The death of the ideal family

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

It's time someone said it.

Family bliss is an ideal, but often not a reality.

Divorce can sometimes be the best thing for children when the family unit they have endured is emotionally unhealthy or, at worst, physically abusive.

There may have been one Dad, one Mom, a family dog, toys in the backyard, a pot roast in the oven and a white picket fence - a tableau of innocence and harmony reminiscent of Leave It To Beaver, the 1950s television series that elevated family to the cultural altar of worship - but the life inside those walls can often be far from ideal.

Few dysfunctional families end in murder-suicide as seen in two recent cases of domestic violence.

Earlier this week, Canadian pro wrestler Chris Benoit strangled his wife, suffocated his seven-year-old son and then hanged himself with a weight-pulley machine in their home in Fayetteville, Ga., according to authorities.

In Scarborough, Ont., Alton Beckford is believed to have committed suicide after stabbing his wife, Amy Ho, and mother-in-law to death. His stepdaughter, Anna Ho, ran from the house with blood on her hands, screaming, "My mom is dying."

Still, some of the details of the picture-perfect domestic images that both men seemed eager to promote serve to underscore society's pressure to maintain the traditional family unit, even when, in these cases, it can kill you.

The night of the apparent murder-suicide on his quiet family street in Scarborough, Mr. Beckford attended his stepdaughter's Grade 8 graduation. Dressed neatly in pressed trousers and a shirt, he snapped pictures in the school gym before driving home and, presumably, pulling out a knife.

Mr. Benoit, who was born in Montreal, and his wife, Nancy, had been together for three years when they encountered marital problems in 2003. She filed for divorce, citing "cruel treatment." But they later reconciled, and when Mr. Benoit, nicknamed "the Canadian Crippler," won World Wrestling Entertainment's heavyweight championship in 2004, he invited his wife and child into the ring.

Later that year, when asked what his worst vice was, he reportedly replied: "Quality time with my family.... It's something I'll fight for and crave."

Family is sacrosanct, championed as a stabilizer of society by politicians and celebrated in the popular culture as a source of happiness, security and understanding.

"For people in families where everyone dies or is killed, it's often because, in their minds, there is no other belief system. Family is it," explains Frances Oliver, a Toronto-based psychologist.

In popular culture, meanwhile, the single-parent family is often cited as a reason for troubled children.

"Historically, family is idealized and elevated, but it also has been a locus of violence," says Alan Mirabelli, an executive associate at the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa.

"The ideals we have about family do not guarantee anything," he notes. "They serve only as a compass."

But how bad does the family dynamic have to be to create an unhealthy environment for children as well as parents? "There doesn't have to be major abuse. Children can be much better off [in a family of divorce], even if the situation wasn't terrible," says Kathleen Metcalfe, president of family-counselling firm McWhinney, Metcalfe and Associates in Toronto.

She has a client, a successful, middle-aged woman, who recently initiated a split from her husband because of "a tension that she felt," Ms. Metcalfe says. "There was no abuse. But she always felt that she was walking on eggshells, and she felt that her teenaged children were feeling that tension, too."

A few months later, she reported "a calmer household." Most importantly, one of her teenagers, who had emotional problems, was showing improvement. "The child was finally coming out of a shell."

Ms. Metcalfe notes that studies of divorce and the effect on children are often unreliable.

"You might have a child who has been the subject of abuse in a family for 10 years and whose parents finally divorce.

"But then, that child's behavioural issues are compared to that of another, more stable, child who has an intact family. But the problem wasn't the divorce: The problem was the abuse in the family while the parents were together."

A female acquaintance of mine, who endured a physically abusive marriage for many years, says that her decision to divorce was frightening but, in the end, a salvation for her two children, who are now teenagers.

"When they were younger, the kids were resistant to the idea of divorce because of the uncertainty and how it would affect their lives," she says. "As they got older, they urged me to leave because they had seen the abuse go on for so long. They didn't want that dysfunction to be part of my life and our life as a family."

The split has been empowering for her children, of whom she has full custody. "It sets an expectation for them in their own lives. They'll say no to some things that they don't feel are right."

Life as a single parent is full of challenges, she says. There are financial burdens and increased responsibility issues, but "it's peaceful living. I can breathe again. And the kids get up happy in the morning, whereas before they would dread it because that was typically when all the screaming would happen."

The idea of what constitutes family is changing, notes Ms. Metcalfe. "It doesn't have to be two people living in a house."

But divorced parents have to work hard to create a civil relationship that maintains a sense of family, of "two adults acting as a team on the child's behalf."

Still, the rate of remarriage after divorce suggests that the ideal of family as two adults in one house is hard to give up.

"The divorce rate has flattened at 30 per cent," says Mr. Mirabelli of the Vanier Institute. "But studies show men remarry on average within three years, and women remarry within five years. The commitment to being in a relationship for a lifetime hasn't wavered."