Think twice before getting a divorce for the kids' sake

August 30, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

My husband and I renewed our wedding vows not long ago with a small church service that included the children of our union.

Jessie and I bought special dresses and carried tiny bouquets. Joe got a new outfit and carried the rings as my husband and I pledged our love.

There was a reception, complete with presents, champagne and a big cake. My husband and I went on a second honeymoon and returned with presents.

None of this made any impression on the kids, because they continue to ask if their father and I are going to get divorced.

Without waiting for an answer, they declare in unison that they will elect to live with their father after the split because he rents better movies and lets them roast marshmallows in the fireplace.

I have gotten over the fact that I am viewed as the no-fun, let-me-see-your-homework parent. But I am troubled that the children of a couple that rarely fights (because the dad refuses to be provoked) are worried that they are going to be sleeping in a different house every other weekend and during holidays.

No, I tell them again and again, we are not getting a divorce.

It has been a common misconception that kids bounce back quickly from the trauma of divorce and that they actually flourish after being released from a contentious marriage. But what has come to be considered essential to an adult's happiness -- the freedom to change life partners -- has been shown to be, in study after study, detrimental to the child.

Children of divorce are usually thrown immediately into a lesser standard of living, if not into poverty. They are neglected emotionally by their overwrought parents. They have difficulty at school because they are distracted and upset. These children feel responsible for the disintegration of their family because it is better than feeling helpless and abandoned.

Even if divorce is a welcome end to fighting, even if the children understand, even if the parents divorce gently, the kids forever regret not having had an intact family. Long into their own adulthood, children of divorce are found to be depressed, troubled, drifting and underachieving. They have difficulty making emotional commitments, forming a marriage, holding a job.

In short, children are more likely to recover from your death than your divorce. At least insurance and Social Security can provide some economic stability. And for the child, there is no burden of guilt or unrequited hope for reunion. There is no anger toward the departed parent.

What all this means is that you can't walk away from your marriage if you have any hope of your kids' turning out OK.

You don't get to leave when you are bored or restless, or when you fall in love with someone else. Or when your father dies or you lose your job or you turn 50 and your future seems suddenly short and joyless. And you don't even get to leave if your spouse cheats on you -- more than once.

What you do is get help, counseling, mediation. Give your kids an intact home and the tremendous, quantifiable bonus that means for them. Give them a lesson in how to solve a problem, how to try to fix something, how not to walk away.

Men and women must realize "that constantly fluctuating perceptions of a mate are essentially illusions . . . and that these illusions can do harm," as Robert Wright writes on infidelity in a recent issue of Time. Chasing these illusions is a luxury you do not have when you have children. The kids will be lost while you are trying to find yourself.

This is easy for me to say. I'm married to a great guy who does all the science fair projects, only spends money on gasoline and coffee, and whose only sin is that he doesn't put the vacuum cleaner away after he runs it. He doesn't have a bowling night, let alone another woman.

And I could never tell a woman to stay with a man who is beating her or the children, or who is sexually abusing them. Those women and children are in danger.

But children of broken marriages are in danger, too. More danger than they face in a home with tension or grudges or a disaffected parent.

It is never better for those kids if the parents divorce. It is only different.

To hear Susan Reimer read one of her columns, call Sundial and punch in the four-digit code 6156. See the SunSource directory

on Page 2A for your Sundial number.

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