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Recently, there was an article on the HuffPost that I found somewhat disturbing. A newly divorced mom who admits she married young — 21 and just out of college — to a man with mental challenges. They eventually divorced with young children and now she has to co-parent with him as former spouses.

If co-parenting wasn’t easy as an intact couple it surely does not get easier while co-parenting apart. Still, I was disturbed by this:  fathers

I wanted to fight. I believed I was on the side of right. I still do. But I came to the realization that life is not fair. The courts are not fair. Despite everything I saw and my lawyer saw, there was a chance I might not win. That if I was one of the less than 5% of cases that ends up in court, it might not go my way. In continuing to fight, I was sacrificing my own and my children’s well-being, and our financial future. And I wasn’t willing to potentially sacrifice those things just to prove I was right. … I compromised. I acquiesced to what eventually became a 50/50 share of custody. For my children’s sake, instead of fighting, I tried and continue to try to make peace. At first, I felt like I was sacrificing a piece of my soul every time I pasted on a fake smile and compromised in order to maintain a peaceful existence for my children.

Hey, my heart goes out to her. She sounds incredibly genuine, and I have no idea what it’s like to be married to someone with a personality disorder (although I totally understand what it’s like to be married to someone who is a tad less than honest — and to be a tad less than honest myself).

At the same time, I have a really hard time accepting that a having mental illness means a man can’t be a good dad. Robin Williams, a brilliant comic and a kind person, lived with depression all his life yet he was a beloved man and loving father. Why wouldn’t he be entitled to 50/50 custody? So to take Live by Surprise’s statements as a gospel truth is worrisome.

But the discussion reminded me of a post I’d written a while ago about men who want to be “good” dads — mentally challenged or not  — are often screwed. So please indulge me while I revisit a HuffPost Divorce piece that never made it in my blog, but based on a reality I experienced nonetheless. Here it is, raw and real (with a few updates, thanks to a recent study by Pew on stay-at-home dads):

The moms had seen him at the ballet school every Thursday — an attractive 30-something guy with earrings and cropped blond hair. They gossiped about him — Who is he? Is he unemployed? Is he a trust-fund baby? What is he doing with that cute little girl? Where’s her mother? What is he doing here? He just doesn’t fit in.

Finally, a mother got her nerve to walk up to him. “I see you here every week. What are you doing here?” He was taken aback. What did this mother think he was doing at 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the exact time of the beginners’ ballet class? The answer was embarrassingly obvious: “Taking my daughter to ballet class.”

It’s a scenario that seems to be plucked off of the pages of Tom Perrotta’s brilliant novel “Little Children,” or the movie starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson based on it. But this isn’t a scene from a novel or a movie — it’s real life if you are a stay-at-home-dad or a single or divorced father. As much as we love the idea of men being an equal partner in a marriage, we don’t necessarily embrace the idea of men being an equal partner in a divorce.

The divorced father who shows up for his kids in meaningful and obvious ways, such as taking a daughter to a midday, midweek ballet class, is still considered odd. It’s a similar but slightly different reality than that of stay-at-home dads — the trail-blazing “feminist, father, and husband who doesn’t care what the gender roles are,” is how Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, sees them.

Not all, however. There are more than 2 million stay-at-home dads, according to a recent Pew survey. But the recession, which hit men hard, has kept many more men at home, willingly or not. (Indeed, the largest share of stay-at-home fathers, 35 percent, is at home because of an illness or disability while 73 percent of mothers are home specifically to care for their home or family). That number is sure to grow; some 45 percent of men said they’d stay at home if their wife made more money than they do, according to a recent survey by Men’s Health and Spike TV.

And then there are single fathers, about 1.8 million in the United States — a 27 percent jump in the past decade, according to the latest Census. Of those single-father families, 46 percent are divorced, and another 19 percent are separated. That’s about two-thirds of all single-father families — a pretty substantial portion of men taking their children to ballet classes or Little League practice. So why are we surprised that many of them are either co-parenting or have full custody?

