My niece got married yesterday. I adore her, and I adore her sister. They're my nieces by marriage, and they've remained my nieces through divorce.
I'm a fairly quiet person. And when you're quiet, you tend to hear things. I was at the gym today, basking in the glow of last night's wedding festivities, when I overheard a couple of women in the locker room talking about upcoming nuptials, presumably those of the daughter of one of them. "It's a good thing (husband's name) and I have been married so long; on his side, there are just marriage failures," she said.
I walked away because my buzz was killed, and I didn't want to hear more. The comment made me so sad. But as I walked home, started to feel angry. It was the word "failure" that set me off.
My first marriage, to my nieces' uncle, didn't succeed. We were young and made mistakes, a great many of them mine. No offense intended to my husband or my ex-husband's wife, but the divorce is my greatest regret because of the toll it took on our children.
But no one can convince me divorce equals failure -- primarily because of those children, and the hope that's evident within them as they embark on their own marriages, and the strength we continue to demonstrate as a family unit -- a nontraditional one, but a unit nonetheless.
We weren't always this functional; it took a long time for us to get to this point, and in the process, the kids sustained a lot of hurt. My ex and I lashed out at one another, pushed buttons in any way we could, and behaved in some really immature and ridiculous ways. But I choose to focus on the fact that eventually, we figured out how to relate to one another as parents -- "for the kids" as they say, but also for the sake of our own emotional health. It's not good to hate someone, especially the other person with whom you created two wonderful and deeply loved humans.
Here's what I wish I had told the woman in the locker room today about children of "failed" marriages:
- They don't know only failure, and they don't see their parents as failures. Of course, given the choice, I daresay every child of parents who split up wish their dads and moms had worked out their differences and found a way to stay together. But children of divorce often witness the strength of single parents and benefit later on from the tenacity that was being built while they weren't aware any "life lessons" were going on. They learn to be financially responsible because money is often tight. They learn to appreciate what they're given because chances are someone had to work like hell to give it to them.
- They seek out and value honesty, and their emotional maturity is well developed because of it. By far, the most difficult conversations in my life were the ones my children and I had when they became young adults and questioned exactly why their dad and I divorced. You want your children to adore you, and it's a risk to allow them to see that you're capable of having been a pretty flawed human being. But in most cases, if they know they're not being lied to, they can evaluate, and they can -- thankfully -- forgive.
- They can, and often do, go on to have solid marriages of their own -- precisely because they're determined to prevent the problems that took down their parents' unions. My son and daughter, married three and two years, respectively, insist on communication in their marriages, and on heading off small issues before the problems are allowed to become big ones.
I wish the locker-room women could know my family. At niece Alli's wedding reception last night, I sat at a table with my ex, his wife, my son, and his ex's sons. (My nieces and their parents still welcome me as family and not an "outlaw" -- a something about which I'll always be grateful). We talked and laughed -- not to impress anyone with our "example," but because we like one another and enjoy spending time together. A funny thing happens when your divorce is several years in the past; the brain pushes the bad stuff to the back and highlights the attributes in that person that allowed you to want to marry him or her in the first place. My ex is kind and funny. He's a wonderful son and brother, and a loving father. That's all I see now.
I wish they could also have seen something else. Alli's parents are divorced as well, and as her dad, Bob, began his father-of-the-bride toast, the first person he credited was Alli's mom, Phyllis, for instilling the values in Alli that made her the lovely woman she is. He praised Phyliis in a way you'd expect to hear a man praise a woman whom he continues to value, admire, and respect. It was beautiful and spoke volumes not only about Bob as a person, but about the union that created my nieces -- a union that could in no way be regarded as a failure.
We all know of marriages that are simply toxic; the partners can't abide one another but remain together. One could call this admirable; there's much to be said for placing a value on commitment. But I also ask myself what's to be gained from the resentment and martyrdom that might exist in those marriages. In those cases, does "staying together for the kids" benefit those children, or does it adversely impact their views of what marriage can be? I can't pretend to know. Would staying with my ex have harmed the kids in the long run? Could we have worked things out? We'll never know; we can simply continue to move forward, doing the best we can.
But, please, gym ladies and everyone else: Don't automatically judge divorced parents, and don't automatically consider their children as somehow "less than." My children and my niece are extraordinary, if I do say so myself. In the case of my kids, I used to tell people they were fabulous "in spite of" their dad and me, but I've seen things differently for a while now. Their dad and I chose one another, and we chose to create them, and we're pretty decent individuals, so our son and daughter are pretty great people because of us, as well ... "failure" be damned.