Is the Grass Really Greener on the Other Side of Divorce?
ACTIONS CAN FEEL POWERFUL.
Sure, divorce might solve the immediate problem, and there can be enormous relief — the mere absence of the freaking face that’s been driving you nuts is going to feel like an epic improvement.
But here’s the thing that people don’t always remember or acknowledge. Your life keeps on going long after the ink dries.
If your unencumbered new future includes children you made with your ex-spouse, that simple divorce (if such a thing exists) becomes rife with complexity.
CHILDREN ARE A GAME-CHANGER.
If two people get married and it turns out her propensity to say “cattywampus” isn’t actually adorable, but brain-crushing, or his inability to close a drawer isn’t quirky, but obnoxious—no harm no foul! Go your separate ways and time will do that thing it’s supposed to — what the lyrics croon — heal all wounds.
Just remember, regardless the grand jackass your husband or wife turns out to be, if you have kids, you will always be connected. There is no getting around it. Think about that. No, really.
YOU WILL ALWAYS BE CONNECTED TO EACH OTHER IF YOU HAVE CHILDREN TOGETHER. LIKE FOREVER.
OUR PAST PLAYS HOUSE IN OUR FUTURE RELATIONSHIPS.
At the very least, we have to be aware. Conscious. Even if what we are doing is saying — and even succeeding — “I’ll never be like my mom/dad/parents!” — we are still living in reaction to them if that’s the North Star we are following. Which, it turns out, can have many a downfall.
As a person with divorced parents who both remarried, and as a stepmother myself, I have unique, specific, gut-wrenching knowledge of how bad good intentions can turn and how quickly. How difficult it can be not only on the kid in this scenario, but everyone in the family, including stepparents.
My mother, to whom I had a dicey relationship growing up, happened to re-marry the Marlboro Man. George treated me with respect and care when I acted like an idiot for the first couple of years they were married. Lucky me. Seriously. The man was a saint.
But my own father — whom I believed to be SuperMan growing up — married a toxic younger woman who so polarized my father from my sister and me as adults that we have not spoken to him in a decade.
Before you decide we’re just a bunch of hotheads, this was no rash decision; tearful phone calls, despairing hang ups, stony silences, earnest apologies, regretable misfires; that one more “last” attempt to strike some kind of balance. We did it all. For years.
When my dad was finally forced to choose, he chose her. It wasn’t even close. That changed my life profoundly.
And it never would have happened had my parents stayed together.
They couldn’t have known, of course, and that’s part of the point.
When I was in my 20’s, had anyone told me that I would be close with my mom and not speak to my dad, I would have laughed. But life is weird. All we know is everything changes.
OUR HISTORY INFORMS WHO WE ARE, PARTICULARLY IF IT LIES DORMANT, UNEXAMINED.
Looking back, I wasn’t squealing with delight at my parent’s separation when I was 14, but I wasn’t wracked with turmoil either. In the short term, it was a pretty sweet deal for me.
I got to live with my dad, who I adored, and avoid my mom, who moved to her own apartment. No one required I visit her every Wednesday for dinner and every other weekend; my parents had a DIY 80’s style divorce.
I don’t remember lawyers. I saw her rarely. All I know is when we went to the grocery store I could chunk Nacho Cheese Doritos, Cokes, Lucky Charms, and a vast array of hair products into the cart with reckless abandon, and my dad, deer in the headlights, never said a word.
I didn’t have too many rules to hold me back from what I thought at the time was fun. Not much was expected from me.
No one was taking note of my dwindling report cards or who I was hanging out with or which boys I chose or where I went with them.
I was left to chance as my parents had bigger fish to fry. What you might call collateral damage.
Somewhere so deep it’s only now I can see it existed, as a teenager I felt like the kids on Jimmy Neutron — having cleverly escaped their parents, eaten pounds of sugar, sprayed friends with whipped cream and vandalized the city with seemingly no consequence— of course it was too good to be true. That shit can’t last forever.
The bellyaching sugar crash arrived with an ardent wish that mom would scold while lovingly sudsing hair, cleansing the tangled mass in the rinse of a warm shower in the way only an overly devoted mother can.
A problem that seemed insurmountable — one from which we could not conceive of breaking free — with help from our loving parents, was weathered.
You may not want structure and routine as a kid, but you need it. And you know you need it even if you would never admit it.
If you’re not required to adhere to guidelines, you’re making up your own as you go and they suck. You know on some level you are not important to the people you should matter to the most.
They aren’t making your safety a priority, no matter it’s likely because their own life is currently a dumpster fire.
As kids, we are too egocentric not to think it has something to do with us. And who wants to believe their parents aren’t capable of loving them in a way that is somewhat healthy?
Instead of blaming parents, often kids would rather internalize the problems as their fault. Then they can continue holding up their parents as the good guy.
NOW WILL BECOME OUR PAST, THAT THING WE CANNOT CHANGE.
It isn’t just getting through the imminent divorce and making your kid’s initial transition to the whole two-house sitch seamless as possible and everything is hunky-dory.
It’s that forevermore, holidays will be in two places, events will be not just about the special occasion; parents may be happy with someone new or awkward on their own; it can be hard in the best of circumstances.