As Sally Abrahms writes in Working Mother magazine:

“Today, it’s not uncommon for fathers seeking sole custody in a contested case to prevail at least 50 percent of the time. And Dad is asking for joint or primary custody more and more: Over the past decade, the number of fathers awarded custody of their children has doubled, according to the latest data. In the current generation of dads, gender doesn’t dictate who changes a diaper or consoles an infant. And as fathers become more entrenched in their roles as co-caregiver, they’re less willing to hand off that role when a marriage breaks down.”

We should applaud that — dad’s an equal partner, exactly what women want! Yet as a society, we still aren’t used to seeing dads being so hands-on with their kids in public. The stereotypes are challenging. All dads — whether stay-at-home, single, co-parenting or full-custody divorced dads — are likely to hear comments rife with judgment, such as, “Are you babysitting today?” or “Giving Mom a break?” if they’re out with their kids. And they are suspect if they volunteer in classrooms, hang around parks while their kids play, or try to join in a playgroup, typically made up of moms. As one stay-at-home dad tells Andrea Doucet, a Brock University sociology professor and author of Do Men Mother, “It’s kind of bad for men to be interested in other children.”

But divorced dads often experience another layer of judgment and gender-based expectations. “When men parent as single parents, they’re expected not to be as good at it,” says Dr. Wendy A. Paterson, dean of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. School of Education at St. John Fisher College in New York and author of Diaries of a Forgotten Parent: Divorced Dads on Fathering Through and Beyond Divorce.

“We don’t trust men. A lot of women, and they don’t even understand they’re doing this, take on all the mothering and they ‘allow’ the father a peripheral role or an ‘invited in’ role, and then when the father isn’t as big a part of the lives of his children, they get blamed for not participating.”

It isn’t unusual for divorced fathers to hear comments like, “How often are you allowed to see your daughter?” As Sam Magee, a divorced co-parenting dad, writes, “despite having a solid full time job, a regular salary, and no concerning habits of any kind, people were stunned that I got 50% custody. ‘Wow, that’s a lot,’ people would remark. ‘Every weekend?’ They were shocked that I was actually going to be a consistent and active part of my son’s life post-divorce.”

When people react that way with words, they react that way with behaviors, too. While they may have been fine letting their young daughter have a sleepover when a guy has a wife, not many feel the same when he gets divorced. Now it seems creepy. That’s on top of the general stereotypes that all divorced men are womanizers, cheaters and dead-beat dads; after all he must have done something wrong for her to dump his sorry butt.

“There’s a huge need for people who can mediate the separation of a family into two families, and not one family with a visiting dad. Calling someone a visitor; the language of that has to change,” says Paterson, a single mom. “Women will never be liberated until men are.”

Want to keep up with The New I Do? Pre-order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook. Let’s Occupy Marriage!

You love your life, you love your spouse and you’re thinking about adding a baby into the mix because you love the idea of having a child with your beloved.

No problem, right?

Right … depending on your gender, something Rebecca Onion addresses so beautifully in her Slate article:

I’m willing to allow that being a mom might strip me of some independence, and the bright little faces of my nieces are a good argument that there would be ample compensation. What I most worry about is that motherhood might make me hate my darling husband. … For a person like me, a feminist with a keen awareness of the generally unfair division of domestic labor, my friends’ irritated gripes, or the findings in books like Arlie Hochschild’s 1989 classic The Second Shift, are little horror stories. “Many women carry into their marriage the distasteful and unwieldy burden of resenting their husbands,” Hochschild wrote. I can see how this would happen to me, and I Do Not Want.  Pre-pregnancy contract

Welcome, Ms. Onion, to the his and her marriage sociologist Jessie Bernard detailed 50 years ago and that is still prevalent today. Ms. Onion worries that motherhood might make her hate her “darling husband,” but what about becoming a mother would do that? Well, a few things, all related to our gendered expectations of who does what better — even among the most enlightened of us. As sociologists Karyn Loscocco and Susan Walzer detail in Gender and the Culture of Heterosexual Marriage in the United States:

The role expectations  associated with being a husband or wife intersect with those to which men and women may more generally be accountable. … people tend to be accountable to dominant gender beliefs whether or not they act on them and to treat them as shared cultural knowledge whether or not they endorse them.

Kudos to Ms. Onion for recognizing that. So how does she want to address those gendered realities? With a bit of brilliance, a pre-pregnancy prenup:

Wouldn’t a not-at-all legally binding document, outlining expectations and setting a course for periodic re-examination of the division of labor, alleviate my fears, and prevent aggravation, or fights, or divorce, in the future? … There is a list of things I’d want if we had a kid. I’m a writer with a very flexible schedule—just the kind of mom whose work time gets bitten into when a child care crisis arises. Could I ask for a guarantee that I could have six (seven? eight?) hours a day to myself, for work, no matter how inconvenient that arrangement gets for him? Could I stipulate that he would need to be done with work at 6 or 7 p.m., rather than his current workaholic quitting time of 9:30 or 10—again, no matter what mitigating factors might arise? Could we acknowledge the unfair cultural expectation that allows fathers to take time for leisure, while denying the privilege to mothers, and try to change that in our own lives through planning? Could I ask for him to learn to cook and shop for groceries, so we could split that 11-hour-a-week burden?

The past week has brought into our lexicon the idea of a beta marriage — a limited term marital contract — thanks to an article in Time magazine by Jessica Bennett, “The Beta Marriage: How Millennials Approach ‘I Do,‘ based on a (clearly unscientific) survey conducted by the USA Network in conjunction with Satisfaction, its new TV series. The beta marriage idea caused a kerfuffle at Jezebel, Salon, Fox News and a gazillion other media outlets, some of which began wringing their hands over the idea that young people may not be committed to go the distance.   Millennial marriage

Whoa, slow down! It’s not about a lack of commitment; because young adults are wisely postponing marriage, they have more opportunities to have several committed relationships before they tie the knot. In fact, they’re getting better at commitment because they are approaching it consciously. As one Millennial tells Bennett:

“Millennials aren’t scared of commitment — we’re just trying to do commitment more wisely. We rigorously craft our social media and online dating profiles to maximize our chances of getting a first date, and ‘beta testing’ is just an extension of us trying to strategize for future romantic success.”

I love the term beta marriage and wished we had used it in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels — a reminder that, yes, I am too old to have beta be the first thing that comes to mind when I think of what’s new and uncharted — instead of using the name that caused a similar kerfuffle a decade or so ago, a starter marriage.

In truth, as Bennett points out, the idea of a short-term contractual marriage is not new; anthropologist Margaret Mead was talking about such an arrangement back in the 1970s. But as our research for The New I Do uncovered, the idea of a short, childfree (that part is essential) marriage goes, way, way back (you may be surprised to learn how far back).

So much for Millennials creating a new marital model!

Nevertheless, I was encouraged to read that young adults are looking at our current “traditional” model that bases a successful marriage solely on longevity and sexual fidelity, and deciding, nah, that just isn’t working. That is exactly what we hope people get from The New I Do — an awareness of whether the marital model we know still works for who we are today.

OK, if beta/starter marriages have been around for so long, why aren’t we embracing them? Why aren’t they the norm? Well, more people are having beta marriages although it’s still a pretty small amount — just 17 percent divorce before their fifth wedding anniversary — but there’s still a lot of shame, judgment and sense of failure around short marriages (and divorce in general) and, let’s face it, it’s hard to embrace something that a huge portion of society pooh-poohs.

But Millennials may change that — they may be the first generation to remove the stigma around short marriages, just like they may change expectations about monogamy since the same survey reveals many Gen Xers and Yers believe it’s “a social expectation but not a biological reality.” Because it isn’t biological — monogamy is a choice.

Yet, short contractual marriages will not necessarily give couples what they want from that marriage; why marry for two or five or eight years if you don’t have particular goals in mind? While The New I Do suggests the idea of limited contractual marriages, we believe couples must agree in advance what their responsibilities in the marriage are and what they want the marriage to accomplish. That way, they can determine when the time to renew the contract or not is upon them whether their marriage was successful. And it’s a way to hold themselves accountable. The goals of a starter marriage are going to be a lot different than the goals of a parenting marriage.

None of this means that people won’t be able to marry for lifelong commitment and sexual fidelity; that choice will likely always be available for those who want it. But what’s exciting is how young people are willing to put marriage and all its trappings under the microscope and decide for themselves what a successful marriage will look like. That is exactly how you create stable, happy marriages. And isn’t that what the conservatives (many of whom are pushing to make divorce harder) say they want?

We haven’t had any big celebrity or political sex scandals lately so we’ve thankfully been spared the rash of “How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage” articles that inundate the Internet in the days and weeks after. But from time to time they pop up, here and elsewhere, along with “How to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage” articles.

While the advice in most of those articles isn’t bad or wrong — who can argue with fighting kinder, communicating better, getting it on more often, romancing each other, showing appreciation, boosting intimacy, etc.? — the truth is that following that advice won’t necessarily prevent you from being cheated on or hearing, “I want a divorce” from your spouse.  DDivorce-proof your mariage

Because here’s what none of the so-called relationship or marriage experts is willing to admit, but I am — you can’t affair- or divorce-proof a marriage because you can’t control another person’s behavior, you can only control your own.

There, I said it. In fact, I’ll say it again: You can’t control another person’s behavior, you can only control your own.

I can hear the protestations: “But, shouldn’t I learn how to communicate better, shouldn’t I plan date nights, shouldn’t I appreciate my spouse, etc.?” Yes, yes, yes — it’s wonderful to do all those things and more, but not because you’re hoping it will keep your marriage on track or prevent something bad from happening; you do those things because you want to be the best person you can be, period. No expectations attached.

Let me say that again: Be the best person you can be in your marriage because you want to be the best person, period. No expectations attached.

Granted, I am not an expert; I don’t have a degree in psychology or a license to practice therapy. I’m just a woman who has been married and divorced twice and who has cheated and been cheated on, and who writes about marriage and divorce. That’s why I’m not going to give you advice; don’t we already get plenty of that from the media? And yet that hasn’t changed the infidelity or divorce rates.

Still, I would like you to consider a few things:

  • In her research for her 2010 book, How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy, Jennifer Gauvain discovered that 30 percent of the women she surveyed knew they were marrying the wrong man but tied the knot anyway. Given that fact, what chance do you think those marriages will survive even if each hubby is a romantic communicator who appreciates his wife?
  • Then there are the men and women who marry and a few years or even decades later come out of the closet as gay or lesbian, or who want a sex change. Recent research indicates about 5 percent of American men are attracted to men and a good percentage are closeted. And given recent research into women’s sexual fluidity, there are many more women who, after decades of marriage and raising children realize they are lesbian. While some couples may choose to stay married after a spouse announces, “Honey, I’m gay/lesbian,” others may not — no matter how many date nights you’ve set up.

OK, that still leaves a lot of other couples, people who married their “soul mate” and a husband or wife who is 100 percent hetero. What about them? How are they going to keep their marriage free from affairs and divorce? Well, you know how because I already told you. If you’re looking for a guarantee, you’re not going to get one. Being a Mr. and Mrs. (or a Mr. and Mr. or Mrs. and Mrs.) earns you some sort of status in the eyes of many, deserved or not, and about 1,000 government perks. But it does not offer any protection or guarantee that all is going to be rosy — that is fully dependent on the way you and your spouse act and think in your marriage. And while you can control how you act and think, you cannot control the way your spouse does.

So stop reading “10 Reasons Why Men Cheat,” “The Surprising Reasons Why Women Cheat, “11 Ways to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage” (why 11?) and “9 Easy Ways to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage” (9? Easy? Really?), and start being the best person you can be. Because you want to. You may still end up being cheated on and you may still end up being divorced, but you will always know that you brought the best “you” you could possibly bring into your marriage.

Want to keep up with The New I Do? Pre-order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook. Let’s Occupy Marriage!

 

Oprah Winfrey is one of the most famous, richest and powerful women in the world — she recently interviewed Matthew Sandusky, Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son and launched her own tea, Tevana, with Starbucks — and beloved by many. And yet even she isn’t free from having to defend her choices. Oprah is unmarried, although she has had a steady partner for 28 years. But because she has chosen to remain unmarried, some wonder — is she or isn’t she gay? Oprah Winfrey unmarried

Here’s how the media handled a yacht cruise of the Virgin Islands Oprah took her BFF of 38 years, Gayle King, on this past March:

Not seen with Oprah and Gayle was the legendary talk show host’s partner of 28 years, Stedman Graham. The Oscar-nominated diva and her 59-year-old gal pal are practically inseparable, which has led to persistent gay rumours. “I am not lesbian. I am not even kind of lesbian,” The Butler star told Barbara Walters on ABC News in 2010.

And that’s how society treats people who chose to couple outside the one-size-fits-all marital box we’ve been led to believe is the only way to live — get married and live together. If you don’t chose that path, well, you must be gay. Think how tiring it must be say, “I’m not lesbian,” over and over again (as if being a lesbian was a bad thing). And think how tiring it must be to explain why — at age 60 — you still aren’t married!!!!

It’s what Susan Pease Gadoua, my co-author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, was constantly asked until she — finally!!!! — wed at age 43. What’s wrong with you, everyone wondered. And it’s what the 52-year-old George Clooney has had to face until he — finally!!!! — got engaged a few months ago (never mind that he’s been married before).

But Oprah is smart enough to realize that marriage would change what she and Stedman have, and not necessarily for the better:

(H)e’s a traditional man and this is a very untraditional relationship. I think it’s acceptable as a relationship, but if I had the title ‘wife,’ hmmmm. I think there would be some other expectations of what a wife is and what a wife does. First of all you gotta come home sometimes.

Yep, being a “wife” comes with all sorts of expectations and restrictions, and that’s why couples have a “his” and “hers” marriage. Not to say that there aren’t expectations and restrictions for husbands; after all, we still expect men to be the provider even though there are more two-income families and bread-winning wives. But many women tend to lose their sense of identity in a marriage (aren’t we the ones who are often expected to change our last name?), and it’s clear from Oprah’s statement that “you gotta come home sometimes” she just isn’t willing to give up her freedom or identity that way. (That’s why in The New I Do, we acknowledge the fact that some people desire freedom while still wanting long-term commitment and companionship, and offer a marital model that provides both.)

But rather than see Oprah’s arrangement as “wrong” or “odd,” we should applaud the fact that she understands that being a “wife” would limit her ability to be the best Oprah she can be (and who knows how that would have impacted all that she’s created and given us?). She also values friendship, which often “delivers what love promises but fails to provide.Most of all, she doesn’t look to her partner and lover to provide all her emotional needs; her BFF and all the experts she befriends and supports help her with that. Isn’t that a healthier way to approach a relationship than the soul-mate model, which puts way too many expectations and burdens on another person?

Oprah has become a success on her own terms, which may have been harder to do if she had to add “wife” to all her other titles. Isn’t it time people stop worrying about the fact that she’s unmarried? And isn’t it time all of us consider more deeply how being a “wife” or a “husband” would impact the best “you” you offer the world?

Want to keep up with The New I Do? Pre-order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook. Let’s Occupy Marriage!

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Maybe it’s my age, but when I hear the phrase “on the radio” it’s kind of hard not to break out into Donna Summer’s “On the Radio” (where we you in 1979?)

So,  Susan and I were on Canadian radio last week (thank you for the love, Canada!) and I thought I’d share the conversations in case you missed them. Have a listen and let me know your thoughts.

First we chatted about The New I Do with Bill Good, host of the popular Bill Good Show on CKNW Newstalk 980 in Vancouver, B.C.:

Then we spoke with Andrew Grose on the Tencer and Grose show on 630 CHED in Edmonton, Canada:

And, because I can’t resist ….

Here’s how most of us who are thinking about leaving our marriage imagine divorce will be like: We’ve had it with our partner (or perhaps he’s decided the same about us and casts us aside, but let’s just say we’re the ones who want out and let’s say we’re the woman because women ask for divorce two-thirds of the time). We think — finally, freedom!

Now we no longer have to feel the brunt of his anger and criticism; we can stop nagging about how he doesn’t pull his weight around the house; we won’t have to fake being in the mood when we’re not, we get to do and eat and watch whatever we want whenever we want to, and we don’t have to bicker anymore over whose turn it is to bathe the kids or whether they can have ice cream for dessert if they didn’t finish everything on their dinner plate.

Not so fast!   Co-parenting

Maybe that was what divorce was like back in the day when moms were almost always awarded full custody and dads could “visit” their kids. But those days are rapidly disappearing.

Most divorced people learn relatively quickly that although they’re no longer married and living together, they still have to deal with their spouse in their continuing role as their kids’ mom or dad. He or she still has a say, and can nix our plans to move away for a new job or a new love. Divorce is no longer the end of a relationship; it’s a “restructuring of a continuing relationship.”

Which has made some of us as miserable divorced as we were in our marriage.

“People in unhappy marriages do not look to divorce as a way to restructure the relationship with their partners. They look to divorce to end that relationships, to set them free to start a new life, perhaps to move to a new location and to form new relationships,” says University of Sydney law professor Patrick Parkinson in Family Law and the Indissolubility of Parenthood.

But, not if you have kids. As Parkinson notes, “The experience of the last forty years has shown that whereas marriage may be freely dissoluble, parenthood is not.”

So, rather than make divorce harder (or marriage harder), why not rethink parenting? Why not restructure the “continuing relationship”?

That’s what Susan Pease Gadoua and I are suggesting in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. And that’s what Rachel Hope has done.

I admit that when I first heard about the single mom of two and how she became a mother, I had a hard time wrapping my head around her choices. The LA real estate developer and author of Family By Choice: Platonic Partnered Parenting, realized when she was 18 that she didn’t want to spend a lot of time looking for a soul mate; she just wanted to have a kid. So she and a good friend, who wanted a child as well, had a son together and co-parented him until adulthood. It worked so well, she had another child many years later with another friend. Now she’s looking to have another.

This is what same-sex couples, who have been fighting for the right to marry, have been doing all along.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of websites like Modamily, which connect singles who want to have a child together but that’s it; they are not necessarily lovers or even housemates. They just co-parent.

What works well? Hope’s children had two loving, supportive, stable parents and they were raised in a home with no conflict. And as study after study has confirmed, parental conflict — whether in an intact home or divorced home — is damaging to children.

OK, Hope is unmarried — happily. Can you offer the same love, support and stability to children and be married? Yes — a Parenting Marriage is a model we offer in The New I Do. What does that mean? It means you marry the best person to help you co-parent your children — not your soul mate, not The One, not the person who is going to complete you. You marry someone with the same values and goals about parenting and children, and who is as hand-on dedicated to being the best parent he or she can be. If you want to give your children the love, support and stability they need to thrive, marrying for love is not the way to go. All you have to do is look at the high divorce rate to know that’s true.

Children do not need their parents to love each other. But they absolutely need their parents to not fight with each other. As child psychologist Naeema Jiwani, says, “Compared with conventional parenting where the mother and father have to constantly be ‘in love’ in front of their child, co-parenting doesn’t include the ‘strain’ of marriage.’”

And, as we point out in our book, you can restructure the marriage you are already into a Parenting Marriage. We’ve spoken to couples who have done that, and done it well.

