Posted by: itneverrainsinseattle | September 1, 2010

Role Models

If I recall correctly, each of the three different therapists I ended up seeing regarding our failing marriage asked about Penny’s and my parents early in our respective sessions. I say “if I recall correctly” only because the subject may have come up more organically with one of them, but I don’t think so.

My parents are still married. Penny’s parents are still married.

Penny’s parents’ marriage is, to my way of thinking, not much of a marriage at all. I’ve never seen them fight, mind you, but a large part of their marriage saw the father taking work in a different town in order to pay the bills, and he only spent time at “home” on the weekends. This went on for years. I had told Penny early on that I would never want a marriage like that. She said she understood. And yet, when we have hit various financial road blocks from time to time, she has suggested similar arrangements. I don’t think she did so because she necessarily wanted that kind of marriage, but rather, because it was one practical solution to our situation.

 And, well, it’s also a situation with which she is familiar.

As for my own parents, I’ve seen them struggle through tough financial times, too. Like Penny’s parents, mine had to deal with bankruptcy following a failed business. Like Penny’s parents, they had moved from one part of the country to another as a “leap of faith” that didn’t pan out.

And oh, did they argue. My father, true to our stereotypical Irish heritage, has had somewhat of a temper. I need to be clear about this: while we kids were certainly spanked from time to time, I don’t recall him ever getting particularly violent. But anger can still be a scary thing, and when he got angry, you knew it. He would yell. And my mother, who was (and is) a tad on the sensitive side, would cry. She’d hold her own, but she would cry. I don’t think it was a deliberate play at manipulation, but it didn’t sit well with my father. It’s hard to have a good argument when the other person starts crying.

My sister has commented frequently that she always thought (presumably because of the fights) that my — sorry, our — parents should have divorced. My sister has long had problems getting along with our parents (she has referred to them as “your parents” to me so many times that I have come to refer to them as “my” parents when talking to her!). They have arrived at an uneasy truce, my sister and parents, ever since my sister started raising children of her own. However, my sister has made it clear to me that she does not respect mother largely because she believes my mother should have left my father.

“Any particular reason?” I’ve asked on occasion.

“Because he’s an assssss hooooollllllle,” she replies.

(My sister and I get along great, by the way, but we are very different in a lot of ways… we both take after our parents, too, but my sister definitely picked up the Irish temper and the Irish tenacity at holding a grudge.)

That is all the dirt I have on my parents. When faced with stress, my father would yell, my mother would cry, and they and my sister have long had a rocky relationship. When I’d mention the fights, at least two of the therapists would nod their heads knowingly. But, you see… that’s the worst of it. My parents worked through their financial collapse together. They both made their share of concessions to each other — something I’m not sure that can be said about one of Penny’s parents in particular. My parents pulled us through those times.

Ask my parents today, and they say they are happier together now than ever before, and are glad as hell that they stuck together. They admit that they went through some tough times, but they claim that it was all worth it. I found out just the other day that my father keeps fresh flowers on the dining room table. Who knew? I never would have guessed he’d be that kind of guy. But my Mom says he’s been doing this for years.

Here’s what I grew up with as a kid: my parents would kiss each other hello whenever one of them got home. And share a real hug. My father would refer to my mother with affectionate nicknames. “Hi, Beautiful,” he’d say when he came home after work. I don’t recall them saying, “I love you” in any similar kind of ritual, but I know they said it often. To each other, and to the kids. They showed a lot of respect toward their own parents, although there were some struggles each faced with the other’s parents. (Neither set of my grandparents entirely approved of their child’s choice for a spouse.)

I’ve been remarkably blessed to have the parents I have, and the grandparents I had, for that matter. And my sister, too, and extended family on both sides.

But where does all this role modeling leave me? Well, I think it’s important to show affection to your special someone. I think it’s important to give voice to the fact that you love them. And it’s important to stick together, even when times are tough.

This is the disconnect. Perhaps this has been yet another small factor adding up to why I have stayed in an unhealthy marriage for too long. Just… stick together, it will all be worth it in the end. Yeah, that’s it.

I didn’t tell you all this by way of giving yet another feeble excuse for why it’s so hard for me to walk away from our obviously soul-sucking marriage. Rather, there’s this:

* Whether my parents were good role models or bad would depend upon when you looked at them.

* Good role modeling doesn’t guarantee good results later.

* Bad role modeling (perhaps) can do more harm than good role modeling can do good.

* Then again, I don’t believe that bad role modeling guarantees bad results later… but it might make for more of an uphill climb later.

* I know what I want to role model for my kids, and what Penny and I have ain’t it



  1. All relationships go through rocky, shitty times. In my opinion, the difference between relationships that last and those that don’t are the willingness (and the ability) of the involved parties to work through the bad times, on the faith that it will be worth it in the end. Some couples can do it, others can’t.

    I think it’s healthier for couples to fight and ‘work it out’ if it works for them, than to bottle things up or avoid their issues.

