On Psychology

Jewish World Review June 8, 1999 /24 Sivan, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

No Way to Ease Pain
of Split-Up on Young

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I have been living with a woman for several years now. We have two beautiful children together. I want to leave her but not my children. I understand the laws when it comes to divorce, but we were never married. I want to be a full-time dad. Can you tell me what rights I do have, and how I can obtain custody of my children when I leave my girlfriend?

A: In July of 1987, I had one of those moments. At the time, I was Director of Outpatient Psychological Services at Children's Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Into my office walked a couple in a troubled marriage.

The couple was well-dressed, affluent, and articulate. They began by informing me that they were in the process of getting a divorce.

Econophone Well, I asked, what can I do for you. "We want you," they answered, "to see our five-year-old to make sure that he doesn't experience any negative consequences because of the divorce."

I had heard this before. It was not uncommon for divorcing parents to seek counseling for their children. But there was something too casual about this couple's request. So this time, I decided to ask a few questions first.

Have the two of you been in marital therapy, I asked. "No," they answered.

Why not, I pressed. "We just don't love each other anymore and we both want to move on. Besides, that's not why we're here. We're here to pay you to see our son so that he won't feel bad about our divorce."

I took a deep breath and told them -- no. I wouldn't agree to see their son.

"But that's why we're here," they protested. "We can certainly pay your fee. Why won't you see our son?"

Because, I answered, I will not help you pretend that it is possible to inoculate your child against the harmful effects of divorce.

But, I continued, if you want to see me in marital therapy, we can start right now. I will see the two of you today, tomorrow, next week, and every week thereafter for as long as it takes to determine whether it is possible to repair your marriage. But I will not agree to see your son so that the two of you can feel better about your decision to divorce.

I wish I could say that the couple responded by agreeing to try to save their marriage. But they didn't. Instead, they politely thanked me and said they would seek another psychologist who would be more willing to do as they wanted. I'm sure they found one.

But for me, my practice was never the same. From that day forward, I was no longer willing to participate in the pretention that it was possible to have a divorce with no consequences for children. From then on, I decided I would be on the side of marriage, not divorce.

This doesn't mean that I think therapists should not see children in therapy when their parents divorce. To the contrary, I have great respect for the thousands of therapists and counselors who work with children enraged and grief-stricken over their parents' divorce. Support groups and therapy can be enormously helpful to children in understanding that the divorce was not their fault.

But from that afternoon forward, no longer was I willing to accept children into therapy without first challenging the parents to re-think their decision to divorce. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn't. No one bats 1.000

Which brings me to this letter.

There is a certain casualness to this letter that is as shocking to me as was that couple's demeanor in my office over a decade ago.

Back then, I was expected to casually accept divorce. My job was to ensure children didn't feel bad because of it. Today, I'm expected to casually accept cohabitation, as if there are no consequences to it either. But there are consequences to cohabitation -- children, for instance.

Unfortunately, it's even easier to breakup a cohabiting relationship than a married one. But the consequences of a cohabiting couple's breakup can be as devastating for children as are the consequences of a married couple's breakup. Maybe even more so.

But we're not suppose to question the "lifestyle choices" of adults anymore. It just wouldn't be polite. So I'm suppose to simply let go unnoticed the fact that this guy never bothered to marry the mother of his two "beautiful children," and instead help him fight for his "right" to be a "full-time dad."

Well, I'm not going to do it. I guess I'm having another one of those moments. From this point forward, I'm no longer going to casually accept that "shaking up" is a perfectly fine way for adults to organize their lives. Because when it comes to the well-being children, it's not.

So before I give any advice to this guy who wants to leave his paramour and take his children with him, I'm going to ask a few questions first. Beginning with this one: If you want me to believe you're such a responsible guy, why didn't you ever bother to marry the mother of your children?

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn