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My son’s high school graduation last week was a sea of faces filled with a mix of joy, exhaustion, sadness and uncertainty — not just the 18-year-olds but their parents as well.

As I looked around me, I wondered how many married couples, a good portion about to be empty-nesters, would still be married for their kid’s college graduation. My gut said not too many.

We’ve done our job. We’ve raised our kids to young adulthood and we’ve spent the majority of those 18 years focusing on those kids — homework, sports, musical recitals, after-school activities, orthodontist appointments. Most of us haven’t spent too much time thinking about what life was going to be like when it’s just hubby and wife again — we were just too busy dealing with the unrelenting daily demands of parenting. Once the kids are happily settled in their college dorms, many of those married couples will head home to a house that feels unusually big and quiet, maybe even lonely. If the couples haven’t been putting much energy into their own relationship — and there are many parents guilty of that — many will feel like there’s a stranger, or an enemy, sitting across from them at the breakfast table.

And many will divorce.  

It’s hard for some to navigate what authors David and Claudia Arp call “the second half of marriage” — the years that come post-kids — as evidenced by the divorce rate among baby boomers, which has jumped by more than 50 percent over the past 20 years.

Instead of wringing our hands about so-called gray divorces and seeing those marriages as failures, perhaps we should consider marriage as more “till the kids part” than “till death do us part.” The partner we need in our 20s and 30s, when many of us are looking to settle down and raise kids, may not be the partner we need in our 50s, 60s and beyond, when we’re free to explore new passions or reinvigorate the ones we gave up when the kids came along.

Let’s be honest: When we’re ready to nest, few of us would opt to marry a world-traveling risk-taker who works just long enough to fund his or her next adventure. Most of us would prefer someone who’s a little more stable and reliable than that, and willing to contribute his or her share of the childcare and household chores as well as financial obligations. But, the world-traveling risk-taker may be just the person we want as our companion and lover once we’re empty-nesters.

Why can’t we have both?

We can, especially if your parenting partner and you agree to such an arrangement as you walk down the aisle to say your “I dos.” Some couples already are.

About a year ago, my seatmate on a flight home from the East Coast and I started chatting. After living with his girlfriend for seven years, they were about to get married.

What? Why even get married after so many years of happy cohabitation, I asked. “Because we want to have kids,” he said, nonplussed, acknowledging the many tax breaks for married parents, “and we’re only promising to be together until the last one’s off to college.”

Perhaps that should have shaken me, but it didn’t — they’re exactly the kind of couple Susan Pease Gadoua and I are writing The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels for. They hadn’t ruled out staying together after that, but all they were committing to for now was that they would not divorce before the last child turned 18. They were making a very conscious decision and commitment to make it work instead of being blinded by a promise a good 50 percent of us cannot keep — marriage until death.

A few months after that conversation, Mexico City’s liberal Democratic Revolution Party proposed legislation that would allow renewable marriage contracts of no fewer than two years, in part to stem the high divorce rate. Two years certainly wouldn’t be long enough for couples who want to have kids, but an 18-year contract would be just about right.

Of course, because we don’t have renewable marriage contracts yet, my seatmate and his then-bride-to-be were marrying the old-fashioned way, with a marriage license, and when those 18 or so years end they will still have to dissolve their marriage the old-fashioned way, too, by divorcing. But imagine how much easier it will be for them to part ways should they decide to do so because of their level-headed agreement; no need for lawyers or mediators, no ugly drawn-out divorce, no custody battles. An agreement is an agreement. Not every breakup has to be a “failure,” especially ones that are mutually agreed upon, and so it’s likely there wouldn’t be any bitterness or resentment either. That doesn’t mean it would always have a happy ending, especially if one partner wanted to continue the marriage and the other didn’t, but there’s also the possibility that both would happily choose each other again — how lovely is that?

We’re living longer than our parents did; “till death do us part” could mean 60, 70 years together instead of 20 or 30 in the days when we didn’t live so long. For those who have found the one person to live with contently through the first and second halves of marriage, great. But there’s nothing wrong in acknowledging that for some of us — perhaps the majority of us — a marriage that works happily through the parenting years is all we desire, and that dissolving a marriage after that isn’t a failure or a result of not understanding what “hard work” and “commitment” is,  phrases that so often get attached to those who divorce. It’s because our needs in a partner when we are raising kids often are different than our needs when those kids have left the nest.

Can’t we just be honest about that and move on?

  • Do you believe that “till death do we part” is the only way to marry?
  • Would limited marriage contracts may people feel more or less committed, and why/why not?


3 Responses to “‘Till the kids part’ versus ‘Till death do us part’”

  1. Black Iris says:

    Basically, a horrible idea.

    From the human point of view, a love relationship you expect to end is not the same thing. You can’t put as much love into it. You have to look around and wonder if your partner is finding someone else as you get near the finish line. Then you have to look around for your own new partner – or maybe you see someone you are attracted to and tell yourself, okay, when the kids leave, we’ll get together – and that pulls you away from your partner.

    Conflict in general changes – so long as you can get by until the kids leave, you don’t have to really work things out. Again, you increase the chance that you will leave.

    Knowing that you may separate, you can’t share money in the same way. The end result is likely to be saving and accumulating less. (And keep in mind that women usually earn less than men, so this is not a great bargain.) You can’t move to be together or do anything that hurts your earning power. Neither one of you can ever afford to put the kids before your wage-earning ability.

    The worst thing, though, is that aging is not a wonderful transition to being able to roam the world without care. At some point, aging is about health issues and needing to have some resources so you won’t be a burden on your kids. Decisions that look good when someone is in their 50s or 60s may be financial suicide later on.

    One of the big benefits to marriage or a life partner is someone to be there in sickness and in health. It may be harder to find someone who wants to take on those burdens later in life, particularly if you are looking for the devil-may-care, I’m back in my 20s stomping grapes while I see Europe, guy.

  2. Black Iris says:

    Ugh, this comes up again and again. We are not living that much longer than our parents. People in the past died in infancy and childhood. If you made it to an adult, you had a good chance to live a long time.

    When you consider how much younger people were when they got married in the past, they had more years to stay married to the same person than we do.

  3. Black Iris says:

    I really don’t get the we need different people at different times in our lives argument.

    I mean, if you want a stable, responsible person while raising kids and a more fun person later on, won’t your spouse feel the same way about you? Are you both going to leave each other and go off and find “fun” people? Are there enough wild risk-takers to go around, or are they just people who were stable and responsible until their children grew up?

    Anyhow, I would say that during my whole life, I need a person who has integrity and can be depended on. That’s what a partner is. I also need someone who can change and be fun.

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