October 25, 2003


They had taken their daughter to university together -- it was a family act, even though they hadn't been a family for many years.


Still, they felt justified in making this a joint effort. They had spent years working hard to avoid battling while their young child grew up.


For many of my patients who are divorced or in unhappy marriages, maintaining the semblance of a civil relationship is a monumental and sometimes impossible feat. So why did this particular couple feel such a sense of success?


The wife had volunteered for years at a women's shelter. I remember her telling the story of a husband who sat outside the shelter with a gun, terrifying the staff and residents, until police arrived. She knew the impact that such an extreme threat had wrought on the children and mothers in that setting. But she also knew firsthand the more subtle ways that husbands exercised control and extorted compliance from their spouses.


So when my patient and her husband agreed to separate, they paid enormous attention to the sharing of responsibilities for their child -- and she made a concerted effort not to confront him unnecessarily.


This meant biting her tongue about his macho behaviours, not stepping in when he disappointed their child with broken promises, not venting her wrath about his ineptitude with money. She learned to "let it go," and stay focused on what she needed to provide when their girl was with her.


It worked. Or at least their dialogue was neutral, and they shared the time and care of their daughter equally.


The two got on with their separate lives, and the ex-wife started over -- this time with a woman partner. Now it was her ex-husband's turn to manage his feelings, even though his humiliation at being replaced by a woman appeared as a righteous sneer.


It took a lot to muster even this level of civility as the years of their separation passed. There were two more forays into ever-after bondings on both their parts and plenty of opportunity for disagreements. But now they are able to get in a car and drive their daughter to school hundreds of miles away, and then get back in the same car and return home with an equal measure of comfort.


For another of my patients, it was easier to stay the course with an abusive husband than risk what she knew would be inevitable and persistent hounding. She didn't trust that restraining orders and 911 calls would be able to ensure her safety, let alone that of the children.


Please understand: This woman wasn't a doormat. She had married young and pregnant, and her family values were deeply embedded in doing what was right by the bar of righteousness established in her parents' church.


There was a limit to this indenture, though it was never spoken about, at least not to me in the course of dozens of office visits over the years. So I was taken aback to learn that when her last child left home, so did she. She walked out the door without a backward glance: She had done her duty and she was free.


How did her children handle this? You'd think they would feel the same breeze of freedom. After all, she had raised them to leave, to be on their own. But children who have spent years trying to make things right in a "kid" way never really get to leave home, even after they've moved out.


Her oldest girl stepped fluidly into her mother's shoes. Old behaviours hatched anew as she accepted her dad's slurs and verbal abuse, doing a newer, faster version of her mother's two-step.


No one, least of all me, foresaw the mother's plan to leave at a predetermined date when, duty done, the old guilt could be purged. So in this family, the chains that tie remain, and in reality, no one has left home.


The barely buried ill will of many marriages often inflicts much more damage than any of the seemingly outrageous acts of parents. Couples have split and partnered up with same-sex mates more easily than they have sorted out the effects on their offspring of years of grudges and silence.


Indeed, the physical home may split into "his" and "hers" domains without any overt walls or barriers. The kids float through their childhood, blinkered, unaware that mom is here, but never there. In some families, no one seems to touch down anywhere. Both parents work furiously, and the kids aren't home much either. They board, attend out-of-country schools, stay at camp all summer. They are mobile, friend-focused and maintain social agendas an arm long. Little is said.

Everyone is straight-lining their life. All seems rosy, and there is little expressed interest or curiosity about the strangely parallel lives their parents are leading.


They will leave home, or has everyone already left?


Oh yes, it can take years and a lot of therapy for these children to figure out the formula for leave-taking.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.