The bright side to a "broken" home

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Hilary Parry
By: Daniel LoboCC BY 2.0
I never wanted to be one of the statistics. Roughly 50% of marriages fail, resulting in dual households, complicated parenting plans, or sometimes single parenting. Any person who has been through a divorce or a failed committed relationship knows firsthand the feelings of heartbreak and failure that go with it. Add kids to the equation, and you understand the true meaning of "mommy guilt."

My significant other and I called it quits after 16 years. At that time, we had two young boys and a long history together. For four years I navigated the waters of single motherhood. My ex and I shared custody, the boys spending two nights a week at his house, and we did our best to craft a reasonable parenting plan. The first couple of years were definitely the hardest. Going through the emotional healing while trying to get the swing of all the logistics and negotiating required by co-parenting proved to be utterly draining.

For the most part, we've all adjusted to our new living situation. As co-parents we have established a new type of relationship between us and the boys have settled into their schedules. Both of us are now in committed relationships, so new parental figures and extended families have been added to the mix. While we don't aim to all vacation together or live next door to each other, we can truthfully attest to life and happiness as amicable dual households. Even still, we hit rough patches. It's hard not to blame every temper tantrum on the transitioning between places or question if your kids are somewhat permanently scarred.

While you can't change the past, you have complete control over how you view the present. When we shed the guilt and stigma of dual households, there are some actual benefits to raising your children separately, but still very much together.

Organizational Skills

Shuffling kids and their arsenal of stuff between two residences is no minor feat. Not only did we need an effective system as the parents, but we also needed to rely on our kids to share the responsibility. For the most part, there are no obvious triggers when to delegate things to your child — things like packing their own lunches or remembering their overdue library books. It's easy to keep doing things for them and we forget to let them to try, even if it means making mistakes. My kids have become more responsible in part because we've insisted on it, but also because their circumstances require it. Considering that the ultimate goal as a parent is to raise high-functioning accountable human beings, requiring more of them in the organization department is a good thing.

Interpersonal Skills

It takes some practice to learn how to effectively communicate with someone you no longer want to be around. It also takes a tremendous effort to stay on the same parenting page when you're not even in the same house. My ex and I have to maintain open and respectful communication to ensure we are doing our jobs as parents. I know my skills at conflict resolution, negotiation, and compromise are stronger since the split. And I believe they carry over into my new marriage — ultimately making me a better partner.

Built-in Date Nights

Research shows that the arrival of kids definitely takes a toll on a marriage. We all understand carving out one-on-one time with our spouse needs to be a priority, but the demands of child rearing make it a tough reality. Our schedule now allows for a built-in date night every week. When the boys go to their dad's house, my husband and I are able to enjoy time alone. Most weeks that simply means accomplishing a project around the house or some much needed adult conversation while cuddling on the couch. The real benefit comes not from the extravagance of the event, but from the consistency of it. No matter how hectic the week gets, we know we can always count on our day to reconnect with each other, and the whole family is better off because of it.

Rich and varied traditions

There is some autonomy you gain as an independent parent that allows you to establish and practice traditions in a way that is uniquely yours. Our boys really cherish the special things they do with mom and the special things they do with dad. Our traditions have become even richer as our families have expanded. It's been really positive for my boys to adopt new customs brought to the table by the new members of their family.

More people to love them

A friend of mine once asked how I handled my ex's partner playing such a big role in my children's lives. To me, it was simple. Why wouldn't I want my kids to have more people to love them? The bonds my kids have with their step-parents are real. As they go through life, the more people they have in their corner, the better.

By focusing on the benefits, I decided that my home is far from broken. In a sense, we're following the old adage "it takes a village" in a more modern way. With the dedication of two loving families, I know my children are receiving all they need to grow up to be healthy, happy adults.

  1. "Why wouldn't I want my kids to have more people to love them?"

    This times a million. Creating relationships with caring adults who are not their parents can give kids a bigger safety net for figuring their stuff out. And, without the (very normal and appropriate) blinders of "behold this perfect child I have created", step-parents can offer a sometimes more realistic view of kid behaviors… especially in the teen years when things can go a little sideways as kids are testing new boundaries.

