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Russell Collins: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Some answers to the agonizing question about separation and divorce

Larry is the son of two very old friends. It’s been years since I’ve seen him, so I was surprised when he called me early one morning from the East Coast. He had his wife, Felicia, on the phone with him, and together they related why they were calling.

After years of struggling with the marriage, the topic of ending the relationship had been put on the table. Larry’s parents had asked them to get in touch with me before making any moves. On the phone, Larry argued frantically against divorce.

“For the children,” he said (they have two pre-teens), but I sensed also a panicky desperation at the thought of losing his wife and family. “We’ve tried long enough,” Felicia responded. “We’ve got to get on with our lives.”

Therapists, in general, are loathe to give advice, let alone quick advice over the phone. Therapy at best is a careful inquiry into life’s important challenges — so that the answers that come out belong to you, not your therapist. This principle follows roughly the “teach a man to fish” principle, according to which it’s way better to acquire a core skill — whether it’s fishing or figuring out how to live happily — than to get a quick and easy fix to a problem.

That said, therapists also develop practical wisdom over the years as they watch client after client struggle with the same difficult problem, and then witness the effects of their choices in their lives. As a result, we develop some pretty well-grounded opinions about what happens when you go down various paths in your quest for a better life — rules of thumb, you could call them.

So, while I didn’t want to offer advice to the children of my two old friends, I didn’t want to just cast them adrift either. I offered them these four rules or predictions that seem to always play out when couples separate, and to always come as a surprise when they do.

» Prediction No. 1: It won’t be as bad as you think.

» Prediction No. 2: It won’t be as good as you think.

» Prediction No. 3: If you are truly committed to them, the kids will be OK in the end.

» Prediction No. 4: Even if you are truly committed to them, the kids will go through some periods of suffering.

It Won’t Be as Bad as You Think

If you choose to leave, you most likely will not look back and say, “I made a horrible mistake. I would give anything to go back and change the past.”

This fear can be paralyzing, especially among women who imagine a future filled with loneliness: “I will look back and be devastated with regret.” They may envision themselves alone, living in the bleakest of circumstances, or pining to have their old life back. Even if the fantasy is not this vivid or specific, people considering divorce often anticipate a terrible emotional impact that never materializes.

This is an observation from experience, but there is plenty of evidence from science, too. This kind of catastrophic thinking about the future is almost universal among humans, and almost always off-target. Cognitive scientists and behavioral economists have names for it such as “affective forecasting” and “impact bias.” What the psychological research says clearly and simply is this: You will almost certainly not feel as bad as you anticipate after a major transition such as separation or divorce.

An even better guide is your past experience of difficult decisions and life situations. Think of a few of these. Quitting or losing a job. Moving to a new town. Breaking off a past relationship. Now, think about the actual effects these situations or decisions produced. Yes, it may have been uncomfortable or even painful for a period. There may have been regrets and appropriate feelings of sadness and loss. But if your overall sense is that you got through it just fine, then it will probably be similar this time around.

It Won’t Be as Good as You Think

No. 2 may seem like a diametrical contradiction to No. 1, but if you decide to leave, whatever thoughts or dreams you have you have of a new life of freedom, escape, romance, intimacy or excitement will probably not come true.

This is the dark side of the “affective forecasting” bias that comes naturally to us through evolution. Just as we catastrophize the negative effects of our decisions, we unrealistically romanticize or idealize the positive ones, leading to an overly bright view of the positive emotional impact of new things and people in our lives.

This is trebly true in the case of an affair partner, whether it’s a sexual or merely an emotional affair. As anyone who has worked with people involved in an affair can attest, the euphoric effects of a new relationship completely hijack our cognitive machinery so that nothing can penetrate the fantasy. But here’s the truth. No matter how sure you are that this new person represents a huge leap in happiness and intimacy in your life, you are almost certainly wrong.

This principle of over-optimism also holds true if, rather than affair, you are dreaming about freedom. Fantasies of excitement or escape (which often dominate men’s thinking as they consider leaving) also tend not to work out. If you conceive of your spouse as your jailer, in other words, who limits your freedom to live, or feel deeply, or explore or succeed in any domain of life, you are almost surely mistaken. To borrow a popular saying, wherever you go, there you are.

The psychological defenses and emotional reactivity that shape your reality and make you unhappy in your relationship today will probably — after a brief respite — reassert themselves. Leo Tolstoy wrote, most famously, that all families are unhappy in different ways. Maybe. But in my experience, people tend to be serially unhappy in the same way, just with different partners, bosses, in-laws or whatever. The scenery changes, but the psyche is stubbornly and frustratingly constant.

The Kids Will Come Through Just Fine

This is the central concern for many people considering divorce. It’s a profoundly important question, and I don’t want to trivialize parents’ doubts and concerns with a glib answer. Unlike many therapists, I am fully in support of parents who “stay together for the kids.” I admire their dedication and self-sacrifice. But sometimes parents (and I think this was the case with Larry) will unconsciously use the kids as a way to avoid facing difficult choices. Or they may have unrealistic fears about the extent of damage their kids will suffer. So here’s the truth.

Under the right conditions — if you are fully committed to taking care of them — your kids will probably not be emotionally damaged if you decide to leave. This comes out of my experience as a divorce mediator and couple therapist, but it’s also grounded in the research — 75 percent to 80 percent of kids come through divorce without serious or permanent emotional damage. That means, of course, that 20 percent to 25 percent do not fare well. You most likely have it within your power to make sure your kids come out on the right side of the statistical divide. Your kids may suffer some, but with the right kind of attention and care, they are likely to recover over time.

What I mean by “the right kind of care” is another article entirely — and a long one. But my point here is that you have a huge say in how your kids do during and after divorce, just as you do during the marriage. Divorce itself is not the major determinant of kids’ emotional well-being; it’s how their parents behave that counts.

Kids Suffer During Divorce

This is an important one, because it captures a part of the picture that sometimes gets lost when parents focus only on the pleasant picture of “The Good Divorce.” When parents separate, it’s confusing and painful for most kids. Even those who seem to come through unscathed, as they tell their stories years later, describe their hidden sadness and anger at the time, and speak of a regret they still feel at the loss of the safety and security they imagine would have been theirs as part of a still-married family.

In other words, while your kids will come through just fine if you take the necessary steps, they won’t come through without suffering. But kids suffer with many things throughout childhood, and suffering brings learning and resilience at times, along with the loneliness and confusion of divorce.

Why Are These Decisions So Hard?

One of the odd features of our thinking as humans is that we are strangely and illogically pulled to keep our options open. Leave or stay? Face the reality of life with this partner — with all the compromises, emotional maturity, acceptance and forgiveness that requires? Or acknowledge the end of this phase of life, and move on? It’s so much easier to say, “I’ll deal with it later!”

This desire to avoid killing off options is the source of many kinds of suffering. Procrastination, missed opportunities, failures of leadership and wasted time, to name just a few. Open options means lots of choices, and what can be wrong with that? At least that’s how it seems. But there’s a missing piece in that formula: the invisible price of lost opportunities. Frozen between the two possibilities — to stay or go — your life slips by, and precious moments of possible happiness are lost. Perhaps more importantly, the aliveness to be gained from making choices and moving forward is traded for the lukewarm comfort of knowing you can always choose later.

On the other hand, Larry and Felicia made exactly that decision — to wait and decide later when the kids are out of high school. I have my own ideas about what would be best for them, but what matters most is they made up their own minds and moved forward. They continued in counseling, and according to Larry’s parents, are making it work just fine.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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