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Still Haunted by My Children's Pain: Was My "Tough Love" Worth It?


As has been documented again and again, divorce crashes a child's world. That truth stated, an essential question must be asked: If you are in a marriage that feels like a death sentence (and maybe is), if you have tried and tried to make things more endurable but cannot -- what is the worst damage to children: to stay or leave?

I believe with every fiber in me that it is better to leave, and show your children that you are capable of a better life, and so are they. This leads to other questions about the wisest way to accomplish this. Please read on, as I would welcome your feedback.

My former husband fought our divorce tooth and nail. He saw monogamy as "nonsense" and felt that because most of the money that supported us was through him ( I was told nothing about his investments), he could come and go from our family home as he wished. He also believed that our life should be presented to his colleagues and our friends as Christmas Card Perfect.


Further, even while he unofficially lived with an other woman, he insisted that "the family" (as he called us) celebrate holidays, birthdays, even wedding anniversaries together. (He did not believe that his unofficial companion belonged at these gatherings.) His choice was to always celebrate at very public hotels and restaurants so that others would see how sophisticated and cordial "the family" was. While I was trying to save our marriage, I participated in such evenings, until they began to make me physically ill.

Due to my former husband's resistance, the legal and emotional ordeal of our divorce took years. When he finally agreed to a divorce (because of an assault charge) he was given very liberal visitation with our children at his home. Still he insisted that in the agreement there also be a clause that once every month, there be such a "family" evening. I signed this, though my lawyer urged me not to, just so the divorce finally would be granted.

My children were very young at this time (in early elementary school), and their father continuously built up the importance of "the family" every time he was with them. He insisted on intimate birthday celebrations, even "raising a glass to celebrate our wedding anniversary," as well as the monthly "family" gatherings in pubic places. He told anyone who would listen that the divorce was all my fault, as my "demands" for his time were "completely unrealistic for a real man." He also told everyone who would listen that he hoped for a reconciliation, when I "finally came to my senses."

Things really got awful when I refused to participate in our public monthly outings. By this time his companion was leaving me phone messages, raging that first I held up the divorce and then I insisted on a "family night" that left her out!

Alive for me always remains one such "family night," in the dead of winter. Directly after such a call from the woman he lived with, the children's father came to my children and my home, demanding that we all have dinner. I told him privately, away from our children, what I had told him often: He had no right using me and our children as an excuse for not making a commitment to another woman. He then went to our children, telling them that I refused "family night" and was trying to take their father away from them. The children were understandably confused, torn, upset and angry, telling me they wanted to be with their daddy, and begging me "to go with them and Daddy for family night." I refused. I made sure the children were dressed warmly, gave them each their favorite book and drawing materials, as well as a drawing of a clock, showing them when they would be home, where I would be waiting for them. As they left with their father, he was telling them loudly that I destroyed our family.

I shook on this evening, and on all subsequent ones my little ones were with their father. For I never trusted the care they received or his judgment. Yet, I had no power to do anything other than my best to teach them to care for themselves.

My children remained angry with me for years, again and again parroting their father's words that I destroyed their family. I listened, acknowledging their pain and anger.

When my children were older I explained my actions: I wanted them to see a woman who stood up to manipulation and abuse, and I also hoped that they would someday see firsthand what I real marriage was. In time, I was able to show this to them. However, even if this fortune had not come my way, I never wavered from my belief that for me and for them, divorce was the correct option.

But this explained, like you, I have always known the story of King Solomon, who gave the child to the parent who refused to have the baby cut in half. My children wanted this "family night;" but with the best of intentions, I refused the sham and manipulation. And I hurt them.

To fast forward: My children are now adults, each married to an ethical, hard working, loyal partner -- each in a partnership committed to their children. Each with a good profession.

I have not discussed "family night" with them for many, many years. But I surely have thought about it. I well know that as I lived my life, many of my choices and decisions caused my two little children horrible pain. To this day I can picture their tear stained faces on evenings I refused to join them and their father. I have often wondered if I should have participated in what seemed a horrible sham -- an acquiescence that I feared would weaken them.

Was my decision "tough love" that strengthened them; or was I, in truth, the "selfish horror" I remain labeled by their father? My children surely suffered. Over the long run, would I have made their pain more tolerable by acquiescing to the manipulation? What would you have done? I would very much like to know your thoughts.