My parents were married for 23, mostly miserable, years. The couple who became their best friends, the Schwartzs, met my parents on the night they came back from their honeymoon and walked in on a knockdown, drag out fight between them. Things went generally downhill from there.
I remember countless conversations with my sister, hoping our parents would divorce and analyzing the intricacies of which parent our lives would be better with. They finally did separate when I was in graduate school, but it was too late. The damage had been done. When my father was dying a few years later my mother asked to see him, and he refused. They carried their blood feud right up to “death do you part.”
While my parents’ experience may be extreme, as a psychotherapist I’ve seen far too many couples who insisted on “hanging in there for the children” to the point where their mutually building resentments, if not outright hostility, made an amicable separation nearly impossible, and their children’s lives a living hell. One study suggests 47% of couples who are unhappy in their marriages plan to stay together because they believe that is best for their children.
There is a great deal of research on the negative impact of divorce on children, with findings suggesting children with divorced parents do less well in school, are more likely to be depressed or anxious or have Attention Deficit Disorder, are more likely to be ill or have physical injuries, and have more behavior problems including delinquency, drug use, and premature sexual behavior. Pretty daunting stuff, clearly enough for many people to hang in there no matter the cost.
What’s interesting is many of these negative effects of divorce seem to be ameliorated when the parents are able to maintain a respectful relationship with each other. Our current culture’s obsession with putting children first has created the helicopter parents who are so completely devoted to their child’s every need, real or projected, that they haven’t had a date since the kids were born. If you ask these parents about their plans for the weekend you get an endless recitation of their kids’ activities for the weekend without a thought of a moment for themselves.
These are parents whose pleasure comes primarily through a vicarious watching of their kids having fun, reliving the childhood they only dreamed of having. This cultural trend creates an unbalanced view of divorce, leading us to focus primarily on the potential impact on the children, while overlooking the fact that one of the most important factors affecting their welfare is having parents who can engage in a mutually respective working relationship.
The other sociocultural factor at play is our insistence on labeling anything that doesn’t turn out the way we planned as a failure. We are a nation settled by Europeans who were fleeing countries that were autocracies in which having a better life was largely a matter of birth. They built their new nation as a meritocracy in which advancement is purportedly the result of hard work.
The old saying, which has recently proven to be frighteningly true, is anyone can be president. Or as parents sometimes tell their children, “you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough.” When our marriages are going through tough times, we may naively believe the marriage can be salvaged if only we are willing to try harder, and divorce is an acknowledgement you simply were not willing to try hard enough.
There are a lot of very good reasons to be reluctant to divorce- it’s very likely to be one of the most emotionally difficult things you ever go through, you are likely to introduce a lot of financial insecurity into your life, you will put your children through what will probably be the most emotionally challenging experience they have ever been through and you can’t count on having the same relationship with them moving forward. Worst of all, what if you are making a horrible mistake? If you think you made a mistake in marrying your spouse, then how can you trust your own judgment about ending the marriage? What if you incur all of these painful costs, and inflict so much pain and damage on your closest relationships, only to discover you’ve made a mistake?
All of these fears are legitimate and worthy of long and careful consideration.
On the other hand, we rarely give as much thought to the other side of the equation, to the costs of waiting too long. Costs like a bloody divorce might be averted if someone has the foresight and courage to call it quits before the couple builds up such resentments that ending their marriage causes wounds to last a lifetime.
To get out of this stuck place and give people permission to consider the costs of staying as well as leaving, we are going to have to redefine success and failure in a marriage. Currently we define a marriage as successful only if it lasts until the death of one partner, without regard to how happy or fulfilled either person is in the marriage. Any marriage that ends before death is automatically a failure. I’ve had countless people in my office, berating themselves over their “failed” marriages, terrified they will repeat the same mistakes endlessly and never find happiness.
What if we shifted our understanding of success and failure in a marriage?
What if we started to believe any marriage that is either ongoing and mutually satisfying and enhancing to both partners or any marriage that ends in an amicable, cooperative divorce was a success, regardless of how long the relationship lasted?
For example, two people date for three months and then mutually decide, although they like each other a lot, neither of them is really what the other is looking for in a life partner so they break up and are the best of friends, we would call the relationship a success. On the other hand, any marriage that ends in a way so hurtful and acrimonious, they have little compassion for how they treat each other and little regard for the impact of their choices on their children or other loved ones would be considered a failure, no matter how long they have been married.
Something to think about.