Friday, October 03, 2008

DIVORCE ENDS A MARRIAGE, IT SHOULD NEVER END A FAMILY

Make no mistake about it; divorce is a profound emotional, financial and spiritual disruption for all involved. Many men and women consider it one of the worst experiences of their lives. No matter who makes the decision, both partners are profoundly affected by it. Usually, the spouse initiating a divorce carries the guilt, while the one not wanting the marriage to break up assumes the anger ¾ and the role of victim. But, in reality, both spouses suffer enormously before, during and after a divorce occurs. No one, not even a therapist, can tell someone if and when she should seek a divorce. In this chapter some reflections on divorce are offered in hopes of lending a new perspective to those facing this painful decision.
Once upon a time not so long ago, when a bride and groom stood at the altar and repeated the vow "Until death do us part," they meant it as a lifetime, unbreakable commitment. Divorce laws of the past reflected this black and white meaning, and there were enormous social pressures to stay married. Now, for many, this notion of permanence seems quaint. Putting aside the historical inequities of traditional marriage and property laws that harmed women and children and required reform, there were unforeseen and largely unacknowledged costs that came with the change in the definition of marriage from a permanent to an impermanent union ¾ with consequences that continue to shape the lives of men, women and children today.
Increasingly, the idea of divorce (or the contemplation of divorce as an option) functions as the "solution" for personal unhappiness within marriage. It's also fair to say that divorce as an idea serves as a rationalization used by one or both unhappy spouses for giving up on the commitment they made at the altar. Arguably, this revised concept of marriage as inherently impermanent and divorce as a solution for all things that go wrong in the marriage relationship inflicts a sizeable amount of harm on the husband and wife and, especially, on the children who must face the real, lifelong consequences of the dissolution of the family they hold dear. A bit of history enlightens.
During the 1970s, divorce, and by extension the institution of marriage, went through a major transformation with the introduction of the legal concepts of no fault divorce and community property. Prior to this time, fraud had to be publicly proven in a court of law in front of a judge who would then decide who was "at fault" in the marriage and whether or not to grant the divorce. He could then award custody and make financial dispensation of any and all marital assets. This system of divorce produced shame, and embarrassment and, often, the public ridicule of an entire family. The burden of proving marital fraud in a courtroom became so acrimonious that divorce tore many families irreparably asunder.
No fault divorce allows two people to dissolve a marriage without any evidence of fraud, with the most common, often perfunctory legal reason for divorce now given as irreconcilable differences. In most states, after the impersonal processing of a few official documents, each divorced spouse walks away with half of the marital assets. At first this approach seemed humane as it reduced the disastrous affects associated with the public humiliation of divorce trials. However, it produced other challenging ramifications.

What now appears clear is that after divorce became legally easier and more socially acceptable many people didn’t include the idea of "till death do us a part" in their thinking about the marriage vows. They may have said the same words, but either didn't take them seriously or, didn't think through their implications, leaving millions of husbands and wives psychologically unprepared for the difficult times all marriages bring.
America's divorce rate began rising in the late 1960s and jumped during the '70s and early '80s, as nearly every state enacted no-fault divorce laws. The rate peaked in 1981 at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people. Since then it has dropped by one-third (The National Center Health Statistics, NCHS).
It seems that many who stood at the altar and spoke the words "until death do us part" meant instead “until this gets too hard, or until I get bored with you and someone better comes along.” This is not to say that the millions of people who married and divorced over the past three decades ¾ including both authors of this book ¾ were being dishonest or deceptive while going through with those marriages and subsequent divorces. What is far more likely is that (with the help of the larger culture) many were deceiving themselves.
Women, since the 1960s have been working in greater numbers and are thus less economically dependent upon men. During this same period women have sought divorces much more frequently than before. The most recent data shows that nearly 70 percent of divorces are female initiated. While economic and legal changes have allowed more women to consider divorce, there are other, strictly emotional dynamics that may be pushing women from simply considering taking this step to going through with it.
Women have a deeper sense of what is possible in an emotional relationship, and with greater independence, many have been less willing to tolerate inadequate marital relationships. Men on the other hand seem more content inside a marriage especially if they are physically cared for by the female whom many have unconsciously come to relate to as mother replacements. Also, in many cases men who are unfamiliar with emotions have permitted the female to carry the emotions for both of them ¾ a burden that can become very difficult for the woman in a marriage.
At the most simplistic level, one which women often find offensive, many men tend to see marriage as an exchange of services. They take out the garbage, take care of the cars, and mow the lawn, while the woman tends to the inside of the house, offers sex and takes care of the children. For many men, this seems like an equal exchange, while women, when asked, tend to see this as too much giving on their part and not enough receiving.

