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Broken Promises, Broken Love: The Dissolution of a Happy Marriage

“Their divorce will be final in August.”

Oh, ouch.

Two of my favorite people, one my best friend’s daughter, will be splitting their small family for good late this summer.

While it pains me greatly, it was coming for a while. This news just finalized what was inevitable.

Still my heart aches for two little boys who love their dad.

But who have been needlessly and repeatedly disappointed by him.

Chad and Marion met some ten years ago in a small Southeastern city. Chad was working on the next door neighbor’s house. Strong and handsome, a Marine veteran, he caught my best friend’s daughter’s eye somehow. She was a college grad, he’d finished high school. But something definitely clicked.

They fell in love. Part of that was because Chad worshipped Marion, adored her. Not without excellent reason. Marion’s smart and funny and athletic and determined and very pretty. To Chad, she was a princess. He treated her like one. Not long afterward, two boys joined the family to my friend’s delight.

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Marion, who is ambitious and driven, established herself in their small city in the educational system. She had developed and continued to perfect her skills with kids, and soon had an excellent job. Chad was motivated to be a good provider, and didn’t want to continue working in lawn care. Somehow he found himself selling cars, where the lack of a college degree wasn’t an impediment.

To say the least. He rocketed up the ladder, finding in himself the gift of the natural salesman. Soon he was making money hand over fist, more than anyone in his family ever had. He was surprised and quite rightfully proud. Not long afterwards he found himself in the finance department, making deals and bringing home major bacon.

So was Marion. Between them, they created a superb income stream. Soon they had bought a much larger house with a huge lawn for the growing boys, and then came the toys. Chad’s family had been poor and largely uneducated, and to be able to afford just about anything was like having a bumper crop.

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The kids wanted for nothing. Santa could afford to be extremely generous. The parents gave each other cars. A dog. Marion could buy the best food at the most expensive organic stores. The sky was the limit.

But Chad, who had grown up with a largely absentee father who struggled to make ends meet, could not give the boys what they wanted most: time with him. They had boats and toys galore. Dad just wasn’t around to use them with his kids.

On one hand Chad was justifiably proud of what he’d accomplished at work. On the other, he couldn’t let work go. It was a life raft. Deals always came first, last and foremost. He put in extreme hours, all at the cost of his family time.

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Marion, who was sensitive to the boys’ need for time with their father — they lived in an area where outdoor recreation was abundant — wanted Chad to take the kids fishing, camping, exploring. There was never time.

Then there were the promises. “This weekend I’ll take you camping. This weekend we’ll go visit the National Park for a hike. This weekend we’ll….”

But when it came time, the deals got in the way.

It broke the boys’ hearts every single time. Marion, who spent her time all day with kids whose parents similarly let them down, took note. Talked to Chad about it. He promised to do better.

And never did.

Interestingly, one year I remember a verbal fisticuffs that Chad got into with his own father over spending time with his own kids. The granddad avoided Chad’s children, as his son’s family was living a life he’d never been able to provide. While he cared about his grandkids, he had no more time for them than he’d had for Chad. This angered Chad, but Chad was unable to see that the example had been set in stone in his own life and family. Sins of the fathers.

Helpless to let go of his need to provide for his family, Chad was also jealous of his wife’s well-educated and athletic friends. When she went skiiing or spent time with other people he was terrified that she’d be swept away from him.

One weekend when I stayed with their family, Chad had had just a bit much to drink. That was the only time he was comfortable discussing his emotions. He told me that he was absolutely out of his mind that Marion would leave him just like that. It’s entirely understandable. The way he described it, he wanted to build a moat around his young family and keep his wife and kids in an isolated castle. I told him point blank that with Marion, this was the best way to send her running. Strong and independent, she wanted Chad to have his own life just as she had hers- and show the kids an example of a dad who was confident and powerful enough to go off and have adventures of his own.

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By this time Marion was working on her PhD, and moving up the ladder even further. His formal education had stalled, although he was continuing to grow at work. He couldn’t balance the importance of kid time with his extreme need to continue bringing in the kind of cash that kept Marion and the boys comfortable in a way that his family had never been able to do.

As a result the boys-and Marion- paid the price. Unable to justify pulling away for work, Chad made and broke promise after promise.

By the time the older boy, who is a handful to say the least, was 11, they had almost come to expect to be disappointed. Yet, in that perpetually-hopeful way of kids, they still heard, and counted on, Dad’s promises to come through.

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Eventually Marion and Chad separated. Not because they didn’t love each other, but because the strife over the boy’s upbringing and Chad’s fatherly example troubled Marion enough that she drew a line. For months, they lived separate lives in limbo, doing their best to put the boys’ needs first until they could make a final decision.

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My best friend told me about the final straw.

“It was just after Father’s Day,” she told me last night. “The boys- both of whom love to avoid the barber, had grown their hair so long the older one was being called a girl. To motivate them, Chad told them that if they cut their hair he would give them both a hundred dollars.”

That’s a king’s ransom for a kid. The boys were beside themselves. On top of that, Marion had given him a high-end Traeger grill for Dad’s Day. He said that they would cook a few steaks to break in the brand new grill to celebrate. The boys were beyond enthusiastic.

The big day came, and dinner was to begin at 5:30. No Chad. Six-thirty. No Chad.

Marion called. “The kids are hungry,” she said.

