Hi, Carolyn: I’m a proud daddy of two little ones who are 5 and 3. My own father abandoned my family when my sister and I were about the same age my kids are now. I barely remember him, but it has taken my mom and sister years of therapy, fights and other drama to get over it.
As everyone in my family now knows, I am separating from my wife and will soon be moving in with the love of my life. In NO WAY does this mean I will not continue to be a full-time father to my children, but my sister doesn’t see it that way. The other day, she accused me (in tears) of being our father – of leaving my family to find my own happiness.
This is both inaccurate and unfair, but it has me feeling horrible. How do I clear my conscience and ensure that my sister actually is wrong? – Va.
Easy: Don’t move in with this “love of my life.”
If your marriage is over, then it’s over; I’m not going to jump on the guiltwagon and say you have an ironclad obligation to stay in the home you created.
Love and duty do fuse together in the acts of marriage and child-bearing, without question. But the duty is to treat your family’s needs as equal to your own, to override self- and family-destructive impulses, to own your mistakes, and to regard breaking your vows as the very last resort when all efforts to sustain a healthy marriage have failed. It is not a duty to feign love where you don’t feel any, or stay “for the kids” when the only model you’re providing for marriage is one of unrelenting dysfunction. That doesn’t serve anyone – not your wife, not your kids, and not you, though admittedly you’re the least of my worries.
When you move in with your new love, however, you’re not saying, “My marriage isn’t working and it’s best for the kids if we raise them in two households.” What you’re saying is, “The wife was OK, but this woman’s better.” Also known as, “I’m leaving my family to find my own happiness.”
The only difference between you and your father is that, as a veteran of parental abandonment, you get how wrong it is to abandon your kids in the process, and you’re going to remain involved.
It’s a huge, character-fueled distinction, but not a redeeming one.
Let’s say your marriage really is broken, for reasons entirely unrelated to your falling for someone else. And let’s also say your new love – both the person and the relationship you share – is so healthy that it will actually help you create the kind of stable and loving home you so urgently owe your children.
Both of these conditions would be better served by your putting the brakes on the rush to shack up with Love II. By concentrating on one major upheaval at a time – and leaving significant time in between for emotions and other dust to settle – your separation will go better; the transition process for your kids will go better; the progress of your new romance will go better.
In the last case: By “better,” I don’t mean that you and your new love will have a better chance of staying together. I mean you’ll have a better chance at creating something healthy – and that can mean anything from being together for life to dating casually to breaking up.