Mel Schwartz, LCSW

#127 For the Sake of the Children

Episode 127 of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz looks at that common refrain of the unhappily married: they stayed together “for the sake of the children.”

Is that really why, or is there a hidden motivation at work? And is a loveless relationship full of conflict really the best environment for a child?

I’ll answer these questions and present some alternative perspectives on how we view successful, healthy families.

Listen, and then I’d love to hear what you think! Be sure to leave a comment with your own thoughts and questions!

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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #127

Hello everybody and welcome to the Possibility Podcast. I’m your host Mel Schwartz. I practice psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and I am the author of the book The Possibility Principle, the companion to this podcast. I hope to be your thought provocateur and I’ll be introducing you to new ways of thinking and a new game plan for life.
Hello everyone and welcome to this episode of the Possibility Podcast. I’d like to wish you all a very happy and a very healthy and prosperous new year. I hope you’re doing this not just financially, but emotionally, spiritually, and in your quest for whatever you’re questing for. I’m going to be speaking to you today about the belief that many people have around children, marriage and divorce.
I wrote an article quite a few years ago entitled “For the Sake of the Children,” and that’s just what I’m going to call this episode. An inquiry around the term for the sake of the children. What does that term mean?
I’ve so often heard people in conflicted or unhappy marriages or simply loveless marriages that they’re staying together for the sake of the children. The implied message there is the children will be better off living in an intact family and spared from the negative effect of divorce. That makes sense at first glance, but it really requires a deeper, more thoughtful consideration as do most of our beliefs. Most of our commonly held beliefs we don’t examine and we don’t really look at them and determine if they really make sense, if they’re valid. That’s critical thinking. When we do examine them too often, they just don’t hold up under that scrutiny. This may well be the case here around this term for the sake of the children.
So a number of questions come to mind. Are we really staying together for the sake of the children or are we perhaps fearful of coming to terms with our own lives? The fear of being on my own, starting over, what my future looks like as a divorced person. And in those circumstances, are we actually using the children as our justification, if not a scapegoat? Secondly, is divorce in and of itself necessarily harmful to children? And the last consideration that I’d like to discuss is what are the effects of remaining in an intact family who we choose not to divorce, but there’s a lot of conflict or anger, or even simply an absence of affection.
Let’s take a look at these questions.
As our children grow older, they tend, emphasis on the word tend, to replicate relationships similar to what their parents modeled. As parents, we’d never say we want our children to suffer or struggle as we might be in our marriage, yet that’s a great likelihood. So it’s not what we say, but what we do that matters. Telling our children they deserve healthy, respectful, and loving partnerships isn’t really taken to heart. It’s just lip service. If we don’t have the courage to live up to that ideal and just leave it as words, what we model for them is very much what we might expect for them to have in their future relationships.
From this perspective, we might question the sincerity of the expression for the sake of the children. If we want our kids to have joyful and successful relationships, shouldn’t we be providing them with the best example we can of what that looks like? No, it’s kind of like do as I say or do as I do. Living in mediocrity or worse than mediocrity burdens children with very confusing messages about relationships and happiness. It certainly instructs them that loving marriages and partnerships are not their birthright, but perhaps the exception.
Countless times in my practice, working with adult clients of divorced parents, reflecting back on their childhood, they’ll say they wish their parents had not waited until they were out of the house to divorce. So often we’re going to wait for the kids to go off to college. Don’t do that. That makes a mockery of your marriage and it makes the kids feel guilty that you stayed together just for them. It creates a mockery of the institution of marriage. We owe our children much more than the physicality of intact family. We owe them our truth, emotional intelligence, not infrequently.
People are sometimes just afraid to move on with their lives and take their own responsibility for happiness. I’ve heard that countless times. I’m 45 years old. Who’s going to want me? How could I start over? There are no good men out there. They’re all taken. Conversely, the same with women. And there are, of course, financial concerns, but underlying most of the fear is the fear of being alone. And that creates paralysis. So hidden beneath the mask of staying together for the sake of children is often fear.
