In Defense of Divorce

This post is dedicated to my mom and dad. Thanks for being you and making me, me.

I am not surprised.

Divorce (2)I just found out that a close friend of mine, Chris, is separating from his wife of seven years, Anne.

It’s no shocker. Since almost the beginning of their relationship, I have discussed this couple with another, mutual friend and pondered whether it was a good idea for them to be together at all.

Chris is quite a bit older and more mature than Anne. He’s also much more laid back and a nicer person than she. Anne is smarter than Chris, has more personality, and seems to want a lot more out of her life than Chris can give. They fight a lot, have broken up several times, and never seem happy or very in-sync.

It’s been sad to watch, honestly. They each have their faults but neither of them are bad people. I always thought that it was a shame that they were wasting time with each other instead of making the effort to find happiness elsewhere. 

At least, I thought they were wasting time until Anne and Chris became Anne, Chris, and Cutie-pie (their kid). Suddenly, they seemed shackled together instead.

In fact, that’s how Chris once described it to me. He said that they stayed together because it’s what was best for Cutie-pie.

The point?

This essay is an exercise in “I told you so.” I can’t say it to them, so I’m saying it here instead.

Years ago, just after Cutie-pie was born, Chris finally confirmed what I already knew. He confided in me that he was unhappy, which afforded me the opportunity to give him some advice. Like any normal, self-righteous advice giver, I’m now a little annoyed at having to play witness to the pain that has been caused by the fact that Chris chose not to take my suggestion.

After his confession, I said something along the lines of: “If you aren’t happy and you know that the two of you don’t work as a couple and that you won’t ever work as a couple, then you need to just rip the band-aid off. If you don’t, there are only two scenarios: 1) you stay together forever, miserable; or 2) you break up somewhere down the road and waste your time being miserable in the interim. And, odds are that you’ll go down the path of option two which makes the exercise of staying together even more futile. You think it’s hard to break up now? It’s never going to get easier.”

At the time, they’d been trying to make it work for about three years. Fast forward four more and now my premonition has come true: Anne and Chris are splitting up, it’s extremely messy and, very, very sad. After a huge blow up they are separating in hurt and anger, rather than mutually agreeing that the relationship was doomed. Now, they have to scramble to get out of the same house, are spewing hate on Facebook (to the great discomfort of their acquaintances, by the way), and Cutie-pie is now old enough to bear witness to the whole thing.

What do I care? Mostly, I feel bad for the kid, whom I like very much.divorce

Cutie-pie reminds me of me.

Thus, the crux of this post. I think that this “we do it for the children” reasoning is incredibly foolish.

Deciding to stay in an unhappy relationship for your kid doesn’t necessarily make you a better parent. Of course, every situation is different and it can be terribly hard to sort out money, childcare, and a hundred other issues when a family splits up. But, in the long run, if even one person in a family is very unhappy, almost everyone else is unhappy, too.

One of the problems with this sort of reasoning is that it’s built on so many false assumptions about the future. I know that parents always think that they know what’s best for their kids but how the hell would any of us really know in this situation? Can Cutie-pie be truly happy in a house with two unhappy parents? What if Anne and Chris have deprived him of something else by staying together? It’s really all a roll of the dice. If Chris and Anne had spent a year trying to sort out how to live separately instead of four years pretending that they could put off the inevitable, they might be much better off by now.

When Chris spoke to me about his problems and I offered my two cents he was quick to remind me that I don’t have kids and told me that he thought that this made me under-qualified to give an opinion. As someone who was born to argue, I could barely bite my tongue. I didn’t bother getting into it with him but I think he was wrong: I’ve lived through a divorce from the other side.

The product of divorce.

I was a little younger than Cutie-pie when my parents split. At six, I didn’t know anything was wrong until they announced it.

Their decision has shaped my entire life.

Me and Matt

Me and Matt just months before the separation.

