Advice | Carolyn Hax: How to know when kids are ready to handle their parents’ divorce?

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I’ve learned a lot reading your column. If I had read it 15-plus years ago, I would not have married my wife. Ooops.

Anyway, we now have two kids, 7 and 5. They are awesome, and we both love them beyond measure. The marriage is not working for me, but it is more tolerable than the idea of blowing up my kids’ lives, not seeing them (as) much, etc. So my current plan is to continue making the marriage work — i.e., dealing with my needs not being met — until “the kids are old enough.”

How do I know when that is? I’m sure that 7 and 5 is not. Is the only answer that I’ll know when I know?

Regarding fairness to my wife: She knows exactly what I’m unhappy about. We’ve discussed the same topics repeatedly for 20 years; nothing is going to change. Should I feel bad about planning a divorce in the future but not telling her about it? Is that being dishonest in an unacceptable way? I think telling her I plan to leave “when the kids are old enough” would result in a much less pleasant life for everyone in the meantime.

Married: Whoo. Divorces when the kids are “old enough” young adults, right? — are traumatic in their own ways. The launching years can feel like a high-wire walk, and you’re planning to pull their net. Or, mid-high school? Middle school? Ouch.

Also: Some people no doubt can make awesome partners and co-parents as their intimate connection unravels, but I suspect the number who can is sharply lower than the number who think they can.

If this all sounds like a “Welp, you’re foxed either way,” then that’s … probably true to a degree. But our power in life lies within these small degrees of change, so that’s what we do here.

And it’s an old answer, but solo therapy with a family-systems focus can turn up solutions to your misery problem that minimize collateral damage. You’re in no hurry, so take your time to find the right fit.

Please, though, don’t just wing it and burn the next decade-plus as a living, lying grimace emoji. Better to talk it out even if you conclude it’s better to stay.

· If divorce is imminent, start planning for it now. Save money to finance two households. Scope out real estate within the kids’ school districts and friend zones. Get the kids used to one-on-one outings with each parent separately. If you’re not equal co-parents now, make it so. Make sure you both know how to cook your kids’ favorite meals, and both know their teachers and their friends’ parents. And, above all, treat your spouse kindly.

· Faking a workable marriage for 15 more years is far harder than you think. It’s better to blow up the marriage now, before they hit adolescence. Having your parents pull apart as you are pulling away from your parents is not good. In short, you are in a narrow window of time in which divorce is unlikely to have a bad impact on kids. Exit now.

· As a young adult who faced this, I’ve come to understand through therapy that I have no idea what a functional, loving relationship looks like. You’re dangerously imprinting on your children that dysfunction is normal, while wrongly believing you’re doing what’s best for them.

· Divorcing when the kids are younger has some benefits. Key among them: It becomes their norm earlier. You at least stop modeling an unhealthy, unhappy relationship for them — they definitely pick up on that.

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