'Till Death Do Us Part' or 'Till The Kids Part?

How many of married couples, a good portion about to be empty-nesters, will still be married for their kid's college graduation? My gut says not too many.
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My son's high school graduation was a sea of faces filled with a mix of joy, exhaustion, sadness and uncertainty -- not just the 18-year-olds', but their parents'.

Despite the crappy economy and college cutbacks, the kids are going to be fine. I can't say the same about the parents, however. How many of the married couples that day, a good portion about to be empty-nesters, will still be married for their kid's college graduation? My gut says not too many.

We've done our job. We raised our kids to young adulthood and spent the majority of those 18 years focusing on them, 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, perhaps lonely, loveless and sexless. If they haven't been putting 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 to navigate what authors David and Claudia Arp call "the second half of marriage" -- the years after the kids leave. The growing divorce rate among baby boomers has jumped by more than 50 percent over the past 20 years.

But instead of wringing our hands about so-called gray divorces and seeing those long-term 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.

Not to say that everyone wants kids; many couples happily are childfree. But many do want kids, and let's be honest: when we're ready to nest, few would opt to marry, say, a world-traveling risk-taker who works just long enough to fund his or her next adventure. Most of us are looking for someone who's more stable and reliable, 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 we agree to such an arrangement before we walk down the aisle to say "I do."

About a year ago, my JetBlue seatmate and I started chatting. He'd been living with his girlfriend for seven years, he said, and they were about to get married. Why get married after so many years of happy cohabitation? I asked. "Because we want to have kids," he said, 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 for whom Susan Pease Gadoua and I are writing "The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers." They hadn't ruled out staying together past that, but all they were committing to was that they would not divorce before the last child turned 18. They were making a conscious decision and commitment to make their marriage work during their kids' crucial years instead of blindly agreeing to a promise a good 50 percent of us cannot keep -- marriage until death.

A few months after that conversation, Mexico City's Democratic Revolution Party proposed legislation that would allow renewable marriage contracts of no fewer than two years. Two years 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 may 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. Not every breakup has to be a "failure," especially ones that are mutually agreed upon. That doesn't mean that kind of arrangement would always end without some friction, especially if one partner wants to continue the marriage and the other doesn't. But there's also the possibility that each will happily choose the other again -- how lovely is that?

We're living longer than generations before us did, and "till death do us part" could mean 60, 70 years together instead of 20 or 30 years. 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 even 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, accusations many of us who divorce face. No, 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, and that's true for both men and women.

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

Follow what's happening with "The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers" and participate in the conversation on Facebook. A version of this appeared on Vicki Larson's personal blog, OMG Chronicles.

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