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Stay married for the kids?

April 1, 2013

Stay Married for Your Grandkids

Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America just came out. Lots of interesting findings about our ever-increasing average age of first marriage.

The central point is the "Great Crossover," which happened in 2000.

Since 1970, the median age at which a woman has her first child has been slowly increasing. (See Figure 9.) I was 18 then and half of all the women the age I would be at my college graduation already had given birth to a first child. Birth control was just becoming widely available, but a lot of it was rather risky. Abortion was illegal in most places. And having a child out of wedlock could get you ostracized from your family or community.

Job ads in the paper were still listed separately for men and women. MIT had an upper limit on the number of women it would allow, just 9% of my class. Women could not count on being able to support even themselves, no less their children. They married. More than half were married before their 21st birthdays. The median age of a first marriage was about 16 or 17 months earlier than the median age of that first child.

But all that changed. Birth control improved. Universities welcomed women as soon as the Baby Boom has passed through and left fewer applicants for the classes they had expanded to make room for us. Jobs in this country quickly required more education and less physical strength. First men without a high school diploma and now men without a college degree find it a lot harder to provide for a family. And they find women willing to live with them without the sort of due diligence that accompanies marriage.

So, the median age at which women first married rose quickly. And in 1989, the median age at first marriage crossed the median age at first child and kept going. But the Great Crossover comes later, in 2000. The crossover for women without a high school education happened before 1970. But it was 30 years later, in 2000, that it hit for the biggest group of women, those with a high school diploma and possibly some college, but no college degree. The researchers call this group "Middle America."

They write: "Think of the Great Crossover this way: it marks the moment at which unmarried motherhood moved from the domain of our poorest populations to become the norm for America's large and already flailing middle class."

Why does this matter to your current or future grandkids? Because the rest of society can help when a small percentage of families are struggling to get by. When it's the norm, it is the norm.

Currently, 58% of the kids in Middle America have unmarried mothers. For the half of them whose parents are cohabiting, the likelihood of a breakup before they are even five years old is three times what it is with married parents. If your grandchildren get caught up in this new norm, they will be competing with kids whose mothers have the earning power of a college degree, 88% of whom are born to married couples.

How can you protect your grandkids' future? Change your son's or daughter's expectations about marriage. Help them see it as the foundation of a good life, not the capstone.

From the report: "[H]aving grown up in a world where rising rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing separated marriage from parenthood, young adults are more inclined to take the view that marriage and parenthood are not necessarily connected, compared to previous generations."

While a marriage without children can certainly be a great one, for those who look forward to both a marriage for their own happiness and fulfillment and to becoming a parent, this new separation can be quite confusing. It is fairly easy to think of marriage and parenthood separately, but only until you have experienced them. Both shape every day of your life, especially in the first five to seven years.

Tales of great step-parents are heart-warming, but it takes a lot more to be a great step-parent than a great parent. Looking for great step-dads for 58% of Middle America's kids is a huge challenge. For most families in this new world, thinking about marriage and children separately means offering less to the kids or doing without a long-lasting, loving relationship for oneself.

What do you want the parents of your future grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) to know about marriage and family? What do you want to show them with your own marriage? Is your marriage in good shape for the message you want to send now and as your nest empties while they are making such important choices about their futures and their children's futures?

October 22, 2012

Is It Too Much to Ask to Stay Married Until the Kids are Grown?

Let me tell you what my answer to this question was. I believed it was too much to ask. I was married to a good man and a great father, but I felt angry, overworked, stressed out all the time. It definitely felt like too much to ask.

I would do whatever it took to make it easier on our son. I even used my experience with unhappily married parents to convince myself divorce was the better of his options.

This miserable existence vs. life as a single mom with shared custody? Bad choices, but I knew which one I wanted.

It's not what I got. My husband had been ill for a long time with a serious, chronic disease. Sick enough to require multiple hospitalizations and a few surgeries. Sick enough to be getting IV feedings twelve hours a day at home. But well enough to teach his classes at the university during the other twelve. Or so I, my husband, and his doctor thought. We were wrong. I came home from work and found him dead. He died the day after after I suggested shared custody. Our son was visiting friends 1,200 miles away.

I really thought I wanted out. I was filled with resentments, overwhelmed with responsibilities, and tired all the time. Now I was out, and I owned our new house and all our other assets. Social Security provided a lot more child support than most non-custodial fathers do. I don't know what I thought divorce would be like, but this had to be better, no? And it was awful. Our son was still safely in the care of good family friends, enjoying the beach, but already it was overwhelming. Stressful beyond belief. And scary.

