We are born into a healthy, loving, committed marriage, or a chaotic, unstable, and dysfunctional relationship... or more likely, somewhere in between these extremes. The point is, we don’t get to choose.
Our family of origin experiences have an enormous impact on the trajectory of our lives.
Fathers teach sons how to love a woman and how to lead a family... or they don’t. Fathers teach daughters what they deserve from a man — love, respect, and partnership… or they don’t.
Mothers teach sons to recognize and honor the love of a woman; the importance of her voice of reason and her comfort... or they don’t. Mothers teach daughters how to love, respect and encourage a good and honorable man... or they don’t.
We take what we learn from these experiences into our future as we test the waters of our adult relationships. If we are able to recognize and admit that we are falling short, we often struggle to understand the role of those early influences.
The challenge is to recognize those early influences and to comprehend the impact they have had on our current choices; to be able to identify and choose a different course of action than might have been modeled by those whose behaviors initially influenced us.
The guidance of a caring mental health counselor can provide the safety and opportunity to explore the impact of the family we grew up with on our thoughts, values, and beliefs about ourselves as individuals and as partners.
Everyone is grieving when a family loses a loved one. However, not everyone is grieving in the same way. Once each person moves beyond the initial stage of shock in response to the death, there can be significant differences in each individual’s experience of the loss. These unanticipated differences often present an added layer of confusion and despair for the individual mourners, and can result in discord within the family unit as a whole.
When we anticipate a loss, we often assume that our closest family members will be the ones to support us through our grief. However, each family member’s experience will be unique to them; influenced by a wide range of features specific to the individual’s age and stage of life at the time of their loss and to their relationship to the deceased.
Other factors influencing our experience include:
the stability and intensity of our relationship with the deceased at the time of their death
the age of the deceased at the time of their death
whether the death was sudden or anticipated
whether the death occurred as a result of natural causes or from an accident or tragedy
The task for family members is to recognize these factors and not assume that their spouse, parent, sibling, or child is feeling as they are at any given moment in time. Support offered by others outside the family, or in a griefsupport group can provide the understanding we need to process our grief on our own terms.
I often hear these exact words from couples who have come to me for marriage counseling. Both parties contemplating divorce after months or years of marital strife, and the only reason they can give me to stay together is “…for the sake of the kids…”
Let’s really consider the kids…
Are they witnessing your marital hostilities and conflicts on a daily basis?
Are they suffering academically or socially due to the dysfunction at home?
Are they acting out or taking on the role of ‘problem child’ to distract you from fighting with each other?
Are either of you attempting to get your child(ren) to alignwith your view of the marital problems?
It is a myth that children always suffer from divorce. Many adolescents report relief when the daily conflict ends. Of course, the manner in which you navigate the divorce is fundamental to your children’s experience. However, with time, kids are able to gain perspective and often report that two happier homes is better than one fueled by emotional volatility, anger, and constant tests of their loyalty.
It is not my intention to minimize the impact of divorce on your children. Rather, I ask you to consider the example you are setting for what marriage looks like when they witness clear disdain and lack of respect between the two people they love most.
If your marital conflicts are truly irreconcilable, perhaps the maturity to prioritize your children’s needs and love them through your divorce is an option to be considered.
The decision to end your marriage — whether a long time coming or the result of an irreconcilable event — brings with it a range of emotions, frustrations, and logistics that few can fully anticipate. The emotional support provided by a caring counselor can make the difference between merely “surviving” and navigating through your divorce with the ability to heal and move forward into your new future.
First, counseling offers you the opportunity to tell your story again and again to a listener who is not involved. The need to tell your story is important to understand. Each time you tell your story, you create the opportunity for a different aspect of your experience to resonate for yourself. As you process with words the range of images, memories, and emotions you have endured, different features of these visceral experiences will become a bit more tolerable. Hearing your own words about what happened ‘hit the air’ can take some of the punch out of them.
One aspect of initiating a divorce that is often stressful is what and how to tell family and friends about what happened. Discussing it first with a counselor can provide insight into how best to inform those around you—who likely have their own opinions about your marriage and your decision to divorce!
Counseling also provides an outlet for expressing your darkest feelings. As a counselor, I often refer to our emotional worlds as consisting of our good feelings and thoughts, our bad feelings and thoughts, and our really ugly feelings and thoughts! We rarely reveal our ugly parts for fear that we will frighten those around us. Sometimes, they are even too scary for us to really acknowledge and express out loud. Sitting with a counselor provides the opportunity to speak your ugliest, darkest fears, express your intense rage, and your deepest despair. Unlike confiding in your family or close friends, you don’t need to worry that you are overwhelming your counselor. It is—quite simply—an emotionally safe place.
Counseling allows you to “sit” with your feelings for as long as you need. The divorce process is often times a slow one—both emotionally and legally. Family and friends may grow impatient with you because it is very difficult to see someone they care about suffering. Many around you will try to “cheer you up,” distract you, or—in very subtle ways—convey that your emotions are too intense for them.
