When children come along, couples must reevaluate their marriage contract.
In The New York Times piece “Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part” Matt Richtel explores the meaning of marriage today, including proposals in Mexico City to create short-term renewable marriage contracts as brief as two years as a way to deal with how many marriages fail. Me, I’m not a fan of going into marriage with an arbitrary expiration date on the arrangement as if it can be tossed like a rotten carton of eggs.
&tt;p>As Richtel also concludes, I prefer the approach that Stephanie Coontz, the research director at the Council on Contemporary Families, shares in Richtel’s article, “…there is value in asking people to consider and regularly assess their commitment, not necessarily based on a timetable but around life events: when you have kids, one spouse gets a new job or starts to work more hours, a family member dies, the kids leave home.”
Modern marriage has changed in ways that require regular remodeling of the contract.
My husband David and I confronted this when our daughter was born. We had been married seven years when our Kate arrived. Within days of her birth, we had somehow gone from basking in the glow of my pregnancy to shouting at each other in the kitchen. I was reeling from the unexpected loss of my career and my financial self-sufficiency. He couldn’t understand why the chance to spend my days with Kate wasn’t making me happy, since he was toiling long hours for demanding clients to provide for us. What had always been a true partnership devolved into two separate lives spent in traditional roles we never wanted. Each of us blaming the other for the fact that our life as parents was so different from how we thought it would be.
Research says this upheaval in a marriage upon the arrival of kids is common, but it is rarely acknowledged beyond the jokes about less sex and less sleep. In The Transition to Parenthood, research suggests, “one in every two marriages now goes into decline” when the first child arrives. In, When Partners Become Parents, the authors share that 92 percent of couples they worked with described more conflict after the baby arrived than before, and both mothers and fathers on average experienced a significant decline in marital satisfaction.
This drastic decline happens because couples today have different expectations of marriage and gender roles that make having kids a far greater change to the marriage contract than it was a generation ago. Fifty years ago, people viewed the purpose of marriage as having children. Traditional roles where mom took care of the kids and depended on dad to provide were the norm, and children came along much sooner after the wedding. The expectations couples had of each other and their lives together when they entered the marriage contract were pretty much the same as the expectations they had when kids came along.
Today people say the purpose of marriage is to find personal satisfaction and commitment and that having children is less essential. Women say they don’t want to depend on a man as part of marriage. Many couples spend several years married before they have a child. As David and I did, most of us spend that dual-income no-kids period in a contract where two independent, self-sufficient people choose to be together and—in the worst case scenario—could walk away from the marriage and be independent and self-sufficient again.
When we had our baby, all of that changed. The traditional roles we fell into made us miserable. Yet we were no longer independent because we couldn’t walk away so easily now that we shared responsibility for our daughter. The marriage we wanted didn’t fit either of those models—dependence or independence—because we wanted and needed interdependence.
In The New York Times article, Dr. Coontz suggests revisiting commitments before a major transition, including “a new set of vows that reflect what the couple has learned.” Frankly we wouldn’t have had a clue how parenthood would change our marriage until after we’d done that hard “learning” part that looked suspiciously like fighting. We spent several years remodeling our careers, our lives, and our marriage contract. Only then did we understand deeply that, as my husband described it, “The promises we made to each other when we got married were bidirectional, between you and me, but now the promises are tri-directional, they include Kate too.”
So we created a new set of vows and a ritual to go with them. Our daughter called the event our “next wedding.” We gathered 150 of our friends and family, and the three of us took the stage. First David and I repeated our original wedding vows to each other.
Then we took Kate by the hand in between us and I said to her. “Daddy and I have a new promise we are making to each other because you are part of our family now.” David and I spoke that promise to each other. “Because we share responsibility for Kate for the rest of our lives, I promise to share the time, the money, and the care for her and for our family.”
Finally, we both turned to look at our little girl, and David said, “Kate, now we have some promises to make to you.” Together we made those promises to her in unison. “We promise we will always be a family. We promise to help you pursue your dreams and goals. We promise to love and cherish you, comfort and encourage you, and never cease to give thanks that you’ve come into our lives.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
If we’d planned for failure and our contract had arbitrarily expired a year into parenthood, we might have tossed it—and lost everything. Marriage has changed as people live longer and gender roles shift. One set of terms no longer lasts a lifetime. The solution lies in setting couples up for success by making marriage remodeling projects—and “next weddings”—common and expected.
Our next marriage remodel starts in 2018, when she leaves for college. Watch for your invitation in the mail.
Kristin Maschka is a best-selling author and a consultant who catalyzes leaders to make change and achieve their aspirations at home, at work and in their communities. Kristin brings a fresh perspective and authentic voice to the intersecting issues at the heart of life today: organizational change, gender stereotypes, modern motherhood and fatherhood, generational shifts, public education, community organizations, and worklife fit. You can find her on Twitter at @kristinmaschka.