Having messed up my first marriage, I’m resolute now in wanting to give my kids a healthy model of commitment.
My kitchen was a mess of cardboard boxes and shelving units. The kids’ lunch plates were scattered on the countertop amid the usual pile of newspapers and magazines, topped with the latest Toronto Life, which included an article by Leah McLaren called “My Doomed Marriage.” The piece recounts the story of McLaren’s six-year relationship with writer and director Patrick Sisam, including a two-year marriage that ended in divorce. It happened to come out the weekend my girlfriend moved in.
McLaren argues that the origin of her split from Sisam lay in her own parents’ divorce, decades before. “The concept of marriage, for the children of divorce, is not a brick house but a mud hut constructed prior to the rainy season,” she writes. She lays out the way, immediately before her wedding, she had an impulse to call it off. Then comes her proviso: “I decided that I would simply imagine marriage as something impermanent—a state I could try out and abandon if absolutely necessary. Instead of jumping off a cliff into forever, I would just dip a toe in and test the water.”
Not exactly a harbinger for the happiest of unions, huh? The thing is, McLaren blames her preference for impermanence on her parents’ breakup. “This is the logic of a child of divorce,” she writes.
But is it? And has my failed marriage doomed my kids to bad relationships? Has every divorced parent’s? The notion, and the timing of that story’s arrival, hit me like a sucker punch. My thinking on marriage has evolved since mine broke up a year and a half ago. The immediate aftermath left me bitter about the institution. Then I started a new relationship with someone whose own marriage ended the same month as mine. Early on, we had a conversation about second marriages, and I said, “I can’t imagine standing up in front of everyone, again, and promising to stay together forever—this time.”
Except I kept falling harder for this woman. The bitterness dissolved as relations improved with my ex. Things have worked out well for both of us in the wake of our breakup. We’re happier. My ex lives a couple blocks over. Dinners out, weekends away—our proximate but separate living circumstances allow us to function as though each of us is the other’s permanent nanny.
But guilt sticks me with a shiv when I consider the kids. They seem healthier and happier than they’ve ever been. Before we invited my girlfriend to move in, I sat down with them to discuss how things would change with a fourth person living in the house. They regarded her as a welcome addition, some mix of a new aunt and a big sister. They were excited to have her around all the time.
My nightmare is that I’m missing something—that somehow, this divorce has messed up my kids, has set an explosive that will detonate sometime, even decades, later. Which turns out to be McLaren’s thesis.
It’ll be years before I find out. McLaren and I do agree on one thing: Kids learn how to be married from their parents. That’s why, I think, the conversation with my girlfriend that McLaren’s article provoked ended with me professing something that, a year ago, would have seemed unimaginable: enthusiasm for getting married again. We’d just seen Amour, the French/Austrian movie that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, which chronicles a loving couple near the end of their lives. That sort of permanent, loving partnership seems ideal to me.
Moving in with my girlfriend puts me on a path that may or may not include marriage, somewhere down the road. Personally, I hope it does. Having messed up my first one, I’m resolute now in wanting to give my kids a healthy model of commitment—and I’m lucky enough to have found someone with whom that seems possible. Are the chlidren of divorce less likely to have committed relationships because of the example their parents have set? In my case, the mere possibility makes me all the more determined to do it right the second time.