And then morning came, my first as a widow. I woke up and recalled the list of unmet needs that had led me to believe it was too much to ask to stay married until the kid was grown. And now I knew there is no right answer to this question. And it hurt.

Getting unmarried does not get your needs met. Your needs are your own, whether you are married or not, and you deal with them or not. Getting unmarried does not make things more fair. It just takes away the source of help that deludes you into thinking you deserve less of a burden than an unmarried parent. Getting unmarried does not make you feel any less unloved or unappreciated. It only accentuates these feelings.

And that is when I cried even harder than I had when I discovered the lifeless body of the man I still hoped would once again love me the way he did when we were college students newly in love. I cried because my stories of unfair treatment, needs a husband should have paid attention to, and burdens I did not deserve washed away like a sandcastle at the ocean's edge. What they left behind was a solid core of evidence that the love was still there but his responsibilities and challenges, like mine, had grown a lot since then.

No one should stay married. Stay implies more of the same. Unless it's great, who would want more of that? Our kids don't want us to stay that way. And they don't want us to divorce. They want us to love, respect, honor, and cherish their other parent, and not just until they are grown but until their children's children are grown. For most of us, except those with violent or out-of-control mates, this is what we want, too. We want to feel in love again. We want to look at our husband or wife and feel as impressed and honored as we did when they first chose us. And we want the daily overwhelm of our lives to be replaced with happy moments in the arms of such a person.

Without anyone else to blame for not shouldering the rest of the load, I learned to let go of a lot of the load. I stopped cooking and served TV dinners for a year. I put in a lot more effort at work and used the extra income to pay people to do chores I don't enjoy doing or cannot do well. I said no to extra work that would not produce extra income. I took piano lessons because several people told me it's calming to play. (Perhaps, but it's not so calming to hear the piano the way I could play it.) I got rid of my long daily commute.

My widow status made me brave. I said no to a lot of things, including bureaucratic annoyances and those tasks my friend Rachel calls vanity items, the ones you do just to look good. When I tried to put our son in Cub Scouts, they told me they had too few leaders for all the boys applying, but if I would lead his den, I could make any rules I liked about how much of the work the other parents had to do. They even suggested I require a parent be present at every meeting because of the numbers of two-career couples who show up late to pick up their boys. So I did, and we did a lot together as families.

And I did it all willingly, on top of my very busy work and house schedule, because it was my choice. In the past, I would have felt put out if my husband did not choose to do it. I would have listed all the other things on my schedule, paying attention to the wrong things instead of the right one: I felt it was important. I was surely not the best person for the job, but it mattered to me, so I did it. And I skipped some other tasks that were less important to me. And I told anyone with a story about why they could not lead two meetings a year and bring refreshments to two more meetings, and stick around while their kids got to be Cub Scouts to find another den for their son.

And what I learned was how to be married without being miserable. Do what's important. Make time for what de-stresses you. Stop doing what's making you miserable. If you don't like a chore, do something you like better and use the money or favors it earns you to give the chore to someone else. Because your relationship with your spouse is for love, and every chore or expectation or "it's only fair" you throw at it pours sand over that love and hides it until your big wave comes in.

Don't stay for the kids. Pour some water over this big, unhappy sand castle you've built and start over. See if maybe it's possible to love, respect, honor, and cherish your wife or husband or life partner again. If the kids make it worth taking a shot at this, you are very lucky to be a parent.

April 21, 2012

Stay Married for the Kids the Right Way

The wrong way to stay married for the kids.

Sleep in separate rooms, keep separate schedules, date other people, stay angry at each other, refer to each other around the kids as "your mother" and "your father."

This is not staying married. It's just staying. You and your kids deserve better. But divorce is not the only alternative.

The right way to stay married for the kids.

Look daily for things to appreciate about the kids' other parent. Show enormous respect for the person who means so much to them. Say please and thank you and you're the best to your kids' mother or father. Keep trying until you find things you can all do as a family and really enjoy them. Hug and touch each other. Ignore cutting remarks as you would if they came from Great Aunt Betty whose dementia is worsening.

Tolerate no abuse. Involve other adults, not your kids, in protecting you and the kids and creating the motivation for stopping the abuse or its cause.

Stand together on boundaries and rules for the kids, even if it means you must sometimes defend one you could live without. Use every trick in the book to resolve your differences (e.g., The Floor from Fighting for Your Marriage and PREP, massage to release oxytocin, Third Alternatives, observing The Dance of Anger and leading into a calming dance step, taking an immediate break when there's a harsh startup, flooding, or stonewalling per John Gottman's research).

And never, ever, ever play the Isn't My Spouse Awful game with your kids.

September 23, 2011

How to Stay Married for 33 Years and Then Some

When my wonderful friend Gill Othen celebrated her 33rd wedding anniversary in August, she added this comment on Facebook: "It's funny — very few of my 'gang' at Durham have divorced, yet there seem to be very few people my age who haven't been otherwise."

I asked her for a guest post, then I clumsily never noticed it slip into my inbox until now, almost 3 weeks later! I am posting it right now, because I know lots of you read this blog over the weekend. Enjoy!

How did we do it?

Last month my husband and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary. That's amethyst, in case you're interested. We weren't. A solid amethyst tea service (we are English, after all) wouldn't suit our décor, and anything less than that would have been chickening out. In any case, according to Wikipedia, it's only a modern US thing, along with improved real estate for the 42nd and desk sets for the 7th, so we were excused participation. We had a meal out and one of our daughters was home for the weekend. What more could you want?

Well, lots more really, I suppose — wealth beyond imagining, a mansion big enough to hold all the books in the world, instant matter transporter so I could see my friends all over the planet. But none of those are going to happen, and our lives won't be impoverished without them. We know what we want by now, and what suits us. We know each other well enough to be aware when something material is important enough to fight for, and when it really isn't. Each of us has a quirk — I have to convince myself that I really want a particular purchase first. If I succeed there — and it's hard, because I argue back a lot — then I can persuade my husband, no problem. And vice versa. Each of us tends to see the mild wishes of the other as more important than our own, which helps a lot — except when we become fixated that our partner must have what was only a passing whim.

So, how did we get here? Firstly, we chose our families well. We had role models in front of us: our parents stayed married for 39 and 49 years respectively, ending only with the death of one partner. None of our relatives had break-ups either — not even our own generation of siblings and cousins. A presumption that marriage is for the long haul and that problems are there to be worked through is no bad thing to have, we've found.

We chose our friends the same way. Not that we knew it at the time — we were just a bunch of geeky students together in the magnificent cathedral city of Durham, with a lot of shared interests and shared senses of humour. We dated in different combinations, but, somehow, many of us paired off within the group, which has stayed close enough over the intervening three and a half decades for us to know all about key events in each other's lives. None of them have been divorces.

Am I sounding smug? I don't mean to be. We are very, very lucky as a group. I think I can identify a few common factors, though. We met each other through a common interest and found others. We were all in our late teens, hormones coursing through us like nobody's business, with single rooms in our colleges and precious little impediment to any activities we chose, when we chose. We lived in close proximity to each other; Durham doesn't have a campus as such, but colleges grouped together in two areas, with an enormous amount of traffic between them. We shared other things too — our backgrounds were different, sometimes very much so, but we all enjoyed learning, and not just about our own subjects. We shared knowledge, information, understanding as well as jokes. Sharing is important in any relationship, I think.

We all waited before getting married; all of us were "an item" for at least two years, in several cases more than four years before marriage. You can't keep parts of your temperament secret for that long. You are going to lose your temper, make a fool of yourself, get stupidly drunk — you will reveal something of the worst of yourself as well as the best. If a relationship survives several years of this before marriage it has a good chance of surviving many years longer.

We stayed in touch — we always had friends at the end of a phone who had known us as singles, who knew both of us, who could listen without judging. And when the children came along, as they did, we stayed close still, with holidays en masse and offspring who grew up as extra cousins of each other. When my father died, these friends gave me the space to talk — and not to talk. The same when my father-in-law died. We could share the burden with a spouse but also with a friend. A support network, even online or on the telephone, makes a heck of a difference when things are rocky.

It's not been a serene idyll. There's been unemployment, more than one, mental and emotional issues, worries about parents and children, money and housing. We had to move house, away from friends, jobs, networks, once with small children to protect through upheavals. What got us through the rough parts? We talked. A lot. And, even more important, listened — not just to the words. The set of a shoulder can tell a story if you observe closely enough, and so can the curve of a back. Sometimes silent presence or a hug is all that is needed, sometimes gentle questions. Sometimes, because we are far from perfect, a blazing row was needed, before apologies from both sides and a halting start on talking it through.

We talk about lots of things, though. Shared TV viewing — "Dr Who" or "Torchwood", my regrettable love for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", the science and history programmes we both adore. Politics and the news; our summer holiday in Italy this year was enlivened by fascination with scandals in the media. Our shared passion for history and travel; he knows way more than I do about castles and fortifications, but I know about the people who lived in them and the languages they spoke. It works for us. We both still enjoy learning, though we do it in different ways. And share what we have learned, what matters to us, why we want to know.

So, after just over 33 years, I consider myself incredibly lucky. I am that cliché — married to my best friend. Wish us luck for the next 33 years!