When June and Stan came into therapy, June explained that the giving and the receiving in their marriage were out of balance. They both worked full time, yet June felt the burden of the housework and caring for the children. As the unconscious assumptions of this relationship were further exposed, it appeared that, at first, June gave these gifts without resentment, and Stan was only too happy to receive them. But with the passage of time, June began resenting the imbalance and, as her resentment grew, she began to close down emotionally towards Stan. With this emotional shut down, their sexual lives ceased, and Stan began to store up resentment towards June for withholding sex.
This is the stalemate June and Stan had reached when they began marriage therapy. But, it turns out, the reason they came at all was June's ultimatum to Stan. "Come with me to marriage therapy or I'm leaving you and taking the kids." Stan had to be shocked into seeing the problems in the relationship as real and threatening to the marriage itself. But as Stan was unwilling to go through a divorce, June’s decree that either they went into therapy or she wanted a separation worked to move the relationship towards healing.
The process of marriage therapy eventually helped Stan realize that the shutting down of sex was his responsibility as much as June's. Stan came to realize that June needed emotional satisfaction before she could open up to Stan sexually. He accepted the need to engage in foreplay, something he generally resented and avoided. Slowly Stan learned the harder lesson of how to pay attention to his own feelings, which allowed him to be more receptive to June's. As he became more knowledgeable about emotional connectedness, June became more available to Stan for sexual activity. She felt loved and reassured that Stan cared for her emotionally. With these changes the marriage began the healing process, with all the richness that is available when two people emotionally care about each other’s feelings.

Stan's ignorance of his own internal emotional life is very common. Men often have to learn about emotional connectedness after they get married, while women understand these principles naturally, although some women can be said to feel too much; they can find themselves flooded with emotions. For a marriage to work harmoniously, this imbalance has to change. Often, a wife can teach her husband about emotional satisfaction, and a husband can teach his wife about controlling her emotions when it's necessary to do so. Many men tend to be dismissive of emotions in human beings, and this attitude can make a man unwisely see his wife's emotional display as manipulative, and then harden himself towards her, which is the very thing you do not want to have happen if the marriage is going to improve.
The decision to dissolve a marriage is extremely personal. And while divorce is always a failure, sometimes it's a necessary one. Physical or emotional abuse is the main reason people should seek a divorce. Physical abuse is easy to assess, while emotional abuse is far more subjective. But this type of abuse is real and severely damaging to its victims. Emotional abuse can include one spouse making degrading remarks, being very controlling or emotionally neglecting the other spouse.
If one parent is violent or verbally abusive towards the other, the children will always side with the one who's been hurt. If you are the victim of spousal abuse, your first job is to find a safe place for you and your children. Try to avoid painting the image of the other parent as a perpetrator. This will ensure the children distrust the entire sex of the offending parent. Where a mother has conditioned a daughter to see her father as “evil”, she can grow up to view all men as “evil,” severely limiting her chances of having a good marriage.
Addiction is another extreme, potentially abusive situation. In cases where one spouse is in the grips of an addition to a substance, or to a behavior such as gambling, or sex, and refusing professional help for his addiction, separation or divorce may be necessary for the protection of the spouse and children. Many spouses dealing with an addicted partner find support and suggestions on how to help the addict without endangering themselves from the Al Anon twelve-step program. Associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, these all-volunteer organizations are in every community (check your phone book), and offer their valuable services anonymously and free of charge.
Before you make a decision to divorce your spouse, you should make at least one visit to a marriage and family therapist. Like a dentist is trained to understand what is happening to your teeth, therapists are trained to understand the difficulties within a marriage and family. Seeking outside guidance before making such a large decision is obviously desirable, just as it is better to go to the dentist than take a pair of pliers to extract a tooth from your own mouth because it is painful.

