behavior “decent” (by whose standards?) — people can drink and be decent people and people can get sober and yet continue the same bad behaviors, aka dry drunks. I also have a problem with their statement that “Frequent church attendance also brings congregants into contact with happily monogamous couples.” Since there is the occasional story in the media that begs to differ, such as pastors who engage in infidelity or other “indecent behavior” such as porn addictions, this is a bothersome assumption.

Nevertheless, a healthy, happy community can offer friendship, support and a sense of purpose. It can also offer more depending on the needs of its community.

So what do minorities need that religion can offer? One thing the book identifies is the need to support minority men. While I don’t agree that the church’s “message should be one of … finding a partner, getting married and sticking together” — given the many ways to live well today, that’s an extremely narrow and heteronormative view — the book does speak to the ways the church is a place of support, friendship and guidance for men, whether by offering engaging activities (at the risk of sounding cliche, group sporting events for example) or teaching classes to build marketable skills or acting as an employment center to help them find meaningful careers with decent wages or offering essential mental health counseling. Men, minority or not, are often lacking the deep friendships women seem to have, and it is hurting them.

In that respect, the services and ministries churches offer are greatly helping their congregants. But, as Wolfinger tells me, “This is not necessarily about religion.” Right, because other groups can offer that, too. But, he adds, “Now, that having been said, we do see big effects for individual devotion, namely prayer. What is prayer? It’s an affirmation.” Plus, he says, couples that pray together do better.

This makes sense. Even nonbelievers often say affirmations. I do, and it’s less about expecting anyone or anything to help me or fix things, but more a desire to express my pain or need out loud. I can see how encouraging and supporting someone, whether a friend or a loved one, in that can be positive.

Still, community matters. As a nonbeliever, there was a bit of a struggle over including covenant marriages — a type of marriage born out of the conservative evangelical movement that makes marriage harder to get into and out of  — into The New I Do. Why would we want to include a marital model that was more restrictive than even traditional marriage? But it made sense to include it; not only is it the only other legal marriage license in the U.S., albeit in just three states (Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona), but research indicates couples who enter into it are happy. Why? Because the somewhat onerous requirements of having a covenant marriage, including premarital counseling, means that the couple knows exactly what they are getting into and when couples have matched expectations, they tend to have happier marriages. Thus, couples in covenant marriages have a 50 percent lower divorce rate than couples who don’t.

Community holds us accountable

I don’t want to discount the impact of premarital education that a covenant marriage requires, because it most likely helps a lot. But perhaps the best thing a covenant marriage offers is community. It doesn’t have to be a religious community — what matters is that you have some sort of community because, as Phil Waugh, who with his wife runs the Covenant Marriage Movement, told us, your community will hold you accountable.

Which sounds great … until it doesn’t. Groups can pressure, judge, shame and blame people into things that are unhealthy — like staying in a bad marriage out of fear of being shamed (not to mention communities that are dangerous cults, but that’s a different conversation). It’s challenging to be an outlier if everyone in your community is staying married, happily or not.

But the best community is supportive, accepting, loving, compassionate and nonjudgmental, it offers hope and solace, and if a religious community can do that and be helpful to those who seek it, so be it.

Anne Lamott, who has long written about her struggles with addiction, expresses what church does for her:

“I live for Sundays. It’s like going to the spiritual gas station to fill up on fuel and clean the dirty windshield and mirrors. I usually show up nuts, self-obsessed, vaguely agitated, and I am at once reminded not of who I am, but Whose I am. … Then everything falls into place, and I smile again at how crazy I (and most of us) are, but how at church, in fellowship … I remember the truth of my spiritual identity.”

No, I’m not religious. And fewer of us are, according to the Pew Research Center. How that’s going to impact minorities, the largest-growing population in America, is yet to be seen.

But I’m a believer in the importance of connection and community. That’s what seems to be missing for a lot of us nowadays especially as we increasing rely on technology for social interactions. If we’re truly seeking solutions to the increasing inequality in our society, then community, religious or not, is an essential part of the conversation.

Want to have a successful marriage by your definition of success? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

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I have been reading, and enjoying, Rebecca Traister’s comprehensive new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, as well as all the various articles about it and interviews with her. It’s a smart, engaging look at the numerous women in recent decades who are living happily independently and making conscious decisions to marry — or not — in their own time.  When all the single ladies marry

Assuming that’s an option; for some women, marriage remains elusive in their 30s even if they hoped for or expected it. Others feel they need to settle in order to marry by the time they’d hoped to be married.

Traister was one of those independent women in her 20s, but at 40 has been married for about five years and has two young children. (Whether she would end up married or not, Traister says she was planning to have a child on her own at 35.) So it was interesting to read, in an interview with Roxanne Gay in this month’s Elle, how marriage changed her:

I’d spent my whole adult life considering myself an independent entity, my life filled by work and friends and family. Suddenly I had a male partner, someone I woke up with and went to sleep with every night. It didn’t change how I saw myself professionally, but it did alter my social life and my friendships: It’s not that I loved my friends any less, but I couldn’t maintain that level of daily commitment to them if I was also going to make room for my boyfriend.

A ‘greedy institution’

Which is why marriage has been called a greedy institution. As Traister writes in her book, “When I met my husband, we turned in toward each other and our worlds got smaller.” It reduces people’s interactions with friends, family and community, although in all honesty once I had kids, I met many other moms, most who are now divorced as I am and who remain great friends today. And through volunteer work at their schools and the Boy Scouts, I was actually more engaged with community than I had been as a single woman.

What marriage and, more importantly, becoming a mother do, is prevent many women from doing essential self-care; there just isn’t time.

And marriage can sometime swallow a woman’s identity.

Psychoanalyst Beverly Engel, author of Loving Him Without Losing Yourself, calls it the Disappearing Woman:

No matter how successful, assertive, or powerful some women are, the moment they become involved with a man they begin to give up part of themselves — their social life, their time alone, their spiritual practice, their beliefs and values. In time, these women find they have merged their lives with their partners’ to the point where they have no life to go back to when and if the relationship ends.

The marital expectations of my mother’s generation (I’m a 50-something boomer) were different because they often didn’t have much of an independent life before they wed. They had husbands with whom they built a life together and their identity became “wife” and “mother” (as The Feminine Mystique and numerous other books revealed, that was hardly ideal!). But for today’s young women, that’s no longer so — many have careers, property and rich, full lives before they couple, and yet they still give up parts of what they loved about single life and who they were for the sake of marriage. (Which is why Oprah hasn’t married her longtime partner.) I wonder if the loss of independence and friendships actually hits today’s longtime single women harder once they tie the knot.

Loss of friendships

People often give up, or at least drastically cut back contact with, good friends once they marry and have kids, especially if those friends remain single or are childfree. But as I mentioned above, new friends are often made, especially when your kids start school and  make friends, and you cross your fingers that their friends’ parents are cool and can be your friends, too.

But there’s a danger in putting all your friendships in one parenting friends egg basket, however; some will inevitably divorce, and then there’s the awkwardness that occurs when couples feel they have to pick sides or worry about mate poaching (yes, a real thing) or that they’ll be next in divorce roulette. Not to say that every couple will divorce, but some 40 percent do; you can’t divorce-proof a marriage but you most certainly can set up your marriage so it doesn’t foster the kinds of situations that often lead to divorce.

All of which is why I encourage couples to live as if they were divorced and perhaps even have a live apart together (LAT) relationship (which can occur in the same house with separate bedrooms). You can still maintain your independence, you can still nourish your friendships, you can still do essential self care and you can still have a loving (and, if you believe the studies, more sexual) relationship with your spouse and raise your kids (if you have them) together.

Beyonce may sing, “If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it,” but from my experience all the single ladies who value their freedom and friendships while also valuing a romantic relationship might want to be singing a different tune.

Want to have a successful marriage by your definition of success? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.


When I divorced the first time, in my 20s, there were a few people who were upset — my former husband and me, naturally, as well as our parents. Beyond that? Nope.

How different a reality than when I divorced the second time. Was it because I was then middle-aged, and people worried about what fate awaited a middle-aged woman who attempted to re-enter the work or dating world?parenting-partnership

Nope. It was because we had two child-
ren, then 9 and 12, when we divor-
ced, and the big concern was not so much about me or my former husband, but about what would happen to the kids.

Clearly, all the talk nowadays about the retreat from marriage or building stronger marriages is less about marriage per se than it is about children.

In other words, few people care about childfree couples who split, just the couples who have kids together — married or not.

Perhaps we’re doing it all wrong. Lovers and spouses may come and go, but once you have children with someone, you are forever connected to him or her through your children. Should the law recognize that and hold you accountable for that connection?

Yes, according to Merle Weiner, a law professor at the University of Oregon, who proposes that rather than focus on marriage, the state should create a parent-partner status that would legally bind parents — married, cohabiting, living apart, romantic partners or not —  with certain mandatory obligations in order to give their children what they need to thrive.

Given the cultural hand-wringing over decreasing marital rates, divorce and stepparenting, and the rise in non-nuclear families and non-marital births, her proposal to create a legal status seems to make a lot of sense; family law has not kept up with the vast changes in the marital landscape. But even within some marriages and in many divorces, she notes, “too many children grow up without parents who work as a team for the benefit of their children” — they are just not good co-parents. And given that love-based marriage creates all sorts of problems for children, it just may be time to rethink what we’re doing.

Like a parenting marriage — sorta

When I first heard of Weiner‘s proposal, which she details exhaustively in her book, A Parent-Partner Status for American Family Law, I thought it sounded a lot like The New I Do‘s parenting marriage. And in many ways, it does; both proposals ask those wanting to be parents to be much more deliberate about that giant step.

And why shouldn’t they? Parenting is about the biggest change in a person’s life, a lifelong change, affecting how we see ourselves and how others see us, and all the legal, financial, physical and emotional realities that come along with having a baby. Few of us are truly prepared for that. Yet, some try.

