Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week she counsels a woman, long married to an alcoholic, who “just can’t take it anymore.”
Dear Dr. Ford:
My youngest child is going off to college in one week. My marriage has been rocky for some time, and I have held on for as long as I could. My husband is a functioning alcoholic. He barely works as a “financial consultant,” and I just can’t take it anymore. I am a school administrator. I have decent benefits and have some money hidden away so that I can survive the cost of a divorce and begin to make a new life. We have debts because he took out a loan on our house 10 years ago to buy into a real estate scheme. I didn’t say no when he proposed this, but now I have truly had enough. I have no interest in marriage counseling with him. I just want it over.
My parents paid for the children’s college fund, so my daughter won’t be penalized if we get divorced. My daughter is really stable and smart and has lots of friends. She knows things are bad at home. Her two brothers are out and on their own and barely come by unless it is a major holiday, which usually ends badly, with Dad drinking and getting into arguments. My question is one that many women agonize over. “When is it the least traumatic for children when their parents start a divorce?” I have gone on this long; if staying and working on my next life stage in secret for another school year is the right thing to do for my daughter, I can do it. But it gets harder every day.
Dr. Ford Responds:
Timing a divorce around the children’s needs is a tricky thing. There’s an old joke about a couple who are in their nineties hobbling into a lawyer’s office and asking him to help them get a divorce. He agrees, but asks, “Why now, after 75 years?” The old woman replies, “We wanted to wait until the children were dead!”
Since yours are all grown and stable, there is no reason to think that this step would inflict any lasting injury or harm. Their formative years are over, and a divorce now would not change the course of their lives. Some studies show that much of the harm that comes to children after a divorce is correlated with the many changes in their lives that come with the downward spiral in the mother’s socioeconomic status: the loss of income, the need to move and change schools, her need to go back to work or work more hours. These factors would not be relevant to your family.
This does not mean, however, that a divorce would not be difficult or possibly traumatic. It is usually deeply upsetting, no matter how long awaited or deeply wished for, and no matter how much your children care about you, they will not be happy about the change to their lifelong traditions and routines. Also, since you can’t predict how your husband will behave in the divorce process, you may have to steel yourself for some rocky years ahead. As an alcoholic and impulsive character, he may well have an immature and narcissistic reaction to your actions and become angry, oppositional, or worse. All these things will have an impact on the children.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t proceed. It sounds as though you have been unhappy for a long time and you have no respect or affection left for your husband. I do suggest that you wait a few more months, for the following reason: The dynamic in a marriage does change when the children leave, and—unlikely as it seems that you will recover any fondness for your husband—you may want to see what happens. Also, it might be wise to wait and see how your daughter adjusts to college. I know there will always be reasons to wait, and I’m not suggesting you put it off endlessly—on the contrary. But you’ve waited this long, so a few more months, when circumstances will be different, won’t matter much.
One last thing: Though you say you don’t want couples counseling, it may be a worthwhile investment for your sake, in two ways. First, your can rest assured that you did make an effort, and later on this may spare you some guilt. More important, a good couples therapist can help you through the separation and divorce and make the process much less confusing and acrimonious. The counselor can offer closure and help the two of you heal together, thus giving you a greater chance of a “good divorce”—something that would definitely be in everyone’s best interest. In my experience, of course, people who are not pleasant to be married to are really unpleasant to be divorced from, but that’s all the more reason to work at doing it carefully. Meanwhile, it sounds as if it’s high time for you to start living your life without him.