The day started off normally for me but, in the afternoon my parents told my four year-old brother, Matt, and I that they needed time alone in their room and asked us to keep busy for awhile. So, the first thing that I remember is…

Boredom. Then, curiosity.

Matt and I took turns pressing our ears against the door to try to hear the conversation. When that didn’t work, I decided to try something I’d seen on TV. We got cups from the kitchen and sat outside the door on small chairs pulled from my tea table, trying to hear through the plastic. That didn’t work either so we became bored again.

Eventually, the boredom turned into fear. They were in there a long time and we were getting hungry. Would someone make us dinner? Should we knock? What if they never came out?

I got us some Handi-snacks and we waited. We knew that something was wrong but had no idea what was in store for us.

When my parents finally vacated their room, they told us that they wanted to talk to us in the living room. Matt and I sat very quietly while they explained that our dad was going to move out. It is the first and last family discussion that I remember with both of my birth parents in the same room. 

My dad cried a bit. My brother did, too. I suspect that his tears had less to do with the news than with the heavy sadness we could feel coming from my parents.

I took the revelation without much emotion at all. They asked if we had questions and I said “no” and went to my room. I had no idea what Dad’s move would mean so there was no reaction to give. For me, the news wasn’t either confusing or scary. It was simply too big to comprehend.

After, I was sitting in my room trying to wrap my head around what I’d been told and my mom came in to check on me. She made sure to tell me that the split wasn’t my fault. That was the first time that I considered the idea that it might be. I was just so young.

It has to get worse…

The real effects of my parent’s separation and subsequent divorce on us kids had very little to do with any emotional response to the demise of our nuclear family unit. Sure, we noticed that we didn’t see much of my dad while he stayed with a friend and tried to find a new place but, once he had an apartment for us to come to, that issue resolved itself.

At six and four, my brother and I were mostly affected by the change in routine. My parent’s both tried very hard. Sometimes that was good enough and sometimes it wasn’t. We suffered from problems which mostly stemmed from a difference in parenting styles, made more evident by the separate households, and my mom’s financial hardship when she couldn’t afford the same lifestyle without a second income.

My mom worked longer hours and took on a second (then a third) job. She started going out a lot, since she was trying to date. Several boyfriends trekked through our lives (some of which were great, one of whom was absolutely awful) and, for the first time, she was less than present at home.

It was a hard year. My mom clearly wanted to escape from us kids and the reality of our living situation. She even said as much. Matt and I quickly became aware that we were no longer a 24/7 priority and it was a very hard realization to digest. We were alone a lot and started fighting nonstop due to boredom and lack of supervision.

When we went to my Dad’s it was like another world. He was only with us two days a week and smothered us with strict parenting when given the opportunity. He and my Mom didn’t communicate a lot so time at his house was often frustrating for all present. The morning/night routine, food we ate, and approach to discipline were completely different (trivial issues that mean everything to an elementary-age kid). 

family1To top it off, just when we started to adjust to my dad’s new setup, he met someone, they moved in together, and suddenly Matt and I had to find a place in a new family unit (with two other kids). 

My emotional stability took a steep downward spiral during this transition. By age eight, I was a sullen insomniac who cried at the drop of a hat. I waffled between angry and sad all day long. As a kid, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees and certainly wouldn’t have said that the divorce had anything to do with my depression. I would have told you that it was because my mom, dad, and brother were all jerks but, in retrospect, there was clearly a causal relationship. 

Maybe I was destined to be depressed, one way or the other. However, I do know that some of my biggest complaints were a product of the divorce. Many of the issues that I’ve listed wouldn’t have happened if my parents had stayed together. That awful boyfriend of my mom’s, for instance.

…before it gets better.

Despite all this, my story has a happy ending. My path through late childhood and adolescence wasn’t easy but I have turned into a (relatively) successful, happy, well-adjusted adult.  I read studies now that talk about how children fare after divorce and it looks like most of us generally do okay in life. As a matter of fact, my brother seems to have weathered the storm even better than I.