  2. I remember having a similar conversation with my therapist. She thought I was extremely grouned considering what I grew up with as parents. Namely-my Dad. I wished they would have gotten a divorce a long time ago but that is not for me to say. they are still together- but barely. I however don’t want my kids to see what I saw. I want them to see the good parts, the parts where there may be struggles but you make it through . Clearly our marriages weren’t meant for that. But it doesn’t mean we haev run out of time to show our kids that.

  3. Totally agree with Sunshine here on the difference between relationships that work and those that don’t. I also agree with your points about parents as role models. As you know from my own “dad” series, growing up seeing and experiencing what we did heavily influenced who we are today – for the better, not for what we could have come (like him!).

    And though it goes without saying, I think you are a fantastic role model for your children.

  4. Your parents sound like incredible role models to me. Everyone argues some of the time, no? I couldn’t imagine being with someone who never disagreed with me or more so, who I never disagreed with! The point is, they stuck it out and pulled through strong. I believe that’s what marriage is about.

    In regards to you and Penny being role models for your children… you have to remember that each marriage, family, child, is different… and regardless of the dynamic of your family, your children will be impacted. You were impaced by your parents marriage and your children will be impacted by your divorce. The important thing is that you take the time to explain to them what is going on, and that you remember to put them first and ease the hit to them. That is what they will judge you on later, and that is where you should be role modeling now. Show them an amicable divorce, and parents who can remain friendly and respectful towards each other- and they will learn from that. Let that be what you give them.

  5. My grandparents had both sets of relationships you present in your post.

    One grandfather was a corporate executive, home almost every night except for when he had to travel for business. The other grandfather literally lived on the other side of the tracks, and due to the Depression was often away from home for months at a time seeking employment. When he wasn’t away working, he made brooms in a garage workshop and sold them door-to-door.

    But of the two, the executive had the more toxic relationship. Something happened that no one ever discusses to this day which killed their relationship. I have reason to believe that this situation led to the death of a young aunt. And once this grandfather was felled by ill health, his wife made sure that he was miserable to the end of his days.

    Having set the stage for my parents, they SHOULD have gotten divorced. My father was the replacement for a guy drafted to serve in Korea. He may not know to this day that the “Dear John” he got from my mother may have been the best thing that ever happened to him. My mother made my father’s life miserable almost from the day they married. He wasn’t making enough, so he took a dead-end job in management. This job function got transferred to a big city, so he ended up “coming home” on weekends for almost a year until he could afford an apartment large enough for his growing family. Then he needed to find a way to buy a house, etc. etc. My mother never went back to work with her superior earning capability (she’s an RN) until my father was refused any more raises, and wasn’t home enough for her preferences due to a second job he had taken. The final straw was when she belittled him as a man during a very stressful time in his life, and he never fully recovered. She let him know that she was thinking of running away from him and his several children so that she could get a fresh start. If anyone needed a fresh start, it was him.

    So I understand your sister’s attitude toward your father very well, INRIS. I treat my mother with respect just because she is my mother. But I don’t like her at all. She was not allowed much time with her grandchildren, nor was she ever allowed to be alone with them. I wasn’t going to have to live through another of her messes again, for I’m still dealing with the ways she messed my life up.

    You don’t want this for your kids. Don’t stay married any longer than necessary. Be the parent that demonstrates that it is possible to have a good life after a bad marriage.

  6. Does anyone have parents who were/are perfect role models? Isn’t part of this discussion that our definition of what is a ‘good marriage” changes and keeps changing? So that really leaves the decision up to you. Don’t try to compare your marriage to your parents. If your marriage isn’t what YOU want for yourself, then it’s time to end it

    Be strong and follow your heart,

  7. I think I’m willing to stick because my parents did. My parents nearly divorced at the ten year mark and went to therapy. They built a better, stronger marriage, and they insisted that it was the therapy that did it. So I grew up with that example. Or maybe I’m just thick headed.

  8. My parents were and are still “lovebirds”. This can be good or bad… For example, as kids, we always knew we came second, AFTER their relationship. For them, each other came first, period. I’d have to say it was a good role model, and yet, but out of 7 of us kids…4 of us had failed marriages.
    The thing is, what’s missing from your marriage is love. Penny just doesn’t love you, plain and simple. You have no place to go from there, exept the place you’re headed now…to a new life with someone who does love you. You know how to do that…you just had the wrong partner.

  9. I definitely think it’s important to show you care. Greeting someone with a kiss or a hug seems to important to me, but then again I watched my parents do this each day as well. And I was absolutely miserable when The Ex couldn’t do it even occasionally. I’ve learned so much about what I want and don’t want from my parents marriage. My dad saw one of the worst marriages possible as a child and he has worked incredibly hard to make sure his marriage and family do not resemble what he dealt with. It’s worked, but I know it hasn’t been easy for him. And there are definitely times he struggles.

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