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Four True Things About Marriage, Divorce and Families

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In my work with Flash Consulting (I solve business or personal or work-life problems in around 24 hours) I've done a lot of cases of couples needing to renegotiate how they divided work and emotional caretaking within their relationships, or how they decide what things to prioritize in their lives. (I do this from a workflow, balanced operations perspective -- I'm NOT a therapist.) But a couple of weeks ago I got a request from someone to do a Flash Consult to help her decide if she should get a divorce.

This was interesting to me. I reserve the right to turn down any case I don't think I can solve. I knew I could tell her my opinion about whether or not she should get a divorce, but that wasn't an actual solution. She needed to be able to make the decision herself. So I came up with a way to make it an actual solution for her so she could make the decision: I gave her a series of things that are true about marriage and divorce, and then asked her some questions based on what she told me about her relationship and what they'd done to try to fix things already to help her tease out where they were relative to the truths.

When I wrote up this case on the blog I keep with testimonials and case studies from the Flash Consulting, I got questions from people who wanted to know what the truths were that I listed. So I thought I'd write them down here so everyone could see them:

1. There is no such thing as a "normal" marriage. There are marriages that function well and marriages that don't. Marriages that function well don't all look the same, with identical degrees of engagement between the partners, just as marriages that don't function well don't all look the same, either (just because you're not fighting all the time doesn't mean your marriage is functioning well). If both partners are getting what they want and need from the marriage, it's functioning well. If they're not, it's not. It's ok if your marriage looks different from your best friend's marriage (or what you perceive your best friend's marriage to be), if it works for you. And if things aren't working in your marriage, they aren't working, even if it doesn't seem "as bad as" other bad marriages you know.

2. The emotional health of the children and parents can't be separated from each other. You can't think that you're going to live in emotional pain and that that won't affect your kids. Nor can you think that your kids will be in pain and you won't feel it, too. Humans are resilient, both as children and as adults, but they need support and peace and people they can trust to provide a safe, calm, loving space for them. Even when that means making hard decisions.

3. The choice is not between a happy marriage and a broken home. Often when people are considering divorce, they are torn because they think they are choosing between a happy family in which everyone's engaged and the parents enjoy each other and work well together, and a sad broken family in which both parents are resentful and jaded and unhappy. How could divorce be a reasonable solution for anyone if that were the case? The actual choice is between the relationship and family as it is now, and a divorce that becomes what you make of it. I say that because I assume that if you're seriously considering divorce, you've already worked hard on your relationship (if you haven't, give it everything you have for a year before you make a decision), so it is reasonable to assume that the relationship is as good as it will be. That is one choice. The other choice is a divorce, which is an uncertain future. Will you be unhappy and bitter? Or will you choose to use the experience to give yourself a new start and fix the things that need fixing? There are no guarantees, but you have control over what you do and how you think after a divorce. You also have control over what you do and how you think in a marriage, but you cannot control what your partner does or thinks. Be sure that you understand that the choice is between what you have now and what you choose to do, not between two opposite fantasies.

4. The long-term effects of coming from a divorced family may not be negative relative to coming from an "intact" family that doesn't function well. Remember point #3, that you're not actually choosing between a happy family and a divorce, but between the family you have now and a divorce that's what you make of it? The research on outcomes comparing "children of divorce" (dumbest terminology ever) to children whose parents stayed together doesn't separate out kids from happy intact families and parents who stayed together but aren't functioning well. We have all kinds of anecdotal evidence that it isn't good for kids when parents stay together but don't function well as a unit (adult children who resent their parents for leaving them in situations of emotional conflict, hostility, or simple coldness). But the lack of research comparing apples to apples by looking at kids from unhappy families that got divorced vs. kids from unhappy families that stayed together means that we simply don't know.

I know none of those true things points directly to an answer for anyone contemplating divorce. But they're not meant to. No one can tell you whether you should stay together or get divorced (although they'll definitely try to). But knowing these four things can help you figure out where you are in the process, what's possible and give you some signposts to help you on the next leg of the journey, whether that journey is to divorce or to reconciliation.

Magda Pecsenye solves business, personal, and work-life problems at Flash Consulting, and writes a blog about co-parenting after divorce with her ex-husband.