The animosity and hostility that are often features of a divorce proceeding are unfortunately, often fueled by the attorneys involved and by the requirements of the court system itself. It can be very confusing, especially when you may have silently vowed to conduct yourself with integrity and humility, only to be encouraged to “get all you can get” by an overzealous attorney. Attending counseling during this time can provide accountability for staying true to yourself through this arduous process.
Divorce is essentially a grief journey. You are grieving the life you had and the future you had imagined. With grief comes the need for adapting to the changes ahead and allowing yourself to thoroughly feel all those emotions of loss. Managing on one income, moving into a different home, and—most significantly—enduring drastic changes in your time spent with your children are just a few examples of required restructuring of your life that can often seem impossible. Counseling can provide a space and the time to sort through it all outside of your own head.
After the grief… comes the learning. Following the emotional upheaval and recovery, comes the opportunity to consider your own mistakes, misunderstandings, and behaviors that contributed to the breakdown of your marriage. Recognizing and “owning” your part in it allows you to understand how you will do it differently moving forward into a future relationship. This awareness, insight, and heightened understanding of what you need from a partner is vital to making healthy choices for yourself in the future.
As you emerge from your divorce experience and begin to rebuild your life, the continuing support provided by counseling can offer opportunities to try out new ideas and consider new possibilities. This ongoing process allows you to acquire a new perspective unencumbered by the vested interest of family and friends.
It is possible to not only survive your divorce, but to come out the other side with a stronger sense of who you are, what you need, and a wisdom born of enduring one of life’s most difficult challenges. The emotional support and unconditional counsel of a caring professional can assist you every step of the way.
Receiving disappointing or unexpected news about our own lives happens all the time: we didn’t get the promotion, we didn’t pass the exam, the rent is going up, our company is downsizing, our best friend is moving away…
Intellectually, we understand that our lives will be filled with inevitable ups and downs; seasons of prosperity and seasons of ‘tightening the belt.’ Yet when it happens—we often feel like we had been waiting all along for the other shoe to drop. We become bogged down with fear, worry, and sleepless nights as we catastrophize through all of our worst case scenarios.
These types of unexpected pushes toward change that we hadn’t planned on call for us to figure out—very quickly—how to cope with our new circumstances. First we cry, get angry, or deny what is happening. Once the initial shock has passed, we are forced to consider our options for moving forward and accommodating this challenging news. Overwhelmed and fearful, it can be difficult to gain an objective perspective of our own predicament, or even know where to begin.
The assistance of a caring counselor can ease the shock, offer perspective, and illuminate options for ‘next steps.’ A friend once told me that finally going to see a counselor was the best “gift” she had ever given herself. In the face of unforeseen change in our lives, a few visits with a supportive counselor can make all the difference in how you navigate new plans for your future.
Let’s imagine that you have healed from divorce, spent considerable time adjusting to life as a single co-parent with your ex, and have finally begun to consider your own future with someone new. As you begin dating again, you realize that most of the people you meet are also parents themselves.
Now let’s imagine that after a considerable amount of time dating, and discussing all that you each want to do differently the second time around, you conclude that you have found “the one,” and you begin to seriously consider a long-term future together.
You’ve likely introduced the children, had some fun experiences, and shared a few memorable beginnings together as a new “family.” Seems like it’s all going to work out, right?
Well, this is where it gets messy, because those exciting feelings of new love often cloud each parent’s ability to recognize the very real challenges their future will hold for their children.
As a family counselor working with blended families, I often witness parents respond with shock when they begin to address the challenges of loving someone else’s child(ren), managing the logistics of multiple custody and visitation schedules, and facing the harsh reality that their kids haven’t all “fallen in love” too!
This situation requires adults who are patient, realistic, and able to selflessly prioritize the needs and feelings of each of their children--together. The consideration and effort exerted on behalf of the kids will assure each of them of their value in their new blended family.
Those of us who came of age watching “The Brady Bunch” had no idea that this example of a blended family was all a ruse. The struggles, animosities, emotional scars, and inconsistencies of a life together — from two different worlds — are impossible to anticipate alongside our “idealized” version reflected in my title.
But, the struggle is real — even when the children in the family are adults themselves. My counseling practice is filled with remarried couples who admit they hadn’t realized how difficult it would be. Adult children often have strong opinions about their parent’s choice in a new partner, and are usually not afraid to voice it. Reports of adult children who disengage from their parent when they remarry, questions about how the parents balance their time, and the impact on relationships with grandchildren are just a few of the unforeseen challenges.
By the time they arrive in my office the dysfunctional dynamics are overwhelming. Working backwards to educate them on adjusting expectations, setting healthy boundaries, and letting go of that idealized version of how they imagined it all, are just a few of the tasks we take on.
However, if I had been able to offer advice PRIOR TO their union, it would be this:
Do not ignore or disregard the certainty of these inevitable challenges.
Talk A LOT about your kids; the good, the bad, and the ugly!! Commit as a team to support one another, and to respect the emotional limitations of others in your new family.
