If there was one thing I wish I could make people understand today about American family life it's this: you are blind.
There are things you're not seeing about what's important to your partner and to your kids and the fact that you're not seeing these things has consequences.
If you're like more than half of the families out there, the accumulation of what you're not seeing will mean that your family will end in divorce.
Only, "end" really isn't the right word. Sure, your "family" as one cohesive unit is essentially over. But you will still be stuck with each other.
But now, instead of trying to pull dinner together, deal with bedtime and homework and your sucky job and hopefully have enough energy to still have sex with your husband or wife--when you would actually PAY someone to stick you in one of those Japanese, micro-hotel pod capsules for twelve uninterrupted, glorious hours of sleep--you'll be dealing with a new set of hassles.
These will center around hammering out a divorce decree, divvying up the kids for the holidays, harassing the crap out of them so they'll be ready to go to Mom's house or Dad's house on time, feeling guilty about what the divorce is doing, or has done, to the kids and trying to integrate a new partner into your life.
You'll still be tired. And you'll definitely still be blind.
Although, you might be seeing a few new things that you wish you could have seen before. Such as how some of your old baggage from long ago really actually did have an impact on the kind of parent and partner you were. Crapola. And how the end result of the stuff you handled poorly has created some new, heartbreaking effects on your kids that you'd give almost anything to make go away. Damn.
But it's the other side's fault now. I mean, really. Honestly. It is.
Anyone can see that it's the other person that's behaving irrationally, not keeping the best interests of the kids in mind. Being stubborn and uncooperative. A chaotic, unorganized mess. They're too emotional or as cold as dry ice. It's not your fault things aren't working!
What is your doing is that you are absolutely 100% convinced that you are right.
But nobody gets to be absolutely 100% right. No one. Think of any of your divorced friends, telling you their story. What did you see that they couldn't? What did you not say to them?
So if that's not you, if you're not wearing the Cloak of Invincibility, then where have you erred? Where is the light shining through a crack in the door? What's falling out of the box? What's leaking from your cupped hands?
Behavior motived by your ego.
The part of you that wants to be better than the other side. More right. Smarter. Stronger. More loving, responsible and dedicated. And clearly, obviously, of course, the superior parent to your vulnerable little nestlings.
Your ego makes you blind. It turns you into someone who would argue your case using whatever means available: victimhood, exaggeration, passive-aggressive sleights of hand, a willful evasion of unflattering facts and a non-stop, competitive spirit that would put most military strategists to shame.
If there weren't little kids involved, this might be okay.
You'd be adding something crappy to the world, but hey, it's your life and there seems to be lots of people out there just like this (so many horrid comments online!), so what difference does it make?
But there are kids involved, which is why you're stuck with the other parent (and maybe their partner and their kids - plus new children the two had together).
The problem is, as you do, so do your kids.
As you blame, so do they. As you hide, so do they. As you judge and plot and scheme, so do they. As you puff yourself up like one of those weird lizards with giant Elizabethan collars trying to scare off predators, so do they.
You teach your kids to be brittle, combative and underneath it all, on high alert.
High alert is not a feel-good place of impending triumph. It's one of fear...
When you don't deal with that crack of light, that water spilling all over the floor, basically, anything that's an inconvenient, contradictory truth, you limit your child's options. When you don't attend to the real emotions of family life or divorce or stepfamilies, head-on, this is what happens to your kids instead:
Sadness turns into the impulse to wound someone else. Anger melts into anxiety and depression. Fear coalesces into self-doubt and shame. Overwhelm feeds a desperate need to numb out.
So what if you tried something else instead?
Remember that person you once fell in love with and then divorced? Who are they now, REALLY? If they were some stranger you met in an airport, what good qualities might you see in them? If they were a neighbor or a co-worker, how would you treat them?
So they screwed up. Granted. But so did you.
How can you now, imperfect being that you are, treat your ex as a similarly imperfect human being and show your kids what it's like to be a grown-up worth emulating?
In what ways can you move your children to their very heart's core - to show them: this is what it's like to forgive someone? This is what it's like to treat someone I do not really like that much anymore with respect anyway. This is what it's like to admit the ways in which I have failed, to pick myself back up with humility and compassion and to try again, even harder. This is what it's like to act with kindness and generosity, even though I have the "right" to be a total jerk.
Maybe 100 years from now, we'll have machines that can easily measure the energy of our emotions. We'll be able to hold a little beeping device up to someone and say, "Man, you really let go of some tough stuff, didn't you? Good for you!" and everyone will be like, "Whoa, that was some nasty, self-righteous resentment you had going there! Check out this digital print out. You're so much lighter and freer now. Your heart looks calm, open and clear..."
Your ego would rather have you approach family life from win or lose, take or take, right and wrong. But that gray area beyond is actually where all the good stuff is. It feels weird and awkward and scary to be there, but that's where you'll find the gold.
If you want your kids to have big, happy lives, then take a look around you and tell the truth about what you're not seeing in your family - or between the two families.
Then make a change that surprises even you.
You will have just given your child the best gift ever, one that may change the entire course of their own family in the future.