I’m really struggling. I’m in a very toxic, totally disconnected marriage with someone who has a personality disorder (in my opinion) and we have two kids. I desperately want to get out of the marriage, but doing so will hurt the kids, will probably significantly limit my time with them, will reduce their standard of living, not to mention the cost and struggle of going through what I’m sure will be a contentious process that will only add to the conflict between me and their mother. She’s already indicated that she just wants to take my money and the kids and cut me out of the picture, and she will fight to do so. Obviously, we are way beyond reconciliation. I know that the current situation is hurting the kids; the signs are clearly visible. What are your thoughts on how to decide between staying or leaving or waiting a bit longer to leave?
— T.F., Detroit
Here’s an analogy that surprises people: I’ve always thought, for morally conscious people, anyway, that deciding to divorce is a lot like deciding whether it is necessary to go to war. Are you familiar with “Just War Theory?” (see Thomas Aquinas, et al.). Just War Theory advances a set of principles attempting to bring restraint and even honor to a regrettable and terrible circumstance of two non-innocents. In brief, these principles include 1) having a just cause, that is, advancing or defending a pre-eminent value, 2) being a last resort, that is, every possible effort at reconciliation has been exhausted, 3) being declared by a proper authority, which is to say undeclared wars are by definition immoral, 4) possessing right intention, 5) having a reasonable chance of success, 6) and the end being proportional to the means used.
Apply these things to deliberations about divorce.
A just cause? The easy calls are when you discover that your spouse is evil or doing evil. Domestic violence, unrepentant addiction/compulsion, unrepentant serial infidelity, chronic patterns of degradation/humiliation, chronic patterns of emotional withholding/withdrawal, cruelty to children — such things are widely perceived as just causes.
A last resort? If your mate is unwilling to join you in the work of marriage and the work of selfhood that marriage entails, yet he/she will not leave you, then you’re cooked. There is no way to be in a marriage by oneself.
Declared? Astonishing the number of people who are participating in “an undeclared divorce.” (See above.)
Right intention? “I deserve to be happy,” “I’ve gotta go find myself,” “I think I married the wrong person” — such things represent blurry intentions. Not that I would begrudge your happiness, not that I don’t admire the journey of authentic selfhood; just that, as strategies go for getting happy and finding yourself, divorce is a statistical loser.
The end proportional to the means used? To hear you, T.F., your wife does not feel bound by this restraining principle. It’s more like MAD — the nuclear war philosophy that means “mutually assured destruction.” You must prepare for that possibility.
Of course divorce is lousy for kids! But neither will they ever, as adults, thank you for wholesale surrender to martyred misery as you relentlessly fake your way through the next 20 years postured as a gift to them. If anything, such decisions make children feel responsible for their parents’ misery. Do this, and the greater likelihood is that they will someday tell you to “get a life.”
Of course divorce means you will see your children less, have less continuity in child rearing and change their standard of living. All the more reason to clarify for yourself whether you have just cause, etc.
My thoughts on deciding to stay, leave or wait a bit longer? I think you’ve already decided to leave. Which means the moral/philosophical part of this deliberation is over. Now it’s only a question of honor versus dishonor, good politic and prudent strategy. How will you commit to “the high road,” no matter how your soon-to-be ex decides to wage war?
The best, most justifiable divorce is hell, T.F. And they go downhill from there in a hurry. But, when divorce is necessary, it can be done with honor, mercy and integrity. Divorce does not have to ruin the lives of children, or, ultimately, the lives of the people divorcing.
Endure, good man.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.