“We’re trying to work it out for the kids,” my girlfriend whispered quietly and unsurely as we discussed her husband’s infidelity and her difficulty moving past it. It was odd. I remember her breaking up with a guy once because he’d been late for two dates. “Fool me once…,” she’d always say. I had always admired her for her strong sense of, and love for, self. In regards to relationships, staying or going was very cut and dry for her. She didn’t fear being single; I think she actually silently preferred it.
But all those habits changed when she married her husband and became mommy to two rambunctious, and amazingly sweet little boys. That’s simply how it goes. Nothing changes us and turns us inside out like becoming parents. From the moment we give birth, after we hear that first cry, our thoughts immediately center on the absolutely frightening idea that from that moment on, we’re fully responsible for the life of another human being.
As parents, when we move past our fears of physically caring for our children (when we realize that sometimes they cry for no reason, and that the fevers will eventually break), we shift our focus on caring for them mentally and emotionally. Because many of us are dealing with our own family traumas, we become obsessed with not creating those same traumas for them. And so whatever we think “perfect” and “right” is, we pledge to give that to our children.
“You give up your life for your children” was the advice my mother gave me when she saw me struggling in my marriage. I’m certain it was the advice her mother had given her too—advice that all the women in my family, most of who are celebrating over 40 years of marriage, were given. So I tried it, the giving up of my life, with all my might, hoping that my love for my daughter would turn into a kind of fairy dust that would make my relationship with her father a happy one.
Choosing to divorce my husband made me feel exceedingly selfish, like I was taking something very meaningful and valuable away from my daughter. She looked at her father like the sun set and rose by his command. And I knew that look of wonderment and adoration because I was, myself, a daddy’s girl. With very few exceptions, I went to bed and awoke with my father a room away until adulthood, and only a few miles away thereafter. I knew what that kind of security meant, what that kind of being loved and being wanted had added to my life.
I wanted my daughter to have that same experience; it was what she deserved, I thought. Ultimately though, I realized that what she deserved more was to see both of her parents be healthy, happy and whole, and none of that was happening where her father and I stood.
It should go without saying that the process of divorce impacts the lives and psyche of children, so divorcing should be the very last resort for couples experiencing challenges in their relationship. But according to Scientific American, we tend to overestimate exactly how much damage children suffer as a result of their parents splitting.
According to psychology professors Hal Arkowitz and Scott Lilienfield, children are affected short-term by divorce (and usually respond with anger, anxiety, shock and disbelief), but they generally recover by the end of the second year. Research also shows that children of divorce go on to lead seemingly well-adjusted lives. According to the authors, “On average, the studies found only very small differences on all… measures between children of divorced parents and those from intact families, suggesting that the vast majority of children endure divorce well.”
What we rarely consider when we decide we’re doing the right thing by staying married for our children is what those children witness as a result of our decisions to stay. “[V]ery few people consider the consequences of children growing up in unhappy yet intact homes, as they witness conflicted, unloving and uncooperative parental relations. Children tend to model what they see in their parents’ relations,” argues psychotherapist and marriage counselor Mel Schwartz. Schwartz goes on to say that those children who grow up witnessing the difficult relationships outlined above tend to not only normalize those behaviors, but repeat them in their own relationships.
I believe in fighting for marriage, and I also believe that many of us give up the fight too soon. Before uprooting children from their home life and routines, serious thought, and possibly counseling, should be undergone. But after fighting our best fight, we should consider that staying together for the kids might be hurting them more than helping them.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.