Much to learn from Gill, her husband, and their gang of college friends, whose marriages have all weathered many storms. Please join me in wishing them another 33 years of mutual support and friendship.

May 4, 2011

Should I Stay Married for the Kids?

This question brings people to this blog from time to time: Should I stay married for the kids? They ask it of Google or Yahoo! or Bing and arrive here. It is a noble question, a sign of maturity even to ask it.

I was once one of those kids for whom a couple stayed married, so I can tell you there are some real plusses. We continued to be able to afford a house and a yard in a good school district, one that got me to MIT on scholarship. I have to say thanks for this.

I had two parents helping me the day I pulled off a really great sixteenth birthday picnic overlooking the Hudson River. When both parents showed up after my husband died, they arrived together and did not add the tension a couple of divorced parents might have. Again, so much better than I see in other families that split up.

However, I believe a lot of people who ask the question picture doing what my parents did, which is staying the course, a course that took an arduous route and offered little reward other than honoring their integrity and doing right by their children.

They paid a huge price for what they gave us. Worse, we could see the price they were paying and feel the tension between them every day. Growing up, I felt fortunate, but never comfortable.

And then I became one of those parents asking, "Should I stay married for our child?" Ann Landers offered the awful advice to add up the benefits and the costs and choose the better deal. The therapist I saw offered little hope of my situation changing; we cannot remold our spouses. But they missed the point entirely.

Stay married for yourself. Stay married for another shot at a great marriage with the person your kids call Mommy or Daddy. If you have been trying to change your spouse, give it up, because 90% of your experience of the marriage — unless it involves walking on eggshells to avoid threat of bodily or emotional harm — is taking place between your two ears, and you truly have the power to change it.

Divorce gets you from -5 to 0 on the life satisfaction scale. It gets your kids from maybe 2 (if they sense your unhappiness) to -8 and leaves them powerless to change any of it. Changing the way you see your marriage and your options and living your life differently as a result can take you from -5 to +8 in a year. And for your kids, your +8 is their +10.

If you're at -5 right now, this next benefit might not yet be great news, but when your spouse finds himself or herself married to a +8 and raising +10 kids, his or her life satisfaction is going up, too, maybe even enough for you to feel yourself incredibly fortunate you didn't leave before the second act.

Three things work for me to change everything:


  1. Assume Love - Take a second look at everything that upsets you about your mate's words and deeds by asking what might explain them if you are still loved as much as ever by someone as wonderful as you first imagined.

  2. Expect Love - Everything you expect about what a spouse should do or how someone who loves you will act gets in the way of letting yourself be loved. An expectation is a premeditated resentment. If you have been waiting for your mate to fix your life, start fixing it yourself. Prepare to be surprised by the forms love takes when you stop trying to dictate what it should look like.

  3. Find Third Alternatives - When you disagree, let go of your first choice to free yourself to look together for an even better choice, one at least as good for you with the bonus of making your spouse happy, too. Never settle for being a doormat or for being right without being kind.

Afraid you might be putting on rose-colored glasses and changing nothing? Rose-colored glasses are actually part of most happy marriages. They change everything. Your kids want you to fall in love all over again with their other parent. Give it a try.

Tell me, did your parents stay married for the kids? Did they divorce? Did it affect the one you handled the rough spots in your own marriage?

January 18, 2011

Stay Married for the Kids?

When a marriage grows distant or unsatisfying, one partner or the other may ask, "Should I stay for the kids?"

Sure. If you stay married for the sake of your children, they will avoid the overscheduled life of a child of divorce. They will find more money in their education account or better food on the table thanks to the economies of a shared household. And they will probably manage their aggressiveness and sexuality better during the teen years.

Much better, though, to fall back in love for the children. You spare them all of your resentment. You confirm their view of their other parent as loving and worthy of love. You show them how to succeed at marriage. You demonstrate how to receive love with open arms, how to grow in concert with another human being, how to let yourself be influenced without giving up yourself, how to love another without living in fear of abandonment. You give your future grandkids a pair of secure arms to hold them.

To fall back in love, let go of everything you think you know about what someone should do if they love you. Take nothing for granted. Look for every opportunity to feel grateful. Look for every opportunity to feel generous. Look for every opportunity to feel gracious.

Do the things you dream of doing if you divorced. Lose the weight. Quit smoking. Get more exercise. Take a course. Spend some of your hard-earned money on a cruise or a trip to Tuscany. Schedule a weekly visit to a spa. Sing. Serve chocolate chip pancakes with mashed bananas for dinner. Dance. Lift your spirit, because love flows in more easily when you feel healthy, happy, and alive. Lift it while you're still in the vicinity of the person your kids most want you to fall in love with.

The Author

Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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