One person I spoke to, Rami Aizic, a Los Angeles therapist, spent months getting to know his parenting partner and detailing their parenting philosophies, and even went to therapy together, before he was convinced he’d found the perfect woman to be the mother of his child. Aizic, who is gay, and his parenting partner, a female friend, live apart but created a framework for how they were going to raise their daughter.

How often does that happen? Sadly, not enough.

In The New I Do, we call a parenting marriage the ultimate form of planned parenthood because we ask a couple who want children to figure out a lot of things first, and then make a contract spelling it all out with the goal of staying together for 18 years, at which point their child will be old enough to handle a parental breakup should they decide to go their separate ways.

Weiner’s proposal is in many ways similar and in some important ways different.

What a parent-partnership looks like

There isn’t nearly enough space here to delve into Weiner’s proposal (it fills 660 pages after all), but here’s what she suggests are the five obligations co-parents, married or not, should be able to promise each other: provide aid to each other; not abuse each other; do relationship work at the time the couple enters parenthood and if the romantic relationship ends; to treat each other fairly when contracting about the family relationship; and to share childcare equally and/or pay for it.

Weiner, the married mom of two, 16 and 19, and I spoke at length about what got her thinking about the parent-partner relationship and why it needs to be legally defined. While she’s in a romantic relationship with her husband, she told me that even if that part of their relationship ended, she and he agreed that their relationship as co-parents would not end.

Because it doesn’t; once you have kids together you will forever be connected. She wants the law to recognize that.

What has held us back from seeing the parenting partnership as something that needs to have its own legal definition? In part, she say, the institution of marriage itself, which historically has been about property and heirs (aka children). As she writes:

The importance of marriage today as a social and legal construct for adult relationships has produced entrenched categories that define who we are and limit our imagination. We can be single, married, or divorced. These categories give us our identities as others label us, but they do so without language that reflects the experience or concept of parent-partners. … Legal change has been constrained because marriage serves as the yardstick by which law reformers measure other adult relationships as worthy of mutual rights and obligations in the family arena. Policy makers use marriage to define the necessary prerequisites for other legal statuses that might regulate adults. With marriage as the yardstick, the relationship between parents with a child in common does not seem worthy of a legal status. After all, the parents’ relationship may lack certain features associated with marriage, such as cohabitation and monogamy, thereby making it seem devoid of commitment. … The pervasive emphasis on marriage as the only committed relationship crowds out the possibility of a different framework for commitment based on parenthood.

Yes! I am in agreement with her when it comes to how society wrongly sees marriage as the only legitimate intimate relationship. It’s not, and it certainly matters less and less when it comes to children, especially since 52 percent of Millennials say being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life while a mere 30 percent say the same about having a successful marriage. If we are going to continue on the path that we seem destined to continue, births outside or before marriage, many of which are unplanned, then should we provide support for those co-parents?

More conscious parenting

In our conversation, Weiner raised concern that “sometimes people aren’t deliberate enough about with whom they’re having children … ‘I won’t marry this person but I’ll have a child with this person.'” Weiner believes that if we had a societal expectation and a legal framework detailing how a person would be obligated once he or she became a parent “people would be more deliberate … about with whom they’re having children.” Then, that would help change their behavior so they’d become more supportive of each other (which she describes as fondness, flexibility, acceptance, togetherness and empathy) even if they split, which is when many parents no longer treat each other kindly — even though that is harmful to their children.

In some ways, it reminds me of some recent writings by the Brookings Institution’s Isabel V. Sawhill, who notes that “the conversation has focused so heavily on marriage, we have lost sight of the fact that it is the quality of parenting that really matters, not just the structure of the family.”

Sawhill also calls for “a new ethic of responsible parenthood. That means not having a child before you and your partner really want one and have thought about how you will care for that child.”

What about love?

One of the interesting aspects of Weiner’s proposal is rethinking how love factors into our choice of romantic partners. The traits that make one a desirable spouse may not be the same traits that would make him or her a desirable parent-partner. As we note in the parenting marriage chapter in The New I Do, rather than pick a “soul mate” or “The One,” prospective parents would chose the person who’d be the best parent for his or her child, which in many ways would free people from some of the strict and artificial rules we set for ourselves while dating (“He’s too short,” “She’s too tall,” etc.)

Numerous studies have shown that women choose different men for short-term mating and long-term mating. Would having a parent-partner status change our idea of who’s marriageable and who isn’t? Maybe, but what may be more important, she suggests, is that it may change whom we decide to have unprotected sex with.

I’m sad that the book’s $150 price tag makes it outside the reach of many people who might be interested in exploring her ideas further. She talks about the parent-partner status in the video below; you can also go to her website to learn more.

While I have some concern about some of Weiner’s parenting-partnership proposal, including mandating relationship work, how it might impact the socioeconomically disadvantaged and how it might impact men who are tricked into becoming dads (yes, that happens), there are some things I like. Still, I think the broader discussion we need to be having is about caregiving, which almost all of us — parents or not — will likely face at some point in our lives. Marriage leaves a lot of caregiving unprotected, and so would a parent-partner status.

Want to learn more about a parenting marriage? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

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