Maybe your head is spinning the way mine was when I first heard about Hope. That’s OK; it’s hard to challenge what has gone unquestioned for centuries (in the Western world, anyway). But please reflect on your own experience of parenting, and those of friends and family, and ask yourself would a co-parenting arrangement have been a healthier, happier way to go.

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parking structure arrowsHere’s the odd thing about being a blogger; you reveal a lot about your self but you don’t know much about the people who read you (although you can a learn a lot sometimes by how a person responds to a post in his or her comment). So, after three years give or take of writing this blog, it’s time for me to get to know you — my readers — a little better.

Why? Don’t worry; it’s not because I’m going to use it for marketing or advertising. No, I just want to see who my writing speaks to and what your interests might be. And, here’s the best part — you can tell me anonymously.

So, no post today (although I’ll get to one later this week); just a desire to get to know you.

I’ve also, finally, added a page for The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, which you can —yay! — pre-order (pub date is Sept. 28, 2014). Please check the page for our launch event and other readings and signings, and please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and stop by our website for more information about the book, full calendar and our blog.

 

Do you owe your spouse sex? If you stop having sex with your spouse, is he or she justified in having an affair? And isn’t the denial of sex just as much as a betrayal as infidelity?

These were some questions raised in a few interesting blog posts, some as responses to reader comments, on Psychology Today. While there’s all sorts of discussions about marital sex or lack of sex, philosophy professor Mark D. White says, we rarely, if ever talk, about the ethics of a spouse refusing to have sex with the other for years. Is denying sex a betrayal?

Because we see sex as something that must be consented to, we are loathe to say a husband or wife “owes” the other sex, yet I imagine few people don’t want and expect a healthy sex life when they say “I do.” In the work Susan Pease Gadoua and I did for The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, we asked soon-to-be-married couples to check off all the reasons why they’re getting married. Often they list the same reasons, but one time the guy checked off “to have sex” as one of the reasons he wanted to get married.

When he read his reasons out loud and “sex” rolled off his lips, the look on his fiancee’s face was priceless.

“You want to marry for sex?” she asked, somewhat horrified.

He immediately got sheepish as he defended himself: “Well, they asked us to check off all the reasons, so, um, yeah …”

So, yes, people marry with an expectation of sex, but few people talk about how they will handle things if one or the other loses interest in sex especially since that happens more frequently than not.

Does an absence of sex in a relationship justify adultery, the good philosopher asks. No, he decides:

Whatever insufficient sex means to any particular person—even if that can be considered a betrayal of his or her partner’s obligation—the fact remains that adultery just makes it worse. (“Two wrongs” and all.) In addition, adultery brings a third person into what is a problem between two, which may only aggravate whatever problem led to the breakdown in sex in the relationship in the first place.

I am certainly not promoting affairs as a way to deal with sexlessness in a marriage, but I do wonder about the many other ways spouses betray each other beyond just affairs or denying the other sex. Spouses can treat each other horribly, and yet we only get in a tizzy when one or the other cheats. Why is sexual fidelity considered the No. 1 marker of a good relationship?

As Mating in Captivity author Esther Perel so beautifully puts it:

I have a lot of people who come to my office who think that they are the virtuous people because they haven’t cheated. They have just been neglectful, indifferent, contemptuous, asexual, demeaning, insulting, but they haven’t cheated. But betrayal comes in many forms. Betrayal is a breach, the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence. While it is always involved in an affair, in most cases it isn’t the motive of the affair. An affair may be about completely different things but it implies betrayal.

Being “neglectful, indifferent, contemptuous, asexual, demeaning, insulting” is not loving behavior and is often as — and sometimes more — damaging as physical abuse (and there are some who argue that infidelity is abuse). And yet, there is no great societal outcry over ending those sorts of behaviors, just societal shaming and blaming of often-long-suffering spouses who cheat.

What do you think?
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I have to admit that when this Google “divorce” alert came into my email inbox, I kinda smiled: “Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin ‘consciously re-coupling’ as they cool divorce plans.”

