Friday, January 11, 2013

Staying Together for the Kids: Some Considerations

If you're a fairly regular reader of this blog, you probably know I have a pretty straight-forward approach to relationships. If you're in a bad relationship, either take the steps to really fix it or split up. The philosophy is based on a very simple idea: Life is too short to waste in an unhappy situation. For what it's worth, I apply the same principle to anything- your career, relationships with friends and family, where you live, your cell phone provider... whatever.

In regards to romantic relationships, the advice is pretty easy to follow... unless there are kids involved.

Well, actually the "really fix it" part is fairly easy assuming both partners really want to work on themselves and their relationship skills. It's the "or end it" part that gets complicated. It really boils down to a fundamental question:

Is it better for children to have two happy divorced parents or two unhappy married parents? 

The answer, not surprisingly, is complex. If parents are living in a loveless marriage with poor communication, little compassion or intimacy, or lots of poor conflict skills, the kids will be worse off. No matter how difficult it is to hide, kids will internalize what they see- two people that are just pretending to be in love. And some are definitely worse than others. The kids are learning the skills they'll use in their own relationships some day. To say "I just want my kids to be happy" while living a miserable existence is flat-out stupid. If we really want our kids to be happy, we have to model being happy ourselves.

Having said that, divorcing doesn't necessarily solve the problem. If the parents are acrimonious toward each other and display anger, bitterness, resentfulness, and other negative characteristics, the kids will still suffer. 

When talking to children of  that did not have parents that modeled a loving, healthy relationship, this trend is pretty obvious. Kids that came from loveless marriages are almost always acutely ware of their parents' lack of love toward each other, and they usually struggle in relationships... at least until they learn good relationship skills. Kids that had parents that divorced but were bitter (and usually used the kids as pawns) had their own serious relationship issues.

So what people DID learn good relationship skills from their parents? Those that had parents that were in a loving healthy relationship learned all the necessary skills to have happy, fulfilling relationships of their own. Those that had parents that divorced but still remained civil also fare pretty well... mostly because they were then free to enter a better relationship.

There's also an implicit message associated with the decision: 

Are we willing to actually work toward getting what we want out of life, or are we content to throw up our hands and powerlessly accept whatever crap we experience?

Our kids internalize that message, too. I hear a lot of married people talking about this in terms of "making a commitment." I see that as code for "I'm too much of a pussy to actually make things better." How much are we really willing to suffer? 
  • What if we have a partner that doesn't meet our needs? 
  •  What if they ignore us? 
  • What if they nag a lot or are overly critical? 
  • What if they're overly jealous and controlling? 
  • What if they verbally abuse us? 
  • What if they physically abuse us?

My point- most of us would draw a line somewhere in those examples and say "Yes, if I were in this relationship, I'd get out!" Most of us would say it's okay to break the commitment of marriage if we're being physically abused. But most would say we should suck it up if our partner just bitches a lot. There's a lot of gray area when deciding enough is enough.

Some also like to say things like "Back in the old days, grandma and grandpa stuck it out through thick and thin! We need to do the same!" Of course, the same people saying this don't seem to understand their own shitty relationship skills were probably passed on from grandma and grandpa to their parents, then to them. They're using the past to rationalize their own cowardice to break that cycle of unhappiness.

Instead of trying to figure out how much of a crappy relationship we're willing to tolerate, I'd simplify the question by simply asking "Is my partner helping me grow as a person?" If you can honestly answer yes, you're probably in a pretty good relationship and modeling that for your kids. If you have any doubts about the question, odds are pretty good you're in a bad relationship and are probably doing your kids a disservice.

In life, we can either take control and make ourselves (and our surrounding world) better, or we can stick our head in the sand and pretend we're powerless. Which lesson would we want to teach our kids? If we're really concerned about their long-term welfare, we need to seriously consider what kind of relationship we're modeling for them. Putting up a facade of happiness will only teach them how to make a better facade in their own relationships down the road.


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