Should I stay or should I go: The eventual upside of divorce

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Sarah Catherall says when her husband told her he was leaving, she felt like she’d been in a car crash.

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Sarah Catherall says when her husband told her he was leaving, she felt like she’d been in a car crash.

Sarah Catherall is a Wellington-based journalist and writer.

OPINION: Thirteen years ago this month, my husband left me. He was the one to end the marriage but, truth was, we were making each other miserable.

I became my worst self when he was in the room – I nagged, I complained, I resented many things about him. He didn’t like the person he became around me either.

We hadn’t started out like that, of course. A decade before, I had walked in a white satin dress among grapevines and married the man I was utterly in love with.

Over the following years, our lives had become too busy – work, business, three kids, house renovations – and put us under too much pressure. We had tried counseling but nothing could heal or repair the way we felt about one another.

But when he spoke those few words, “It’s over’’, I felt as though I had been in a car crash.

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It was the worst day of my life. I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything I knew was the two of us and our small family and nothing prepared me for the grief that followed, as I lost not just us but the world we had created together: the children we had raised together, our extended families (temporarily), and some of our couple friendships.

I truly thought I would never recover. I thought that our separation and divorce was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

Back then, I also heard these words a lot: “It’s so sad for the kids.”

But 13 years on, I can reflect that it’s actually “sadder for the kids’’ when their parents fight all the time but they stay together “for the kids’’.

Four decades of research show that 75-80% of kids whose parents divorce adjust well as long as their parents do it well.

Today, my ex and I co-parent our three daughters, who I’m proud to say are amazing young women. We get on better as friends and have both repartnered with people we love and are far more compatible with.

I don’t want to suggest it’s perfect or to advocate breaking up. Life is definitely more complicated. The ideal is to stay with the father of your kids until you die holding hands in your rocking chairs.

I talked about the social message we are sold to stick it out forever with Lady Deb Chambers, a divorce lawyer, recently. We talked about how for some couples it’s not financially viable to leave, especially with inflation and the rising cost of running two households. But Lady Deb told me she would rather be poor than be in a relationship which made her miserable. “If you’re not happy, and you’ve tried, then you need to have the courage to leave. You only have one chance at life.’’

Kimberlee Sweeney, an Auckland-based divorce coach, told me most of her clients go to her in the “should I stay or should I go phase’’. She thinks that, culturally, we are designed to pair up and also to stay in relationships, particularly if we have kids, while some unhappy couples stay together for financial reasons.

But 13 years on, I can reflect that it’s actually “sadder for the kids’’ when their parents fight all the time but they stay together “for the kids’’.

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But 13 years on, I can reflect that it’s actually “sadder for the kids’’ when their parents fight all the time but they stay together “for the kids’’.

“Those are the two biggest reasons, usually, that people stay. Those relationships often can still come to an end but often once the last of the children have left home, sadly they are then much older and find themselves in a position of starting all over again, with new partners, careers and sometimes financially too,’’ she told me.

Sweeney does stress that an unhappy partner should check they really want to end it, as they can later regret breaking up and want to go back to an ex.

She helps her clients imagine the two scenarios: staying or going. “When young families are involved I check to see they have tried all they can to make it work before calling it quits.’’

Like Sweeney, I do know couples who went through a rough patch, who are now happy. All I know is that for me, when my ex said, “it’s over’’, that trauma led me on a whole new path of personal growth and discovery.

Thirteen years on, I thank him for walking away.



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