Emotional Divorce: When Staying Married Isn’t the Same as Staying Together

I suspect keeping the peace was on Bryan’s* mind when he deferred to his wife, Mary, at a birthday party bouncy-house a few days ago. Their 3 year-old, Delia, was jumping happily when she accidentally head-butted another girl.

The other girl bounced away unscathed, but Delia raced to the exit, where her dad was waiting with open arms. When Mary, who was chatting with a friend, saw her child in Bryan’s embrace, she raced over.

Give her to me,” Mary insisted. (FYI, though Delia was teary, her breathing had slowed and, at a distance at least, she seemed calm.)

She’s okay,” Bryan mouthed to Mary, behind Delia’s back.

Give her to me, she needs me,” Mary snapped.

Bryan looked as if he was about to say something else, thought better of it, and handed Delia over to Mary, at which point Delia began to sob.

What’s been bouncing in my head since I witnessed that interaction is the concept of emotional divorce, at least Episcopal minister, David A. Code’s version of it.

Emotional divorce happens more often than most of us admit and it can be a frequent fallback position to a familiar philosophy of marriage:

We’re staying together for the kids.

It’s tough to say how many couples abide by this belief, given how unfashionable it’s become to, well, admit we’re staying together for our kids.

I’ve read research on the impact of divorce and, truth is, there are so many variables—specific marital issues, how couples communicate with children, our kids’ ages, etc.—that divorce’s net-effect is hard to gauge.

Yet if we polled friends and we soul-searched, I suspect many of us would admit that, deep down, we worry that the impact of divorce on children, especially young ones, is so severe (or at least bad enough) that it might be better to stick it out together.

Just because we stay married doesn’t mean we haven’t divorced.

I mean it. Just because we don’t legally end our marriage doesn’t mean we haven’t divorced each other in equally potent and meaningful ways.

Emotional divorce can be incremental, or it can occur in one fell swoop. Either way, it’s a distancing device that can be as, if not more, detrimental than divorce for our kids, for us and for our relationship with co-parents.

Why? Because when we get a divorce, we behave in line with our feelings (or the feelings of our spouse). That is, there’s a connection between emotion and action.

There might be fallout for kids—depending on how we communicate with them about exes, whether we cast them as middlemen, how we co-parent them post-divorce—but at least we’re not pretending things are hunky-dory when they’re not or assuming that, because we haven’t divorced, our relationships and our children are now fine.

By contrast, emotional divorce supports a surface truth—our marriage is intact because we’re still married—while underscoring a deeper truth—avoidance and disconnection are key ingredients to our relationship. Believe me, that truth impacts our kids!

Emotional divorce can take any of the following forms (and, no doubt, more):
-       Resistance to discussing “touchy” subjects with our spouse;
-       Deferring decisions that we know or suspect will upset our spouse;
-       Not sharing our insights, goals or dreams with spouses, often to avoid their criticism, lack of support, or outright disrespect;
-       Ignoring or diminishing our spouse’s opinions or parenting efforts;
-       Seeking out friends or colleagues for counsel that we used to, or yearn to, get from our spouse;
-       Daydreaming about time away from our spouse (as opposed to yearning for alone-time that we all need);
-       Discovering (and sometimes creating) more reasons to stay at work, instead of searching for more reasons to head home;
-       Turning to our children for support, distraction and affection instead of our spouse;
-       Insisting we have no time to spend with our spouse, often because of the real or imagined demands posed by our kids.

It’s our prerogative to pursue an emotional divorce from our spouse. Truly. But if any of the above resonates for you, ask yourself:
What relationship example do I want to set for my children?

What kind of relationship do I yearn for?

What am I wiling to do, how am I willing to show up, to give myself and my kids the relationship we deserve?

While I firmly believe that staying together for our children—or just plain staying together—is a worthwhile endeavor for couples with kids or without them, we all need to be vigilant that we haven’t traded legal divorce for emotional divorce.

We all deserve fulfilling relationships with spouses and kids. So I’ll ask again:

What are you willing to do, how are you willing to show up, to give yourself and your kids the relationship you all deserve?

There’s no one right answer to this question. But I hope you discover the one that’s true for you and that will help you align your emotions with your actions.

*Names and some details have been changed.

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2 responses to “Emotional Divorce: When Staying Married Isn’t the Same as Staying Together

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