James J. Sexton is a divorce lawyer and the author of If You're in My Office, It's Already Too Late, a guide in which he dispenses the relationship wisdom he's gained from listening to more than 1000 divorcing clients.
His advice for parents who are married is unconventional, but it might just help you preserve your union and your sanity.
Pretend you're divorced, he suggests.
Sexton talks about about the reasons why on a recent episode of The Upgrade. With shared custody, he says, you get to have your kids for half the week (or whatever your arrangement may be), and then for a stretch of time, you get to breathe. In some ways, this can be the best of both worlds. Sexton learned this for himself after splitting with his ex-wife. He explains on the podcast:
I had time where my kids were not with me. They were with the only other person in the world who loves them as much as I do and who I trust them with as much as I trust myself. And it gave me this real time when I said, 'OK, I get to be me now. I get to be an adult. I get to just have some me time and really just enjoy time away from my kids without guilt.'
And then I would have a weekend where I had the right to say to people, 'Hey, hold the phone and don't send me emails because I've got my kids this weekend and I wanna give them 100 per cent of my attention and 100 per cent of my focus.' And people would say, 'Oh, he's got his kids this weekend. Let him focus on that.' Why do we have to get divorced to do that?
James J. Sexton is a divorce lawyer who has spent his career working with couples whose marriages are dissolving. He's learned a lot throughout the years about what sours a good marriage (or ends a relationship that's already in trouble), and now he's using that knowledge to help the rest of us. His new book is If You're In My Office It's Already Too Late. A Divorce Lawyer's Guide to Staying Together.
Kids, he adds, are "incredibly antagonistic to marriage."
"It's just hard," he says, "especially in modern society where one kid's got gymnastics and the other one's got football and you're running back and forth and you just don't have the time together that you used to." You're stretched thin, and with no chance to ever clock out, you're constantly juggling multiple tasks at once, which means everything and everyone suffers.
Sexton encourages married couples to try a "custodial rotation" in a similar way that many divorced parents do it. This goes beyond simply giving each other occasional breaks - a girls' night next month, or an hour on the basketball court. It means weaving into the structure of your marriage some set "me time, you time and we time," Sexton says. Maybe it's saying, "The first weekend of January, you take the kids while I do my own thing. And then the first weekend of February, we switch." Then you put it in the calendar, so it's real.
The set-up can benefit everyone. Not only does it give you and your partner a break, it forces both of you to get out of the parenting roles you may be stuck in. And it can help the kids, too, Sexton argues. As he writes in his book, "If you and your spouse can model, for your children, a functional relationship that makes time for both the pleasures and the demands of spouse, children, and self, doesn't that bode well for your children's own long-term happiness?" When you have off time, your 'on' time with your kids somehow becomes more focused, more connected, more present. You've had a chance to miss them.
A custodial rotation requires each partner to surrender and trust that the other person is a good-enough parent — there should be no micromanaging from your cell phone, no texts asking, "Did you make sure to put Lennon in his red pajamas tonight?" Also, each parent must want the other to have that time away — if you're going to grumble about it later, it just won't work.
You might feel stuck at first. Parents who are divorced sometimes have to force themselves to find hobbies and friendships that aren't born out of their children's lives, but really, all mums and dads should be pushing themselves to do this. It helps tremendously when you have scheduled time to do so. (Long, leisurely dinners alone can certainly count as a hobby — this I have confirmed.)
If a custodial rotation feels like too big of a shift, Sexton suggests that co-parents at least give each other frequent, extended pockets of guilt-free time away. My husband and I do something like this. On weekends, I will often take our daughter out during the day on Saturday, and he'll take her out during the day on Sunday. We'll come together for dinner both nights and everyone will have a lot to talk about. ("We got kettle corn at farmers market and I helped Dad in the garden," my five-year-old will tell me excitedly. "How was your day, mama?") It works, and that stretch of solo time really does refuel us.
Maybe try a new arrangement for a month or two and see how it goes. You might discover a new version of yourself, one that isn't being pelted by a toddler throwing Cheerios. As Sexton says, "I can't think of any good reason why divorced people should have all the fun."