[OPINION] Til death or divorce parts us

If everybody had to choose the best interests of their children as quickly as they choose divorce there would be fewer divorces, more established and unbreakable marriages and fewer children in the world wondering what they did wrong.

Divorce is a sensitive subject. There exist many reasons and many justifications why the marriage didn’t work out. The most common explanation is incompatibility.

During the preparation for my first marriage we were asked to list the things we disliked about our partner. It was amazing how quickly two or three things sprung to mind. He drives too fast, he is bad with money and he is a people pleaser. Looking at our lists the counselor asked us to look at each other and he said: “This is it, it is unlikely that these things will change... You need to decide whether you can live with that? I pick up from both of you the impression that ‘there will be none of that when we are married’... The truth is none of this is going away. This is part of who you are.”

It was a valuable insight that served many purposes during those first happy and shaky months of marriage. Mostly the issues that arise are there before we get married, and we mistakenly think love or commitment will see us through and we can deal with it when it comes up. Unless we acknowledge it, we can’t.

Many divorced people give you the reasons the marriage couldn’t work and the reasons were there for all to see during the courtship. Unfortunately, one, two or three babies later, it becomes unbearable and instead of turning towards each other - knowing that your partner is not just those things, they are also all the things you fell in love with, had common ground and purpose with - and figuring it out, we turn on each other and fight it out to the divorce court.

I believe there is a case for making your marriage your work for the sake of your children. Yes, most children would rather come from a broken home than live in one. I get it, our home was not whole all the time and yes, there were times my parents fought and I wondered how it would be if we could just keep them apart. However, they stayed true to us and their marriage vows. Death parted them. Not a new love, not a career, not their occasional unhappiness, but our happiness and our security was what counted.

We heard and watched our parents fight often; mostly it was clear who was right and who was wrong. It was terrifying, but we never feared they were going to break up. They always worked it out, not always did someone lose and someone win, sometimes they just conceded or compromised. We sometimes had family meetings to discuss and apologise and share how it made us feel as children. Our mum was more stubborn than our dad so he was usually the peacemaker. In time our mum saw how powerful that was and she too (reluctantly at first) started taking responsibility for her contribution.

It taught us a lot as girls. It was how I thought everybody did it. Our mother stood her ground and had her own opinions, she was smart and a little too feisty sometimes. I still choose that over submissive and self-sacrificing any day. We had a stay-at-home mom, a privilege I only appreciated when I had to work to support my own family. I did think that homes that I visited which were always happy were exceptional. I know now that it is possible to have mostly happy times in your home. Some people know how to fight. They don’t beat around the bush, they stick to the topic and they express themselves with words, not fists, and they don’t get personal when the going gets tough. There must be agreed rules of engagement.

What prompted me to share this opinion was an interview I listened to about blended families. A lot of the comments were directed to exes, to step parents but mostly to children of divorce. I find this entirely unacceptable. If you choose divorce, your first consideration is what is in the best interest of your children. The children whom we chose to have. The children who represent our union. The children you will soon call manipulative, bad examples to other children, inheritors of all the other parents’ bad habits, characteristics, flaws and anything else that will keep the children part of the problem.

I have been widowed. It is the most harrowing, overwhelming experience of a lifetime to be widowed. Plans and purpose for the future snuffed out in that moment you get the news and for months and months, sometimes years afterwards. Sometimes widows and widowers never recover from the loss. Looking around, I think it is even worse to be divorced.

Death is final, you have to move on. Divorce in many ways is like a death, except the corpse keeps showing up and sometimes they show up with a new partner. It cannot be easy, even if it is possible. I have complete empathy with anyone struggling with a decision to divorce and therefore I think a clear and concise thought for choosing that route, over your marriage and your family, must take priority.

Sometimes partners who are divorced never recover from the rejection and abandonment. For some people it is the better of two outcomes. I understand that.

There are instances, to my mind, where divorce is the last option and the best option: abuse, physical or emotional; repeated infidelity; marital rape; incest; and a few other definite life and death situations.

Generally incompatibility is too general and nobody has to be accountable or responsible for the breakdown of a marriage and often the breakup of a family.

I never condemn people who choose divorce, I just like to encourage people to explore all options before taking a simplistic view that ‘we don’t belong together’. The amount of people who have said, ‘I always knew we should not have gotten married’ is countless. I’m suggesting some people get married too easily and divorced too easily and in between that, they create young lives that will forever be marred by parents who chose each other and then chose themselves over the children and the family they created.

I feel strongly that my mother’s advice to us as young women was wise. Get educated; be independent before you get married. She didn’t and I think that left her on the back foot a lot in our familial disputes. I also know the opposite to be true often. Where the wife is the breadwinner or earns better than her husband, it takes some emotional maturity to accept that for what it is and not make it mean anything. Some couples have it down pat; they are excellent examples of what is possible. Too many don’t. It’s cultural, it can be religious, it is the way many of us were socialised. Whatever it is, if it is your reality, clear conversations about how it is and how it makes each feel will definitely defuse it coming up as a weapon during a marital spat.

When we married my husband also proposed to my two sons, they were 6 and 4 years old. We still have the little rings he bought them. The difference this made to our sons was important. They were chosen with me, not as part of me. We were not a package deal. We had to have all the conversations before we chose to get married and start a new family together, the four of us. We never refer to step parents or step brothers in our home. Everyone here is equal and chosen.

There is no good time to be widowed. I also don’t think there are many winners in a divorce either. I strongly believe that more people need to consult and compromise and promise and keep their word with their children when they have no option but to divorce. Entering into new partnerships as a divorcee with children is entirely on the parent in the relationship to prepare their children, to protect their children and to make their children feel like a priority, not a hindrance.

I have friends in all situations, damaged and pained by marriage and divorce, happily divorced and child free, unhappily divorced and still fighting the world and the in-laws, comfortably divorced and in a friendly space with exes for the sake of the children. There are many scenarios; my preference is that when we get married we do so for good reasons and for good.

A loving blended family is possible; children can come to you even if they don’t come through you. There is an excellent example: a young girl turned to her mom’s husband and said, “You are not my father, you don’t get to tell me what to do!” The husband held her by the arms and said, “I chose you, I am your father.” Maybe he was lucky, but it changed the young woman’s approach completely, she felt chosen. She felt loved and she also got to choose him.

It is all possible and it is up to us adults, not our children. We are their guides, their protectors, nurturers and role models. Let us step up and make a difference in their lives. There are no unplanned children, only unplanned pregnancies, they should not be paying for mistakes we made in our marriages or relationships. It is all a matter of choice.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn