In her first guest post, Judy Osborne, author of Wisdom for Separated Parents:Rearranging Around the Children to Keep Kinship Strong, talked about how the arrival of children into a marriage, throws the spotlight on your own family background creating the opportunity to decide what you want to keep and what you want to do differently. It’s almost inevitable that your family experience will be very different from that of your partner’s. The process of reconciling your own views with those of your partner is a normal part of marriage and yet can be unsettling. So how do you know what’s normal and what’s taking you on the path towards the end of your marriage?
Marriages don’t end in a moment. It is important to understand and appreciate this.
They untangle slowly. Even if the end seems sudden, one person has been thinking about separation for some time.
And it is the separation that had the greatest impact on the parents and the children. Separation is a process – and is the end of a small civilization. Divorce is a moment in time.
The process of untangling toward a formal separation has stages. Parents who had been separated for decades told me their stories for my book, Wisdom for Separated Parents: Rearranging Around the Children to Keep Kinship Strong. Their stories revealed these stages:
The idea of separating is a notion in someone’s mind. The notion begins to take more and more shape as that parent struggles with the idea.
“I got into therapy along the way in the marriage. I ended up feeling extremely alone. We spoke totally different languages, and we had a third language. In that language we could say, “Please pass the salt” or “Who’s driving the kids to practice?” I knew that the separation was coming for four or five years before it actually got there. And I was afraid to talk about it. So it was civil but extremely strained for all that time.”
Sharing the Idea
The ideas and questions about separation may be shared with the other parent – or acted out in some way, perhaps when one of both parents become involved with others.
“Life was unbearable together. We struggled. I had no idea what marriage involved. I never felt centered with one man. He was having affairs, and I was, too. A good friend knew what I was doing and said, “You know what you are doing isn’t good for you and it isn’t good for him or your children.” Nobody had ever said that to me. I thought about it, and it seemed right. When we talked about it we could see that the real answer was separation.”
Children, other family members and close friends witness the growing tensions. Loud arguments may flood family life – or icy silence.
“We were always very separated. For a long time we shared a house and never saw each other because we kept different hours. He’d be downstairs and I’d be upstairs. I had moved out of the bedroom. It was a very quiet, unlively household, full of simmering anger. I think lots of people saw what was happening. I know it was awful for the kids.”
Separate Living Arrangements
The decision to separate is shared in the neighborhood and larger friendship and work communities by making separate living arrangements.
“As soon as she moved out, the roof came off our house and everyone thought they could see what was going on in our family.”
Finally, a legal step may be taken: formal separation or divorce. In some cases parents decide to wait years to take legal action.
“We finally legally got divorced fifteen years after we separated. At first we saw a mediator and wrote up a divorce agreement about property and money and the custody arrangements. We wrote down what we were already doing. I never wanted to call up the court and make the appointment. I didn’t want somebody I didn’t know sitting and deciding whether or not we were doing a good job. We were just doing it.”
The timetable of untangling is varied. Some partners moved through the process in months, others take years.
Instead of simply looking at parents and children after the formal separation and divorce, the moment in time at divorce court, we need a more nuanced understanding of how each couple untangles and the impact of the untangling on adults and kids.
Divorce is blamed for family change, but, typically, divorce is simply one part in the experience of untangling. Divorce is not the cause of untangling.
The Divorce Coach Says
The end of my own marriage followed these steps pretty closely. I don’t know if my husband had ever thought about separating but I had thought about off and on for years, and for many years dismissing it because divorce wasn’t going to happen to me. It wasn’t until after a friend asked me if I had considered divorce, that I started to think about as being a possible option. It was another eighteen months before I shared it with husband.
When we finally did separate about nine months later, it was like taking the roof off the house – suddenly everyone knew that our marriage wasn’t the perfect life they’d all imagined or hoped.
Judy Osborne is a marriage and family therapist in Brookline, Massachusetts, and Director of Stepfamily Associates, an organization she founded in 1981. She consults with individuals, couples, and families about the issues of living in stepfamilies and has seen, firsthand, the evolution of many postmarriage relationships.
Judy’s far-flung family includes a daughter and son, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, four grandsons, two stepdaughters, and two step-granddaughters, plus the extended family members connected with each one of them. Her ex-husband and his wife and families complete the kinship circle. These lifelong connections are renewed annually on Cape Cod, where her kids and stepkids played by the sea 40 years ago.