My 14-year-old son knew something was going on. He didn’t come right out and say he knew, but the knowing showed in his behavior. He was acting out, disobeying when he normally wouldn’t, arguing and pushing back against the smallest directions from me or his father. He was grouchy, short-tempered, and mean, lashing out at his younger brother at the slightest provocation. His grades were slipping. I thought it was puberty, hormones running wild, but deep down I wondered if he sensed the big change that was coming for our family.
One fall day, my son’s behavior became so bad, I thought he and my ex were going to come to blows. Before that point, we’d had only the occasional family spat, some of them involving yelling, some of them ending in a consequence (like loss of electronics) for one or both kids. This was different. My son was in my ex-husband’s face, shouting and crying, daring him to hit him and saying he’d call CPS if he did. The threat enraged my ex–he swelled up and got over my son the way I remember guys from my youth doing before they would fight. My son looked just as ready to throw punches. Both of them were in the red zone, beyond reason. I got in between them.
Then, suddenly, my son screamed, “Something isn’t right in this house! There’s something wrong with our family and I don’t know what it is, but I hate it and I just want things to go back to how they were!” Tears were streaming down his reddened face. His hands were balled into fists at his sides.
It felt like every molecule in the house had stopped moving. He knew. My husband hadn’t caught it–he was still too wrapped up in his anger. Though, he rarely caught details like that. It was one of the reasons we couldn’t make our marriage work, him not seeing or hearing me when I needed to be seen and heard.
We thought we’d been careful about hiding our conflicts. We never, ever fought in front of the kids. Bickering or the occasional light argument, sure, but never a serious argument, and neither of us were yellers. I could count on one hand the number of times we had truly raised our voices at each other over the course of our nearly two-decades-long marriage.
But we’d been sleeping in separate rooms for nearly a year, and we’d already planned a time to talk to the kids about our impending divorce–after the holidays. We just wanted to give the kids one more holiday together as a family. There were so many functions to attend, Thanksgiving, holiday parties, a 45th anniversary dinner for my ex’s parents. We had decided months before that we would put our differences aside and fake it through one more holiday. We told the kids we slept in separate rooms because Dad snored. It was true, his snoring could almost rattle pictures off the walls. We thought we were protecting our kids.
But that day when my son blew up, I knew he knew. It didn’t matter that my ex and I had been civil to each other, even laughed together, took the kids out to dinners and other functions and pretended everything was fine. He knew. Because under our smiles and laughter was the tension and resentment of broken vows, the lingering frustration of whispered, heated arguments about which of us was more wrong than the other, the dread of having to split assets, the seeds of coming arguments about who would get the house or whether we’d sell it.
Our other son was only nine at the time and didn’t seem to catch on, but now, three years after that terrible day, I realize he had manifested his knowing in different ways. Looking back, he was extra snuggly during that time, clingy and needy, always doing little chores around the house “to be nice.” He was trying to fix an invisible thing that was broken, to make things better in any little way he could think of.
I’ve seen arguments for and against staying together “for the kids.” And, for most divorces where kids are involved, there is a period of time when the couple knows their marriage is over, but the kids don’t yet know. Based on my experience, and the experiences of other divorced friends I’ve shared this story with, what happened in my family is not the exception.
Kids know things. They feel energy, they sense conflict, they have gut feelings. And I don’t want either of my boys to lose that priceless gut feeling the way so many adults do. We stop listening to our guts because somewhere along the way, we start believing the lie that everything is fine, that we have to pretend everything is fine.
My boys are both much happier now since they know the truth and we’ve begun a new normal as one family in two different houses. They’ve adjusted incredibly well, but looking back, I’m not sure giving them that last holiday season was the right thing to do. We meant well, and it’s possible that if we’d told them in September and upended the coming holiday season with our divorce news, that it would have been worse than keeping it from them like we did. I just don’t know.
But what I do know, and what I’ll never forget, is that kids can sense when things aren’t right. I reconnected with my sons later and we had a long talk about gut feelings. I reassured them that their feeling that something was different was correct and that I was sorry they had to sit with that feeling without having anyone to validate it. I told them I want them to be able to recognize and respond to their gut feelings, not to doubt the signals they get from their bodies.
I don’t want my sons to end up like so many adults, disconnected from their gut feelings because of the many times in childhood we had a bad feeling but everyone around us kept telling us that everything was fine, when it definitely wasn’t. They’re happy now. Their parents may live in different houses, but their guts tell them that their parents are better off this way, and their confidence in that truth is a big part of their happiness.