In front of all their friends and their 10-year-old son, Clark and Valerie Tate came together for a special ceremony on a California beach.
But this couple wasn't renewing their vows. They were “uncoupling.”
In a new age ritual that might only be found in San Francisco, Clark and Valerie took the wedding rings they exchanged 14 years ago and gave them back to each other.
“These rings do not symbolize who we are to each other anymore,” Clark said.
“So we’re releasing them,” Valerie added.
They no longer consider each other husband and wife, not even romantic partners, but they have decided to continue living together in the same house in order to raise their son Jonah together.
In other words, it might be the most amicable divorce-non-divorce in history.
“We grieved a lot of our relationship so long ago, this is just sort of marking the time,” Valerie said.
Divorce often gets ugly and expensive. Even actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin decided to “consciously uncouple” earlier this year.
The Tates, who went with their own version of "uncoupling," believed this was a way to break up their marriage without animosity, but it required an unconventional approach -- Clark and Valerie still live together in the same house, with separate bedrooms, and maintain joint assets, but have an open marriage, meaning they date other people.
“We started talking about the possibility of dating other people,” Valerie said.
“I remember hearing it, initially being shocked,” Clark added, “And then being like, well, that sounds interesting to me, too.”
Their relationship wasn't always like this. Valerie said their wedding was “magical” with “so much love, so much beauty.” It was her first time walking down the aisle. It was Clark’s third. For the first few years, the couple said they were living in love, but then they said the spark, the intimacy started to fade.
Eventually they said their marriage started failing, but unlike about 50 percent of couples in the United States, divorce was never on the table for them.
“I've been through that road before, and I knew the other side of it. I knew that wasn't exactly what I wanted,” Clark said.
“We weren't considering really changing the structure of our family unit,” Valerie added.
That family unit centered around their son, who they were determined to protect from their relationship failings.
“Children feel like they’re the center of the universe. They don’t understand necessarily what’s happening, but they feel like it may be something they did wrong,” said Dr. Janet Taylor, a New York City-based psychiatrist.
The toll of divorce on a family is not just emotional, it’s also financial. Couples pay an average of $50,000 to resolve contested divorces, according to the documentary, "Divorce Corp." It’s a system, critics say, that is structured to bleed couples of the very money and assets they’re arguing over in court.
“The more acrimonious it is, the smaller the things the parties are willing to fight for, the more they get to bill,” said TV’s “Divorce Court” Judge Lynn Toler.
So for the last few months, the Tates have been experimenting with an open marriage and Valerie has been in a serious relationship with a man named Joseph. While it may seem weird in most households for a wife to bring over her boyfriend, or have a boyfriend at all, Clark and Valerie say they have worked out unwritten rules for dating.
“We give each other private time,” Valerie said. “Maybe Jonah and Clark are out of the house, or vice versa. But most of it is, private time is spent elsewhere.”
Their most important rule, they said, is they only introduce serious partners to their son. But to an outsider, there is still the potential for awkward moments.
“For couples who have an option relationship, both partners have to totally agree to it, or it won’t work, and that requires communication,” Taylor said. “In some cases, it may involve a third party, a counselor where you draw up rules. But if one person feels like the other one is pushing them into that situation, it won’t work.”
Clark admitted it’s been hard to describe his non-traditional marriage to potential dates.
The biggest hurdle that women have is they can’t see where they fit into my world, and they don’t understand how I can still be close with Val and close with them,” he said.
While Clark said getting married a fourth time isn't in the cards for him, Valerie doesn't rule out another marriage herself. But for now, the Tates are still legally married to each other and a legal divorce is not on the horizon for now. In the end, they say they have figured out a way to be happy as a family.
“I think we’re through the tough stuff, which was questioning jealousy and insecurity and what happens and who are we, and what is this?” Clark said.
“The unknowns,” Valerie added.