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How Does Your Marriage Look to Your Kids?

Growing up, our home was peaceful for 11 hours a day, 5 days a week, while Dad was off at work or commuting. The rest of the time, it ranged from tense to bitter to surprisingly enjoyable, almost like those TV families.

It was easy to believe Dad was at fault, at least until I was old enough to head into New York City and see Dad during his work day. He was a different person there.

Why? Because he and Mom had lots of unmet expectations, lots of resentments, and an intimate knowledge of each other's vulnerable spots for evening the score.

A lot of parents reaching the end of their rope in their marriage ask how they can minimize the harm of divorce for their children. It's such an honorable and generous question to ask. But I cannot hear it without wondering why I almost never hear, "How can we minimize the harm of our unhappy marriage for our kids?"

When my parents announced they were divorcing (although they changed their minds), I was in the ninth grade, I think. It was, first and most, a relief. Moving bothered me a lot more than breaking up the family. But I was old enough to choose which one to live with, and I could not imagine living with either of them once their presumed source of unhappiness was removed. Both of them knew my vulnerable spots really well, too, and it was pretty clear divorcing would not bring relief from their disappointments in life.

I went on to repeat their mistakes. My expectations were different ones, so I thought they were better ones. And my resentment level did not reach the boiling point until we went through two horribly challenging years of a cross-country move, two job changes, school problems, two life-threatening illnesses, one major surgery, the unexpected loss of our new home, four temporary housing situations while the builder building our new home lied to us, a long commute, and very long hours at work for me.

Our son was seven when we made the move, nine when his father dropped dead, out of college when I remarried. Now he is the father of three, and I keep hoping he remembers enough of the good years to help him through his tough ones. Or that maybe he reads my blog on the right days.

If your expectations are unmet, please don't tell your children there is something wrong with their other parent for not meeting them or that you chose the wrong partner. Tell them your marriage is not what you expected, and you are working on finding different ways to get what you need while you watch for unexpected signs that you are, indeed, loved.

Teach them by example to actively look for loving acts, not to judge your mate (or their future partner) as a good or bad spouse. Show them marriage requires constantly learning and growing, not luck in picking a mate. The body of research into this is growing daily, and it now appears very likely this one belief will save your children -- and your grandchildren -- from tons of unhappiness.


"If your expectations are unmet, please don't tell your children there is something wrong with their other parent for not meeting them or that you chose the wrong partner." Amen. My mother was so very critical of my father. His failure to live up to her expectations was seen as the result of his selfishness and stubbornness. He constantly insisted on doing things the "wrong" way (that is, not the way she preferred) so that when things went amiss it was clearly his fault. My father didn't verbalize his complaints much, he just withdrew. Growing up with them, I did not learn the skills needed to resolve disagreements or to get my needs met. It is no surprise that my first marriage, to a man who also lacked these skills, did not work out well.

I hope that the people who read your blog will pay close attention to your message and pass it on to their children. Today there are also more community centers, churches, and adult education classes that help prepare young people for marriage and help educate the already-married who are starting to struggle. Those who didn't learn about good marriages from their parents have some opportunities to learn from professionals.

So true. Thanks for the reminder, Rosemary.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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