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What Happens When Relationship Researchers Fall Short?

We have been a romantic couple for almost 20 years, married for 13 years, produced two wonderful children, moved across the country for academic jobs, conducted numerous scientific studies examining romantic couples, and…will soon be divorced. How could two people who study why romantic couples fail or succeed be such utter failures themselves? The answer is easy: we are human. Like everyone else we have faults. We argue. We disagree. We neglect. We make bad choices. In the past, we have always been able to survive these shortcomings.

We understand that an argument is usually a fleeting disagreement, which will soon be replaced with cuddles and laughter (if we just wait long enough). But some issues are more difficult to overcome than other issues and we have come to an agreement that we can no longer be a romantic couple. Obviously our greatest concern during this time is our children. They certainly do not deserve this situation. Although we are the ones who fell short, they will probably suffer the most. Children of divorce are more likely to have conduct issues, display psychological distress, have difficulties with social relationships, and perform poorer in school than children with continuously married parents.1 So what should we do?

Ideally, we would not get divorced. But, we have agreed that it is best for us to move on. However, this does not mean we are moving away from our responsibilities. We need to stick together in order to raise our two children and be vigilant of the issues we detail below, which are all designed to lower children’s stress (note: these suggestions represent a summary of previous research findings2,3,4).

Be aware of the “post-divorce” environment. The family life that children experience after a divorce is often an important predictor of later adjustment. During this process, our children will likely feel a loss of control, will be exposed to new economic hardships, and experience different parenting beliefs. One way to ease children into this situation is by making small, but cumulative changes during the divorce process. This can be difficult if couples are angry or upset with each other. However, fortunately, we do not have this problem and we hope our friendship will help make this possible.

Be honest. Whenever our children are sad or upset our natural reaction is to “fix” whatever is bothering them. It is tempting to sugar coat the situation when facing a talk about divorce. However, we need to be direct and open with them. We cannot give them the false impression that this situation can be fixed. They will not be able to re-unite us like the parents in the film Parent Trap. They need to understand that we are separating from each other.

Do not blame. Everyone wants to be the “good guy.” We want others, and especially our kids, to know that we are good. So it becomes extremely tempting to blame our spouse for the divorce. However, we need to keep our own egos out of this discussion. It does not matter who was right or wrong, all that matters is that our children should be able to look up to both parents. Blaming one another might feed our egos, but it could destroy the love that a child has for his or her parent. In the end – this only hurts the kids.

Mom and dad still love each other. We want to make it clear that, although we are separating, we still love each other very much. We have so much history together and have experienced so much happiness -- how could we not love each other? However, the Beatles were wrong – “All you need is love” is not correct. There are so many other elements important in predicting successful relationships (personality characteristics, trust, shared interests etc.5,6).

We still love you. By far, this is the most important thing we have to express to our children. Basically, we need to make it clear that we still love them. Of course, we really do love them. They are the greatest kids ever (really, our kids are) so in many ways we just have to be honest. We just need to remember to keep telling them how much we love them.

Make no mistake – we are scared to death. This is going to be tough for both of us. But we need to remember that although there will be times when we do not like each other, we do love each other. We have been through a lot together and each of us has been an important part of the other’s life. We wouldn’t change our past for anything – we taught each other how to love, shared our hopes, discussed our fears, and have been raising two wonderful children.

We are still friends. We will still do research together. Although the “Markey & Markey” romantic team is retired, we respect each other too much to walk away. Most importantly, we will both be present in our children’s lives. We will be there to witness all their triumphs and to help out when the day comes that they, too, may fall short. 

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1Amato, P. R. (2001). Children of divorce in the 1990s: an update of the Amato and Keith (1991) meta-analysis. Journal of family psychology, 15(3), 355.

2Amato, P. R. (1993). Children's adjustment to divorce: Theories, hypotheses, and empirical support. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 23-38.

3Kurdek, L. A. (1981). An integrative perspective on children's divorce adjustment. American Psychologist, 36(8), 856.

4Emery, R. E. (2006). The truth about children and divorce: Dealing with the emotions so you and your children can thrive. Penguin.

5Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2007). Romantic ideals, romantic obtainment and relationship experiences: The complementarity of interpersonal traits among romantic partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 517-534.

6Markey, C. N., & Markey, P. M. (in press). Personality, relationships and health. Journal of Personality.

Dr. Charlotte Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.

Dr. Patrick Markey - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey's research focuses on how behavioral tendencies develop and are expressed within social relationships, including unhealthy dieting, civic behavior, personality judgment, and interpersonal aggression after playing violent video games. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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Reader Comments (3)

If you still have a foundation of friendship, why are you getting divorced? It doesn't sound like a high-conflict marriage.

You're choosing to fail and ruin your children's lives, which is pathetic. You should both be be ashamed of yourselves.

October 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Hi guys,
Just wanted to apologise on behalf of humanity for the other commenter. I'm sure you're aware of this, but they're not in a place to stay ass judgement over you. I'm personally impressed at your maturity, and wish you all the best!

October 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

As University of Sydney law professor Patrick Parkinson writes in "Family Law and the Indissolubility of Parenthood," divorce is no longer the end of a relationship; it’s a “restructuring of a continuing relationship.” So couples that have minor kids must learn how to navigate that relationship and co-parent as best they can. It sounds as if you have consciously uncoupled, and I wish you continued success in that.
In the book I co-wrote, "The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels," we offer an alternative — a parenting marriage in which the couple remains married and in the same home, but just removes the romantic/sexual aspect of their partnership. That allows kids the consistency and stability they need to thrive, as well as equal access to both parents. It also avoids the financial devastation that divorce can create. The parents are free to have other relationships or not. My prediction is that we will see more couples choosing this as an alternative to divorce.

March 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVicki
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