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Lessons I Learned from My Parents: Part I

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This past weekend, I decided to go through all of my mother's photographs and it brought back a lot of rather painful memories and reminded me of many things I learned from my parents. The only reason for my doing this was the fact that my high school class is having its 30th reunion this year and I noticed that many of my classmates were posting pictures from their childhood on Facebook. By some strange coincidence, the following day, I finally got around to reading a book titled Broken Circle - Children of Divorce and Separation, Photography by Karen Klein and Commentary by Broken Circle participants. "The Broken Circle project gives voice to young adults talking about how their parents' divorce or separation impacted their lives then and now." The combination of these activities caused me to experience an emotional tsunami.

One lesson I learned from my parents that was not addressed in the book is that you should not marry someone when you know they are not right for you. This is true, even if the realization does not occur to you until after the engagement. Marriage is a very serious commitment, and when people exchange their vows, they expect to remain married for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately for my mother, her parents refused to allow her to call off her engagement to my father because they did not want to suffer the embarrassment it would cause them. My parents' marriage was miserable from the outset, even though they remained married for over 20 years.

Future in-laws are not marrying your soon-to-be spouse and have no business talking you into making such a grave mistake. Before calling off an the engagement or wedding, you may want to speak with a mental health professional, to make certain that it is not just a case of cold feet. However, keep in mind that this is about you and not your parents. It was so clear looking at my parents' wedding pictures that my mother was not in love with my father and did not want to marry him. This became even more obvious when I compared those pictures with the pictures that were taken when she married her second husband. I am not suggesting that her second marriage was successful, but she definitely loved him when they married. After all, how happy can you be when you are marrying someone at your parents' insistence and nothing more?

My father was a cardiologist and was in the Navy at the time they married. I was their first child and I understand that they argued because he had the ability to come home to be with her when I was born and didn't want to be there. This story was raised numerous times throughout my childhood and while my parents were still married to each other. What did my father's actions say about their marriage or about my father, for that matter? How do you think a child feels when they learn that their father didn't want to be present at their birth?

This leads me to lesson number two. Children do not improve marriages. Sadly, like many married couples, my parents believed otherwise. They therefore had two more children together and doing so most certainly did not improve their marriage. In fact, having children actually gave them the opportunity to stay in an unhappy marriage "for the sake of the kids." Furthermore, by having more children, they extended the length of their agony. They also let all of us know that they were staying together for our sake.

I cannot even begin to tell you the burden we carried, knowing that we were responsible for them remaining in such an unhappy marriage. Lessons number three and four are that parents should not make children feel responsible for their remaining married and parents should not remain in such terrible marriages for the sake of their kids. Interestingly enough, as I read "Broken Circle," I saw stories from other children who blamed themselves for keeping their parents together "when they didn't belong that way." My brothers and I desperately wanted our parents to divorce long before they did and I am certain that the divorce would not have been as destructive as it was, had they ended it much sooner. As I was reading "Broken Circle," one child stated, "All of the negative effects of my parents' relationship are due to them staying together for so long." Quite a few of the children described their parents' decision to divorce as a "relief," a "'happy" occasion, an "end of conflict," or "satisfaction because it meant the end of fights." Who benefits by making divorce more difficult? Unless I am missing something, these children most certainly wouldn't have benefited, myself included. In fact, I can promise that everyone involved in families such as these would have been much better off, had the divorce occurred even sooner.

In our situation, my brothers and I all knew how miserable our parents were together. They were always yelling at each other, bad mouthing each other to us, and fighting, among other things. We could hear the arguments, even when they weren't occurring in our presence. We also saw our mother immediately after our father would beat her. The police were called to the house on numerous occasions and my father was arrested at least once. I very clearly recall our mother showing us the police blotter from our local paper, which mentioned his arrest. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual situation. Some of the stories I read in "Broken Circle," were of children describing the end of their parents' marriages as the end of "harm." One child expressed that his parent's "marriage had turned very ugly to the point of violence."

Lesson number five is that children know when their parents are not getting along, even if it is not quite as obvious as it was in our situation. Children are much more intuitive than adults seem to believe. Lesson number six has to do with the fact that the research shows that children are harmed by parental conflict and that this can occur even in intact marriages.

In the past, I have referred to myself as a wounded healer. As I read one of the stories in Broken Circle, I felt I had found a kindred spirit when she said she has "a goal of leaving an overall positive impact when I'm gone." These are only a few of the lessons I learned from my parents and hopefully others can learn from their mistakes.