I am often asked about kids and divorce. Wives ask me “do you think I should stay in a miserable marriage just for the sake of my kids?” This is a very loaded question. First of all, this question implies that marriage is in a perpetually static state… once miserable.. forever miserable.
Research has proven that this belief is not only false, but it’s also dangerous to the mental health of your children.
Over the past three decades, science has unlocked the secrets of how to make a troubled marriage happy and successful. But as Michele-Weiner Davis points out, it isn’t magic. It takes work.
When you have children, and you are unhappily married, you owe it to them to confront every obstacle and employ every resource to avoid dissolving your marriage. There are plenty of new age pundits who claim otherwise. But hear this loud and clear:
Once a marriage dissolves, so too, does the family… forever. Research tells us that children only benefit from divorce only in those situations where there is extreme abuse. It is estimated that only one third of the divorces in our country fit this criteria. In all other cases, children lose out on many different dimensions when their parents split. Even when the adults feel happier as a result of divorce, research shows that there is no “trickle down effect” in terms of how the children fare. Michele Weiner-Davis
The science says that your “personal growth” can be hell for your kids.
Ouch! I know. The truth hurts.
There are a few exceptions, such as systemic domestic violence, and severe mental illness.
But “conventionally unhappy” marriages can be turned around. There is no virtue in suffering in silence. You can get action on your chronic issues.
Please hear me when I say that when it comes to the impact that divorce has on your kids, this is one of the most carefully studied areas of social science.
Don’t let anybody cause you to think otherwise. The science on this is settled.
If you have children, divorce destroys their family, upsets everything they rely on, and sets a terrible example that they will carry into their future.
Once you choose to bring children into the world, divorce isn’t a solution to an unhappy marriage. Fixing it is.
Michele Weiner -Davis
Well over a million marriages that will end in divorce in 2017, almost 75% of those divorces will be filed for by women. What is this so-called, “Walk-away Wife” syndrome all about?
After the honeymoon, wives are the caretakers of the marriage. They carefully notice the quality of their intimate bond, constantly monitoring the level of closeness and connection.
When deficits are detected, wives will do their best to call attention to the problems they are trying to fix.
And when their husbands ignore them, as they often do, they become extremely unhappy. They start criticizing him about everything under the sun… things that need to get done around the house, responsibilities pertaining to the children, how free time is spent and so on.
Unfortunately, when women criticize, men generally retreat and the marriage deteriorates even more.
Often husbands are dismissive, don’t respond, or make half-hearted efforts. Gottman says that part of the reasons why husbands get defensive is that as the wives become increasingly unhappy, they start “kitchen sinking” their criticisms.
“You never take out the trash on time. You always leave your clothes on the floor. If I told you once I told you a hundred freakin’ times clean the basement. You never have time for me anymore etc. etc”.
Every week, I talk to these wives. For the most part, they know better. They know that kids and divorce are a problem that will last for years.
They halfheartedly admit that they are probably making things worse.
But they have convinced themselves by this point that the problem is with their husband and not between both of them. When wives ratchet up their nagging and
criticizing, husbands get more defensive and withdraw. And then the marriage breaks down even further.
Usually, after several years of cajoling, and then criticizing, the wife concedes. She becomes utterly convinced that there’s absolutely nothing that will ever change.
Contempt seeps in. She begins to fantasize about divorce. She might tuck money away, pursue some training or education, or take other concrete steps to prepare for her eventual “freedom.”
She may even rationalize that reconciling the kids and divorce is not such a big deal.
And while she is dreaming of divorce, she “goes dark” to her husband. She stops complaining or nagging.
She cultivates a “whatever” mindset. She doesn’t try anymore… because deep down she doesn’t care anymore.
Unfortunately, her husband is all too quick to notice that all is quiet on the marital front…and his attitude is “I’m glad that’s over with.” He is clueless.
Sometimes these men call me right after their wives calmly drop the bomb. I ask: “was there an event recently in you wife’s life, a close death, a divorce, graduation, a certification, a promotion or a new job?” They usually say.. “well yes… how did you know?”
Time is of the essence in these marriages. Complacency and a “let’s wait and see” attitude is deadly, and by the time husbands act, it might be too late. She may have checked out past the point of no return.
And their kids have a ringside seat. Helplessly watching their families unravel.
If you’re a walk away wife, I get it… you’re fed up. But if your husband is in a panic right now about losing you, he can’t be that apathetic. Too little too late? Yeah, I told you. I get it.
But finally, your husband may be getting it as well.
Sometimes men can be very dense and self-preoccupied when you are politely trying to get their attention.
But when you told him you’re so done…did he panic? That means you are getting through to him! Men respond to action.
You’re in action. He’s paying attention.
This is an excellent time to take a deep breath and give him another shot.
We regularly work with walk away wives and their shell-shocked husbands during our couples retreats.
And they accomplish the remarkable. They think about kids and divorce. They turn it around …right at the edge of the cliff.
We’ve seen so many defensive husbands craft amazing turnarounds once they truly get how profoundly unhappy their wives have been for so long. I have seen many couples successfully rebuild their marriages even though it seemed an impossible task.
You put him on notice. The ball is now in his court, walk away wife.
Give your husband another chance. Let him prove to you that things he can be different. Keep your family together. The consequences for kids and divorce echo thru time. Divorce is neither simple or easy. It causes unimaginable pain and suffering for both of you because of your kids and divorce.
He just might be going through a long dark night of the soul.
These guys call me every day. Shell-shocked. Remorseful. Terrified. And let me tell you… if you divorce them, many of them make outstanding husbands with their next wife.
Are you gonna let her get him all broken-in and sensitized to his future wife on your dime?
If you’re a husband reading this post and your wife is nagging and complaining about you…give her a big hug and tell her that you are going to start paying attention.
Thank her for nagging. You heard me….Thank her for nagging!
It means she still cares about the marriage and hasn’t given up on you yet. She’s working hard to make your love stronger. Spend time with her. Talk to her. Compliment her. Pay attention. Take her seriously. Show her that she’s the most important thing in the world to you.
It may not look like it, but she takes no pleasure in complaining. She’s actually doing what she can… what she has been socialized to do… to make her marriage stronger.
Don’t squander your availability. Stop your stonewalling and defensiveness. Ask yourself “what is she right about here?” Talk to her. Take her complaints heart-attack serious. Because they are.
And most importantly, model for your kids the family virtues that will stand them in good stead in their futures, persistence, fortitude, emotional toughness, resilience, and grit.
Gottman says that the best gift you can give your children is a close and intimate marital bond. You implied that your kids could count on that gift when you brought them into the world in the first place.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.