Spouse and I have tried to teach our children how to face conflict: assess the situation, design a solution, work hard to do your best, notice what’s working and what isn’t, try even harder, and be flexible and open to new decisions when new information arises. I don’t know if these words have sunk in yet. We explain that doing the hard, sometimes boring work of practicing a skill, whether reading or soccer or math, is really important for later, when you have to build on that foundation. We’ve explained that mastering any skill takes incessant, regular, repetitive brain exercise. Struggle is important. But too much struggle is sometimes a signal to stop, take a breath, and change course. “We’re a family of problem-solvers,” we always say. Because you can’t bang your head against a brick wall and hope it’ll move. You have to be tricksty.
And now they’re going to see what we really mean about working hard, trying again and again, and, sometimes, giving up because you just can’t make something work. Spouse and I have arrived at a new realization and we’re figuring out how to implement our plan. We’re pretty sure that we’re going to focus on what we do well: love our kids. And we’re going to ditch what we don’t do well: being married.
Marriage is hard work. And we expected that because anything worth having involves active, thoughtful work. But marriage shouldn’t be miserable without cease. And the work should show some reward. Banging our heads against a brick wall trying to force our marriage back where it was ten years ago hasn’t worked. Neither has therapy or empathy or practicing communication skills or willing ourselves to compatibility.
We’re a family of problem solvers, dagnabbit, so we’re going to stop doing the same thing and expecting different results. The life hack here is elegant, simple, and scary: be the best parents possible to our children without being married.
The effects of agreeing to work smarter not harder have been immediate and palpable. After years of being our worst selves with each other, struggling yet finding ourselves sad, lonely, and angry, we’re going to stop forcing it. And saying that out loud has made us more patient with each other and with the boys. We obviously have years of work to do to repair the damage we’ve done to each other in this marriage, but we’ve gone a long way toward some kind of healing this week.
I have always feared divorce. So has Spouse. We both had parents who divorced, and neither of us weathered that process well. In fact, we’ve resisted even talking about a separation for years because we don’t want to hurt the boys. But here’s the truth: we can’t control everything that happens to them, and we certainly can’t continue the way we are, pretending that married parents are better for children than any other situation. We’d rather address any feelings our children have by actively and lovingly engaging with them. Both of us. We can’t control their feelings but we can control giving them the best home environment we can. Two happy parents listening to them and being with them regularly from different houses is much better than two exhausted and raw parents snapping at each other and at them.
The societal obligation to stay married t one person for 80+ years leaves me tense, waiting to shiver in the shadow of failure-guilt. But since we talked about letting go, we’ve been kind and understanding, gentle with each other and with ourselves. I can’t tell you the relief of getting along, after years of just feeling wrong. I can’t speak for him, but I’m incredibly proud of how mature we’re being. Come back and read in a week and see if that’s still true. For now, this doesn’t feel like failure.
I’ve read and heard many people mocking Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s announcement that they’re consciously uncoupling, forming a partnership that involves co-parenting but not marriage. I don’t understand the vitriol or mocking. I know they have enough money that they don’t share our worries about whose couch to sleep on, whether self-help books from the library are enough to count as therapy, or whether we’ll have to uproot Peanut to a different school system because we can’t afford two rents in our district. But it seems to me that the conscious uncoupling being so roundly mocked on social media is pretty damned mature. Understanding that disentangling adult lives requires leaving intact the framework we’ve built around the children’s growth seems like a baseline for all couples separating. If Gwyneth and Chris are unraveling the parts that aren’t working but redoubling their efforts where their love does the most good, then I say mazel tov.
Spouse and I are making preparations for how things will look in the short- and long-term. And though I got confused initially, the ease with which we can cultivate a warm kindness for each other does not mean we have a marriage. It means that we are partners. And that is the point, because we are going to be partners forever. We have children whose well-being demands our most engaged effort.
I believe separating, consciously uncoupling, and perhaps divorcing are all going to be challenging. But I believe our children are emotionally strong, and that as reasonable human beings and respectful partners, we can engage in this process together and make it right for us.
If someone offered to partner kindly and thoughtfully with you to raise your children, but didn’t want to be married to you, would you take that compromise? Or would you fight to force the union, and let strife affect every moment of your emotional life?
I’m taking what’s behind Door Number Three. Because I’m tired of forcing our family into emotional turmoil. And know a good deal when I see it.