Staying Together for the Kids

“Divorce isn’t such a tragedy. A tragedy’s staying in an unhappy marriage, teaching your children the wrong things about love. Nobody ever died of divorce.”

Jennifer Weiner

Divorce, once an unreasonable concept in my life, is now my reality and, much to my own surprise, I find it easier to say it aloud to people. When sharing the news to people for the fist time, I often get a compassionate “I’m sorry to hear that.” I always respond by saying “no, it’s good. This is a good thing.” Some will push further and say “yes, but it has to be difficult, especially on the kids.” I smile and nod and rarely respond. Inside I remind myself that staying in an unhappy, miserable marriage would have been much worse. As I have witnessed over time, my children are much happier and I have a far better, more open relationship with them. I spent so many years hiding things and avoiding eye contact with them after their dad and I had arguments. I pretended that they weren’t aware although it was painfully evident that they were acutely tuned in to the dynamics between their parents.

For the years leading up to my split, I worried most about my kids. My ex begged me not to break up our family every single time I brought up the subject of divorce and those words echoed deep within me. Intellectually, I knew he was not playing fair but emotionally (the part that always interferes with my better judgment) I was torn. When divorce first became part of the conversation with my ex, my kids were still young. I had serious concerns about the fate of my marriage as far back as when my oldest son was an infant. I fought all the noise in my head because we had a young child and I had committed to myself that I would not end up divorced like everyone else in my family. I was going to break the cycle. I attributed my angst to the stresses of parenthood. Money was tight and managing work and family felt like I was juggling knives. The reality is that I was experiencing the painful foreshadowing of what would ultimately bury our relationship. My ex took a nosedive when our kids were born and, decades later, behaved more like another one of my children than my husband and partner.

Nothing has startled me more than how little I miss my ex. Having him out of my home and out of my life has allowed me to exhale deeply and gratefully. And, the longer it goes without him here and as I watch him operate in his new role of ex-husband and visiting dad, I realize how shallow our relationship had become. I have had to reckon with the painful behavior patterns that developed where I squashed my feelings in the hopes that I could bend or flex in such a way that would make him happy and eliminate a lot of the disruptive behavior. I struggle with assigning blame to my ex because it is always my process to look at myself first and examine what I am doing to impact difficult situations but, after a lot of work in therapy, I have had to come to understand that my ex-husband is a narcissist and nothing I could have ever done would have satisfied him. At no point could I have adjusted my approach with him because, each time I did, he found another crack in which to infect with his disease. He passively abused me for years, quietly trying to challenge my reality with his warped interpretation of life. I am angry about this now and I have a great deal of remorse that I was not able to understand this sooner.

As I reflect on the last 5-10 years of my marriage, I realize how much my children absorbed. I worry about what message we were communicating to them by not being able to model a healthy relationship. All the time I was worrying about disrupting their world with divorce, I never thought about how staying married was potentially doing even more harm.

Recently, I told my ex that he would have to start seeing the kids outside of my home. Since he moved out, I opened my home up to him, allowing him to have his visits here, giving him full access to the house. Based on my intentions and hopes when we split, this seemed doable. I wanted us to be friends. I hoped that we could both put the kids ahead of our individual anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment, and needs. The language I used with my kids, together with my ex at first and then individually with them, was always reinforcing that theme. I knew that I could manage my feelings about my ex independent of my kids and hoped, desperately, that he could do the same.

He could not.

Why didn’t I realize that up front? My therapist kept telling me. My friends who knew him kept telling me. Anyone familiar with our marriage warned me that he would not be able to adhere to that plan. My ex even telegraphed that to me when we first split. But I refused to listen to them all. I stuck with my belief that after everything he had endured in his own childhood, he would do better, he would rise higher. What I missed was the fact that, because of his childhood, he could not do better or lift himself out of the muck in which he trudged since his adolescence. He had not overcome his childhood and his own parents’ divorce and was destined to fail. I had set him up to fail. I had built this whole new reality for ourselves on a house of cards.

After months and months of him coming here and attempting to do some needed repairs around the house – in lieu of paying child support – and making dinner for the kids two nights a week, it became evident that he was not actually getting done the work he committed to and he was increasingly more hostile each time he showed up. Our relationship was being taxed in the same way it did when we were married. He was not working (as was the case for the latter part of our marriage), was unable to contribute to the support and maintenance of the home and the kids, and he was not showing any signs of changing that. Furthermore, any interaction I had with him was judged and interpreted as hostile, even when I was going out of my way to be kind.

My ex had moved from our home into the home of his girlfriend that he had started dating shortly after we split. They live about 1 hour south of where we live which has proven to be challenging for him to create a meaningful schedule for visitation with the kids. And, because he hasn’t made many efforts to incorporate the kids into his new life, my kids are not quite as enthusiastic about visiting his house. Because of these circumstances, we don’t share custody but I have tried to make accommodations to ensure he has every opportunity to see the kids. I do this for my children. I will not be the person that prevents them from having a relationship with their dad. Plus, my kids are older now. My oldest is an adult and he gets to figure out the relationship for himself. My younger one is close behind and has the ability to make plans with his dad and decide if/how/when he wants to interact. My sole job is to support their decisions. The rest is up to my ex. Personally, I am disappointed by it all but I do my best to give them all the love and demonstrate my encouragement for whatever they choose to do.

Early in this process it appeared that we might be heading in this direction and I sat in my therapist’s office sobbing about the fate of my kids. He reminded me again and again (and again – even last week) that my children are not going to suffer the same experiences I did with my own father. My parents were divorced when I was in grade school and I saw him very infrequently. My recollections of our interactions are very superficial and, even at my tender age, I knew that he was not being a good dad. My mother, never one to protect her kids from any pain, reminded us regularly about how unsupportive and abusive my father was. That became my reality. I never felt caught in between the two of them but, rather, was Team Mom. Even though my mother was not a stellar parent, I supported her and looked at my dad as the evil monster that she portrayed him to be. I never had the opportunity to form my own conclusions until adulthood and, frankly, even then I was always seeing him through the distorted lens that was established at a very young age. I know that my ex-husband is not like my father and that my children are not experiencing anything close to what I did. Yet, I struggle not to project that reality onto them. When I lay awake at night worrying about their lives as adults and their relationships with their dad, I impose my own dysfunctional reality onto them. And, it cuts deeply into my flesh because I cannot tolerate the thought that they would have to deal with that.

In fact, with all his missteps and problems, my ex is a far better father than I had or he had. He loves his boys deeply but lacks the tools and the emotional well-being to support them in the way I would prefer. I am always comforted by the fact that my kids have two parents who love them and one parent who provides for them every day. I would walk on hot coals, broken glass, or any other metaphoric painful path, to protect them and give them the life they deserve. I am ready to release my frustrations and anxiety about how my ex interacts with them and relinquish all control related to it because it is difficult to separate my experience from theirs. I keep trying and remind myself daily of the stark differences. So, I simply show up, love them and be the very best parent I can be. It is a reminder that as a divorced parent I can only be responsible for my parenting efforts. And that is the one thing I know I am doing right.

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