“Well, I’ve got these deals going, he said.

By 7:30 the boys were both antsy AND hungry. Marion called again. “You’d better feed them,” he said. “I’ve got all these deals to finish.”

Finally at 9 pm he came home. The kids sported their new haircuts, and Chad complimented them. However, he said, “You guys will have to wait until my payday at the end of the month for your hundred dollars.”

The older boy’s face fell. He counted off the number of days: almost two weeks. To an eleven-year- old, that’s forever.

Marion realized that nothing was going to change. Not only did he break his promises to the boys, but his promises to her were broken as well.

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She didn’t want her two bright, impressionable young men growing up thinking that broken promises and absenteeism were acceptable norms. It didn’t matter that Chad’s own father was his reference point, and that he had a hard time separating himself from work because it was the example that had been set for him.

They had two young men who were learning bad habits.

That was the end of their marriage.

Chad wasn’t short on passionate love for his kids and his wife. Hardly. However his belief, born of his own humble upbringing, was that the only way to hang onto his family was to work himself to death, providing money to keep his kids and wife in style. What he ignored was the cost. The greatest gift he he had to give was his time. That time was what the boys needed the most, as well as the consistent example that people do what they say they will do.

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For about a year, the split family lived in a kind of limbo. Chad had moved to an apartment. Marion and the boys lived in the huge house, and she was now burdened with the yard care and housecleaning and upkeep that came with it. Eventually she had to throw in the towel, and put the house up for sale. She couldn’t juggle a demanding job, work on her PhD, the boys AND a big house and yard. Especially with a no-show dad.

This was the final straw. However, she can’t buy a house for herself and the boys without finalizing their relationship.

After they agreed to divorce, Chad was actually more relieved than sad. This didn’t come as a surprise to me, although I know he loves his family. He simply cannot let go of his need to produce an income. The stress this caused him was palpable. He’s not a bad man, not at all. The two still love each other.

Ultimately Chad’s intense fear of losing his family, cost him his family. Interestingly, this was the very conversation we’d had about three years ago. I remember warning him that the more tightly he held on to his ambitious wife, expressed his fear through jealousy, and lived in constant fear of losing them, the more likely he would push them out of his life.

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In this case, I really don’t like being right. This is a family I considered part of my own extended family, so what happens to them also happens to me.

The good news is that the couple have committed to continuing to co-raise the kids, keeping it amicable. Both have already started considering other partners. The boys, being young and adaptable, have already moved on and are fine with their situation. But they still want time with Dad.

As much as this split has hurt my heart, a piece of me is also relieved. The boys, both extremely bright and with the older one headstrong and determined, they need a strong, present Dad to provide an example. Marion, who likes her nice toys, was willing to trade her trappings for quality time.

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It’s an age old- dilemma. Far too many men think that women want jewels, gifts, beautiful clothing and the finery that success brings. Some do. Far too many women- and the kids- would vastly prefer time. When we get caught up in the fear of not being enough, and that turns into an overwhelming compulsion to prove ourselves worthy, we end up being unworthy. While this feels like a no-win situation, it’s actually very simple.

Chad had every chance in the world to make adjustments. He could have set the expectation at work that he would leave at six, not just “when the deals were done.” He could have invested in training a subordinate to take over his duties when he left. That’s a good manager. That would have made him even more valuable to the dealership. But like many of his, his deathgrip on his position, driven by fears of not being enough and not making enough, undermined his ability to consider other options. That’s what his father taught him.

Marion had a hand in the dissolution of this marriage as well. She loves nice things, expensive toys, and being treated like royalty. Those were powerful drivers. At some point, the loss of this marriage is a lesson in being willing to sacrifice some superficial things in order to have quality time. It’s hard way to learn.

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The sins of the fathers. And mothers, for that matter.

Over the last four years, Chad had discussed this not only with me but also his mother-in-law, his wife, and agonized over it himself. He simply didn’t have the courage to make the commitment. Marion has discussed these issues with her mother, who has carefully and respectfully helped her understand her own part in the parting, which for a very proud woman was hard for Marion to embrace. The best news is that Marion and her mother have drawn much closer through this process, which, while tough, has its own rewards.

Today, at slightly over forty, Chad is starting over. He has a great job which eats him alive, with his permission. The satisfaction his success gives him overrides everything else in his life. Marion is moving on. By the end of summer their marriage will be history.

Photo by Oziel Gómez on Unsplash

Perhaps for me, the most important lesson, as I adjust to having a man in my own house and being in a relationship, is watching how men trade off time for pay, and in some cases, it costs the family. Men aren’t alone in this either. If we’re going to have kids (and I never did) at some point, we make real trade-offs. Do I want my sons to see a man who demonstrates consistent integrity with his word? Or do I want my sons (or daughters) to exist without me, and accept the emotional desert of desertion while parents strive to give them what most could live without: lots of expensive toys and goodies?

To me this is an easy question with an easy answer. I don’t know many kids who’d trade alone time with a toy for time with Dad in the back yard or the back forty.

I had time with my parents, as did my brother. If Dad said he was going to do something with us, he did it. And he provided, albeit it was thin, but that wasn’t what mattered. We had Dad.

Ultimately showing up is the best gift of all.

Horizon Huntress, prize-winning author, adventure traveler, boundary-pusher, wilder, veteran, aging vibrantly. I own my sh*t. Let’s play!

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