Dear Mixed Feelings,
After four years of struggling in my marriage, I’ve decided to leave my husband. He doesn’t support me or my career; he thinks my politics are toxic and my religion is sinful. I know I’m not blameless either.
We have two kids and they love their dad and he is a good dad. I would have left years ago if it weren’t for these amazing kids and all the warnings from my parents and society about how divorce can ruin lives. All of the data implies that kids of divorce have things so much harder. But honestly, I grew up with parents in a bad marriage and that wasn’t great either. I’m leaving because I cannot be myself in this marriage, but it feels so selfish to leave knowing that I’m upending their lives. How do I approach this decision without fucking up my kids?
A couple months ago I was sitting in a meeting hall, listening to talk from a man who’d lost part of his leg to a land mine in his early twenties. “April 12, 1994,” he said. “That’s the date that changed my life. There was life before that day and life after.” Then he looked around the room and said, “How many of you have a date?”
I immediately thought of the day my parents told my sister and me they were getting a divorce. It was early October, 2007. I was twenty-six, an adult with a full and happy life on the other side of the continent. But still the news gutted me.
The morning after my parents told us that they did not love each other any more, the four of us got up before dawn and drove to the Magic Mart parking lot for a hot air balloon ride. I was furious about having to do this, but too sad to protest. We’d been planning it all week and, as far as my parents were concerned, following through on our plans was the right thing to do. We’d always been people who followed through—why would that change now?
But everything changed. Divorce made us question the very foundations of who we thought we were.
There was something grotesque about the collision of beauty and pain that morning, the way the fog garlanded the recesses of tobacco fields, the growing ache in my gut. When I say the news of my parents’ divorce gutted me, I mean that I felt as though something important—something I needed to function—had been cut right out of me. But the balloon landed and I boarded a plane and flew across the continent and I kept functioning. We all did.
Ten years later, sitting in that meeting hall, I still wasn’t sure if I could claim my parents’ divorce as my before-and-after moment. Divorce is not a land mine explosion. It isn’t a cancer diagnosis or the death of a son. Divorce felt too pedestrian, too childish to claim as the thing that had cleaved my life in two. But it had. It had made me someone different—different, but also better.
Divorce made us all better in ways I could not possibly have imagined the morning of that balloon ride.
I know it feels selfish to leave your marriage. There’s so much stigma around divorce—much of which is perpetuated by divorce research and its circulation in the media. Yes, some of the data suggests that kids of divorce have it much harder than kids whose parents stay married—but not all of the data. If you dig into the research, you’ll find there are really two camps: 1) Those who argue that we should make every effort to discourage divorce due to its detrimental impacts on family and society, and 2) Those who think kids of divorced families are doing more-or-less okay. So how do we account for these two different conversations?
In a 2003 review of all the existing literature on the long-term risks associated with children of divorce, psychologists Joan Kelly and Robert Emery found that
…the current consensus in the social science literature is that the majority of children whose parents divorced are not distinguishable from their peers whose parents remained married.
They point out that several studies that suggest divorce harms children suffer from significant methodological problems: they focus on families who were already functioning poorly before divorce, or they don’t use a comparison group of married families, or they lack sufficient data to draw reliable conclusions. Kelly and Emery also point out that many studies fail to distinguish between the inevitable pain of divorce and “longer term psychological symptoms or pathology.” In other words, they conflate ordinary grief with maladjustment.
In the wake of my parents’ divorce I felt sad, anxious, cut loose in the world. Divorce is painful. You know this already. It’s so painful that many people—researchers included—prefer to believe it is always a mistake, that there can never be anything beautiful on the other side of all that pain.
Here’s how Kelly and Emery end their paper:
We conclude that although some children are harmed by parental divorce, the majority of findings show that most children do well. To suggest otherwise is to provide an inaccurate interpretation of the research findings. Further, such misrepresentations of research are potentially harmful in creating stigma, helplessness, and negative expectations for children and parents from divorced families.
I know I’m coming to this research with my own set of biases. The reason I’m telling you about my experience with divorce is not because I think divorce is always the best decision and not because I think your family’s experience will be just like mine, but because I want you to understand where I’m coming from when I say that, like Kelly and Emery (check out this book), I’m deeply skeptical of research that further stigmatizes divorce and the researchers who suggest that children of divorce will suffer in irreparable ways.
I think it’s smart to reserve some healthy skepticism for data that reinforces and perpetuates biases that already exist in our culture. Much of the early research around divorce in the 1960s and 70s measured the well-being of a group of people who were suffering profound social stigma (and whose marriages were so bad that the stigma of divorce was better than staying married). And, since the courts often awarded sole custody to single mothers who earned little money, children of divorce had far fewer resources than they do today.
In a recent meta-study of post-divorce custody arrangements, psychologist Linda Neilsen found that having close relationships with both parents “is the best predictor of future outcomes for the kids.” You’re worried about fucking up your kids, but the answer is fairly simple: love them and make plenty of space for their dad to love them, too.
When I say that divorce made my family better in ways I couldn’t have imagined, what I mean is that I thought I was close to my parents before the divorce, but I became much closer to them after. Before they divorced, I called one number to talk to both of them. We discussed the weather and when I should get the oil changed in my car and when I would be home to visit. After they divorced, I called them separately. I visited them separately. I began to know them as separate, messy, flawed, generous people. A few months after my mom moved out, my dad and I went on an Alaskan cruise together. We stood on the bow of a giant boat and listened to the great wrenching screech of icebergs calving off the end of a glacier and dropping into the sea. My dad’s sadness felt as loud as those glaciers. But there we were: out in the world, looking for beauty together.
In a remarkable essay on divorce and grief, Lisa Martin describes “the broken-openness we feel at times of loss”:
…we live with our hearts blown apart until one day we notice that in our rawness we are as vulnerable to being touched by beauty and goodness as to being abraded by crisis and loss. At the end of the process, we are more—other—than we were before.
Divorce isn’t a land mine, but it wounds us. We don’t always give that wound the care it needs. Martin suggests that maybe the pain of loss exists “to motivate us to get ourselves away from the intolerable place where we are, to arrive somewhere else instead.”
As I type this, the cherry trees are budding all over my neighborhood. When the dog and I go out, we monitor their progress, trying to identify the moment of their fullest bloom, the very second before the petals rain over the parked cars below, before they brown and clog the gutters. As we wander the neighborhood, I keep thinking of the cherry tree in the back yard of the house I grew up in. I remember it being in bloom—we’d pose in front of it for photos on Easter morning—but I don’t remember its blooming. I can’t understand this. I spent hours every week circling the lawn on our riding mower and ignoring our cherry tree. It was doing the impossible-seeming work of producing something from nothing and yet I never paid attention. The tree is just one of a thousand casualties of my parents’ divorce. They sold the house and I can’t go back and mow the lawn. But now I am someone who notices the blooming.
Marriage is one way of housing love. But there are a hundred other houses—sometimes you just have to build them yourself.
Now you get to build a house in which you are free to be yourself, free from your husband’s judgment and contempt. A house where your husband can still be a good dad to the kids you both love. A house where you can all be touched by goodness. This is what divorce can offer us. This new house is something you and your husband can offer your children.
Every February Roscoe and I walk past the bare, scraggly trees of east Vancouver and, though I know their riotous pink explosion is coming, I can’t quite believe it. But beauty persists. The biology of love is as reliable as the biology of blooming. All we can do is trust it.
Mixed Feelings is an advice column that draws on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to [email protected] or submit it here.
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