According to the NCHS, the divorce rate for people with higher levels of education has fallen slightly over the past decade, while the number of divorces for those without a college degree has stayed the same. Noted author on marriage, sociologist Stephanie Coontz attributes this difference to education giving people better communication and negotiation skills ¾ both essential for a marriage. Coontz also pointed to studies that show a wife's work outside the home tends to stabilize a marriage.
If you feel the need to divorce your partner but he does not wish this to happen, your first step should be to let your partner know what behavior of his is bothering you, and see if he can change it, and whether you can change your responses. Often, the best way to try to effect such changes, particularly if communication between you has broken down, are through marriage therapy. Better to pull out your own teeth with pliers than take on a divorce without outside guidance and counseling ¾ especially when underage children are involved. Still, the majority of divorces occur without any outside help sort, whether that help comes from a minister, Rabbi, or from a licensed therapist.
Before the legal and social sea changes that fundamentally altered the institution of marriage in the 1970s, unhappy spouses stayed married "for the sake of the children." In the decades since, this view has often been derided and denied as unnecessary, even antiquated. But, as one out of two marriages end in divorce, up to one million children per year experience the trauma of divorce. Only within the past ten years has it become undeniably clear that the negative impact on divorce on these children has been disproportionate (compared to their parents) and dire.
One landmark study on the impact of divorce on adult children conducted by Judith Wallerstein caused major reverberations when it was released in 1999. In it, Wallerstein and her colleagues resoundingly demonstrated that parental divorce caused heretofore unacknowledged emotional and behavioral negative consequences ¾ including mood disorders, school failures and relationship problems ¾ in 25 percent of adult children of divorce who were tracked in many cases into their forties. This was compared to 10 percent of adult children from intact families who experienced these problems.
Judith Wallerstein's study demolished a popular myth advocating the view that it is less harmful for children to experience the "temporary" trauma of divorce than to witness their parents' ongoing marital unhappiness. In reality, the degree of damage to children depends upon the level of unhappiness, or abuse they witness.
A good case can also be made that when children witness divorce they are seeing a harmful example of their parents' failure to keep a commitment. Which is the worse behavior for a child to witness first hand, marital conflict or the avoidance of commitment? Only you can decide, based on your own marriage, and personal experience.
This all assumes under age children are involved in the marriage. When two adults without children come to such a volatile crossroads in a relationship, the bar is obviously much lower. Personal growth can be valid reason for a divorce when one of the parties believes he has worked extremely hard to bring improvement to a marital relationship and is frustrated by a lack of effort by his spouse or a lack of results. But if children under eighteen are involved in your decision, the decision should be examined with much more care and concern for the children's welfare.
If there are under age children involved, perhaps other arrangements can be made so the marriage can continue until the youngest child reaches eighteen. You may be remain husband and wife and parent your children while maintaining quasi-independent lives. One of you may have an additional residence. Remember there are no longer any or many hard and fast rules for marriage. Each man and woman create most rules independently in a marital relationship. Seeking outside therapy can assist you find other ways to remain in relationship for the purpose of keeping your family intact until the children are older.
Once the youngest child is 18 years of age, any married person who has put up with a failed marriage should be entitled to follow his own inner calling and end the marriage, if he so desires. To take this idea to its extreme, perhaps all marriage licenses should expire upon the 18th birthday of the youngest child in a family. The couple that then wishes to continue being married would have to formally renew their marriage license, and reinvest in their union for the second half of their lives. With such a decision, perhaps a re-marriage ceremony and community celebration should take place.
This perspective, although radical, is presented to underscore the physic and practical benefits ¾ to you an your children ¾ of treating your original marriage vow as both real and permanent. The completion of the commitments you made when you married and especially after you created a child together contains an integrity that is often overlooked, worse, scorned as "old fashioned" in today's culture. Once again, underage children are the real victims of a divorce. It is their well-being that must be considered before the decision to divorce is made final, or before a family is dissolved.
Every marriage has good and bad times. Some don't make it through one year. Many others succumb at the aptly named "seven-year itch." If you thought your marriage had made it through these familiar pressure points, but now find it very troubled, first be aware that you're probably not thinking clearly right now. Emotions, from hurt and anger to grief or fear can be overwhelming. So how should you make the difficult emotional decision to divorce if you are currently weighing the possibility?
One deceptively simple method is to write out a list of the positive and negative aspects of your marriage and carefully weigh the pros and the cons. Put all the reasons for ending a marriage on one side of the page, and the reasons to stay married on the other side. Then attempt to give a weight or point value to each point, from one to ten, so that you rationally see what the choices are, how important each is, and why you ranking it thusly. The fact that your husband is a great father to your children might be given a point value of 10 and lead the "pro" column, while his inability to share his emotions may receive a six and go in the "con" column.
The idea is to slow down the decision-making process behind a divorce. When divorce is frivolously chosen, your experience of commitment is shortchanged. It is a dangerous romantic fantasy to believe that a good marriage is an easy one, free of conflict. The opposite is often true. A marriage that looks calm and peaceful on the outside can be stagnant, or even rage-filled on the inside. A good marriage provides a safe container for conflicts to be worked on and resolved. The only way to create this safe container is for both of you to make a rock solid commitment to keep working at it ¾ especially when the times get tough. It's not that divorce should be abandoned. Just because it is slowed down, does not mean divorce should be or could be taken away as an option.

