Divorcing for the Kids’ Sake
One of my earlier blogs, “A Marriage Not Worth Saving: Signs That It’s More Than a Passing Pissed-Offedness” dealt with some of the litmus tests I used to determine that my marriage was, in fact, definitely not worth saving. A comment from a friend, though, led to a further discussion that I’d like to chime in on: When is it better for the kids for parents to stay together? And when it is better for the kids for parents to call it quits?
I am by no means an advocate for divorce. My parents split up when I was four and I swore I wouldn’t put my children through what my brother and I experienced. It was the 1970s and back then, the whole “amicable split” concept was pretty much unheard of, at least in suburban New Jersey. To our parents’ generation, divorce was sport; extra points for whoever best mirrored “War of the Roses” (and lived to tell about it). Forget about the whole ‘don’t put the kids in the middle of it’ idea that we espouse today. We were de facto hockey pucks.
My mom used to tell me that she left my father in no small part for us, that we would have been much worse off had they stayed together. Many times I tried to envision that scenario, but couldn’t fathom it–largely because I couldn’t even remember them together. So I never understood what she meant, and in some ways, thought that she was simply justifying her decision to assuage her guilt. Maybe in part she was, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t right.
Now I get it. Yes, I ended my marriage because of me–I was terribly unhappy, not in love and our relationship was neither sustainable nor healthy. It swallowed me up; I became a shell of who I used to be. But I also did it for my daughter. Somewhere along my path, it became clear that staying together would be one of the worst things I could do for her.
I have tremendous respect and admiration for couples who have problems but find ways to work it out because the love is still there, under the rubble somewhere. But in my view, couples who stay together solely for the kids’ sake–without the love, respect and trust that marriage is supposed to be built on–are doing those same kids’ a huge disservice.
Why? Enter Connie, a woman I worked with over a decade ago. Wickedly funny and smart, with an inability to mince words, she was then in her late thirties, married with one child and expecting her second. Connie told me that the most important way she could be a good mother was to put her relationship with her husband first. That seemed strange to me at the time–still in my twenties, I hadn’t wrapped my head around the whole ‘having a husband’ thing, much less a family. Whoa! But her words stuck with me, and I see the truth in them now.
Then there were a number of friends I’ve known over the years–more than a focus group, less than a quantitative study–whose parents stayed together despite the fact that they were miserable. In some cases, they were biding their time until the kids were out of the house; in others, they just stayed put, inert and unhappy, until death did them part. Uniformly, these children knew of their parents’ unhappiness–sometimes at very young ages–and fervently wished they had split up instead of staying together and spreading their tension and hostility around like a disease.
Then there was the grandmother of one of E’s friends who left her husband, but only after her three children were grown. (Her daughter, a friend of mine, belongs to the aforementioned group.) Now close to 70, she is living the life she imagined–traveling, spending time with friends, and being a devoted mother and grandmother. She practically hi-fived me when I told her of my separation, and said so many times she wished she had left her ex when her kids were young instead of waiting.
Then there was my mom. Remarried now, she was a single mom for all of my childhood. And no, life wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t unhappy. She had a solid network of friends, loved to travel, had varied interests, built her own business and on most days, seemed to relish her role as mom. She was strong.
From all of this, I realized that if leaving the marriage meant E would have a more vibrant and happier mother (and hopefully eventually a happier father), wouldn’t that be better for her in the end? And, in the best of all possible worlds, if I could model for her what being in a healthy, loving relationship looked like–wouldn’t that be a good thing? But even if that didn’t happen, if I were happier, wouldn’t I be a better mother? It seemed to me that all of that would be better than what our “intact” reality had been.
Of course, at some point in their lives all children of divorce dream of having their parents back together. I do not mean to belittle this. It’s real, and it breaks my heart to think of E’s heartbreak. It’s been two and a half years, and I know she still struggles with this loss. But my hope–and strong belief–is that eventually, this heartbreak will give way to a deeper understanding of love. I hope she will learn from this to choose someone who will be a partner to her, who will respect and honor her for who she is, and she will have the capacity to reciprocate. And mostly, I hope that she will never, ever settle.
I think the bigger question or at least another BIG question is… where did that person go that you originally married? How is it that they changed so much?.. or is it that people sometimes just make a bad match to start with…. and how do you go about not doing that again? How do you not see the person they become???
December 10, 2010 at 4:30 pm
Well, yes. In my case, there was a fatal flaw at the outset: I made a bad choice. I married a narcissist. There were some things that changed along the way, though–when we were first married he actually held down a full-time job. And there were some things he lied to me about that I had to figure out later. As with all narcissists, as his partner I was manipulated to serve his needs. But there was definitely a part of me that felt good about being needed so much, which is where we connected, I guess. I was used to serving others (because of my relationship with my father), and he wanted to be served. Not really the best dynamic for a lifelong partnership, although I guess it works for some people because we have no shortage of narcissism in this culture and some of them are probably still married! Things really fell apart after E was born, though, because he didn’t choose our family first–he chose his own ego gratification. Reckless, really–but not something I think I could have foreseen. Another reason for why I chose him, I guess I wanted to believe the bill of goods he was selling, too, because I wanted to get serious with someone after being uncermoniously dumped by a guy I was crazy about several months before. And my ex seemed serious from the start, so it felt good to have someone who wanted to go the distance with me after the pain of the previous, very surprising breakup. So I guess for me it was a) bad choice; and b) some surprising plot twists along the way = bad marriage.
December 10, 2010 at 7:59 pm
Great to see you writing. In case you didn’t know, you’re really good.
It was really interesting to me to read your blog — I was 20, living at home, commuting to college, when my parents split. The only thing I felt was relief. The atmosphere in our house prior to the split would have made Ice Station Zebra look tropical. And, rough as it was on my younger siblings, I do think it was much better for them than the continued cold war that raged between my parents.
I also liked your reply to the comment above, about how you ended up in a bad marriage. I also ended up in a bad marriage — bad because it failed, as in ended in divorce. But it taught me a lot of things once I was willing to be honest with myself. And, even though my ex drove the split with some pretty yucky behavior, I still think she is a pretty terrific person. Just the wrong terrific person for me. In our case, it took almost 9 years to realize that we were destined to date, not to marry.
Anyway, thanks for some great stuff — I look forward to reading more.
December 15, 2010 at 3:48 pm
Thanks, Geoff! That means a lot, coming from you. And I think it’s so admirable that you’re able to reflect with so much forgiveness on your first marriage. Kudos! I hope I’ll get to that place eventually, too.
December 15, 2010 at 10:06 pm
Hey, as first (failed) marriages go, mine was pretty darn good. I was able to get to “that place” because it was obvious to me that my ex and I weren’t supposed to be together after all. And my life has been amazingly good ever since.
You’ll get to that place if you’re supposed to. But, maybe, you’re not supposed to. Maybe your ex is just, well … fill in whatever blank you like. Sometimes good people (you) marry not so good people (him). Sometimes.
December 16, 2010 at 11:54 am