“The truth is, I don’t want to spend time with him. We don’t talk anymore. Well, at least not about anything that’s not related to scheduling or the kids. I’m relieved when he has to work late, glad he leaves for work in the morning before me and the kids are up…”
“And you tried counseling?” I asked.
“Yes. For a few days. But I don’t think either of us had our hearts in it. I know I didn’t. I don’t think I really want to try to work things out, to be honest. I don’t love him, not like I should, and there’s no fixing that. I like him – like a he’s a brother or old friend, I suppose – and he’s a great father to the kids. But that’s all there is to us anymore. All there ever will be.”
I took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. “You shouldn’t be together then. That’s no life for either of you. I see how unhappy you are. You can’t live like that – no one can.”
She eyed me wearily, shrugged, and said, “My happiness doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant.”
Then she started to cry.
I can’t quite describe how disturbing, shocking it was to hear those words come out of her mouth. That she seemed to actually believe it broke my heart all the more.
But the truth is, a lot of parents believe that, particularly when a marriage sours. I say this not in a shaming or judgmental way. Because I did the same thing.
I think both my ex and I knew our marriage was over about two years before June 20th, 2009, the day we ‘officially’ split (I remember the date vividly, as it was 3 days after our 8th anniversary (though we’d been together 10 years all told)). For those preceding two years we alternated between skillfully avoiding one another – essentially living separate lives – and fruitlessly butting heads, endlessly passing the kid back and forth between us as we took turns taking care of parental duties in tag-team fashion. But our life as a couple – and as anything resembling a real family – was long over. We were functionally roommates, who shared caregiving responsibilities, an agreed-upon division of labor, and put on a good show in public, when necessary.
It seemed very normal, in a way. After a while, anything can seem normal, I suppose. And the truth was that easily three-quarters of the married couples we knew were doing something similar. Pretending things were okay, when deep down, they knew things were FAR from okay. This is what marriage is, I told myself. Everyone is unhappy. Everyone stays in it for the kids. Everyone looks back on what they hoped their life, and their marriage, would be, and can’t quite fathom how things got so far off course.
Well, not everyone. But probably more than you think. If the number of people who’ve approached me since my split and confessed stories of misery, unhappiness and feeling trapped is any indication, A LOT more.
But why? Why do people do this to themselves, to each other, and ultimately to their children?
I think the root of the problem is – and was for me – the sense that divorce is somehow worse than unending misery. Keep in mind, I am someone who at one point said to a friend, “I would rather die than get divorced.” And I said this not because of some vague, perceived stigma, or because I didn’t believe I could make it on my own. No, what it boiled down to was that some part of me honestly believed it would crush my child. That she would be so devastated by the break-up that she would never get over it, that it would damage her in some profound way that I’d never be able to fix. What I didn’t take into consideration was how living with two parents who barely tolerated each other, who didn’t spend time together with her, who argued and filled the home she lived in with tension and quiet despair might affect her. What I didn’t see was how I was teaching her that a life without love, laughter and happiness was okay – normal, even. I was demonstrating for her, in how we were living, that this is what she should expect from her relationships, and in her own future marriage. I was setting as the norm a life I would never want for her, even if I managed to endure it myself. How is that not just as awful, and perhaps even more damaging in the long-run?
Maybe, as parents, the point we have to reach to end a marriage is the point at which we realize that we’re doing more harm than good staying together. I myself took a cold, hard look at the reality of what my marriage and our family life really was and decided that two unhappy, unfulfilled parents and the resultant environment we were creating for our daughter was far, far worse than two happy, fulfilled parents living separately could ever be. And I knew it would be hard, and I knew it would be upsetting – for all of us – to make that transition. But ultimately I believed that my happiness and fulfillment, and my ex’s happiness and fulfillment, would bleed over into my daughter’s in the same way our unhappiness clearly did. Happy parents make happy kids, unhappy parents make unhappy kids. It seems almost too simple an equation. But it’s true.
It took almost two years before we worked up the guts to do it, but the bottomline is that breaking up WAS the right thing for us, the best thing. For ALL of us. My daughter is now happier than she’s ever been, and so are we. Children are incredibly resilient, and so long as they aren’t subjected to parental infighting, blaming and spitefulness, they quickly adjust. Children want their parents to be happy, and will in fact often blame themselves – wrongly, of course – for their parents’ misery. And besides, “we stayed together and were miserable for years FOR YOU” is an awfully heavy and unfair emotional burden to put on any child, I think you’d agree.
My friend stayed in her unhappy marriage. She’s tried to leave twice since, but fear and that wrong-headed sense of guilt has drawn her back again and again. She feels trapped, but the reality is that no one is. That’s an illusion. Yes, you are a parent, and your child’s best interests must be considered and taken into account in every decision you make in life. In becoming a parent, you signed a contract, in a sense, that you must always weigh and measure what is best for your kids in everything you do. No one would claim otherwise. But – and this is important – you still count, and your happiness still matters. You didn’t sign a contract agreeing to an unfulfilled half-life of despair for them, you didn’t sign away your humanity and the value of that when you became a mother or a father. And the truth is, no child would ever want you to do that for them.
Read more from Tracey Gaughran-Perez at her personal blog Sweetney.com