    It takes work and has its challenges, but making a bigger and stronger family after divorce is completely possible. Great article!

    • "step-parents can offer a sometimes more realistic view of kid behaviors"

      Absolutely this. Sometimes I feel like it would be easier to just say 'screw it, your father doesn't care, why should I?', but my husband helps keep me on track with discipline & appropriate structure for my pre-teen daughter from my previous marriage.

      If I hadn't remarried, I can only imagine what she'd be allowed to get away with! 😉

  2. I am so grateful I had time with each parent on my own. I want to give this to my kids too but ill skip the divorce. 🙂 Co parents and divorced parents can teach still married parents a lot. I a marriage there are many relationships going on love, room mate, Co parent, team mate. The most important thing I learned is that living together issues are not I love you issues.

  3. I read somewhere once that even in the best-case divorces, kids always have a "hole in their hearts" forever, which made me feel so sad. So when their dad and I divorced, I vowed that I would do my very best to keep the holes in my boys' hearts as small as possible. That meant co-parenting respectfully. It also meant recognizing that as a single mama (their dad lived 4 hrs away for 5 years), there was physically no way for me to be everything my boys needed. So I have always tried to surround them with positive adult role models, especially men I admire ("admire" in the "respect" sense; I kept dating largely private until the boys were older). I try to make sure they meet people who think and do differently than I do. They spent a few weeks each summer with my parents across the country. It IS like village parenting with a modern twist!

    • With all due respect (seriously), I personally disagree with the "all kids have a hole in their heart" idea. My parents grew up together, played in a band together for 10 years, traveled together, and fell in love. They had me and my brother and divorced when I was a toddler. We spent weekends with Dad and weekdays with Mom and split holidays. I absolutely think that the arrangement was challenging for my mom, raising two kids close together on less than $30,000/year, but I was never exposed to any anger or frustration. My parents, I can honestly say, love each other dearly. My mom came out as a lesbian a few years after the divorce and has since then always been open about it. She is now in a relationship with a wonderful woman. My dad married my stepmom (whom I've known since birth) when I was seven.

      From my perspective, my parents are best friends. My parents champion each other, support each other, and love each other. When my mom made the difficult decision to leave her long-term girlfriend years ago, she went to my Dad's and talked to him all day. My dad hosted an annual Christmas gathering for my mom's large family and he and my stepmom occasionally come on vacation with us. My mom and her girlfriend come to Dad's for our Christmas morning. All the steps love one another too. I cannot imagine a better situation than being raised by two best friends, and I am absolutely surrounded by a large village. I honestly cannot say that I have ever felt a hole in my heart due to my parent's divorce.

      • This is so encouraging to read. My husband and I separated 5 years ago, when our children were 1- and 3-years old. I never expected that our separation would lead us to a better, more equal, more respectful relationship between us. We have meals together with our children, support eachother in our parenting, and are in touch all the time about all the litle things that make up daily life with our kids. However, I still feel anxious that the failure of our marriage has impacted our children – your words give me hope!

  4. Awesome article, and great points – but I need to address the 'roughly 50% of all marriages end in divorce' statistic. It isn't true, and it never has been – and I hear it EVERYWHERE.

    First, let me just say (because I would hate for this to be interpreted as judgey against the author, not my intention at all!) that sometimes divorce is necessary, it almost certainly was in this case, and the LEAST selfish thing you can do if your marriage really isn't working is end it. Don't stay together for the kids, the kids will be better off in the long run with happy parents.

    But, I also think the pervasiveness of that statistic can be really damaging. It adds to a cultural conversation about marriage that is very negative. It contributes to often unnecessary fears of commitment and fuels right-wing pundits who lament the end of marriage and the 'traditional family' and blame it on feminists or equal marriage. It's so pervasive that it's accepted as fact by almost everyone, and regularly quoted in articles in major publications (which is why I totally understand how it ended up in this article, and don't blame the author at all for including it!). But it isn't true, and it never has been.

    The divorce rate peaked in the 80s, and has seen a gradual decline since. Currently, the 'divorce rate' is technically about 42%, overall, but that's still misleading. The divorce rate is calculated by comparing the number of marriages in a given year to the number of divorces. This would be fine if those numbers remained static over time, but they don't. For many reasons, the MARRIAGE rate is declining, quite a lot. Partially due to people delaying marriage, partially due to an increased acceptance of not getting married at all (and still having kids and living together, if those are things you want), and partially due to tons of other factors. This of course, skews the divorce rate. It's not that divorce rates are going up, it's that marriage rates are going down.

    Furthermore, the divorce rate is heavily skewed by two main demographics – second marriages (or third, fourth, fifth marriages) and very young marriages. This is not to knock second marriages or young marriages, many in both categories are happy and last til death do them part, but statistically, marriages that fall into one of these categories are much more likely to end in divorce (although they're still more likely NOT to end in divorce than they are to end in divorce). Although they represent a fairly small portion of the marriages performed each year, they are enough to skew the statistics pretty significantly.

    The demographic which is least likely to divorce is couples who are university or college educated (both) and who are at least 25 when they marry. The divorce rate for this demographic is 18%, meaning 82% of these couples stay together. Even more importantly, when surveyed, the majority of this demographic rates their marriages as happy and fulfilling.

    Statistics rant aside (again, this was aimed at the stat and the broader media that keeps reinforcing it, not at the author!) I also want to add that my parents divorced when I was a kid, and I am a happy, healthy, confident adult with no long-term damage 🙂 My parents were mature about the divorce and remained amicable. They employed many of the techniques you refer to above, and I am better for it. I'm sure you're doing a fantastic job, and your kids are going to really appreciate how you and your co-parent handled everything.

    • Thanks for this, I was going to point out the same thing. The 50% statistic comes from 1980 when divorce levels hit their peak. It's hard to get current numbers, but right now it's about 30%, probably due to a poor economy as well. And it is totally skewed by age and economic standing. For instance, couples who get married at 18 have about 60% chance of divorcing in their lifetime. Which makes sense, as they are still developing into adults at 18, and probably not financially stable yet. However, things are looking good for people who wait until over age 25 and even better for over age 30, where it's as low as 10%.

      I agree the 50% statistic is damaging, and I hear so many people reference it and say, "What is the point? All marriages fail." I don't think marriage is the be-all, end-all, and not for everyone. But I also don't want to discourage people into thinking it's a recipe for failure at 50/50 chances. (And if I had married my boyfriend at age 25, I WOULD be divorced by now!)

    • Thank you for sharing! My parents divorced when I was 13, and my partner's parents also divorced when he was a kid. We got married a few months ago, and the 50% stat along with the often cited increase from both of our parents being divorced has bothered me. The information you shared has helped me feel a lot better about those grim statistics.

      It is nice to read an article about a family that is in a really good place after a divorce, and I appreciate the tips on how the author made it work and the benefits they found.

      I had a very different experience when my parents divorced. There were more fights and name calling between my parents, almost all of the family traditions/quality time went away, and money became a big issue. The worst part was feeling like we went from being a family to being separate individuals, and in some ways, my brother and I were left to fend for ourselves. In many respects I'm sure it was still a lot easier than what some people went through, but it was difficult at the time. I have great respect for people who continue to make their children a priority while they deal with difficult emotions/situations, and I also try to remember that most people, including my parents, are doing the best they can.
      It took almost ten years, but things have changed for the better. My mom had a child with her second husband when I was 22. I never would have guessed it, but he helped bring my parents to a better place. My dad loves my brother (who is not related to him by blood) and wants to spend time with him. So my parents actually tolerate each other now. I feel so lucky to be able to go out to eat dinner with all my immediate family and not to have to constantly split up my time when visiting. I have went on vacation to visit my dad's family with my youngest brother, and they welcomed him even though my parents aren't together. My dad even finally accepted an invitation to come to celebrate Christmas with my mom's family after years of declining this past year. I never thought that any of that would have happened before.
      This is just to say even if it takes a decade, sometimes things can change for the better in ways that never seemed possible before and what was broken for a while can be healed.

    • Thank you for bringing this up! I totally agree. It is practically impossible to simplify the divorce rate into a single number due to the factors you point out. I'll admit it was a bit of a cheat to use "nearly 50%" and in no way would I want to perpetuate a sound byte that is damaging or misleading. I believe long happy relationships are possible and prevalent, regardless of the sanctioning by marriage or the complications of demographics. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

    • As someone who deals with statistics for a living, I love that you took the time to comment on this! As one of my co-worker likes to say, there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics."

      My parents are currently thinking about a divorce, but my siblings and I range in age from 27 (me) to 18, so it's not quite as devastating as it may have been we were younger. I'm grateful that there marriage didn't fall apart when I was younger since I doubt they would have been as level-headed as the author (and commenters) sound. I'm married and things are fine so far, but this a reminder that if things don't work out, it won't necessarily mean that my daughter suffers a horrible life.

  5. Sweet zombie Jesus, I wish my parents & their spouses had been this mature about co-parenting.

    Your children may not be able to recognize what you're doing and thank you for it yet, but I can. Thank you. Truly and emphatically. Thank you.

  6. Holy moly, yes. My parents separated when I was five, and went on to develop one of the best divorces ever. The "weekends at Dad's house" thing was a regular part of my life for 13 years, and I can pack for a weekend away like a BOSS (seriously, it takes me like ten seconds to decide what to bring with me to my inlaws' house…)

    A couple points from my experience that might be useful:
    1) When I started dating, I started having a LOT of questions about how my parents' marriage broke up. Be prepared to be open about your relationship issues at a certain point. Not only is it useful to know the end point, the "we just weren't in love anymore", but I love knowing about the "love story" part of my parents' relationship, since that's the part we often miss as kids of divorced folks.
    2) Divorced parents really do make it easier to adjust to new holiday traditions if/when the kids get married and have to deal with inlaws. My family is so cool with having Christmas dinners anytime within two weeks of the 25th, and Thanksgivings and Easters alternating between branches of the family, that it was really easy to incorporate a new family unit into the mix when I got married.
    3) For this one, it really helps that my parents work in the same field. They talked to each other. Friday afternoons when Dad came to pick us up, my parents would often spend an hour catching up, gossiping about work, and just *being friends*…this helps me to know that, even if, God forbid, my own marriage fails in the distant future, it isn't the end of the world. Sure it would suck, and be really painful, and I wouldn't want it to happen…but it helped me to be less afraid of romantic commitment.

  7. This is an awesome article. From personal experience, I know my ex and I avoided splitting up for a long time because we were afraid of the effect it would have on the girls. He came from divorced parents and didn't want to repeat the cycle (understandably). However, since we have been able to be amicably divorced and have since moved on to stable and much happier relationships, I have not seen any ill effects in the girls. They love me, they love him, they love his gf and they love my husband and his family. They have more people loving them and caring for them, and on a purely materialistic level, they get more birthday and Christmas presents (what kid wouldn't love that??) AND more people to pimp out the oldest girl's Girl Scout cookies too. (That's lighthearted of course). I have yet to see what effects may manifest down the road, but right now they seem to be very well adjusted and happy children. Not to say divorce is awesome, but handled well, it's not the horrible traumatic event on kids that so many make it out to be. Key is to HANDLE IT WELL, and we know so many are unable to do that, and that's when the kids suffer.

  8. This is what I needed to know… I still want to work for the relationship to work, but if it doesn't, then I need to know that it is possible and that my son will be ok. Thank you!

  9. I'm heartened by the many "Happy Divorce" and "Happy Co-Parenting" stories I see here. I'm glad that people are able to make it work, be amicable, etc. But do you know what I would LOVE to see, what would be REALLY offbeat in my opinion? A story about a couple who hit the rocks, considered divorce, but chose to go the hard route of relationship repair and renegotiate their marriage agreement — even to re-form it entirely, but ultimately stay together. Unfortunately I don't see any stories like that so I guess I should just give up hope that it would happen for me.

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