Dear Dr. Wes and Julia: My family isn't that good for each other, and we might get a divorce. What other things can we do?
Julia: One Christmas, when I was younger, I witnessed my parents arguing over fruit salad. I had never seen them argue like this, and my most immediate fear was divorce. I think most people's concern when it comes to divorce is losing a security they know or knew when they were younger. Any demonstration to that effect can cause anyone to assume the worst: divorce.
First, assess your situation thoroughly, looking not just at your parents' actions but at anything that could be affecting your family as well. Consider how serious your situation really is. Do your parents fight a lot? Stressed parents tend to problem solve in raised voices. When money becomes especially tight, parents' tolerance gets stretched to its limit. Are there outside forces affecting your family? All families experience rough patches - mine happened to be a disagreement concerning fruit salad. Some of those rough patches really can prove whether the parents are meant to stay together. Divorce can be one option - like cheating or running away - which people consider but don't end up choosing.
If it happens that your family is headed for divorce, the best thing to do is cope. Parents rarely divorce on account of their kids. In fact, they often try to stay together for the sake of the family. So in no way would a divorce be your fault. Talking to a trusted friend can help. If you calmly let people know what is happening, it is less likely the word will get out before you're ready. You don't have to try and find a silver lining or act like nothing is wrong, but showing people that you are able to accept what has happened will decrease any unwanted pity. I truly hope your family is simply going through a rough time, but if divorce is imminent, don't hesitate to let your parents know how you feel and take measures to help get you through a tough time.
Dr. Wes: Julia's words are wise. Knowing what's really going on is a good idea before leaping to any conclusions. Unfortunately, the statistics are on your side. Well over half of American families with children will divorce at some point - some before the kids leave home and some after. I think divorce is particularly difficult for teenagers. Just as you're trying to pull away from your family in an age-appropriate manner and focus on your own relationships and loves, your family suddenly falls apart. It might seem easier if you were already away at college. However, I find it's often just as hard for younger college kids to realize that the home they remember is no longer there for them at the point they really need a base camp. So in short, divorce is never easy, and I can understand why you'd hope for alternatives.
An obvious alternative is for your parents to see a therapist to determine what's wrong in their relationship and whether it can be fixed. Sadly, research suggests that feuding couples wait an average of six years too long to go to therapy - instead, avoiding dealing with their differences until they begin to get out of control. Another alternative is to simply stick out the marriage until the kids are out of the home. This can work, but only if the parents are very tolerant of each other and able to put aside their difficulties and focus on their kids. Unfortunately, being married to someone just to co-parent kids can lead to a rather lonely and depressing life. People need to feel loved and be able to show romantic love to someone, and sometimes these arrangements cause more problems than they solve.
When it comes right down to it, you are correct: Some families just "aren't that good for each other." There are many complicated reasons for that and, as Julia notes, they rarely have anything to do with the kids. If your parents really have considered their alternatives, they may be best off splitting up. At that point the golden question is as simple as it is serious: Will their divorce express the best interests of their children or create more conflict and anger along the way? I've seen it go both ways, and I hope all parents who are divorced or considering divorce will listen to me when I tell them to cling desperately to a path of KINDNESS and RESPECT. In general, any divorce is only as bad for children as their parents make it. Some work out well for everyone; others sink the family into a deep morass of suffering that is only rivaled by child abuse. In fact, psychologists often consider a bad divorce or vicious custody battle a kind of abuse.
So I deeply hope that your parents make a good decision about how to proceed - even if that isn't the decision you hoped for - and that if they decide to split up, they do it with gentleness to each other and to you and your siblings, if you have any. If they hold to those principals, I think things will turn out OK.
Next week: A girl with bipolar disorder has problems with bullying at school.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.