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.