Joe, married for 15 years, is depressed and angry. He and his wife have been at war for 5 years. The last time they touched each other was 8 months ago. They have become unhappy roommates. They have two young children, 7 and 9 years of age. Joe doesn’t know what to do. On the one hand, he is desperately unhappy in his marriage. But on the other hand, he doesn’t want to upset his children’s life by divorce. He feels torn between his responsibility to himself and his sense of duty as a Dad.
Sadly, I hear scores of these stories every year. In my opinion, men and women often make one of two big mistakes in adult life (of course there are many more to make!). They either leave a bad situation (relationship or job) too quickly without making a consistent and persistent effort to make change. Or they stay in a bad situation way too long. Both choices can have big negative consequences.
In the first case, it is important to try to foster change in a relationship that was good (hopefully at first) but has become bad. Many times, with marriage counseling, couples can resolve their conflicts. In both cases, an adult can identify what they can do to make things better. Persistence is very important—it takes a long time to make behavioral change. Two good things can happen—circumstances can improve and adults can learn new coping skills. And if things don’t get better, at least they tried their best to make change.
But more often, I see adults who stay in bad situations way too long! Their relationship is dead as a doornail, but they don’t want to leave. The keep “hoping” that their partner will change. They don’t want to upset their children by instigating a major life change for them. They feel stuck. As time wears on they feel more and more depressed.
Once, a friend told me his story. His marriage had been dead for a long time and he coped with it by spending much of his time hiking. One day he was on top of a mountain, alone, in a cold wind. He felt a sense of deep loneliness and despair over his marriage. He thought about throwing himself off the peak! He realized that he needed to do something. He ended his relationship and did find love a few years later.
There are many reasons why men and women stay too long in bad relationships. There can be financial reasons, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, concern about children, fear of the unknown, concern about what family and friends will think, and hope that somehow, someway the other person will change.
Frequently adults talk to me about their concerns about how divorce might impact their children. I worry more about how growing up in an unhappy family will impact their kids as future adults. I see many adults who tell me that they wish their parents had divorced, they tell me–“My mother and father were miserable! They thought they had hidden their tension because they didn’t fight in front of us. But we could feel their resentment and sadness every day!”
When I point this out, adults respond—“But it will be so disruptive for my kids. It will be too painful for them!” Remember that in the span of life, childhood accounts for a relatively brief time. Of course we don’t want to cause our children pain today. But how will our choices impact them as adults?—hopefully they will have more than 60 years of adult life.
Sometimes men and women deal with long term marital discord by throwing themselves into marathon running, hobbies, or volunteer work. Or they drown their sorrows in alcohol abuse or extra marital affairs. In either case, they are trying to sweep their unhappiness under the rug—not a good idea.
What is important?
Have confidence in yourself and your children. Both of you can cope with change and make new opportunities out of adversity. Trust yourself and your kids.
Think about the long term. The goal of parenthood is to prepare your children for adult life. How are your decisions going to impact them as adults? It is hard to really fathom those little kids as adults.
Work to make change when you can. Change in relationships is hard to make. It takes time, consistent effort, and persistence. Don’t give up too soon!
Don’t let your fear stop you from taking action. Courageous adults are afraid too. But, they don’t let their fear stop them from taking action.
What do you think?