When a Family Man Thinks Twice
By Dr Joshua Coleman
You get married. And at some point you don't know if the marriage is going
to work. And since it's your first marriage, you feel discouraged and
hopeless and start believing that your marriage looks nothing like the ones
on TV or in US magazine. And you think how nice it would be to have a
marriage like that, built on friendship, hiking, and an active sex life.
And since it's a marriage with children, you don't know what it feels like
to be divorced with children, and figure it might not be that bad. It's a
trade-off. And people say everything in life is a trade-off, so there must be
something worthwhile about trade-offs.
And you start thinking about it after you leave the movie theater because
your marriage once looked like the movie marriage, at least when you were
first dating. Or, maybe the movie is realistic, with lots of alienated,
confused adults, but, even those movies feature somebody who's falling in
love, like the two teenagers in American Beauty. And so you compare your
marriage to the teenagers in American Beauty and wonder how you got as far
off the track as Kevin Spacey, and do you need to get a GTO and start
smoking pot again to find yourself, even if you're smart enough to date
somebody your own age instead of your daughter's friend?
And maybe you realize that the same actors you're comparing your marriage to
on the screen, are having as much trouble in their marriages off the screen
as you are having in yours, at home. And so you stop comparing yourself to
their happy on screen marriages, and compare yourself to them as happy
divorced actors who have their kids part-time and live in LA or New York or
on their ranches in Montana.
And at the playground, watching your kids go down the slide with your wife,
you end up sitting by a divorced father. And if you've never been divorced,
you won't see his loneliness as he stretches his legs and watches and waves
at his children because he looks like you, when you wave and smile at yours
playing on the swings, or that circular spinning thing that makes you
nauseous when you have the poor judgment to get on it. And you don't see
that this very same child on the swing set saying look at me look at me will
have to be returned to her mother's house like a videotape by six because
that was the time agreed to in the agreement. And you may not know the
sadness he feels returning that child to her mother as she closes the door
to him like a vault while his kid waves, sad, bewildered or worse, happy to
be back with her mum and now oblivious of him, her father.
And you, who walk in and out of your home every day with your wife and kids,
can't know what it's like to sit in your car and watch the place you lived
in as family, knowing your child is in there, laughing, talking loudly, or
waving briefly at you from the window like she does when her uncle leaves.
And since you are married, and wake up every day to your child's loud
laughter and endless questions and requests and frustrations and hurts, you
can't contemplate the deadwood barrenness of a house deprived of that sound.
And you wouldn't know that going home to that silence, a silence you craved
many times while married, is a silence found more often on hillsides, after
a large-scale fire.
And being married, you and your wife may have just put your child to bed
with Harry Potter or the Little Engine That Could or other magical
children's stories that teach the value of never giving up and struggling
against the odds. And as the evening goes on, you end up in one of those god
aweful fights with her that leave you feeling alone and why should you have
to put up with this as hard as you work and try. And it's hard to feel like
nobody else has it as bad or understands what you feel except perhaps the
woman you've begun to have an affair with who always says the right thing
and makes you feel good about yourself, which, of course, you deserve. And
the sex with the woman you're having an affair with is unbelievable because
sex is always unbelievable in affairs or else why would anybody bother?
And since you're a married father, who goes on vacations with his kids and
helps them with their soccer, homework or playground politics, you may
underestimate the feelings of seeing your child walk out of the house you
once lived in as family, holding the hand of your ex-wife's new husband.
Perhaps you're surprised by the stab of betrayal when you hear your child
refer to your ex-wife's new husband as "my other daddy." And even though
you've had enough psychotherapy to start a clinic on both coasts, you watch
yourself get mad and hurt and state that she Does not, Can not and Will not
have another daddy because that is a position only you can fill and if she
ever brings up that phrase again, something really bad is going to happen to
somebody, you're just not sure who.
And you begin to wonder if anything is worth this kind of pain. Is anything
worth having your baby, your child, your self, handed to you and ripped back
out like an assembly line robot on a killing spree, week after week after
week after week? And friends and family and professionals say it will get
better over time and it does get better because you eventually get better at
finding new and improved ways to blind and numb yourself. And people will
tell you this change is called growth. And you know that must mean growth is
And you always swore you would be a great dad and you have been but you
better set your sorry ass down with divorce and give thanks for every other
weekend or summer visitation or some other version of fatherhood that has
nothing to do with family and everything to do with an arrangement so
dubious only a court can invent it. And maybe when your kids grow up and go
off to college or move out you'll feel better. But then maybe you won't.
Maybe their new independence will just free them up to see your limitations
even more clearly.
And though you would never do it, you come to understand those lost fathers,
marginalized through their own mistakes or a lousy arrangement, moving miles
away and rarely calling, leaving their kids bobbing and drifting like toys
thrown from the back of a moving boat. And how these fathers get struck
dead and dumb years later when there's an angry and betrayed call from a
child who's now a teenager or an adult. And how these dads stumble out an
excuse that tries to be an apology but ends up blaming the child and the
ex-wife, and leaves the kid glad the father wasn't around in the first place
no wonder mum wanted out.
And maybe you'd never let it get to that point and you do need to leave your
marriage. Maybe the smoking stacked years of hurt and resentment are sooting
the air you and your family breathe and no priest or rabbi or therapist can
ever reverse it because you already tried all that. And you end up falling
in love with someone new because she reminds you of all the qualities you
love best; those of your children, your closest friends and you hate to
admit it but - yeah, those of your ex-wife.
And then, whether it's the right thing or the wrong thing, better or worse,
you look back. And at some point, your kids ask when you and mum are going
to live together again. And though they eventually stop asking, they won't
stop hoping. And they carry that hope the way you carry your love for
them - soft, constant, and close to the surface. And no matter how aweful it
was to be married and how grateful you are to be out, and how much getting
out was the right decision, some part of you may always wonder, was there
something else I could have done? Something?
If this article has challenged you, then take a look at Dr Coleman's book Imperfect Harmony: How to Stay Married for the Sake of Your Children and Still Be Happy and find some practical ways to change your situation.