Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. In the past nine instalments we’ve covered everything from the effect of lockdown on divorces to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one who discovered her husband’s affair during lockdown and another who found out her husband had a vasectomy and didn’t tell her – even after they’d been trying for a baby for a year.
This week we meet Linda who is struggling with one very major decision…
Linda* has found herself at a crossroads.
She knows her marriage is over – it has been for quite some time now, perhaps even years. Their once happy union is now hallmarked by a constant quiet tension and seething, which from time-to-time bubbles over into petty, hurtful and loud arguments.
But there are two reasons why Linda hasn’t been able to call time on their relationship – their two young children.
Now, every night Linda’s evening follows the same pattern: she rushes home from work to make it in time for dinner as a family, then puts her three-year-old to bed, followed by her eight-year-old. Her husband goes to bed at the same time – his job means his alarm goes off before 5am – so by 8.30pm the house is quiet. It’s time she used to invest in reality TV, but in the last six months she has instead spent hours Googling and in the company of strangers, looking for answers: Should she get a divorce? What will the effect be on her children?
“The question is never, ‘should I divorce my husband?’ because I know the answer to that,” says Linda. “I’m always trying to find the answer to ‘should I put my children through a divorce?’”
The internet, as you can probably well imagine, is full of conflicting answers to this question. “I must have read every piece of advice from child psychologists and experts online,” she says. “I’ve even read two ebooks, but it’s the forums and comment sections I get lost in. I want to know what real people have been through before I make a terrible decision.”
Linda says she knows her marriage will one day come to an end, but she doesn’t want to put her children through it anytime soon. And with her really only seeing her husband on weekends (when they both make themselves very busy – separately) the amount of time she has to grin and bear it actually feels quite limited. But is she making the right decision, holding it off for another day/year?
“It feels like an impossible choice,” she says. “I know my husband would definitely want to have equal shared custody of our kids – as I believe he should – but when I think about it, it seems awful. Divorce feels like I’d be saying to my kids that I only want to see them half of the time. I can’t imagine how heart-wrenching it would be coming home to an empty house when it wasn’t my time with them.”
It’s a scenario divorce coach Bridgette Jackson of Equal Exes has seen time and time again. Often women come to her whilst they’re deciding whether or not to make a move, and there are often two reasons that keep women in unhappy marriages. “People stay for the children, and people stay because of the money,” she says. Splitting into two households doesn’t come cheap – and as we’ve discussed in previous Divorce Diaries it’s rare for the woman to have the upper hand in the divorce when it comes to finances. But just as common – or sometimes in conjunction with the financial stresses – women stay because of their children.
“And leaving a relationship when you have children can be one of the most difficult decisions to make,” she says. “Although we realise we might be in unhealthy relationships, we often stay longer that we should, particularly when children are involved. We might think we’re doing the best by them if we stay, but in fact, we expose children to unhealthy traits that could manifest in their own relationships later in life.”
And while it’s tempting to turn to the internet for advice, Bridgette warns against it. “You have got to make sure you don’t advocate your decision to other people,” she says. “People will give you advice – your friends, your family, other professionals, but at the end of the day you’ve got to live with that decision and you’ve got to make sure that you’ve really given that relationship a go before you walk out the door.”
Fellow divorce coach, Kimberlee Sweeney of Degrees of Separation sees women grappling with the impact of a divorce on their children often – and while she believes that we have to make our own decisions, the choice to stay in a relationship just for the children, is an unhealthy one which can have major consequences.
“I say to women, if it’s quite a volatile relationship, or it’s just nasty – what are you teaching your children?” she says. “You want to be modeling good parenting and good relationships – and if you can’t model that, you could be sending them out into the world to repeat that cycle. And do you really want the same for your children? We want to think that when they marry it’s going to be forever, in a healthy, committed relationship – but if we’re staying in a relationship that’s not healthy and not really that committed, then, well, it’s not modelling good behaviour for them, is it?”
It’s been three years since Wellingtonian Shelley separated from her husband, after spending the better part of a year being paralysed by the decision. “I read all the advice,” she says. “I went to a therapist to work through it, but I couldn’t find a right time to do it without destroying my children.”
But then, the decision became easy, in the most unexpected of ways. “We were watching telly and a PG scene happened where a man came up behind his wife in the kitchen and started kissing her,” she recalls. “My seven-year-old was like, ‘Ewwww, why are they doing that?!?’ And I explained that’s what couples do to show their love for each other.”
Which is when her daughter said something that knocked the wind out of her.
“She said, ‘How come you and Daddy never touch each other then?’”
The idea that her daughters were growing up without seeing any affection, or physical proof of love was enough for Shelley to sit her husband down that weekend and work out how they would divorce.
“I went from thinking, ‘I can’t get a divorce because of my children’ to ‘I need to get a divorce because of my children.’
And now, Shelley says her relationship with her former husband is actually better than ever. While she knows it’s not often the case, they both feel like they’re better parents now that they are separated.
“We had a little hiccup when he got a girlfriend and we had to adjust to that change, but generally we are better parents now than before because we get along better now!” she says. “Everything is clear cut. We know what is expected of each other and when. There’s no guess work – it’s all written down in an agreement.”
Co-parenting after a divorce
In an upcoming instalment of The Divorce Diaries we’re talking to the experts – and those who have firsthand experience – all about co-parenting after a divorce, as well as weighing in on the best ways to tell your children about the divorce. If you have an experience, advice, or a question you’d like to ask, send them to [email protected]