It remains my gravest worry, much more than my anxiety around their emotional wellbeing or their predicted academic fallout. What keeps me awake at night is thinking how divorce will affect my children’s view on relationships and marriage. These other elements, important as they may be, are cursory to how they will eventually view marriage – while under the influence of their parents’ miserable failure at it.
I grew up Southern Baptist, and well, divorce and alcohol doesn’t get one fast tracked to the pearly gates. In Sunday school we learned that fire and brimstone awaited the divorced heathen and rap musicians. No one in my family was divorced, I broke that seal. It’s an accomplishment I don’t brag about. Divorce was never the option, it was viewed as the easy way out versus doing what’s right. While parochial by today’s standards, it was this context that helped frame my foremost attitude on marriage – that the vow of ‘till death’ was literal. Marriage wasn’t seen as an obligation, we knew many people who chose to remain single, but it was expected to last when and if it happened.
On this foundation I began my own marriage. There were no exit strategy or prenup; my chips were ‘all in’. And even as we began to suffer the spasms that come with any marriage, divorce never once crossed my mind in a serious way. I believed whatever happened would be worked through, the same as had been done by generations of family before. An inheritance of lifelong matrimony was bestowed on us, a family tradition needed defending, and I had every intention living up to the call and passing that legacy to my children.
It was in this rich matrimonial soil the feelings of failure and guilt about my own divorce took root. The legacy was forsaken; that banner had been stripped away never be reclaimed. My shame was underscored by the realization that, as a divorced father, I was now incapable of modeling for my children all the goodness of marriage I grew up believing. How could I demonstrate to my son what an honorable, faithful, and loving husband looks like without being one? How could I set the benchmark for my future son-in-law if I failed as one? And how was I to respond to that cultural babble declaring marriage as unnecessary – while remaining a single man?
There is an ongoing national debate on whether divorcees should ever remarry, it becomes especially heated if neither want children or desire more than they already have. For some it’s a theological question, for others there are financial elements, and still others simply believe marriage is too emotionally and sexually oppressive. But divorced parents have far more to consider than the division of assets, a titillating sex life, and our own erratic happiness.
The greatest responsibility of a mother or father is teaching their children how to flourish in this world. Over a short period of eighteen or so years we must prepare our kids, as best we can, to successfully navigate the rest of their life, to point the way towards their own peace and prosperity. There isn’t a single aspect of a child’s life that we don’t influence and one of the most important is how they will come to view marriage, sex, and the family.
What motivates a ninth grade girl to text naked pictures of herself? What drives a fourteen-year-old boy to ask her? Is this merely our cultural standard in the twenty first century, have we come to the point where we just accept it as the new teenage norm, or is there far more to acknowledge when we consider more than half of all children in the U.S. will spend much, if not all, of their childhood in broken homes?
A young boy takes note of the way dad treats his mom, by doing so he will learn how to view the young girls that soon come into his life. And the same boy will look at his mother to establish the benchmark for which girls he will allow in and those he won’t. Likewise, a daughter learns about womanhood and how to relate with men from her mother, while dad is the yardstick she uses to measure every boy who enters her life.
But what of the child who doesn’t see mom and dad together? Without that vital element – namely a married mother and father living together – where do our children learn these crucial life lessons? Youtube? Instagram? Hollywood? It’s a frightening thought. And it’s for this reason, namely the outside influences that fill the vacuum left by a parent’s absence, that I’m more convinced than ever remarriage is not only worthwhile it’s utterly essential if we ever hope to show our children what healthy romantic relationships should look like and counter the negative influences brought on by their own parents’ marital failures.
What message does it send to my eleven-year-old daughter if I bounce from one woman to the next in a string of 6-month liaisons, that men are unreliable, irresponsible, commitment-phobes? That relationships last until the new car smell wears off? And how much different is that for my nine-year-old son? How will he grow to believe anything other than the standard lie that commitment and marriage are pointless endeavors – when I reinforce the message with my commitment-less behavior?
Like every new divorcee I initially swore off marriage. Never again would I be taken behind the woodshed, never again would I bet the farm and lose half. And then, like most reason-minded divorcees, I came to my senses. As a divorced father, getting remarried is vital if I hope to give my children the best chance possible at flourishing in this life; to demonstrate all the goodness and blessing that can come from commitment and marriage; to be an example that challenges what they see around them. But – as divorced parents – if we are unwilling to cast off the shackles of resentment and fear that grew from our failed marriages our children will be sucked up in the vacuum of a culture telling them how unnecessary marriage and commitment really are.
This article also appeared on The Good Men Project