Until Mid-life Do We Reconsider

I looked up my best friend, Charley, from high school on a recent visit to my parents. "How are you doing?" I asked. His reply was short and to the point. "Mid-life crisis." "Really?" I replied. "In spades!" he said, "Connie and I may split up."

I wondered how to support him. Do I remind him of the virtues of sticking it out? Or do I encourage him in his bid for freedom and the chance for a new and better relationship? Do I ask him how he thinks his choices will affect his kids, Eva and Corey? I decided to just listen to him as he tried to figure it all out.

I was struck by the agony of his dilemma. He would give anything for his kids. But what is better for them, to have their parents together and struggling, or separated and hopefully happier? Many couples come upon this question, and each must find their own answer. I have heard many wise but contradictory points of view articulated. Here are some of them: 

"The excitement of a new relationship is very seductive. But it always fades. That's how our nervous systems work. We stop getting excited about the things that are always there. I remember how excited I was when I fell in love with my wife, and I know that if I found someone new it would just be a matter of time before we would be right where my wife and I are now. Then what would I do?" 

"I keep growing and changing so much that it seems really unreasonable to expect that the partner I chose fifteen years ago would still be right for me. Maybe we shouldn't expect lifetime partnerships. Maybe we should actually plan on switching things around every ten years or so." 

"My parents split up and I hated it. I don't care how annoying Hal can be. He loves the kids. And raising them would be a lot harder if we separated. Maybe when they leave home I'll leave him. But not now." 

"I'm glad my parents split up. I couldn't stand their bickering. My mom modeled for me that I don't have to just settle for something that isn't right for me. And my dad finally found someone who accepts him the way he is, mostly."

"When the magic of being in love fades (the part of life movies always end prior to) we are left only with the sense of meaningfulness that we have created with our own choices. I love my wife, not because she thrills me after twenty years together, but because I am thrilled by my own choice to live my life with her. My adventure is to find all the wonders of the world right here, with her."

"I want to split up with my wife, but I don't want to leave my son. I wish I could just live next door and we could have barbecues together a lot."  

"I'm sorry, but my kids are not the most important thing in the world to me. I have to do what's right for me, even if I know it will be hard for them. I would rather trust that they can adjust to changes in our family than end up resenting them for a choice that I made supposedly on their behalf." 

"When I finally decided to stay with my husband I had to kiss my escape fantasy good-bye. It had comforted me a long time and I did not want to let it go. But when I did, something changed. I started listening to what he had been saying about me all these years. Like how I never let anyone in. You know what? He was right." 

"Kids need love. They need an abundance of good attention. It doesn't matter what constellation of family, friends or relatives give it to them. This "tragedy" of the broken family is a cultural fiction, a result of our attachment to a single image of how families are supposed to look. It doesn't matter if parents live together or not. What matters is how much time and energy we give to our children."

"I felt so guilty about wanting to get divorced. I dreaded telling my children and my parents. Then, during a fight with my husband, I realized that I had been letting the marriage deteriorate on purpose. I needed it to get so bad that no one in their right mind could tell me I should stay."  

When there are kids involved, the question of divorce becomes harder to answer. You can't just walk away without looking back. Even if you live separately, you will continue to have to reckon with your child's other parent. The only really clear conclusion from sociological research on families is that ongoing conflict between parents is painful for their children. For your children's sake, you simply have to find a way to stop fighting, whether you divorce or not.

It also clear that parenting from separate households can be very difficult. It is hard for both kids and parents to be apart. Kids aren't always good at telling you about themselves. An important part of parenting is simply watching your child, so you can understand and help them with the struggles they don't know how to talk about. Carefully observing your child becomes hard when you don't live with them full time. So before parents choose divorce, it makes sense to really consider if reconciliation within the marriage is possible. I recommend the following questions: 

1) Is the problem my spouse, or the stress of parenthood? Parenting can be really stressful. Some parents do not know what they are getting themselves in for when they conceive. Romantic notions of family can quickly fade when the enormous toll of parental exhaustion and lack of personal time become a daily reality. Stressed out parents can blame each other for not helping more, when in fact, both are overextended. 

2) Is there an crucial irreconcilable difference, or just a big pile of stuff we haven't dealt with? Keeping a relationship passionate requires ongoing exploration of each other, and a commitment to resolving differences as they arise. If you want a new partner because you haven't been taking out the garbage regularly in your present marriage, then you are likely to be disappointed once the initial glow of a new partner wears off. Many people divorce because they simply don't know how to deal with accumulated emotional baggage. 

3) Am I stuck in patterns from my past, and hoping a new relationship will free me? It is hard to know when you may be unconsciously fixed in dysfunctional patterns from the family you grew up in. By definition, the unconscious is unknown to the self. But all through our lives we get feedback about how others see us. Do we ignore this feedback, work around it, or use it to inspire self-exploration and change? New relationships can prove just as disappointing as old ones, but the journey of self-exploration is never boring, dispassionate, or complete. 

4) Have I been denying my truth to avoid the guilt or shame of getting a divorce? Dysfunctional patterns can keep us in a bad marriage as well as ruin a good one. Societal pressures against divorce can be very hurtful to people who really need to end their marriages. Sometimes the choice to separate is the right one. There is a voice within each of us that can give us this guidance once our self-awareness is clear enough to hear it. If divorce is the answer, the needs of the children involved can be carefully addressed. And a better life might be the result.

© 2005 Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, MFT is father to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and men's group leader. If you have any feedback, or would like to receive the monthly column, "Daddyman Speaks" by Tim Hartnett regularly via email, (free and confidential) send your name and email address to Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax.

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