I don’t know why I smiled; I’m actually a bit horrified that I did. I know divorce isn’t always horrible, especially if you can consciously uncouple (whether you have kids or not); I don’t believe that marriages must last forever to be happy, healthy and successful; and I certainly don’t know Gwyneth or Chris and the circumstances of their partnership and desire to end it.    Family court and divorce

Yet, I smiled. A part of it has to do with the silly romantic notion (and cultural approval) of the idea that love can and must last forever. I believe it sometimes can and I also believe it sometimes does, but I also don’t think it’s terrible if it doesn’t and the couple splits with kindness and compassion toward each other and themselves — which is what I have learned about conscious uncoupling only recently, thanks to Gwen and Chris, even though I had divorced many years prior with similar thoughts and actions. And I am also cognizant that they are parents to two young children, Apple, 9, and Moses, 7 — most of us have feelings about divorce when the couple’s children are so young.

And that’s a theme I keep coming back to; few people, if any, care if a couple that’s divorcing is childfree. That’s unfair to the couple — divorce can be just as painful whether there are kids involved or not, and some people divorce because of the desire to have children or not (think Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love).

Still, most seem to be much more concerned with divorce that’s occurring among couples with young — under minor age — children. But most of those couples don’t entertain the idea of divorce lightly — like Gwen and Chris, they spend a lot of time trying to make things work before they see divorce as the only option, even if they don’t go to marital counseling (which doesn’t always work). So that’s why allegedly unbiased articles that end up in mainstream press (and as a longtime journalist in mainstream press I understand the challenges, failings and realities of mainstream press) and opinion pieces discouraging divorce and discouraging, shaming and judging those who divorce disturb me.

The latest is in the Boston Globe from Jennifer Graham, who also writes for and supports the Coalition for Divorce Reform, whose goal through the Parental Divorce Reduction Act is to make divorce harder for parents of minor kids. I debated CDR co-founder Beverly Willet in the New York Times awhile back because I strongly believe divorce is a private decision between a couple and government should keep out of that decision.

Graham, upset by the idea of celebrating divorce and the trend of divorce parties, writes:

Yet even the most vehement argument put forth by liberty lovers is enfeebled when a liberty does harm to innocent others, as divorce clearly does. Rare is the child whose reaction to his parents’ divorce is “Woo-hoo, let’s party!”

No, Ms. Graham, divorce does not “clearly” harm innocents, not every couple that divorces has kids, some kids are incredibly harmed because of their married parents’ conflict and dysfunction, and not every couple that divorces has a party. I didn’t; so there!

Her suggestion is that couples spend a day in divorce court to get their “aha” moment about what’s to come:

If people were privy to real divorce hearings — the downward, embarrassed faces at dissolution, the furious chill of repeated child-support hearings — they might rethink the severity of their own troubles.

It’s an interesting idea but I find it intriguing for a vastly different reason than she does; seeing the workings of family court may make a couple rethink the way they divorce. Instead of having a high-conflict divorce, they may choose mediation or collaborative law instead of hiring pricy attorneys who often fuel the anger and going to family court, which is a disaster.

Maybe, just maybe, it would get them to consciously uncouple, and how wonderful would that be for their children?

If you have kids, you and your former spouse will forever be tied together. That is a fact. We can’t keep ignoring the reality that divorce doesn’t end a relationship but just transforms it if kids are involved. Parenthood creates “enduring connections, ties that outlast the severance of the adult relationship,” writes University of Sydney law professor Patrick Parkinson in Family Law and the Indissolubility of Parenthood, and those ties have all sorts of ramifications for couples, kids and governments. “Facing up to the indissolubility of parenthood is one of the great challenges of our time.”

Graham writes that “for many, divorce doesn’t end problems, but creates new ones.” That can indeed be true. But that isn’t a reason to stay in a bad marriage and, guess what, Ms. Graham and Ms. Willet — couples need to decide that for themselves.

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