"…my mother turned slowly around, and said, `Do you girls know what divorce means?' At six, I had never heard the word. `Divorce is when two people can't live together anymore,' she said looking straight at me. `Two people who are married. It means Daddy won't be living with us anymore, though he'll always be your father.' Her voice made the room tilt sideways…She might as well have said `Divorce means you are going to turn blue today. Your skin will always be blue. You will never return to your normal color, you will just have to get used to being blue." From Daughter of the Queen of Sheba by Jacki Lyden.
Too often divorce wrecks havoc on children. During therapy, in front of his 9-year old son, Sam said, "He's having trouble with his mother. She a slut." His mother is not a slut.
Mary brings her daughter to therapy. She urges the therapist to support her in convincing the judge to grant her full custody. Her dad is obviously "unfit", she insists. But that's not the case. Her father is loving and caring.
Aaron never cleaned his room. His parents told him how he made their lives miserable. Then they told him they were divorcing. He was convinced it was his fault.
Jennifer witnessed the most vicious fights between her parents. She would observe the bruises on her mom or the fingernail marks on her dad. Those memories were to haunt her throughout her life.
After the divorce John never saw his children. He moved thousands of miles away. He didn't want to have to face the guilt and ongoing battles. His children felt deeply abandoned. How can a dad play softball with you for two years, and then just walk out of your life?
These are just a sampling of the ravages of divorce. Is the solution simply to stay together and pretend things are hunky-dory until the kids leave home? At least give them the experience of having two parents under one roof? There was a time when I would have believed this. But this method is inherently dishonest and I have seen the damage done to children whose parents chose it.
With all good intentions, some parents decide that they will hide any personal conflicts and animosities behind closed doors. They will pretend that they are in love. They will divorce when the children leave home. Imagine being a child in this family. You grow up thinking that you live in a loving intact family. Then, just as you are about to leave the nest, or get married, mom and dad deliver the news that they are getting divorced and that they have not loved each other for the past decade. They stayed together just for your sake.
What's your gut reaction? My guess is that you'd be in shock. You would think, "I've lived a lie. I was sure that we were a loving secure family. How could I have missed the signs that they didn't love each other? Am I that dense? Now I will never trust my own mind. Just when I thought things were going smoothly, they crashed. I'm afraid to believe that anything can go smoothly anymore. I never want to experience another crash like that one."
You might also think, "Why did they stay together if they were so unhappy all those years. I didn't ask them to do that for me! Now I feel guilty and there is nothing I can do about it." As James Friedman puts it in his book, The Divorce Handbook (1984), "Too much self-sacrifice can be intolerable to your child…". A policy of self-sacrifice always leaves a wake of emotional destruction.
So is it hopeless? Does divorce have to shatter a child's self-esteem, his view of others and his view of the world, his view of romance and marriage? Does divorce have to mangle children? Yes, if the process is irrational.
But imagine the following scenario: Marie's parents divorced. They had prepared her for their separation by letting her know, in general terms and in an age appropriate context, why they would be separating. They helped her understand why they were no longer going to live together. They let her know, in a sentence, what it would mean for her (e.g., she would be living with mom in her home and visiting with dad in his new apartment). They assured her in words and in actions that it had nothing whatsoever to do with her. They also let her know that parents don't divorce children and that they both love her dearly.
They went to a counselor/mediator with Marie. Marie was able to discuss all her concerns and questions openly with the counselor. Her parents were then brought in and Marie was able to share her feelings with her parents and ask them questions pressing on her mind. Marie continued this newly discovered openness with parents. It helped her understand that the divorce was not based on irrational whims but was a well thought out, rational solution to her parent's problems. Knowing, in age-appropriate detail, the reasons for the divorce helped her avoid catastrophizing and strengthened her ability to deal with the divorce. (Kids often get shuffled aside when parents are in crisis. This method allows her to be visible with both parents in a constructive manner.)
With the assistance of a mediator, her parents agreed to come up with a specific plan to make a smoother transition from marriage-partners to parent-partners. Dad made plans to move out and set up a special room for Marie in his apartment. He made it a priority to be an ongoing part of her life, hence, not an infrequent visitor, which often leaves children feeling unlovable, abandoned, powerless and angry. Marie would have her own phone in her mom's home so that she could call dad and talk with him anytime. Her parents handled their divorce with honesty and tact.
Is this scenario unrealistic? Absolutely if either partner seeks revenge or takes an adversarial stance armed with the "best" divorce lawyer in town. But more and more, parents are working relatively cooperatively and rationally with a mediator.
Is it possible to come up with a specific plan to make a smooth, relatively hostile-free transition from being married parents to divorced parents while remaining reasonable with the shared parenting of your child? Yes, if you have the proper focus during the divorce process, the focus on the mental health of your child and your own ongoing mental stability. Nobody wins from the alternative, a revenge focus. Although you cease to be marriage-partners, you remain parent-partners for the rest of your divorced lives. It is so much gentler on yourself and your child if you and your no-longer-beloved-ex clearly, civilly and specifically deal with parenting issues apart from other fiery issues.
This will not protect your child from feeling shattered or surprised when you first break the news to her. But you can help it to be a temporary shock, not an enduring one.
This will also not protect you, as spouse, from going through the grief of losing your dream of being happily married, forever. It also won't solve the problem of feeling overwhelmed in your new role as a single parent. And it won't help you deal with the injustices you feel from your spouse. Since you will likely have those issues to deal with, I recommend you treat yourself to counseling. You and your child will benefit.
