Challenges Ideas About Kids, Divorce
by Meredith Moss, Cox News Service, March 15, 2004
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may not think of himself as a myth exploder, but the he is
challenging some of our society's most accepted ideas.
Coleman, a psychologist who has spent his professional career
counseling couples, has come up with some theories that
challenge current assumptions about the effects of divorce on
The result is his new book, "Imperfect Harmony: How to Stay
Married for the Sake of Your Children and Still Be Happy" (St.
Martin's Press, $23.95).
"The myth is that if parents are unhappy, then the children must
be unhappy," says Coleman, who insists that's a false assumption
that has done a tremendous amount of damage.
Coleman says the connection between unhappy parents and unhappy
kids applies only to high-conflict marriages.
"Those are situations in which the parents hate each other and
where there is ongoing physical and verbal abuse," he says. "In
those situations, it is better for the children if parents
divorce if they can't resolve the conflicts."
But those families, he says, aren't the norm. In most cases,
there are viable alternatives to divorce that will be healthier
for everyone in the family, he says. He sees couples every day
who are on the verge of divorce but who manage to turn their
"Many people are never going to have that great marriage, but it
doesn't mean they should get divorced," he says. "When there's a
divorce, not only does the child pay a large price, but the
divorcing parent does as well. There is lost time with the
child, and not being able to be a day-to-day force in a child's
life. You are also exposing the child to the stressors of
Coleman, 49, says his goal is to help couples with a third
"Even though the husband or wife may be a bad partner for now,
they may still be a good dad or mother. There are enormous
things you can do. Most people give up on marriage too soon."
Coleman reached these conclusions as a result of his own years
of practice and his personal life.
He was married and divorced in his 20s and has a daughter from
his first marriage. He has been married to his current wife for
15 years, and the two have twin boys.
"We all tell our children that Mommy and Daddy are getting a
divorce, but parents never divorce their children," says
Coleman. "That's not entirely true. It's harder than anyone
Contrary to popular belief, Coleman says, it's not necessary for
mommies and daddies to be crazy about one another.
"While it's a benefit, children don't need their parents to be
in love," he says. "They need parents who are devoted to them
and who protect them from their conflicts."
Coleman advises people who have done everything to make their
marriage better and haven't been successful to grieve that loss
and move toward accepting their partners.
"It isn't enough to just stay married for the sake of your
children," he says. "You have to do it from a place of
acceptance, not victimhood or martyrdom."
American couples simply expect too much out of marriage, he
"Marriage can't and shouldn't be a one-stop shopping center for
all of your needs. It's better to have a multidimensional view
of happiness that includes friends, work, hobbies, children and
a spiritual life. People can still be happy even if they aren't
that happy with their marriage."
If your marriage isn't making you happy, he advises, you need to
stop making it so central in your life. Coleman thinks it's
wrong for our culture to make people feel ashamed if they don't
leave ho-hum marriages and pursue their soul mates.
When college students of the 1950s and '60s were asked what they
hoped to find in marriage, they talked about economic security,
friendship and children. Those were more modest and realistic
goals, Coleman says.
"People now want their marriage to be a foundation for intense
personal growth and well- being," he says. "You can't have both
the mind-set that you're going to raise children and one of
blind personal focus on one's self-interest and happiness."
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