ASK EMORY • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN
With great sadness (and unfortunately, great anger), my partner and I have decided to end our marriage. We have two daughters, ages 7 and 9. Last weekend we told the girls we are separating and will divorce. To my surprise, the girls didn’t seem to care too much about it one way or the other when we told them. Or at least, my older daughter expressed her excitement about having two bedrooms in two houses. Her younger sister seemed more blasé, but she has always been hard to read. I’ve always heard how hard divorce is on kids. So if problems do come up, what advice can you give me to see that they get through this okay?
“Splitting up on Spruce”
Ending a marriage is a challenging business. For adults, emotions can be raw and visceral, typically vacillating between relief and rage, hurt and happy, utter incomprehension and ‘I never really thought it would work.’ As bad as it can be, it will get better in a little while. Research shows that most grownups will weather the experience and settle pretty well into their post-divorce life after about 3 years. For children, though, the experience is usually much harder and more complicated.
The important thing to keep in mind is that your experience with divorce will be nothing like your children’s experiences. You can remember what it was like to live without your partner and you know how to return to that life fairly easily. But, your children have only known what it is like to live all together as one family. Nothing in their life so far has prepared them for what it will be like when their parents move apart and they must begin to shuttle back and forth between you.
Small wonder then that divorce is a much more disconcerting experience for children than for adults. After divorce, most children have to learn to live a bifurcated life, switching every few days from one household to another, from one neighborhood to another, and from one parent to another. Of course children can, and do, learn to adjust to this life. But growing up in after-divorce family will require a tremendous amount of flexibility and resilience from them. Here are some suggestions for what you can do to support your children during this time of transition and beyond:
• Think about referring to your soon-to-be-ex not in terms of what he or she used to be: my ex-husband or ex-wife; but what he or she now is to you: my children’s father or my children’s mother.
• When children do not feel free to share their experiences, they begin hiding their feelings so as not to upset or anger you. So when your child tells you how much she loves her new purple bedroom at Daddy’s house or if your son angrily tells you how much he hates going to bed early at Mom’s house, keep your reactions in check. If you have a problem, talk about it with a friend or take it up with your child’s other parent.
• Be realistic about just how big a change this is for kids and adjust your expectations accordingly. They will be putting so much energy into dealing with these changes that growth and learning may slow down or even reverse for a while. Grades may drop, misbehaviors may increase, and/or problem behaviors may appear.
• Parents are often riding the biggest emotional rollercoaster of their lives during a divorce. Remember your kids are riding a rollercoaster too, albeit a different one. During the first few years when both parents are most distracted or exhausted emotionally, you may not have the capacity to give your children as much support as they need. Having a connection with a sympathetic therapist or counselor will help a child keep their head above water.
• After a break-up, most adults will want to quickly forget the past and move on to a happier future. But don’t delete the first important years of your children’s history. It means a lot to them to know that their parents were hopeful when they married but that life did not go according to plan. If you only talk about your marriage as a bad mistake best forgotten, children may privately conclude that their birth was probably a sad mistake as well.
• Talk about your decision to divorce as a decision that was made after much thought was given, many talks were had, and much effort was made to preserve it. Even if your marriage no longer means much to you, remember that, for your children, your marriage was important. It is the reason they are here, and they will want to be reassured that you didn’t quit on a whim.
• Don’t be afraid to express your disappointment with how your marriage ended—expressing these feelings to your children can give them the sense that you can understand how they feel, too.
• Here is the reassurance your children will appreciate hearing the most:
o We are a different kind of family now, but we are still a family.
o Both of your parents are still very much on the job, working together to do their job which is taking care of you.
o Some of the changes for our new kind of family will probably be nice—let’s enjoy them.
o Some of the changes our family will have to get used to may be hard—and we believe we all have what it takes to deal with this new situation and make things better.
o We’re all in this together in our new kind of family. No one will be forgotten or left behind. We can all help each other out.
Illustration © William L. Brown