Smash Talks: Staying Together for the Kids

Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.

Dear Smashera,

Over the past few years, I have found myself in an increasingly painful place. My wife and I basically live separate lives. We only interact peacefully if we’re discussing household logistics, and then we go back to our opposite ends of the house. I can’t stand this tense household anymore and I want out.

I always said as a child of divorce that I would never dissolve my family, and yet here I am. We have a second grader, who is starting to notice that her parents fight a lot. I don’t want to add more stress to my kid’s life, but part of me believes that separating from my wife might be better in the long run. My wife disagrees. She thinks we need to stick this out in hopes it could be salvageable. She says that if we’re going to separate, we need to at least wait until our daughter is out of the house. I don’t know if I can do this for another ten years, and selfishly, I don’t want to wait until I’m in my late forties to start my life and maybe actually be happy. I don’t want to argue, or fight, or pretend things are okay when they’re not. I want out. How do I get out of this without it being too bad?


Caged Bird

Dear Caged,

As you’ve come to realize, there’s no movement out of this space that will not be painful in some way. Staying hurts, but so does leaving. It seems that your wife is well aware of this too, but in her eyes, the pain she knows is better than the unknown of divorce, shared custody, and split time.

While attitudes around divorce have been shifting in the past few decades, the cultural pressure to stay in unhappy marriages remains high for many. In part, I think that the pressure to stay and try to work it out should be there to some degree. After all, committing your life to another person and starting a family together are major decisions. Babies are never, ever convenient, no matter how prepared a family is for them. I agree that your child’s well-being must be a top priority in making this choice. It’s not fair or okay to uproot her flippantly. But this doesn’t seem like a decision that you’re making on a whim—you’ve been deeply unhappy for years and you can’t keep it up.

So, let’s unpack “what is best” for a moment. Yes, divorce has been shown to be a contributing factor in poor mental health for some children. Instability and being exposed to constant conflict in formative years is enough to scramble up anyone’s sense of self. The kids most negatively affected are those who became casualties of highly conflictual divorce.

HOWEVER, living under one roof with parents who are technically married but low-key hate one another is equally if not more painful. There’s lots of glib advice about “children of divorce” that serve as a cautionary tale to “stick it out,” but children of loveless marriages aren’t given the same airtime. More and more studies are showing that a good divorce is better than a crap marriage, and that many people end up fine in the long run.

I take issue with the idea of waiting to separate until children leave the house. While college freshmen may have greater emotional breadth than a second grader, the dissolution of their family will still hurt. Hypothetically, your daughter goes away to college (or trade school, or to travel the world, or wherever the wind takes her) and then you divorce. She either says “FINALLY! What have you been waiting for? Growing up with you two resenting each other was awful and I am now struggling to figure out what a happy relationship looks like.” Or she says “What? It was all a façade? How could I be so duped?! You seemed so happy together and now my entire sense of self is uprooted and my very identity is called into question.” In short, putting off the inevitable provides no kindness for anyone.

That being said, there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to divorce. Children exposed to conflict, that are made to choose between parents, or are given the impression that it’s somehow their fault are set up for prolonged pain. Conversely, if you and your wife can refrain from emotionally battering one another in front of your child, you have a chance at not making this situation into a traumatic shit storm.

The greatest trouble here seems to be getting your wife on the same page. At some point, you will probably need to have a difficult conversation about the state of affairs and where you would like to go. Prior to this, you need to be clear about what you want and be ready to problem-solve together. If you find your voice rising and have the urge to throw down ultimatums, it’s likely time to call in a professional third party to help out. If you are to part ways, it’s important to keep the peace, maintain healthy boundaries around communication, and to honor everyone’s feelings. Trying to transition into a proto-friendship can be confusing and painful for everyone, but it doesn’t mean that no matter what, you can’t be civil in front of your kid.

Learning to co-parent will not always be seamless. It’s not without issues for most marriages no matter the state. Finding a good family therapist or mediator can help you set ground rules for communication. The app Family Wizard can help take the guesswork out of negotiating time and expenses. Remember, your child is watching. She’ll learn the most important lessons from seeing the adults in her life work through difficulties and communicate, even if they live in separate households. Change is often challenging, but the challenges bring blessings.



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