Temporary separations can help a troubled marriage. The problems and the stress they cause can be mitigated with a little space from your togetherness. A separation can provide new insight into what is valuable and what cannot be tolerated in the marriage. Because many people fear that a separation always ends in divorce, they avoid it as an option. But many couples gain new vitality from spending some time apart from each other. Think of it as a trial divorce. Then you will better know what is best for you, your family and your children. In Stephen Martin's 30-year marriage therapy practice, roughly half the couples who tried trial separation got back together after six months. A trial separation may also help expose the real, perhaps hidden issue underlying one partner's desire for a divorce. For example, an issue that frequently leads to divorce is the deep unhappiness within one of the partners in a marriage. Often, that unhappiness is self-created, but, while living with his wife, the one feeling unhappy cannot completely understand his reasons for it. By the point at which he is considering divorce, he could be projecting that unhappiness on his partner. He may believe that if he were no longer married to her, he would find happiness.
If this is the case, it's best for the one feeling deep unhappiness to perhaps spend some time living alone, and/or seek individual therapy to see if the problem can be corrected within himself, thus making a divorce unnecessary. If, on the other hand, the problem is toxicity within the relationship, and he is convinced that the toxicity cannot change, perhaps a divorce is the only reasonable alternative.
Divorce ends a marriage, but should it end a family? Everyone needs the safety and support of a family, and when it is torn apart by a divorce, the consequences can be disastrous. In order to minimize the damage to the children should a divorce become necessary, marital issues between Mom and Dad should be kept out of view from the rest of the family. The relationship between two married people is distinct from the relationship between a mother and a father of a family. Wise parents who need to divorce know that divorce does not end a family, and they struggle to it together while they let go of their marriage.
To facilitate this, each parent should obviously refrain from telling the children her personal grievances with the other parent. Unfortunately this rarely happens as emotions spill over and inside the emotional disruption, parents tend to complain about the other parent in front of the children. Immature parents either consciously or unconsciously wish to force the children to make choices between mother, and a father. Nothing can disrupt a child’s life more than siding with one parent over the other, and to have the parents encourage this alienation from one parent. Children never want to choose. When this happens it inevitably is the result of either parent forcing this decision, unless the children witness extreme abuse.
When telling children of a coming divorce it is best to have the child see her own therapist to handle the emotional disruption she is experiencing. Give as few details as you can, and only answer questions she asks. Attempt to have children remain non judgmental about the coming divorce. Teach them it is not their fault. Most children blame themselves when a divorce occurs. If only they had been better children, their parents would not need to divorce. Whatever the situation in a family or stepfamily, divorce is never a child's fault; it is the failure of two adults to get along as husband and wife.
Let your children know you will always be a father and a mother to them, that what is changing is simply the role of husband and wife. Again, the family is not divorcing; the husband and the wife are changing their roles inside the marriage, not inside their family.
After a divorce, emotionally mature parents try to get along as parents, and let their marriage go. This means your conversations as parents should (at first) be limited to just the children and their well-being. Sensible parents know that you never divorce a child, even if you have to divorce the child's other parent.
The key to success in this difficult transition is making a distinction between your roles as husband and wife and separating those roles from mother and father. Healthy families navigate a divorce by understanding the different roles, and never destroy the role of the other parent in the eyes of their children.
If you need to complain about your ex, never do it with the children. Find friends or seek professional guidance to grieve the loss of the marriage and release the anger of a divorce. Usually a divorce will take at least three years to heal from. Allow yourself the time to grieve, be angry, to feel hurt and disappointed, but keep this from your children. Children never want to choose between good parents…. they always want their parents to get along and love each other. Sometimes it takes a divorce to accept the other parent of your children. If this is the case, and you've tried many different approaches, unsuccessfully, to save the marriage, perhaps the divorce was necessary. Better to get along as Mom and Dad than hate each other as husband and wife.

2 comments:

Maggie's Rose said...

Thanks so much for sharing this incredibly resourceful info! I plan on putting it to great use!

Stephen Martin said...

thanks Maggie...I appreciate your comments.
stephen