Divorce can be tough on the kids but is holding on resentfully to an unhappy marriage just for the sake of the children the only other option?

Every now and again reporters and journalists call me, often at inconvenient moments necessitated by their deadlines, to get a ‘sound byte' for a feature they are working on, although the frequency of such requests seems to be increasingly decreasing. Evidently my bark is worse than my byte. Usually such calls last only a couple of minutes for their questions are very focussed and my responses very specific.

However, a recent caller was unrelenting in her pursuit of information for a story she was writing on couples that get divorced around or after their silver wedding anniversaries, an urban phenomenon indisputably on the increase. She couldn't understand why, having managed to pull along for so many years despite being unhappy, couples should go their separate ways at this stage of their lives. Finally, after much discussion on the subject, I asked her if the couples in question had children and she replied in the affirmative. She had her answer.

Compelling argument

More and more urban Indian couples, when confronted with major crossroads in their married lives, are exhorted — by almost everyone in their social networks — to hang on in the marriage for the sake of the children. This seems to be the most compelling argument on offer and, sometimes, even marriage counsellors use it, in flagrant contravention of what they've been trained to do. However, it appears that the thought of hapless children, for no fault of theirs, being forced to split their lives between two separate families and establishments, is too heartrending for most of us to even contemplate. As a result, the more humane solution seems to be for both partners to suppress even legitimate differences and live with each other for the sake of the children. The contemporary corollary to this seems to be that the unhappy couple can consider divorce after the children have grown up and are no longer hapless.

However, when one examines how humane this freely prescribed nostrum really is, one realises that it is not exactly the most appropriate option open to either the couple or the children. If you speak to the adult offspring of parents who stuck it out in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the children, what they'll probably tell you is that they have mixed emotions on the issue. On the one hand they are happy that their lives were not cleaved into two and they didn't have to go through the painful dislocation of weekdays with one and weekends with the other, summer vacations with one and winter vacations with the other or school concerts with one and sports days with the other, all the time making sure that they were talking and behaving in a parent-appropriate manner (saying the right thing to the right parent).

But, on the other hand, they also feel burdened when they realise that, but for them, their parents might have gone their separate ways and might have actually found some happiness and fulfilment in their respective lives. Even if there's no truth to this really, for those who want to find fulfilment in their lives will certainly do so regardless of the obstacles that come their way, children, by virtue of being guilt-prone, do take unnecessary burdens on themselves and let these affect their mental health. Also, they realise they have not learned from their parents how to conduct their own relationships with the opposite gender for the only template they have acquired is how to live with hostility and unfulfilled expectations, not how to resolve conflicts and respect each others' needs.

Bottom line

Here's the bottom line: All children are born with the right to consistent and appropriate parenting, but what they need more than anything else is two happy parents; not two miserable ones, who keep every now and again reminding them that they are together only for the sake of the children. Yes, parental separation and divorce does incalculable harm to children, particularly when the parents use the children as pawns in an acrimonious game of ‘payback' for real or imagined injustices. However, staying together under the same roof and using the children as pawns in the same acrimonious game of ‘payback', is merely swapping a rock for a hard place. In fact, I would go so far to say that the latter is the less desirable option. Children learn eventually, even if with much pain, to deal with their divorced or separated parents as two separate and distinctive units and eventually do come to terms with the fact that their family life is always going to be different. But what they find harder to deal with is the chronic stress of protracted parental marital disharmony, for this keeps them in a constant state of disquiet. Can we spare them that?

Of course, we can. Not by sacrificing our lives, but by doing something about it. By desisting from playing the acrimonious blame game. By refusing to compel them to take sides. By teaching them that differences between married partners are normal. And by working on the marriage for their sake. This way everyone benefits. And no one needs to resentfully plod along in an unhappy marriage, for the sake of the children.

E-mail the writer at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012