DEAR CAROLYN: Is there an age at which divorce causes more or less damage to children? My kids are in elementary and middle school. My husband and I have grown apart and live like friendly roommates. I’m very unhappy, but I think the kids perceive our home as warm and secure.
Sometimes I think I should just stay with my husband until our youngest child goes to college, but that will be in 10 years. I don’t think I can hang in there that long. Will the kids be able to handle it better if I wait until they’re in high school?
— For the Kids’ Sake
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DEAR FOR THE KIDS’ SAKE: The kids will handle anything better if you demonstrate compassion, resourcefulness, selflessness, wisdom and integrity.
Which means I don’t see any best-case outcome here unless you first try — really try — to restore these friendly roommates to husband and wife. Which means saying to this spousal roommate … something, anything, to open his eyes to the extent of your unhappiness, and inviting him into the process of reversing years of mutual emotional neglect. Find a talented marriage counselor, a reputable and inspiring marriage retreat or seminar, or just watch a season or five of “Friday Night Lights” together. Seriously — it’s like a marriage clinic, with cheerleaders.
I realize it’s inherently offensive for a third party to declare from on high (actually, quite close to sea level, if you must know) that you don’t “deserve” a divorce because you haven’t worked “hard” “enough” to “save” your marriage. I also think misery can be its own justification to leave a relationship, for many reasons — among them that kids don’t automatically thrive in households with “very unhappy” parents just because both parents happen to live there.
However, you put the stay-for-kids option on the table, so respect your own reasons and keep it there, with one tweak — do it for yourself, too.
Notching years into your Maytag like some kind of domestic castaway, though, is a cop-out; don’t just stay till it’s societally palatable to leave. Instead, take that concern for your kids’ emotional health and back it with everything you’ve got. Recognize that you had your reasons to choose this man as your life partner and father to your children. Accept that some of the reasons were probably good ones. Then, put in the effort to find out whether any of those reasons can be revisited, rethought, repurposed or retrofitted into some form of personal satisfaction. Maybe not the one you thought you wanted at 21, but one that fits who you’ve become.
Virtually every marriage left untended will get weedy. It’s actually the better ones that decay into what you have, warm detachment, because there is actual warmth — plus enough maturity between you to coexist in peace. An army of professionals in the divorce industry, from lawyers to judges to shrinks, stands ready to reassure you that these two qualities are not in abundant supply and not to be lightly dismissed.
Maybe you call it faint praise that your husband is someone you get along with, are invested in and who isn’t mean to you — but, from on low, I call it a chance.