We could debate for a decade. Is it better to stay married for the children or divorce to make yourself happy? Is it better to divorce if you believe the children will also be better off – eventually?
Naturally, this begs the issue of how children respond to divorce at particular ages. Is it better if they’re babies, toddlers, or young children?
What if they’re teenagers? What if they’re about to embark on college?
What if you believe one child will be fine with it, and the other will suffer terribly? What if your children have special needs, complicating the picture?
Postponing Divorce “For the Children”
I look to my own story. I often wished my marriage would have lasted until my boys had graduated high school. I look back and realize there were many factors that would have made that unlikely.
As an adult child of divorce – my parents split up when I was nearly thirty – I know that I was essentially unaffected by the end of their marriage. I was long out of college and grad school, and living my own life.
But would my childhood have been happier had my parents divorced sooner? Was my mother right to wait for so many years, or is the question simplistic?
Is Staying Prolonging the Agony?
We have many myths about the effects of divorce on children. We also have pop culture wisdom which, of late, touts the happiness of the parents at all cost – and presumes that the happiness of the children will follow.
While my mother initiated the divorce proceedings, I doubt she wanted a divorce. I know what precipitated her decision – it was a financial matter. But it was was related to my father’s involvement with another woman, something she had known about for years.
My mother had chosen stability, and by that I mean continuity of our lifestyle such as it was and finances, though we weren’t especially well off. We were “middle class” in the days when middle class meant something. But by staying in the marriage, my mother guaranteed her children the same schools and friends, and never being forced to move by virtue of no money for the mortgage, the utilities, the food on the table.
The Emotions in Divorce Decisions
What I believe now is this: my mother hoped to ride things out, to make her marriage better, to “live with” what women of her generation did, and routinely.
My father was her family. My father’s family was her family. And I might guess that she also wanted to ensure that the “home” remained intact, which was no small thing in the 1960s and still in the 1970s.
None of my mother’s friends were divorced. Other than one oft-married distant aunt, no one in the family was divorced. The stigma would have been considerable and I now understand this.
Marriage is a Secret Place
Do any of us live a marriage story that is black and white?
When you build decades of history together, when you share children, when you are part of a community as a married couple regardless of the intimacy that exists between you, when you love your in-laws and consider them your family – with or without romantic love – endings can be brutally painful.
I believe my mother felt shut out of what she created, cut off from its belonging, its status, the identity she took from marriage and everything it means. My father went on to enjoy a second marriage with the woman he loved, though it was cut short by his premature death.
My mother no doubt mourned her youth, her relationship as it was and it wasn’t, and I know she mourned my father.
Marriage is a secret place.
What We Learn From Our Parents’ Marriages
I would like to believe there were joyful times, especially in my parents’ early years together. I see smiles in Polaroids, but know a smile can be deceiving. I recall dinners at the kitchen table, lively discussions, and laughter.
My parents were very different – in nature and in interests – I find myself wondering what they had in common, not to mention what they saw in each other except the appeal of a “nice boy from a good family” and likewise, a “nice girl from a good family.”
I say this looking at images of my mother when she was young. She was lovely, exuberant, brilliant. My father was charming, athletic, funny. But marriage – a successful marriage – requires so much more.
When Your Parents Divorce and You’re an Adult
There is no “one way” to feel about parents divorcing – at any age.
To me, my parents’ divorce was both inevitable and a relief. I wasn’t stricken, I wasn’t saddened; I was hopeful that my mother would go on to find whatever it was she was looking for and never found in her years with my father.
I had long made myself a vow: If I ever married, I wouldn’t repeat my parents’ mistakes. I was even more committed to not repeat her destructive relationship patterns when I, myself, married. And I did not.
I tried hard to be the wife my husband wanted. I dealt with my husband in ways that my mother did not deal with my father. But I went too far in the opposite direction, which I see now was detrimental to the health of my marriage.
“The Best Interests of the Children”
We talk a good game about “the best interests of the children.” Scholars and psychologists present their research with conviction; experts of all sorts publish their books and promote their point of view.
Do we ever know which decisions will work out best? Can we ever do more than look both analytically and emotionally at what divorce would feel like through our children’s eyes? Can we know the future? Must we tolerate extraordinary unhappiness?
At times I wonder about my father’s lack of courage in following his heart and initiating divorce years before my mother finally did so. If he had, would she have had a better shot at less bitterness and a better life? Would that have been “in the best interests of the children?”
Best Age for Children of Divorce
Though I often asked my unhappy mother why she didn’t divorce – and I was a child at the time – I can’t possibly know what thought process she may have been going through.
Had she considered divorce when I was 8 or 10? What about 12 or 15?
Would the disruption and expense of divorce have impacted my ability to go to college, though I attended on scholarships and loans? Would it have caused more chaos in my life than I realized? Did my mother sense this, and so she stayed?
I have no way to know, any more than I can say that it would’ve been better for my own children if they had been much younger when I divorced, or 10 years older and away from home.
If we are in a position to make “the choice,” we pose ourselves these questions. Unless there is a situation of abuse, we can rarely be certain of the answers.
- Repeating Your Parents’ Mistakes
- Through Our Children’s Eyes
- Telling Your Children About Divorce
- “I Promise I’ll Be the Way I Was”