Staying in an Unhappy Marriage for the Kids
I get it. Your kids are your life, and there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for them, including (but not limited to) staying in your unhappy marriage.
But what’s the right choice? Do you stay, knowing that it’s entirely possible that your kids are aware of more tension than you even realize? Or do you go, knowing that you’ll forever change their family dynamic and force them to adjust to a new – potentially harmful – normal?
No one can make that choice for you. You’re their mother, and, ultimately, I strongly believe that most moms know what’s best for their kids. Though, honestly, if you’re in a bad situation, there’s probably no way out of it that means your children will be totally unscathed.
But before you berate yourself for finding yourself in this position, or torture yourself with your feelings of guilt and inadequacy, take a few moments to think. After all, none of us come out of life unscathed. Right? It’s not your job to wrap your children up in a little cocoon of safety and happiness. In fact, it’s unrealistic. Life is hard, and your kids, sooner or later, will have to learn that.
Really, though it’s sad (as many life events are), you’re in a really influential position if you are considering separating from your child’s father. You have an opportunity here. There’s a chance for you to use your supermom powers for the good of your kids, to help them learn not to wallow in pain, but to learn healthy coping mechanisms that will see them through this crisis – and the next, and the next. (Let’s face it, there will inevitably be next crises.) That’s not to say that this is a happy time, or that you should relish being in this position. It’s hard, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the difficulty, even to your children. They are dealing with big, big feelings, and they need you to recognize, acknowledge, and validate their feelings.
Staying in a marriage for the kids is a risky decision. I was reading an article the other day that said that children who grow up in these situations tend to take on their parents depression and anxiety. Even when you think you’re putting on a happy face, your kids can sense your tension. They grow up with it, and it’s a burden to them. You’re also teaching them that this is what marriage – and love – look and feel like to the people who are surrounded by it. It’s a really unhealthy way for a kid to think.
If I’m thinking about separating from my child’s father, what should I do first?
It’s scary to think about becoming a single parent, especially if you’ve been out of the workforce for awhile or depend heavily on your husband’s income.
It’s a good idea to take a really harsh look at your finances. If you’re not working, consider your options. Should you go back to work? Maybe. If you are working, look at what you’re earning and whether you could potentially make more (or work more flexible hours) somewhere else, or even at your same job. It’s a good idea to talk to your boss to see what you could do, and whether you could be a little more flexible. Polish that resume.
It’s also a good time to take a look at debts (pay off what you can), check out your credit score (and do what you can to improve it), and set a bit of extra money aside. We often tell women who are separating from their husbands to set aside some money (in cash) a little bit at a time, over a period of time. If you get $20-30 cash back each time you make a Target run, or go to the grocery store, you can stockpile a fair amount without anyone’s being any the wiser.
Talk to an attorney and a financial planner. You can do this before you even formally separate, or know for sure that you’re separating. Knowing what you can expect to receive in terms of child and/or spousal support can help you have a real discussion with a financial planner about what you can afford post-separation, and what choices you can be making now to put yourself in as strong a position as possible.
Besides, it often takes time to know – really, really know – that it’s over. There’s all the second, third, and fifteenth chances. There are breakups and reunions. There’s often marriage and family counseling. Substance abuse counseling or rehab. Anger management, even. Lots of steps that people take to try to save their marriage before they can admit that it’s really, really over this time.
And that’s as it should be, probably, so long as you’re not being abused. You need to know that you’ve done everything you can to save your marriage, so that you can go with a clean conscience. It’s not easy to walk away, especially when the man you’re walking away from is the father of your children. It’s scary to think of divorce. It’s scary to think of doing it on your own. It’s scary to think about the possible custody case that might arise. But simply staying for the sake of your children can cause a world of problems, too.
Can I even do it by myself?
Yes. That’s not to say it will be easy. I don’t think it is, for any mom, regardless of her circumstances. But, like anything else, doing it on your own (or doing it with your child’s father, but in two separate homes) will become second nature. What seems like a physical impossibility in the beginning becomes something that you do and juggle without conscious thought.
Remember bringing your child home from the hospital? Didn’t it seem overwhelming at first? (Or was that just me?) I remember being just exhausted from the constant activity of it all. From feeding (what a debacle that was!), changing diapers and clothes continually, trying to encourage the development of some kind of normal sleep cycle, juggling well-meaning family and friends, and trying to manage to do laundry and dishes on top of it all, with 2-3 hours of sleep! When I think back to that time in my life, I want to laugh and cry.
But, little by little, you learn. You learn better ways. You build a bond with the baby. You sleep a little more, relax a little more. You become more comfortable with yourself and your decisions.
I think that divorcing is like that, too. In the beginning, you feel guilty. You compensate. You justify. But, eventually, it becomes second nature, too. You just…continue making the best decisions you can for your kids. One day at a time. And, acknowledging, a little bit at a time, over a period of time, that sometimes, divorce IS the right decision.
Kids need their parents to be happy, too. They need to witness happy, productive love, not destructive, jealous, bitter resentment. You have to take care of yourself, because they’re so much more aware than you know. Your feelings affect them, and affect their development over the course of their entire lives.
Take care of you. It isn’t selfish. It’s critical.
If you’re wondering about divorce, and thinking of finally calling it quits with your child’s father, you’re not alone. You don’t have to just guess about what you should do. You can get the information you need to make the best decisions possible, for your own sake and for the sake of your children. If you won’t do it for you, do it for them.
Request a copy of our free divorce book.
Attend a monthly divorce seminar. (YES, you CAN ask questions live to a real-life Virginia divorce attorney! Even better — one of our licensed, experienced divorce attorneys who represent women only! You can see us and our bios here.)
There’s help out there. We’re a great resource for you if you’re just trying to get answers to some basic questions. We’re here to help. You’re in the right place. I know it’s a big jump, but, if you’re unhappy or unhealthy, you should maybe consider it.