Note: I’m in a (long!) marriage that I love, and I don’t have kids. That said:
Many of my friends are contemplating divorce. And I’ve noticed that, when kids are involved, a super-sized ever-present argument gets touted about how parents should “stick it out for the kids.” If you’ve experienced a more nuanced approach to divorce with kids, hooray. This blog isn’t for you. For the rest of us, imma punch the “stick it out” thing in the face.
The cultural assumption is that, if parents base their divorce decision on what’s best for their children, they’ll of course decide to stay together. Um.
As if kids are only or primarily benefitted by living with the same two people for 18 years, even if those people don’t like one another. Even if, and even if in subtle ways, those people routinely inflict emotional harm on one another. Even if those two people are never able to find fulfillment as human beings, and thus never able to model fulfillment-finding to their kids. As if no positive impact can possibly result from two adults’ divorce and subsequent happiness-finding. (And I’m not just talking about marriages that involve an abusive or addicted spouse.)
I readily acknowledge that some couples consider divorce, decide to stay together “for the kids,” and find later that they’ve fallen in love again. That’s great! But it’s not the rule, so let’s move on. Of course divorce can be bad for kids. But so can staying together, for different – but equally significant – reasons. Let’s not make this simpler than it is.
Ultimately, good models for deep, respectful, fulfilling, intimate human relationships may be the best possible gifts a child can receive from her parents. So here’s this:
Dear Parents Considering Divorce,
Your children won’t be fooled by the fact that you live in the same house or sleep in the same bed. Instead, they will learn what to expect out of a relationship by watching yours. They’ll glean ideas about what they’re worthy of, what they should tolerate, what they’re allowed (and not allowed) to hope for, etc. Because of this, it’s possible that the best gift you can give your children is to model what it looks like to believe you’re worth being loved for your whole self, and not just for the sake of tradition, a promise, or some ideal familial construction. Sometimes, such modeling requires divorce. More than having everyone under one roof, it’s possible that your children will prefer to learn how to respect themselves and their dreams, by watching you do it.
The ideal is of course that parents can be personally fulfilled and stay together. But when they can’t, we must admit that sometimes, it’s divorce that allows for possibilities, love, and fruitful Life Education for children. Sometimes, the best parenting move is to move on from a relationship that fails to model the potential inherent in human intimacy. Yes, children of toughing-it-out parents get a model of commitment, perseverance, and sacrifice, and this is worthy of respect. But let’s not pretend the “perseverance model” is automatically the one a child needs – or later appreciates – most.
For one thing, (this rarely gets heard), the choice to tolerate one another “for the kids” may turn into a Great Burden of Guilt that your children take up once they recognize the choice you made (and why). That’s too much for any child to have on her head, even if it takes her years to see it.
Two, the choice to “persevere and sacrifice” may model – disastrously – the idea that a longterm relationship is not a situation in which individuals can or should expect to be fully loved, fully respected, and/or fully themselves – at least not if they have kids.
I’m not saying that by choosing to stay together, parents are always and necessarily committing themselves to misery. In fact, there’s good reason to hope that couples at the brink of divorce can come back from it more loving, more respectful of one another, and able to present even more solid examples to their children of fulfillment, connection, vitality, and commitment. When this happens, it’s beautiful.
But when this isn’t possible, we must admit that children will suffer regardless. If parents divorce, the family is broken and life irrevocably disrupted. If parents instead “suck it up” in a hopeless situation, children grow up in the context of a relationship defined by mere functional co-parenting and personal martyrdom. Let’s not pretend the latter is unequivocally preferable.
The divorce + kids quandary is the grief-worthy result of broken-down love – of lives that shift, evolve, and/or cease to connect. It is complex and imprecise. We have to be wary of simplistic black/white notions of what it means to wrestle with love that isn’t working.
Divorce is not always (or even often) the best solution. Sometimes it’s just the selfish, easy one. In such cases, marrieds should swallow our pride, work hard, get help, and press on. (So been there.) But we must also be willing to recognize when our perseverance isn’t yielding a healthier marriage. And if that sad point comes (here’s hoping it won’t), we must refuse simplistic solutions where kids are involved.
The suck-it-up-for-the-kids message is everywhere, and many parents have swallowed it blindly. So I’m agitating for nuance. Hear me roar. There’s remarkably little said about the negative impacts – on children – of parents’ forfeiture of a fulfilling intimate relationship… And of the positive impacts – on children – of parting ways. So:
I reject the assumption that divorce is always selfish,
that having a parent who actively pursues his/her personal fulfillment is a loss for his/her child (I find this notion particularly heinous),
and that parent-Togetherness is always best for a child.
I suggest that watching a parent esteem him or herself enough to work toward self-fulfillment, respectful intimacy, and a healthy partnership may be the best gift a child could receive. (How else will s/he learn that it’s possible? Or how to do it?)
When love is broken, children will be hurt – either via divorce or via f*cked up ideas about self-fulfillment and intimate relationships. In either case, these children will require healing. Let’s respect their inevitable aches enough to recognize they’re far from simple.