Other times it’s easier to blame your partner for your discontent than to come out of the sense of victimhood, forcing you to stay in the imprisonment of a hapless marriage. Unloving or conflicted marriages often follow a lineage. They’re passed down from generation to generation. They are not genetically inherited. It is not your DNA. And so the cycle continues. Now is that what we really wish for our children?
It’s much more challenging to come to terms with our own circumstances and face our fears than to hide behind them, staying together for the kids. Now what would it look like to come to terms with a marriage that is conflicted, angry or loveless? Ask yourselves how we both done the work, the very best work we can do, exploring ourselves, our own challenges, our own roadblocks, and being in couples counseling as well as individual.
Now divorce isn’t failure. Living in unhappiness is failure.
Now I am under no circumstances suggesting the divorce be taken lightly. It’s a major critical life transition. And in some cases it is traumatic. We owe it to our children to make the most valiant attempt to work out our differences and live in a supportive and loving atmosphere that’s generative. This is after all the legacy we should be giving to our children. Our first priority should be to do just that. So if you’ve engaged in counseling individual and or couples and you’ve made every effort to grow and reconcile as a couple and can succeed, then staying married in fact might look like a failure. You see divorce in that case isn’t failure. Being wed to unhappiness is failure. It leads to depression and a host of other things. So again I repeat, divorce in and of itself isn’t failure. And living out your life in unhappiness looks like failure. Divorce in and of itself need not be harmful to children.
Now a highly contentious, conflicted, adversarial divorce, which happens all too often with traditional divorces, hiring high-priced attorneys to make war with each other, that does wreak damage. But research indicates that most children adapt to their new circumstances of divorce. The transition of divorce within a few years, and anecdotally, after the tens of thousands of hours of therapy I’ve conducted with parents and with children, I can say within a few years the kids do adapt to new circumstances. Having two loving parents successfully move forward with their lives teaches an invaluable lesson that we deserve to be happy and to feel loved.
Conversely, remaining in relationships that perpetuate anger, disharmony, devaluation, belittling and a lack of positive interactions, that leaves an indelible scar on children. The good divorce, and that’s a divorce in which parents focus on the well-being of the children, not just the lip service, is becoming more and more commonplace. Either way, for the sake of the children, we should commit to making our marriages the best they can be. But if we do that and can’t succeed, we need to demonstrate lovingly to our kids that we all deserve happiness, even at the cost of divorcing. Having the courage to truly live our lives for the sake of our children should be our ethic.
But it needs to be more than lip service. For the sake of the children, we need to make our marriages the priority in their lives, not just parenting, but our marriages as well. That is the legacy we owe our children. The marriage, the relationship should be the vessel through which we model this positive value, but not an excuse, an imprisonment that we’ve justified because of our children. What a horrible thing to do to them, to be the best parents we can be, we must be the best people we can be. That is what we owe our children.
So divorce is complex, but we shouldn’t make a decision to divorce or not out of anything less than our deepest authentic truth. And if we have fears keeping us in the marriage, we owe it to our children to work through those fears.
So if you’re in that position where you’re struggling around your decisions around marriage, children and divorce, I hope this has provided some insights for you. It’s just a jumping off point to really get you to look at these things deeper. And in all of my messages to you, don’t accept these common mottos and themes, uncommon sense. The topic of my new book is we need to throw away the common sense rule book, often it makes no sense at all.
Until next time, a week from now, I wish you everything you deserve in your lives. See you soon. Bye for now.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Possibility Podcast. I welcome your feedback on this and any episode. Please send me an email at Mel at Mel Schwartz dot com or leave a comment in the show notes for this episode at Mel Schwartz dot com. If you like what you’re hearing, please take a moment to rate and review the show at Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Your reviews really help boost the visibility for the show. And it’s a great way for you to show your support. Finally, please make sure to subscribe to the possibility podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. And that way you’ll never miss an episode. Thanks again. And please remember to always welcome uncertainty into your life and embrace new possibilities.
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