When you get married, you buy a wedding planning book that tells you step by step, how to organize your wedding. When you get pregnant, you buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting, or another such guide to help you navigate those nine months. Then when your child is born, you refer to the rest of the What to Expect series through infancy and the toddler years. Then one day, the life you’ve planned is completely unrecognizable, and the issue of divorce appears, wreaking havoc in your home. The guidebooks for divorce are scant in comparison to the others, and finding your way through the emotional, financial, and sometimes physical turmoil can be a very difficult journey not just for you, but for your children as well.
Let’s be honest, no one goes into a marriage planning for a divorce. However, considering the divorce rate in America for first marriages is approximately 41%, all of us have been affected either directly, or peripherally with our family members or close friends. The emotional roller coaster can be overwhelming to you and your spouse, but if handled badly, can be devastating to children. It will never be “easy” for a child to go through a parent’s divorce, but there are tools you can use to ensure the best possible outcome given the circumstances for your kids.
First and foremost, seek a good marriage counselor before making any decisions. Define the issues, and figure out if there are solutions. Solutions require change, on both parts. Both parties have to be willing and committed to restoring the marriage in order for it to work. If the decision is made to proceed with the divorce, consider remaining in counseling to figure out how to best co-parent. For me, remaining in counseling for quite some time after the decision to divorce was made allowed me to see who I was designed to be, rather than who I had been allowed to be. It also gave me an outlet for my frustrations, so that I didn’t share them with my kids intentionally or unintentionally.
Children are not the reason parents divorce. They need to know that from the very beginning, and it needs to be reinforced over and over again. They need to know that no matter what happens, they are loved beyond measure, and will be safe and well cared for. It might be different aesthetically, but your love for them doesn’t change. They will wonder if they are to blame. Your most important job is to nip that idea right away, and continue to do so.
No matter what their age, your kids are not your friends in this situation. I can’t stress this enough. Children don’t need to know what he did, what she did, what she said, what he said, etc. And they will ask “why”. A million times. And the answer for me has always been, “Sometimes grown ups make hard decisions that don’t make sense to you. Sometimes they don’t make sense to us. The best we can do is just figure out the ‘what’ questions instead of the ‘why’.” (Which usually started an entire litany of “what” questions!)
Money issues are between parents and parents only. Don’t get your kids involved in money issues, child support issues, etc. Child support is designed to help provide for your children: mortgage, medical care, food, clothing, activities. Don’t get into the habit of saying “I can’t afford it because your dad doesn’t give me enough money.”, or conversely, “I can’t afford it because I give your mom so much money.” A simple “We can’t do that right now.” is enough.
Avoid speaking negatively about your ex-spouse in front of your children. You’re angry, you’re hurt, and you’re in some cases blindsided. However, this person that you’re so upset with is also your child’s parent, and your child loves them dearly. It’s very confusing for a kid to hear negative things about one parent from another. By doing so, you are setting yourself up for disaster. And when a child comes home and complains about the other parent, in your mind you’re saying “Yup, same issues I had.” But your job is to let your child figure out their own relationship with their parent by themselves, and support them in doing so. (Now, this being said, in instances of abuse, alcoholism and or drug use, or other safety concerns, different measures need to be taken.) My kids have heard over and over again, (and would have heard it were we still married) is “Your dad loves you the best way he knows how. It may not be the way you want him to love you, but you can either stay upset because he won’t change, or you can accept who he is and forge the best relationship you can. You have the same choices with me. Your parents are your parents, and have different personalities than you. Make the most of what you have with us.”
It’s not easy, it’s not ideal, and each family situation is different. But how you proceed on the journey is what is going to determine whether your kids will bear the weight of your decisions in a way that will deny them the opportunity to grow, or face the challenge successfully and develop good, healthy attitudes about family and relationships. The failure of my marriage does not dictate my children’s emotional well being. What does, is my ability to separate the conflict with their dad from the fact that he helped me create these three wonders.
Karen Cluxton lives in Hatfield, PA, and has three teenagers – Halle 16, Owen 14, and Grace 13. Between shuttling kids to soccer, baseball and physical therapy, she trains in Mixed Martial Arts.