Take care in explaining divorce to kids, ourselves

Careful, Dad.

He's telling me why he chose divorce. She's a fine woman, his ex, but there is this area of her life about which he came to lose respect. Plus, he came to realize that there's just some things he wasn't going to get in the relationship, no matter how many times he asked. He fell out of love.

During the next several minutes, he recounts his list of Reasons I Chose Divorce. You can tell he has given it much thought. He speaks respectfully of the "strength" he found in himself to make this difficult, painful choice.

Be careful, Dad.

Conspicuously absent from the list are allegations of evil, criminal activity, violence, child abuse, addictions, refusal to be employed or unrepentant infidelity. For me, these sorts of things are not adequately described as Reasons I Chose Divorce. I call this list Reasons Why Anyone With an Ounce of Self-Respect Would Toss Your Butt to the Curb.

Dad comes to me to hone his list of Reasons I Chose Divorce because his teenage children are confused. They are grieving. Disappointed in him. Beginning to ask questions: "Why did you divorce?"

Dad thinks The Reasons will answer the questions.

I think Dad wants me to affirm The Reasons, kind of murmur knowingly and tell him I get it. That, while tragic and painful, certainly most people could hear this list and understand why divorce was unavoidable.

But what message will his children actually hear? I worry the implicit message is, "Kids, I married the wrong person, and the most important thing about marriage is to pick the right person. Your mother was the wrong person."

I don't rest easy with that message. Not sure it holds up to reality, and I think "mental health is a commitment to reality at all cost," as Scott Peck wrote in "The Road Less Traveled."

See, no matter who you marry, you inevitably will get to the same place as this dad. Different content, but the same place. You will encounter that part of your spouse you don't respect. Don't like. It will become obvious there are some things you're never going to get in this relationship. You will be forced to concede the things you don't and never will have in common.

All marriages are like this. All of them. It's the very nature of marriage to grow an intimacy so profound that we are radically exposed, even those parts of us that are -- ouch! -- weak, small, petty and not worthy of respect.

Some marriages arrive at this terrifying crossroads and ... survive. Hold on for dear life with a commitment to The Commitment. The partners work. Suffer. Endure -- and then get born again on the other side. Stunned. Happy, and forever incredulous. They are different people now. And that's the very design of marriage -- to make us into different people. To grow us up.

Some marriages arrive at this terrible crossroad and ... give up. Oh, they don't divorce. They just give up. Build separate, concessional lives -- sometimes functional, other times resentful and destructive, but always concessional. (This is the choice I like least, because it bodes the least well for integrity, credibility and self-respect.)

Some marriages arrive at this crucible and ... divorce. One spouse moves unilaterally or both by mutual consent.

So choose 1, 2 or 3 above, but know this: Your decision is virtually never explained by The Reasons. Because there are always reasons to divorce. Just as there are always reasons to endure. Always reasons to give up. The decision has less to do with The Reasons, and more to do with the people making the choices.

Please don't misunderstand: Dad's marital status is none of my business, and not the point of this column. In my entire career, I've never told anyone to get married, stay married or get a divorce. I don't intend to start now.

I don't want to judge Dad; I want him to think. I've been listening to folks' Reasons I Chose Divorce for nearly 23 years, and these days I find The Reasons to be less compelling and less informative than at any other time in my career.

Stay married. Or divorce. Choose. Own it. But before you soberly and sincerely lay your regrettable -- but strong? heroic? -- list of Reasons before your children, consider the possibility that the explanations don't explain much. And what they do explain might not be very flattering.

Of course I haven't said any of this to Dad. It has all occurred in my mind. Still thinking about my best move here. How do I faithfully advocate for him?

More next Sunday.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@reviewjournal.com.