How do you rationally divorce your partner, especially if you are leaving your partner because he or she has been irrational? If you communicated poorly during the marriage, isn't it just wishful thinking that you would be able to communicate well in the heat of a divorce? This is often the case and explains why so many divorces are messy. If your wife was sabotaging you while your were married, why would you expect anything else but sabotage from her when you tell her you plan to leave? It is rare that couples separate their lives civilly. That is why I highly recommend a good counselor or mediator. Someone else can help you keep your child's best interest (and hence yours!) in the forefront.
Dr. Bienenfield offers the following perspective in her book, Helping Your Child Through Your Divorce. "When you treat the other parent with respect, you are doing it for your child and for yourself, not for the other parent".
Another excellent resource for understanding how divorce affects children and how to minimize harm done to them is The Divorce Book by McKay Blades, Rogers and Gosse (1984).
So how do you avoid the typical psychological costs to your child of a mismanaged divorce, e.g., nightmares, poor school performance, bedwetting, drug use, clinging behavior, tantrums and non-stop tears?
Here are some suggestions:
- Acknowledge his feelings. Don't tell him he shouldn't be having the feelings he is having. Summarize what he tells you so that he knows you have heard him.
- Help him deal with any feelings of guilt ASAP. It is crucial to give your child the solid knowledge that the divorce is not his fault.
- Help him identify any loses he is experiencing. It is important not to catastrophize such loses (e.g., things will never be the same). Accurately help him understand the specific causes of his sadness (e.g., no longer having the holidays with mom and dad together).
- Instead of emphasizing loses, emphasize your new lives together (e.g., create new holiday traditions that are fun; have a blast decorating his new room in dad's home).
- Do not try to douse your child with gifts or special privileges to reduce your own guilt or to buy your child's affection. Many children have told me something similar to the following "Dad lets me have whatever I want now because he feels so guilty." "Mom is afraid to set any limits with me since she wants to be my `best friend'." She feels wicked guilty about the divorce." Kids know when your actions stem from attempts to reduce your own guilt or to win them over to "your side". What are they implicitly learning from your actions? They prefer you to treat them normally.
- Don't turn your child into your confidante. It's tempting to let your 8-year be your sounding board for your hurts and gripes against your ex. But many kids have told me, "I just wish my mom wouldn't tell me all her problems. I want to be her kid. I want to tell her about my problems."
- Kids know when they are being used as the middleman in the underground war between you and your spouse. Don't make your child deliver notes or the child support payments. Your child is not your secret weapon of revenge.
- Avoid fights in front of your child. Such fights leave your child feeling powerless in an irrational adult world.
- Avoid bickering over small stuff (e.g., "You were a half-hour late in picking up Marie so I'm not letting her go with you!"). Cooperation by you over small stuff usually breeds cooperation from your ex. Revenge breeds never-ending cycles of revenge, counter-revenge, counter-counter- revenge…and so on for years.
- Be honest with yourself as to your role in the dissolution of the conflict. Don't inflate it and assume more responsibility for the problems than you own. Kids suffer when you are chronically depressed and guilt-ridden. Similarly, don't whitewash yourself and blame your soon-to-be-ex for all the problems. Deep down you will know that you are lying to yourself. Unless it is actually the case, don't rush to portray yourself as the helpless victim. If you play this role too well, you may have it for life. You may habitualize the policy of "Oh poor me. Look at what my ex did to me. He stepped on me; people always step on me. What's the use of trying." This is hardly an admirable trait to carry through life. It's often said that the best "revenge" is to get on with your life. Pick up the pieces and after a period of understanding what happened, accelerate yourself forward into discovering or re-discovering the pleasurable values that make your life vibrant – your child will benefit.
- Help your child deal with his anger. Although there are cases in which children long for their parents to divorce, most children feel that the divorce is unfair, not what they want. Let them talk about this with you or with a counselor. It is important that their assessment of the situation be recognized. If their assessment is off base, get them help ASAP.
- Most importantly, help your child rationally understand the divorce. The global distorted conclusions that children draw from the experience often do the most damage. For example:
- a child might overgeneralize (e.g., "Marriages are all doomed for failure – I will never marry.")
- he may conclude he's a failure (e.g., "I should have been able to bring mom and dad back together. I'm a failure .")
- he may wrongly think he is unlovable (e.g., "Dad left and never visits me. I'm obviously unlovable").
It's crucially important to help your child accurately evaluate the situation and help him maintain his hopes for his own future happiness.
If you are dissolving a marriage, don't do so blindly. The fallout is too painful. The choices you make will make a difference as the children in Dr. Bienenfeld's book illustrate. Eileen, age ten, drew a globe cut in half and wrote "Divorce is what makes the world fall apart."
Contrast this to the following: "My parents divorced when I was seven. I had a good childhood. I got along with both mom and her boyfriend and dad and my stepmom. Mom and dad both loved me and they got along as friends."
As a therapist, I have heard this said on occasion. I know such outcomes are possible, but only when both partners are rational, only when both partners recognize that the marriage is over but that they are parent-partners for life.
Some books to help you with parenting issues regarding divorce and other aspects of the divorce process are:
The Divorce Handbook: Your basic guide to divorce / James Friedman (1984), Random House. He offers an easy-to-read question and answer format.
The Divorce Book / Matthew McKay, Peter Rogers, Joan Blades and Richard Gosse (1984), New Harbinger Publications. This is a comprehensive book covering divorce to remarriage.
Helping Your Child Through Your Divorce / Florence Bienenfeld, Ph.D. It's not often that I read a book cover to cover and come away saying that I can recommend this without commenting that there are some parts I don't agree with. I really loved this book. She keeps the focus on your long range happiness.