As you, your ex, and your kids continue breathing, life will happen. The mundane and the milestones. Both parents often decide to be in relationships and even to eventually remarry.
Kids may not be thrilled with who parents choose and vice versa. There is the complication of this new union perhaps producing new biological children, half-sisters or half-brothers to contend with, cuter younger siblings who need a piece of the shrinking pie.
Sometimes kids rise to the occasion and sometimes they are hurt beyond anything you can imagine.
The thing is, you can’t know in advance their reaction. Or the feelings of each person in a new blended family. It doesn’t always make sense.
Just because you found the one you feel happy with doesn’t mean your kids will be happy.
It’s a cop out to me when people say — : “Oh, my kids are so happy and healthy! They’re glad we aren’t together!” about their divorce. In my experience, that’s rarely true.
Or “I just can’t stand modeling a bad relationship to my kids! It was better for them that we divorce.” It goes without saying if abuse is present in any way, head for the hills.
But short of that, what would it show your kids if you stayed? It might display that when something derails, you don’t abandon ship. That when important things break, it’s worth fixing. At least trying.
It is a pesky trick of humanity. We are hard wired to want our parents together, our family intact.
Kids stay in horrific, abusive conditions to avoid being taken out of their home by CPS.
They don’t want foster care or even a nice new adoptive family. They want their parents. It’s built in our DNA.
YOUR NOW IS THAT FUTURE OF WHICH YOU WERE DREAMING, ONLY IT’S REAL, AKA NOT PERFECT.
You can’t leave a relationship with a slew of problems and get out of dodge without doing some work on yourself. Because you know — you’re going to land on whatever dating site and receive coveted attention and go on a few dates and have some Medium-worthy cringe experiences and eventually see that everyone, even the man who fills the height requirement, the woman who feels comfortable in her body, has flaws and baggage.
You’ll say to yourself an incredulous version of “this guy is distant and controlling, too?” or “again? this woman is histrionic and judgmental?” Why does this keep happening?
If you’re smart, you will realize sooner or later that YOU are the common denominator.
Problems don’t change or disappear because you leave. Problems are shapeshifters gifted at looking like something else. But it takes self-reflection and time to own what was yours in a relationship gone sour, to put into play the ways you need to grow to be different in a new configuration.
Going near another relationship before you’ve done the lonely work of grappling with your demons is dragging dysfunction with you to the next person, who will eventually look distressingly similar to your ex or mother or father.
There’s no escape hatch. Yes, some people who have kids move on to have good second marriages. But it would be naive to say that’s the norm.
The statistics are telling: according to the latest Census data, the divorce rate for second marriages in the United States is over 60%. Worse than first marriages.
I’m not trying to be a buzzkill. But we have to acknowledge transforming into blended families can be incredibly difficult for kids, even adult children.
Everyone laments how life is short and this is true. But life is also long. Family is forever. Your mother and father are always your mother and father.
Some amazing humans defy biology and become a far better parent than the one who provided sperm or gave birth. Parents can remarry wonderful people and create a blended family that works. But even then, our parents are our parents whether they stay together or not.
We each have a reckoning, at some point, with where and who we came from and how that figures into who we are. Maybe when we’re 14, maybe 37.
This process isn’t necesarily linear. It certainly isn’t fair. And it invariably affects more than the two people divorcing; what’s good for you may not be so good for your kids.
And you might not know right away how your divorce will affect them, their future relationships, and their ability to trust.
My thesis, by the way, is not stay forever or give up your life for your kids if you’re beyond miserable in a loveless marriage — I am saying walk in eyes open.
One important question before we decide to leave becomes to what do we owe our children, humans we created with our partner? Actual people who would not be walking the earth were it not for our union even if we now hate each other.
Nobody goes in with divorce in mind. And being in a relationship that doesn’t work anymore is hell. It can blindside you. I get it.
I’m not saying the only decision is stay married.
I am saying that the dissolution of the relationship between one’s parents will at some point be of paramount importance for anyone who lives through it.
It can change the trajectory of a kid’s life, and for that, I believe we are required to stare deeply at the decision we are making. To take an honest inventory of the state of the wreckage.
Decide if we’ve really worked hard enough, gave it our best shot. If we hated that counselor should we have tried a new one?
It is not just about our own happiness. And it’s not just about the kid’s happiness either. But to me, where our kids are and how divorce will affect them has to be present in the decision if we are being decent.
Make sure it’s worth it because whether you like it or no, you are putting your kids through something they wouldn’t choose. Be certain you are not in a grass is greener situation, because there is no going back.
But there is counseling and trying and trying again and reassessing before splitting.
There is accepting uncomfortable truths about yourself in a relationship that you must face to be successful forming future bonds.
To me, that analysis is our power and obligation. It’s the least we can do. After all, our children didn’t ask to be born.
Erin Ryan Burdette is an award-winning freelance writer published in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. Her full-length play, The Arrangements, was featured in the Kitchen Dog Theater New Works Festival 2019. She used to be an actress who wrote but has slowly morphed to a writer who occasionally acts. Her website is forthcoming.
Previously Published on medium
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