These changes certainly affected my life and I believe that they had a huge impact. At first, that impact was negative. Eventually though, things got better. 

First, in my early adolescence, I learned to cope with change, disappointment, and less parental support. Kids in single parent households tend to grow up a little quicker and I was no exception. My ability to adapt to bad situations has served me very well.

Sharon, Me, Nick, and Matt (Yes, my hair is crimped. Please don't judge.)

Sharon, Me, Nick, and Matt (Yes, my hair is crimped. Please don’t judge.)

As a teenager, I figured out that I had been gifted with some new people in my life who loved me and whom I loved back. This included the first people who chose to become my family, rather than getting stuck with me like my parents and brother did: my stepmother, Sharon, and older stepbrother, Nick. Their presence in my life has enriched it tenfold.

Finally, as an adult, I utilized the good things that I had picked up from all of my parents. From my mom, I learned never to settle, to make my own luck, and that a strong woman can do anything. My dad taught me to appreciate family and that you have to make time to enjoy life’s little pleasures. And, my stepmom showed me that a hug and a good talk can fix more than you’d think.

I’ll never know whether I would have been a more (or less) mentally healthy kid if my parents hadn’t split. What I am sure of, now, is that I wouldn’t trade any of it.

Isn’t that one of the most incredible ironies in life? That, when we are happy, we are reluctant to wish away anything from our past, no matter how painful, for fear of changing our future.

The divorce may have been the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ll never know for sure but I suspect that my parents did me a favor. Even if it took a long time for that favor to be worth anything.

The thing is that I credit the bad in my life, not the good, for making me who I am. Some people probably go the opposite way and thank their lucky stars, and their parents, for setting them up with such a wonderful life and believe that that is what allows them to live in bliss for all of their days. Well, not me. My life is worse than some and better than others but I know that I am who I am because I worked through something.

Where does this leave Cutie-pie?

I don't know this kid. Pretend it's CP.

I don’t know this kid. Pretend it’s CP.

Poor Cutie-pie is in the same boat that I once was, happily sailing through childhood, unaware that his world is about to flip upside down. The divorce could ruin his life. It could also be the moment that sets him on a path to happiness. 

The reality is that we can’t know. We never know. You, as a parent, may think that you’re doing the right things for your kid but, you’re never going to be sure until you see how she/he turns out. You could protect and protect and protect, turning your kid into someone who can’t handle life’s obstacles, or die tomorrow and leave your kid to completely fend for her/himself. Either way, your kid could turn out to love you or hate you for it.

The future is always a surprise. So, why be miserable in the moment? This is why, when I hear people like Chris say that he/she is staying with a partner for their children, it makes me want to cringe.

Now that I’m an adult I have trouble figuring out why my parents even went on more than one date in the first place. They seem to have nothing in common but were together for thirteen years before they split. I haven’t asked, but I wonder when my parents realized that it wasn’t working and how long they stayed together afterwards. A few months? A few years? 

They still aren’t the happiest people in the world but, in the end, my mom and dad are better off without each other. I would feel horrible if they had toughed it out another thirteen years, waiting for my brother and me to grow up. Further, I wouldn’t trade my step-family for anything. 

People love to hate on divorce but clearly there’s a reason why so many people end up getting one. It isn’t what anyone wishes for when they get married but sometimes people don’t work out and this is the best solution.

So, to those of you who use your kids as an excuse for staying together, I suggest you rethink. Chris and Anne have been unhappy for seven years. Seven years. It’s twice as long as the amount of time that they seemed happy and could mean that one or both of them lost time with someone else who could have been right for them.

If you want to make it work with your partner, think that you can still make each other happy, then great! Work on it! But, please don’t let your own happiness be outweighed by your love for your children, fear of the unknown, shame at some imagined failure, or some misplaced sense of martyrdom/masochism. Your kids just might thank you.


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