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How Do You Plan For Marriage As A Child Of Divorce?

Is it worth the risk?


by Courtney Kelsch

I was seven years old when my parents divorced. When I tell people this, they tend to look at me with sad eyes and sympathy, but I always stop them. I am lucky, I tell them. My parents get along fine; my childhood wasn’t bad. And this is the truth.

I’ve never thought of either of my parents as a “single parent,” even though they were both single and they were both parents. They raised me together: parenting decisions were discussed civilly, responsibilities were shared, and I spent an equal amount of time with each of them. The house we lived in had been my father’s childhood home, so he kept the house and my mother moved to a place nearby. I lived with both of them, moving each week from one home to the other. Every Sunday morning the three of us shared a meal at my father’s house, and my parents would chat in the way I imagined “normal” parents did. We spent birthdays and holidays together, all of us eating and laughing and opening gifts. For every childhood milestone—soccer games, dance recitals, graduations, and proms—both of my parents were there. Despite the divorce, we were—and are—a functional family.

This is the story I’ve always told about my family: divorced, yes, but still loving, still peaceful. My parents had found a way to do it right, to be apart and still raise their child in a healthy environment. So for many years I assumed I had been relatively unaffected by the divorce. Sure, the living situation had made me into a strange combination of restless wanderer and extreme nester, and I’d had my fair share of romantic disasters and relationship missteps. But twenty years after the divorce I had made a home and a happy life with a kind, supportive man. I had made it to adulthood and learned how to have a healthy, loving relationship despite my parents’ split. I had dodged the divorce bullet, I thought. Until last summer, when that kind, supportive man and I decided to get married, and I found myself suddenly terrified.

Even though we were already living together and our engagement was several years in the making, the reality of it knocked me off balance in unexpected ways. There’s a striking difference between knowing you’re going to spend your life with a person and actually planning your wedding and marriage. When we talk about our future, my fiancé looks to the marriages in his family to understand how two people can build a life together and maintain a relationship over many decades; his parents, aunt and uncle, cousins, and sister provide examples whose experiences he can draw from for guidance. But these conversations quickly brought to my attention the lack of these examples in my own family. Like my parents, my aunt and uncle were also divorced. My grandparents were all happily married, but my maternal grandmother died before I was born and my paternal grandfather died when I was only four, too young to understand or remember their relationship. I have never witnessed a healthy marriage in my family, and this has made it difficult to figure out how I will manage to build one for myself.

It may be easier if I understood why my parents ended their marriage so that at least I would know what to avoid, but this has always been a point of confusion for me. At seven, I was old enough to know what divorce meant for other people. I had seen enough screaming parents on television and in movies, their children huddling under the covers to block out the noise or watching from a bedroom window as the father—it was always the father—tossed a suitcase in the trunk of a car and drove off in the middle of the night. But this wasn’t my family. I had never seen or heard my parents argue. They were both always there when I went to bed at night and there when I woke up in the morning. So when they told me they were getting a divorce, I was shocked and confused, forced to piece together the small bits of information I did have. I was vaguely aware that money was tight, and I remember explaining to a friend that I was pretty sure it was about money. Being married is just too expensive, I reasoned.

Twenty-two years later, I still don’t know what being married cost my parents. As a teenager I attempted a more thorough investigation into the reasons for the divorce, but my questions were met with unsatisfying answers about growing apart and insistence that it wasn’t my fault. Unlike the divorces I’d seen in movies and even heard about from friends, there was no scandal to uncover, no simple answer. My parents’ marriage ended gradually for many reasons. I’ve learned this is how most relationships end, if they end. Not with a bang but a whimper.

But this understanding doesn’t help me to prepare for my own marriage. Instead, preparing for my marriage complicates my understanding of my parents’ divorce. As my fiancé and I write our vows, we carefully consider the promises we will make on our wedding day, and this reflection forces me to face a fact I’ve mostly been able to ignore until now: my parents made these same promises, and then they broke them.

I want to be clear: I understand how and why divorce is important and necessary. I know divorce is sometimes the healthiest option, and I would never judge the decisions of those who choose it. But my parents’ relationship, both before and after the divorce, never demonstrated any of the visible signs of an unhealthy situation. Perhaps they had changed, perhaps the romance had faded, but they were still able to get along and be a family, and for this reason, I can’t help but feel like they may have given up too easily. After all, wedding vows tend to acknowledge the changes and rough patches that will certainly occur throughout the life of a marriage. We don’t promise to have and to hold, “as long as I’m happy with you,” or, “as long as you don’t violate this list of rules.” We say, “for better or for worse.” We say, “all the days of my life.”

Will I be able to make and keep these promises even though my parents didn’t? Will I be able to build a healthy marriage without ever having witnessed one? Will I have the strength to stay when my marriage becomes difficult? Will I have the courage to leave if divorce truly is the only healthy option? I don’t know.

I wish this was the kind of post in which I work through a transformative experience and come out the other side enlightened and confident, but I haven’t reached that part of my story yet. It’s possible I never will. Marriage—getting married and staying married—will always be a risk. But when I look at my relationship, I know that to choose not to build a life with this man that I love would be a far greater risk with a tremendous potential for loss. So as I inch forward toward this thing that scares me, I do what I imagine I will do in the face of all scary things for the rest of my life: I reach for him. My palms may be a bit sweaty, my limbs a bit shaky, but he doesn’t mind. He holds me tighter. He steadies me. And then we leap.

Photo: Jesse Holland Photography

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