Apartnering up

Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon
My husband and I started having problems when I found an email he sent to his ex-girlfriend saying, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” He’s never complimented me during our five years together. He revealed that he and his ex used to have sex for hours, while the most we ever spent making love was 45 minutes -- only once, when we were first dating. I think I should leave, but we have a 1-year-old child. We are good together caring for the baby, but it’s terrible to be with a man who lacks love, respect and desire for you. -- Tormented
Parents today are in fierce competition for whose kid achieves things first: “Little Euripides graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard while still in the womb!” Best not to be the parents whose child has the dark side nailed, reflected in Instagram brag shots like “Baby’s First Rehab!”

    A good deal of research suggests that the healthiest home environment for a kid is an “intact family” -- as opposed to the “Uncle” of the Month Club. Couples wanting what’s best for their children are motivated to de-uglify their relationship and can often work out what I call “process-oriented” problems (counterproductive ways of interacting that lead to nasty fights or just seething resentment).

    This is essential because even if nobody’s screaming and hurling casserole dishes, the underlying tone of a relationship is reflected in interactions as mundane as “Can ya pass the salt?” (Ideally, your tone suggests some affection for your partner -- not that your reluctance to do time is all that’s keeping you from smothering them with a pillow.)

    You, however, are in a relationship with a man who is deeply passionate about another woman and appears to see sex with you as a household chore. Your resentment from feeling unwanted and equally toxic feelings from him are sure to seep into your daily life. So, staying together under these circumstances would most likely be damaging for your child -- but chances are, so would splitting up.

    To understand why an intact family seems important for kids’ well-being, it helps to understand a few things from an area of evolutionary research called “life history theory.” It explores how the type of environment a person grows up in calibrates their psychology and behavior -- for example, how able they are to delay gratification.

    This calibration is basically a form of human mental economics -- a subconscious calculation of how stable or risky a person’s childhood environment is and whether they’d be better off allocating their energy and efforts toward the now or the future. A stable, predictable environment -- like growing up with middle-class parents who remain married, live in a peaceful neighborhood and always provide enough food to eat -- tends to lead to a more future-oriented approach (like being able to save money). Conversely, growing up in a dangerous neighborhood, having divorced parents with unpredictable finances and getting moved around a lot is likely to lead to a more now-oriented approach (spendorama!).

    The good news is, you two may be able to break up without it breaking your kid. My friend Wendy Paris and her former husband did this -- splitting up as a couple while staying together as parents of their young son. Wendy writes in her book Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well that they even relocated together from New York to Los Angeles, moving to separate places a few blocks apart. They hang out and do activities as a family. Her ex often comes over to make breakfast for her son and coffee for her. He even takes out the trash! Sure, he did that when they were married, but Wendy was too preoccupied with her issues with him as a husband to appreciate it like she can now.

    It’s difficult to set up an arrangement like Wendy’s if you’re, oh ... say ... preoccupied with wishing your husband’s penis would wither and fall off like a skin tag under a dermatologist’s liquid nitro. In a situation like yours, where resentment is high, a mediator could be helpful. (Look for a marital specialist at http://Mediate.com.)
A mediator is not a judge and won’t tell you what to do. He or she is a neutral third party, de-escalating conflict -- creating a safe, productive psychological environment. This makes it possible for people with disputes to work out a mutually acceptable agreement for how they’ll go forward. Now, mediation doesn’t work for everyone. However, it’s probably your best bet for “having it all” -- acting in your child’s best interest and eventually having a man in your life who sees you as more than ballast to keep the mattress down in case there’s a tornado.

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