Dear Dr. Norquist:
I’m in a total quandary. I’m considering leaving my husband, after eight long years of marriage. We have two wonderful children together, a 6 year-old boy and a 4 year-old girl. I’ve been staying because of the kids. I feel really bad about breaking up their home. At the same time, the house they’ve been living in for the past few years can’t be much of a comfortable home for them. My husband and I are always arguing. We never do anything as a family. Really, their dad is hardly involved with their lives. He is either at work, at a work related social occasion, or home, but irritable and intoxicated. Frankly, we are all happier when he is not around. My son starts to get nervous when his father walks in the door. My husband seems to be oblivious to the effect that he has on the kids, or the fact that he and I don’t share anything anymore. Luckily, I have a good, stable job and I can afford to get an apartment for my children and I. I’m not sure what’s best for the kids. Should I just deal with things as they are, to keep an intact home for my kids, or should I leave and get my own apartment where I don’t have to worry about whatever state my husband will be in when he gets home? At his worst, he yells and throws things. Once he pushed me into the wall (now I’m more careful about upsetting him after he’s been drinking). At his best, he just falls asleep on the couch. I’m not sure he even cares enough to go to couples therapy.
Dr. Norquist responds:
I’m sorry you are having to deal with this complicated and painful situation in your life. One of your primary underlying questions seems to be whether preserving this shell of a family is better for the kids then separating from your husband. As you know, this all depends on the situation and the nature of the people involved. There is no decision you can make that doesn’t have a down side. There are consequences either way. As a general rule, an intact family is better for the children, unless the family environment is unsafe (physically or emotionally). In other words, if there is violence, abuse or a lack of safety, the weight of the decision should be on leaving. If the emotional quality of the environment is benign but disconnected, the weight should be on staying. One of the main questions to consider is how much of a factor your husband’s drinking is with regard to emotional and physical safety. Are you still able to provide a consistent, emotionally predictable environment for your children? How do you think your husband’s drinking and emotional abandonment (and your response to it) affects your kids? Of course, your well being is an essential factor as well. Your state of mind directly affects what you are able to offer as a mother. You have a responsibility to yourself, as well as your children to take care of your own happiness. If you do decide to separate, it’s important to take stock of your own resources for support; familial, social, financial, etc.
As you project out into the future, what foreseeable effect would staying with the marriage have on you and your children? If you leave, what do you envision that it would be like on a day to day, year to year basis? How do you see yourself dealing on a day to day basis as a single parent with the various needs of your children? How will you get your own needs met, with fulltime responsibility for the children?
You are at a crossroad in life. Either decision entails embarking upon a different life path. Each of the paths is vastly different from the other. This is not a decision that you need to make immediately. Your marital vows commit you to giving him the opportunity to make the changes necessary to make the marriage work. You can’t make it a marriage unless both parties are willing to put their time and energy into it. He deserves being given this chance. He needs to know that the stakes are high, and that you are likely to leave him unless he is willing to make his marriage and family a priority in his life and to work with you in making the necessary changes. It sounds like this may also require determining if he has a drinking problem that requires treatment. Unless safety is at stake, your decision regarding staying or leaving can be a step by step process. I hope this is helpful.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)
Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at email@example.com, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2009 Chaitanya Counseling Services.