I actually feel grief when I hear a couple who have young children say they are divorcing. I have to process the loss of the transformative and healing potential that too many know nothing about. I honestly wish no one would get divorced when they have kids under the age of seven. From conception to age seven is most intense and sensitive period of development. The first three years of life sets the blueprint for all future relationships. The loss of a parent through a divorce along with the intensity and frequency of potential conflict can significantly affect development and life-long well-being this, of course being more negative if there are no healthy ways to process and cope with the stress, grief, and conflict.
…Now before I go further, I can imagine that those read this who have divorced with young children may likely feel some defensiveness and want to explain all the valid reasons you had to divorce. Your reasons are completely valid, and you did the best you can with the resources you have. You need to make decisions that are best for everyone involved based on your unique situation. I also know the reality of high-conflict marriages and domestic violence, and how even more devastating this is, especially for children. In fact, it is common for men to start to become physically abusive when their partner first becomes pregnant, so of course, divorce is sometimes the safest and healthiest option. Yet this does not excuse the reality that far too many of us have not had enough positive role models nor been taught the skills needed to process negative feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and events as well as promote emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and non-violent communication. So my intent here is to give a personal example of how these skills helped me in hopes of helping others…
Having a baby is a huge shock to any relationship. Even the healthiest of relationships will have issues. It is emotionally and physically taxing and stressful on levels no one could ever fathom. Not to mention that relationships within themselves have their own stages of development as well, so after the honeymoon stage it is like you enter an infancy stage within a committed partnership.
All negativity comes from a state of stress and unmet needs. When we feel fear (like afraid we will never get a good night of sleep), our stress response gets triggered causing us to unconsciously react with either fight/flight/freeze or with behaviors we learned in past within similar situations like with our own parents. Thus our worst thoughts, behaviors, and feelings will likely be triggered during this intensely critical stage of development and naturally wreak havoc on any relationship. A recent study found that having a baby caused significantly more dissatisfaction than divorce, unemployment, or even death of a partner.
I experienced this first hand in my marriage and we even made a conscious choice to be married for five years before having our first child. I was a child of divorce and wanted to ensure my marriage was secure and healthy before having a child. Even with a Master’s in Human Development and Family Studies, the birth of my first child triggered intense insecurity and turbulence. I suffered post-postpartum depression, and my partner and I had many ugly, combative, disconnected, stressful times that lasted months and even years on some issues. I would wonder how we ever got along and can we do this… forever!?
Fortunately, we have made it through the trenches and, we not only survived, we thrived. When I reflect on what motivated me to work through the hardships, four reasons come to mind: For one, I have a core belief that committed partnerships are good for us and more love and support children are raised in, the better for all humanity. We are biologically wired to be in relationships and committed partnerships provide consistent opportunities to meet vital needs for our wellbeing.
This second reason is, unfortunately, fear-based and not what I would hope to be a motivating force but I’m honest so here goes: Being a Marriage and Family Therapist, I would have felt absolutely ashamed to even utter the word “divorce.” If I can’t make it work, then who can. If I divorced, it would even shatter my core belief in the former. So back to my first reason, I was determined to make it work because I knew it would be worth it and everyone’s well-being will be better off in the long run.
Number three, I cannot stand hypocrisy so I practice what I preach thus upon great reflection and introspection, I used all the skills I tell my clients: I remembered what attracted me to my partner, all his amazing traits, his dreams, and the core beliefs we shared. These things were still present, they just got lost in the 24/7 demands of parenting, dirty dishes, diapers, bills, the battle for sleep, and work. When I focused on the good and where we agreed, conflicts would end sooner with more understanding, and life just seemed to flow and become more joyful.
The final motivating force came when I was reading the book Living, Loving, Learning by Leo Buscaglia who specializes in Love. He shared this quote:
“Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.” ~Erica Jong
I realized that I needed to take responsibility for getting my own needs met and it wasn’t fair to put so much on my partner. I really put myself in his shoes and I could see he was suffering too. I realized we both had many negative feelings and unmet needs but that we had very different ways of expressing them and getting our needs met. I was taking a lot of frustrations out on him and there was so much that I wasn’t doing that he’d like more of yet he would rarely complain about. I could see he was working just as hard as I was although it appeared through my stressed-out-resenting lenses that he had it easier and was doing much less.
I have been counseling couples since 2001 and I hear countless stories of how the demands of parenting trigger parents into adversaries instead of partners. The good news, parenting does not have to be so destructive and dissatisfying. It actually can be a great opportunity to connect, grow and be a source of nurturance, support, and joy. Acknowledging and validating each other’s efforts, feelings, and needs seem to soften us. When you feel supported, secure, and understood it became easier to give each other the benefit of the doubt, love and trust each other through the hardships instead of blaming, criticizing and fearing the worst. When tension arises now, I affirm that we are in this for the long haul, so if we can’t get all our needs met right now, that’s OK because we will have plenty of time to do so. The sleepless nights, the tantrums, the seeming endless cleaning up of bodily fluids and messes, the absolutely no privacy, it really does get better and you start to see the brilliance in your children, your partner and even yourself.
I often wonder what if my parents took responsibility for their own behaviors and found non-violent ways to resolve their issues, what I would have gained instead of needing to clean up from the destruction and healing the deep wounds that still disturb me from their high-conflict marriage and divorce. I have also found that if relationship pain is not healed, then similar negative patterns of interaction will likely reappear in your next relationship, after the honeymoon stage of course. And you still have to co-parent for the rest of your children’s lives no matter what. Then you’ll likely have to deal with the unprocessed pains of potential new partners on top of the added stress of being a single parent. I know the lure of having freedom and space from conflict and the negativity of your partner feels utterly dreamy, yet there truly are positive ways to get both needs met and create freedom and peace within your relationship. A 75-year long study on what men need to be happy confirmed that memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength and that marriages bring much more contentment after age 70. A study regarding women’s wellbeing and increased marital satisfaction was highly linked to her partner’s level of caregiving during the transition of parenting. I believe your wellbeing and family are worth it.
Here are some links easing the transition to parenthood:
Click link Steps to healing conversations to the handout I developed to transform your conversations from hurting to healing.
You can learn more about me and my online therapy services at WeCounsel
Please take wonderful care of yourselves and each other,
Disclaimer: Positive Reframe shares resources with the intent of the positive progression of informed decision making related to issues associated with emotional, relational, physical and spiritual wellness. While I share personal and professional perspectives, my writings reflect my personal opinion and not intended to substitute professional advice, diagnosis, and treatment. The online medium does not lend itself to the level of detail and rapport building required for thorough assessment and therapeutic intervention. Thus the content shared on this page is for informational purposes only. To make well-informed decisions that best meet your family’s unique needs, I highly recommend exploring and researching available options, consulting primary health care providers, engaging in respectful dialogue with friends and family as well as seek referrals from a trusted source for professional counseling. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy in the state of Illinois, USA.