The Selfish DivorceFeb 28, 2023 09:00AM ● By Jennifer D. Cunningham, LMFT
Divorce is always a difficult decision, especially when kids are involved. But when there is no concrete reason, there is no vagrant misstep, it can be very confusing for everyone.
I came from a family lineage of long marriages. Longevity of marriage was celebrated and revered. The number of years in marriage equaled the strength of the entire family system. I was taught that divorce destroyed families. Kids from divorced parents were troubled and always had problems. Divorce ruined kids.
Naturally, as the oldest child in my family and a natural empath, I became a Marriage and Family Therapist. My goal was to save marriages. There wasn’t a marriage that was not worth saving. I worked hard on repairing fragmented marriages that were shattered by infidelity and substance abuse. I helped glue broken pieces back together to make these couples whole again. I believed in family and, back then, to believe in family meant to believe in the sanctity of marriage.
However, while I was actively spending 50 hours a week repairing my clients’ marriages, mine was falling apart. I secretly began to fantasize about having my own divorce and what it would be like to feel “free”. I began to question whether or not I wanted to be married, and what that would mean for me, my kids, my husband and my career. I had spent countless hours advocating for marriage, restoring damaged relationships and all I wanted to do was leave my own.
The whisper of wanting a divorce became more and more profound. It was all I was thinking about, fantasizing about, longing for. I was so unhappy. I didn’t like who I had become, I didn’t like who I was as a partner, as a wife or as a mother. I had lost myself somewhere and I so desperately wanted to find me. I needed to do this on my own—I needed to get divorced.
I fought with myself daily. Is unhappiness a good enough reason to get divorced? We weren’t fighting, really, and no one had an affair. We had our issues, but certainly we could go to therapy and work it out. I believed in therapy (still do) and I knew it worked for couples. It would be hard to end the marriage without at least trying to make it work.
However, the issue was much deeper than trying to fix my marriage. I didn’t want to be married anymore. Not to my husband, not to anyone. I did not want to go to therapy and I did not want to try to work it out. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to find out who I was, without trying to repair another relationship that, quite frankly, I was no longer invested in. I wanted to trust my instincts and follow my intuition. I wanted to be free of trying to make it work.
I filed for divorce and I will fully admit it felt completely selfish. I knew I hurt him. I was hurting, too. But that did not mean that we should stay together. As predicted, my divorce was not well received. I was given a lot of advice on what I should be doing to save my marriage.
People were scared for me, and I understood that. I had never made a decision that did not put everyone else before myself and it was uncomfortable for me and for everyone else that I had taken care of for years. I had to remind myself repeatedly that this was the best thing for me and my family. I had to remind myself that it was okay to be uncomfortable, to be scared and unsure. I had to quiet the generations that told me that divorce would ruin my family, and most specifically my kids. I had to hold myself, and trust that loving myself would lead to great things for myself and for my family.
It turns out, the divorce did just that. It did great things for me and my family. The “selfish” decision to take care of myself, allowed for growth for everyone else. The kids have learned that they can be sad and uncomfortable and still be okay. They have learned that there is no right way to be a family and that even though we don’t live together in the same house, we will always be a family unit. The kids have learned that when your parents are happy, they are better parents. But most importantly, they have learned that it’s okay to take care of yourself first sometimes—even when it feels selfish.
Jennifer D. Cunningham is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and faculty at Yale Child Study. Connect at 203-215-2601 or [email protected].