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Should I Stay or Should I Go (Now)?: Musings From the Rearview

If you happen to be a GenXer like me, you may have sung that title in a nod to the Clash's early 80's hit where they question again and again the dilemma of whether to stay or to go now in this particular relationship. I don't remember if The Clash ever came to a conclusion. Did they stay? Did they go now? Did they have kids? Was their partner abusive? If they did "go now", did they spend years in a broken Family Court system that failed to protect them and their kids? I have so many questions.

I do know that feeling though--the one where you know something isn't right--and that you probably should divorce this person, but you have kids and a whole life that would implode if you did. I remember feeling like I could get through it until my kids were grown--and then I could be happy. I didn't want my kids to experience the trauma of divorce. I didn't want to make the decision that would cause them the greatest pain of their lives to that point. I made the decision to marry this person. I had kids with him. I could suck it up for another 10 years--for them.

But the reality is that staying was also harming them. They were learning what a family should look like--how a husband should treat a wife, how to be a husband and a wife one to be a father. We were creating their blueprint for life. I remember being in the truck one night late, coming home from some friends where we'd spent the day out fishing, barbecuing, etc. The details aren't important, but essentially, I had asked him if the next time I was on the phone with my gravely ill and likely dying grandmother in a small, enclosed space, if he would please not choose that moment to make a phone call to his buddy and chat loudly with him. What evolved was him berating me and yelling at me the entire ride home, despite my attempts to ask him to "please stop--our kids are in the back seat." (spoiler alert: he didn't)

It's not just "those" moments though--where it's so obvious and in your face that this is not okay. It's all the small moments. It's the ones where every time you go out to get in the car and he's driving (kids in the backseat), he pulls forward just as you reach for the door handle--ha ha ha. Isn't he funny? It's helping your kids go all out for his birthday--making a special cake, gifts, even dinner, only to have yours roll around and find yourself washing dishes that evening and your young son comes in with tears in his eyes and says "But we didn't even get you anything". And you hug him and tell him it's okay because he and his sister are your greatest gifts. You're not lying but you are also starting to see that what you're modeling for them will doom them.

Your boy is learning how to be father, he's seeing how his father treats you, his mother. Your daughter is learning what to expect in her future...what marriage looks like, how a husband should treat a wife--what she deserves. You are both teaching them these things. Whether you are an active or passive participant makes your part no less harmful.

Those realizations were the tipping point for me. Did I want the life that I was living for my kids? No. So I made the decision to go now, rather than to stay. I have never regretted that decision. It has caused me great pain, via my children and the pain and trauma that the decision brought them, but I have not regretted it for even a moment. I am also not naïve enough to believe that there are circumstances where staying is the better option--or maybe "less harmful" is a better term.

I've had clients express that "Maybe it would be easier if I just went back" or "I can't protect them now" and I get it. The guilt is real. Feeling like you've had a two-ton weight lifted off your shoulders, while at the same time you're trying to help your kids deal with the biggest trauma of their young lives--the guilt can be crippling. For someone considering whether to go or to stay, finding all the information out there about the brokenness of our Family Court System can be a huge factor as well. Facing years of potential legal and financial abuse and getting dragged back and forth to court can seem daunting and keep you frozen in place, believing that it's easier to protect your kids from monsters when you live with them and try to keep the peace.

It's so hard to think clearly when you're in the middle of this. I will never claim to have all the answers. Each person, each case is different. Only you can know what the right thing is to do--whether you will choose to stay or to go now. But I can tell you what I know from a much further down the road perspective-and it's two things:

#1--Your kids will and are experiencing trauma, whether you stay or you go. It becomes a matter of deciding which kind of trauma you want to have to mitigate as they get older. You were never "protecting" them from anything when you were married--you were just playing your part modeling an unhealthy relationship and teaching them unhealthy coping mechanisms. If you choose to leave, you give yourself and them, space to experience healthier relationships. You give them the model for saying "This is not okay...I deserve better." You're giving them a healthier you, which will lead to a healthier them, even if it takes years to unravel.

#2--Nobody can make the decision for you. Every situation has nuances and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But if you are faced with the decision, and you worry that the fall-out from leaving will harm your children, don't forget to also consider the harm that staying will do. You know what they say... "If I go there will be trouble...but if I stay there will be double..." So wise, The Clash, so wise.

I guess my point here is that if you've made the choice to go now, and are having feelings of guilt, or questioning whether you made the right choice, it's normal to have those feelings, and you absolutely did make the right choice. You will get through this, and so will your kids. Because they have you, showing them the way.

If fear is keeping you from making the decision to leave, please reach out for a free 20 min consultation. As a high-conflict divorce coach, I specialize in working with clients who are leaving abusive relationships.

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