The choice to divorce is always a subjective, personal decision. No one can tell you exactly what the future holds. It may bring the man or woman of your dreams. I've seen that happen to young and old adults alike, although your chances diminish with age because the market is smaller. I'm reminded of one woman in her 50s who divorced her husband because she had grown to hate him. Within six months, she met a kind, loving man at her church who was exactly what she wanted in a partner. My point is that no one can measure how unhappy you are or predict what new opportunities divorce will bring. Only you can weigh the balance of inner misery and satisfaction in your life. In fact, all of us probably know couples who don't love each other but find contentment in work, friends, and parenthood. Some may have given up the dream of romantic love or perhaps they never wanted a passionate relationship from the start. Clearly, disappointment in a marriage depends almost entirely on where you set your sights to begin with, and these are subject to change. One recent study of unhappy marriages found that many embattled but intact couples, five years later, were much happier and reported that their marriages were good. So it is important not to make critical decisions in the heat of your latest disappointments. Things may look very different if you wait a few months. You may change your mind altogether.
From your children's perspective, the decision to divorce relates to how your unhappiness is affecting your ability to be a good parent. If you and your spouse enjoy being parents and together maintain a moral and protected life for your children, then I think you should consider staying together. I know many couples who have taken this path. They take great pride in their children and have decided, on balance, that it was a good way for them to go. Some have discreet extramarital affairs when they are away from home. Others settle for the limited love and sexuality in the marriage that they have. But if your unhappiness dominates your life, then you have to ask yourself probingly if one or both of you will be better parents after divorcing. Will your children be better off? These are hard questions, but again, only you can know your pain and satisfaction, how these play out now in the lives of your children, and how they are likely to play out in the future. The familiar question – "Is it better to stay married or not?" – doesn't capture the many gradations or nuances of marriage. Nor does it touch on the source of marital problems and the extent to which they can be tolerated within an intact marriage.
On the other hand, if you feel humiliated, emotionally abused, mocked, and derided in your marriage, or just wake up miserable each day, you can use the divorce to take new pride in yourself. As an emancipated parent, you can become a far better role model and share with your children your new sense of freedom. You can take the opportunity to improve your life with knowledge that you didn't have when you were younger. You can become a new kind of adult who has had the courage to bring about change in your life and the lives of your children. A new world is ahead of you, and it's yours to define.
This article has been excerpted from What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce (Hachette Books, 2004) by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee. A child psychologist as well as the founder and executive director of the Center for Family in Transition, Wallerstein has spent the last 30 years studying and interviewing children of divorce and their parents.