Breaking up a family is devastating and never an easy decision. The heartbreak, bitterness and anger have long-lasting consequences – especially on children. And there are some major issues to consider: when it comes to an unhappy marriage, is it better to split or stay together for the sake of the kids? And if you opt for the former, then when exactly is the right time to leave? When the kids are out of the house? How about out of the womb?
Montreal couple Luke and Sasha had been together for more than 10 years before calling it quits. Sasha thought they were happy, and they certainly adored their four-year-old son Max. Sasha, a doctor with a thriving practice, was content as a wife and blissful being a mother. She dreamed of a lovely house in the suburbs and was completely satisfied with the life she and Luke had been building. Luke, however, was slowly and quietly nursing a nagging dissatisfaction that became suffocating. He didn’t want the suburbs; he dreamed of downtown. He wasn’t as content as Sasha to revolve his entire life around his kids. He craved personal freedom and passion.
By the time he communicated his feelings to Sasha, it was too late. He had found something he was passionate about: Lara, his colleague. As his 40th birthday approached, he wrestled with the idea of leaving. He wanted to feel the passion, taste the life that was just out of his reach. But how could he? Not only was there Max to consider, but Sasha was six months pregnant with their second child. He’s not the first man to leave a pregnant wife. Tom Brady met supermodel Gisele Bundchen and did it to Bridget Moynahan; Billy Crudup hooked up with Claire Danes, leaving a seven months pregnant Mary Louise Parker. But this isn’t Hollywood, and Sasha is certainly no actress.
Leaving a pregnant woman and their four-year-old child to pursue passion is inconceivable. Where was his responsibility as a father and husband? Most people would find Luke’s decision to be horrifying and incredibly selfish. But Luke knew that their clashing views on what was important and what it meant to be a parent were no longer livable. If he were to stay, he would be living a lie because he no longer wanted to be with Sasha. And being dishonest with his family would surely hurt everyone. So Luke left.
Should Luke have stayed with his growing family? Judith Wallerstein, a child psychologist and founder and executive director of the Center for the Family in Transition, created a 25-year study on the effects of divorce on children. She believes that unless there is an abusive or incredibly volatile situation in the home, it is best to stay at least until the school-age years.
Clearly Luke’s decision to leave Max, a preschooler, couldn’t have come at a worse time. The preschool years, says Wallerstein, are the most vulnerable because of the care required by children before they are of school age. As well, she stresses, rituals of bedtime, playtime and bath time may not be as rich because there is only one parent involved. Perhaps Luke should have stayed until the baby was born so he could be there to help his son adjust to the changes, so he could share the responsibilities Sasha will now have to face on her own. Perhaps he should have waited until his daughter was born to discuss his feelings with Sasha so as not to cause her undue stress and pain during her pregnancy.
They had discussed therapy, but Luke believed that even counseling could not solve their different views on what life should be – views he saw as insurmountable obstacles. And Sasha wasn’t going to beg Luke to stay because she certainly didn’t want to live with someone who was no longer in love with her. But she wants her kids to have the most secure life possible so she put her anger aside and has done everything to make the breakup as amicable as possible.
While it’s not debatable that divorce negatively affects the children, Wallerstein’s critics point out that her research did not fully delve into whether these adverse effects stemmed from the divorce itself or from the conflict that caused the divorce in the first place. So, it’s possible that Luke staying throughout Sasha’s pregnancy and until his children were in school would have caused greater damage to his children because they would be witnessing the sadness and turmoil of an unhappy marriage. Home should be a safe place, where love and attention abound. If parents begin to hate each other or, maybe even worse, engage in silent, cold and loveless communication, children surely take note.
Toronto couple Matthew and Sarah were married for 18 years and are parents to 10-year-old twins, a boy and girl. They owned a business together and had all the money in the world. Gorgeous houses, expensive cars and lavish vacations made them an enviable couple. Until their business crashed, that is, and their relationship wasn’t strong enough to withstand the stress. Constant fighting, cruel accusations and pent-up rage created an untenable living situation for them and their kids. No longer babies, the twins were somewhat independent and didn’t require their parents’ constant care. But as they were hitting adolescence, with all of its complex emotional confusion and explosive hormones, watching their parents split up would surely affect their view of relationships – and themselves.
Hurtling towards adolescence and puberty is the next most precarious time, according to Wallerstein. On the cusp of entering into their own romantic relationships, not having a solid example of togetherness can create its own problems. Robert Hughes, an asssociate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Ohio State University, explains that adolescents who experience a divorce are more prone to engaging in early sexual activity and have greater difficulty forming healthy relationships.
But is living with out-of-control arguments and constant sadness any healthier for them? No, says the National Survey of Families and Households, which looked at how nearly 2,000 families managed from their teens until early 30s. The study came to the conclusion that teens who watch parents argue are remarkably more likely to engage in unhealthy habits, like drinking and smoking, and have lower grades than those teens whose parents are divorced.
Is it any easier for adult children of divorced parents? Eva and Daniel, also from Montreal, were together for 25 years. Like Luke, Daniel had fallen in love with Eva while still married to his pregnant wife. But just as Luke and Sasha had other issues apart from the specter of another woman, so did Daniel and his first wife. Eva and Daniel created a life built on passion, deep love and the belief that following their dreams would make them the happiest they could be.
While Daniel pursued his dream of being a singer, Eva worked tirelessly as a therapist waiting patiently for her turn to come. And it might have had Daniel’s oldest son from his previous marriage, Tyler, not been killed by a drunk driver. Though Eva was not Tyler’s mother, she had loved him like her own child since he was four years old. His death destroyed her. But because she was on the periphery of the grieving family that had lost Tyler, no one ever stopped to think that her grief and loss was as great as theirs. Eva felt alone, neglected and very sad. Daniel was consumed by his own grief and rage, and slowly, their individual sadness tore them apart.
Arianne, their only child together, was 22 when Tyler died and though old enough to better handle the demise of her parents’ marriage, she was crushed. Mourning the loss of her brother, as well as parents’ marriage, was devastating. But maybe because she was older, she was able to understand that her mom and dad were happier apart, and she still had two loving, supportive parents in her life. In fact, Arianne wishes her parents had divorced earlier so she wouldn’t have been caught between simultaneously wanting to keep the peace between her parents and wishing they would work things out for themselves. Arianne is now a very successful lawyer and is married with two kids.
Divorce is, unfortunately, a reality, and how the divorce is handled is truly the key to minimizing the damage done to the children. Everything that can be done to mend a broken relationship should be, but once someone sees leaving as their only viable option, even counseling cannot fix what is irretrievably broken. When someone feels forced to stay through an unsatisfactory situation, there is rebellion and burning resentment that will filter down to the children. And parents are the best example of a healthy relationship for their children.
The way parents work through divorce can, in fact, teach children how to deal with conflict in their own relationships. The most important thing is that the children have two loving parents who will always support them and be there for them in the best way they can. Even if that means they aren’t all living together in the same house. Kids are resilient and with a positive environment and parents who put their best interests first, they will be okay.
Max and his sister, Sienna, will also be just fine as long as Luke and Sasha stay committed to their children’s upbringing. And they will. Sasha is in love with her new daughter, adores Max and has an incredibly supportive family backing her up. Luke misses his kids desperately, but he knows that nobody would be happy if he had stayed. And even though he doesn’t live with their mom, he’s still and will always be their dad.