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It's All Your Fault!

"It's not your fault!" Is this reflexive response really true?

The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course , newsletter and radio show is a step by step program to handling divorce with sanity - from raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.



The first thing parents are taught to say to their kids upon a divorce is that “It's not your fault.” There’s a real reason for this. Children have magical thinking and assume that the divorce has something to do with them. Dutifully, responsible parents want to lighten their load and reassure their children that the family break up is exclusively due to adult issues.

The children are free and clear of blame.

But is this true?

Research over the last twenty years shows a strong tendency for marital satisfaction to be very positive at two distinct points in the life of the average marriage: newlyweds seem to be very happy and empty nesters are happy as well. And what about the child bearing and raising years? To quote a 2009 New York Times article on the subject, “More than 25 separate studies have established that marital quality drops, often quite steeply, after the transition to parenthood.”

What about the belief that marriage is enhanced by the birth of a child? While a child will certainly bring parents happiness, ironically this may not be as true for happiness with each other. As a society, we want marriages to last. Do we tell ourselves that children strengthen our marriages as a myth designed to help our species continue?

When we get married, we often look forward to having a family; it is the great project of our lives. We see falling in love with the perfect mate as a starter and imagine having children together in an increasingly warm and mutually busy life. But this lovely vision needs a small asterisk. What is not communicated well is the damper of having, and raising kids. And, maybe this point is getting through.

In some western European countries, like Spain and Italy, many couples are opting out of the child scene, preferring to keep their love vital and untouched by the pressures of children, finances and school. Some countries are not even reproducing at the rate required to keep their populations from declining. Ironically, a happy life is not a life that benefits these nations with a dwindling population of young people available to support a social welfare program for their aging parents.

Raising children requires much sacrifice, even if they are the cutest little beings in the world. You are tired much of the time. You often have less sex, because one or both of you is simply beat. You carry resentments from all the new – and relentless – responsibilities, such as changing a baby, making money to support and provide for the child, waking up to settle your creature - anxiety about all the things that can go wrong and more.

Resentment is the slow releasing poison in a marriage. If a couple is not prepared for a child, this new baby can be life changing in more ways than one.

To put it bluntly, the birth of a child can sometimes be the beginning of the end of a marriage. We tell kids that it is not their fault, but their existence may be triggering a couple to de-couple when a life without children may have continued unimpeded. Children are intuitive beings and probably know at some level that the work of raising them may have been one of the straws that broke the back of their parent’s marriage.

So, the timeworn reassurance, “It’s not your fault” becomes more real. In the end, our kids didn’t ask to be born - right? And therefore, they’re not responsible for any breakup, even if raising children can tip the scales for a couple that can’t handle it. Bless their souls. For some, it does feel like it's their fault, and we are not just talking here about magical thinking. Raising children is not for everybody and children are always squarely off the hook.

The research does indicate that marital deterioration is less likely to occur when a couple is truly ready for children. This means that the couple is realistic about what's involved and not just having kids on a whim. Marriages that do well also need to be nurtured and raising a child is not sufficient.

Anyone who wants to make it and have kids must pay close attention to their husband or wife over the course of the marriage. Raising children is a great way to be together, invest in the future, have stuff to talk about and things to do; but don’t lose your marriage partner along the way.

When a marriage doesn’t work out, it’s not the kid’s fault. It is solely in the hands of the adults.

My advice:
1. Have children because you really want them; not because you think you are supposed to have them. Your marriage will do better if you approach this holy project with the awe and respect it deserves.

2. Make sure that you marry someone who is right for you. Not just someone who is fun and sexy, but a mate who will bear the burden of raising children with excitement and a capacity for commitment. Things change when your daughter or son is born. Make sure your new spouse will handle this change with grace.

3. When your munchkin comes into your life, find a way to have playtime with your spouse. If he is just there for the kid and to relieve your stress, he will unconsciously avoid you. If she only feels like a mother and not a desired wife, she will carry resentment that will spill over into all aspects of your family life. A healthy parent will fall head over heels for their newborn, but he/she still needs to remember their spouse.

4. It may seem obvious, but it is so helpful if you are able to actually talk to your husband or wife. Many people lack the ability or trust to touch base when things are going awry. It is so easy to feel blamed, or to blame. And, it is so easy to carry resentment. Good communication is golden. Get a couples therapist if you can’t do it yourselves. This is an investment that is worth the price.

5. Realize that you are in your marriage for the long haul. There will be ups and downs, times of pressure and times of ease. Plenty of disappointments and also times of great joy. Don’t lose focus on the big picture. Family counts. And sometimes we adults have to temporarily give up some happiness in the moment in order to have a more enduring happiness that comes from raising healthy kids and keeping a marriage vital, despite the pressures. I don’t buy into the emerging European model. This marriage and child project is the best thing we have going. Who says it is supposed to be fun all the time?

We live in a time in which values are shifting. In the past, a commitment to a family was experienced as a fundamental value. Now, a commitment to your individual happiness is becoming the modern era’s sacred truth.

For a marriage with children to really make it, we must, as a society, reinvest in the more traditional values. Serial love affairs and marriages can provide more extreme forms of happiness for some people. And a life without children will certainly allow you to enjoy your relationship with your lover unimpeded by a demanding external pressure that is children. Yet, I would urge two people who are thinking about starting a family to think about a deeper pleasure; one that transcends the many moments of pain and hard work.

When you bring children into this world, it’s going to get harder. It’s the way of things. So, think about creating a family that really works. It may not always be elegant, but it is the highest good that we have.