“My husband and I don’t have sex much anymore. I’m worried that without that spark our child is getting the wrong idea of what marriage is all about.”
“We disagree about a lot of things. Sometimes I think our kids would be better off if we both moved on.”
“If we got divorced our kids’ lives wouldn’t change much. My husband is great with the kids. They would still have two loving parents.”
I’ve been researching and writing about children of divorce for a decade and I’ve heard these sentiments over and over. These parents not divorced yet, but they’re thinking about it. They’re raising children, struggling to make the mortgage payment and pay the babysitter, hoping to get ahead. Meanwhile, their marriage isn’t what it used to be. Those pre-kid days of hanging out with friends seem the stuff of dreams now. Sure, there is so much to be grateful for, especially those beautiful children. But when it comes to the marriage, most days just seem like a blur. Talking is mainly about negotiating schedules and money. Weekends are busy getting caught up from weekdays. Is this what marriage is all about? Do the kids really need this?
In a word, yes. Granted, we all want that spark, and we shouldn’t resign ourselves to living without it, even if it means getting help and working hard at falling in love with our spouse all over again. And some marriages are plagued by such serious problems — such as addiction, chronic infidelity, or violence — that divorce might well be warranted. But social science research shows that about two-thirds of marriages that end in divorce are low conflict. These marriages may feel troubled to the one or both of the spouses, but they are not struggling with the kinds of serious or frequent conflict many imagine when they picture a marriage on the rocks.
It is these marriages — what some call “good enough” marriages — that matter so much. To any still-married parent who is considering divorce who may be reading this, I want to affirm that your “good enough” marriage is doing a world of good for your kids.
Not long ago, with my co-investigator Professor Norval Glenn of the University of Texas at Austin, I conducted a national study of young adults from divorced and intact families. That study, reported in my book Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (Crown, 2005), revealed a great deal about what divorce does to children as well as what marriage does for children.
In a marriage, it’s the parents’ job first to make sense of their two worlds — their two sets of values, beliefs, and ways of living. It’s a tough job, perhaps one of the hardest parts of marriage. (I’ve been married for fourteen years now and have two school-age children, and I think — and I’m sure my husband would agree — that sometimes it’s pretty rough!) We married parents have to rub together the sharp edges of our two different worlds. Rubbing together our sharp edges can produce conflict. Some parents handle that conflict pretty well, some handle it poorly, and some are so abominable that the cops are called in. But however they handle it, it’s clear that by being married the conflict between them is their job.
When parents get divorced, something very different happens. They each retreat to their own worlds. They develop new relationships, get new jobs, move new places. Their values and beliefs grow and change. They no longer have to rub the sharp edges of their worlds together. The obvious and visible conflict between divorced parents can diminish, especially as time passes. But here’s the rub: the conflict between their worlds has not gone away. Instead, it’s left to the child — who may be four or eight or twelve years old — to make sense alone of their mother’s and father’s two different worlds. It becomes the child’s job to grow up traveling between these worlds and to make sense of the different values and beliefs and ways of living he or she finds in each place.
The children of divorce tell us that they began to feel like a different person in each parent’s world. They felt the need to keep secrets for their parents, even when their parents did not ask them to. They deeply missed a parent when they were not with that parent (and they were always lacking one of them). They felt they had to approach the big questions in life — Who am I? Where do I belong? Is there a God? What is right and wrong? — more often alone. Their parents didn’t have to make sense of that stuff together anymore, and no one expected them to. Instead, the work of forming one identity out of two families was left to the child. In even a so-called “good” divorce with minimal conflict between the two parents, the children more often felt lost and alone.
By sticking with — and working on and believing in — your “good enough” marriage, you are sustaining one world for your child. You are affirming that the rough and sometimes not-pretty job of holding together one family belongs to you and your spouse, not your child. You are taking on the responsibility of sorting out with your child’s other parent not only the daily schedule and the bank account, but also the big questions of values and beliefs that give life meaning and texture. You are making one set of family memories — one story — for your children that will become their touchstone and guide in the years to come.
Let’s face it, our kids don’t really care if we feel that spark with our spouse. It matters to us a lot, and it should. But our kids care about something different. They want their mom and dad in the home, taking care of them, and getting along reasonably well. A “good enough” marriage provides what kids need. And if through grace and hard work we can go still further and achieve a great marriage, then all the better – for them and for us.
Elizabeth Marquardt is editor of FamilyScholars.org and author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (Crown, 2005).