Dear Dr. Mike,
When is the right time to get a divorce when you have children? My husband and I have been unhappy together for years, and while both of us agree that our marriage is over, he thinks it’s best to stay married until the children go off to college. He believes we shouldn’t “rob our children of a stable childhood just because we screwed up,” and he is adamant that we stay together for several years.
Our kids are 12 and 16. I cannot do yet another cold and loveless holiday season for the children or myself.
Dear Concerned Parent,
Research and statistics on divorce have shown that January is the most popular month of the year for people to file for divorce — especially for married couples with children. Perhaps this is because married couples do not want to deprive their children of a happy holiday season. Or maybe higher rates of divorce occur in January because of year-end reflections and resolutions. While many vows to quit smoking or to exercise more at the start of the year, maybe shedding the emotional weight of your unwanted husband and marriage is a New Year’s Resolution to make for yourself.
But knowing when exactly to end a marriage is a very personal decision to make. In your marriage, the right time for your husband is after the children depart the home for college, and for you, it is now.
While your husband’s approach is arguably admirable — the idea of sacrificing his happiness for the well-being of his children — it is also a dangerous approach for a few important reasons. First, if you are both truly unhappy, and the marriage is over, your children at 12 and 16 are likely aware of this, and it is only a matter of time until they become negatively impacted by it. You write that you experienced “yet another cold and loveless holiday season,” the concern then would be that your children observed or experienced the same thing for themselves. Second, as parents, we are teachers, and our children learn from what we model. If your kids are raised in a home where “cold and loveless” is normal, they are vulnerable to experience and repeat that for themselves in later relationships. And, third, you are only human. If you remain unhappy long enough, larger problems could occur for you and your husband — a higher rate of stress/anxiety, depression, or acting-out behaviors (e.g., excessive drinking or infidelity).
Domestic abuse, child abuse, infidelity, financial problems, personality disorders or mental illness, alcoholism or drug abuse, and blended family struggles are several of the main reasons why marriages end. Sometimes, the reasons for falling out of love are less clear; a once happy and healthy marriage can become challenged by having or raising children or by the changes that come with age and time. The factors contributing to your unhappiness are not clear to me based on what you have written — and the factors may or may not even be entirely clear to your husband or you as well.
I recommend you and your husband meet with a well-trained and experienced mental health professional in your area of need. A good couple’s therapist should be able to help your husband, and you get on the same page and provide you both with the roadmap you need to negotiate things moving forward.
I would encourage both you and your husband to have an open mind should you choose to meet with a therapist. Struggling couples can sometimes declare that their marriage is over and that they need a therapist’s guidance to end it correctly for themselves and their children. However, with great effort, changes, and time, sometimes these sorts of couples end up addressing their problems and recreating a happy and healthy life together. In contrast, other married couples sometimes seek therapy with the firm hope that the therapist and therapy process will help them to save their marriage. However, even with great effort, sometimes the changes are slow to come or not meaningful enough, and sometimes divorce ends up being the best outcome for these sorts of couples.
In the end, the decision to divorce (or to not divorce) is a critical one; the impact it will have on your husband, you, and your children will be lifelong, so you want to do everything you can to get it right — before, during, and after. Therapy should give you the insight and, self-awareness, and the tools to make the best decision for you and your family — the end goal being one happy home for all involved or two happy homes for all involved.