As I have watched the Hurricane Harvey coverage this week, I am inspired by the countless acts of selflessness by those reaching out to help. I got to thinking…
Our lives are so busy. Our days are defined by tasks: do this, do that, go there, call, email, meet, schedule, follow-up, finish, make time…. The list is endless and overwhelming. However, if you’re like me, there is GREAT satisfaction in crossing items off that list! We get so caught up in getting things done that we can slip into a mindset of allowing our accomplishments to define who we are. How often have you fallen into bed feeling quiet satisfaction as you review tasks you completed that day? Or, you find yourself lying awake disappointed, and berating yourself for the ones that will now roll into tomorrow…
We need to take a closer look at how we define our value. How about we consider who we are inside; what it is that we offer others that exemplify our character, our integrity. Ask yourself:
Whose life did I touch today?
Whose problem did I listen to?
How did I help?
Did I attend to another’s needs?
Did I give without expectation?
Was I kind?
Was I patient?
Did I smile at a stranger?
Please don’t misunderstand; tasks do need to get done. However, defining ourselves by who we are, rather than by what we do, can empower us to be the best version of ourselves — regardless of the task at hand.
Most people make the assumption that grief and loss are only experienced with the death of a loved one. However, loss comes in many other life experiences and grief is often the resulting emotional reaction. The experience of job loss is no exception, and can include primary as well as, secondary losses. Primary losses include the loss of income and benefits. However it is the secondary losses that can cause a large part of our anxiety and impact our ability to cope. These secondary losses can include: loss of status, loss of respect, loss of confidence, loss of hope, loss of belief in the future, and loss of trust of others.
As a result of these real and perceived losses, the individual who has lost his/her job is most certainly experiencing the emotions of grief; which can result in feelings of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. The important thing to remember is that these are normal reactions to grief and require much the same care as those grief reactions that occur after the death of a loved one.
Among some of the basic truths about grieving are that it is highly individualized and is a normal, acceptable, and healthy reaction to loss. The grieving process has no time limit, and often takes longer than is usually recognized. Physiological symptoms such as headaches, back pain, and stomach upset are real reactions to grief. Feelings of guilt are natural, and second-guessing past decisions and actions is to be expected. However, if acknowledged and processed appropriately, grief can also provide unexpected opportunity for growth.
Seeking out and maintaining a support system is the single most significant task of coping with loss of any kind. This includes the emotional support of loved ones who care about us, and can also encompass a formal support group. People in similar circumstances can provide emotional support as well as, networking opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable to the individual alone.
Being organized can be very helpful in managing the crisis of job loss. When so much feels out of control, the person’s ability to structure his/her time and job seeking efforts can provide a sense of order and of being in control of the situation.
Journaling can be a very useful tool in managing stress and anxiety. Very often, we express our feelings differently in writing than we do verbally. Sometimes we can put on paper things that we could never say aloud about our fears and anxieties.
Lastly, it is important to remember the power of prayer in our lives, especially when we face our greatest challenges. Individuals facing job loss are often plagued with doubt in God’s plan for their life. We must remember that while He does answer our prayers, it is seldom in the way we expect or at the time we would prefer!
An individual’s ability to successfully navigate the enormous challenge of job loss affords him/her the opportunity to look back and identify the learning and personal growth that the situation provided. The skills and the personal wherewithal that we use to resolve each difficulty we face offers us new tools to add to our toolbox for future challenges.
For reasons deeply considered and valid for the adults in a marriage, the decision to divorce has been made. As a result of your decision to divorce, life for your child has changed without their permission. It is imperative that you recognize this fact. Your child is experiencing multiple losses, and with loss, comes the need for grieving.
Your child has already endured marital conflict, confusion, insecurity, uncertainty, fear, anger and many other emotions as a result of their parent’s choices. They may have experienced actual physical loss through relocation out of the family home, changes in schools, activities, friends, and often changes in financial security as a result of the divorce.
Most importantly, they are apart from one of the two people they love most in the world on a regular basis. This loss of the ability to be with both parents at the same time is profound. Regardless of which parent the child is with, or what they are doing, there will always be sadness. At every exchange, one parent is happy and one is sad. There is never a time when they can make both parents happy. This circumstance evokes a strong sense of loss for your child. It needs to be “okay” to be missing their other parent when they are with you.
Parents need to listen to and acknowledge—without judgment—their child’s confusing and conflicting feelings. For small children, this may mean helping the child identify and name their feelings. While you may be feeling relief, or even happiness to have finally made the decision to end your marriage; you must rememberthat your child’s feelings of grief are normal.
There is a wide range of age level reactions that parents can expect from their child as a result of divorce. Small children may regress to an earlier developmental stage, while teens may strongly rebel, take sides, or behave as if they are indifferent to their parent’s divorce. In families with more than one child, parents need to recognize each child as an individual--with their own unique reaction to the divorce. Your teen may be relieved that the household conflict has ended, while your middle schooler is angry that his routine has changed, and your toddler is scared, confused, and acting out.
One aspect of a child’s experience of divorce that often goes unacknowledged by the adults in their lives is the duality of life experiences as a member of two different households. Yes, they may initially be excited about two birthdays or two sets of Christmas gifts. However, they will also experience two bedrooms, two sets of clothes, two sets of friends, two sets of extended families, two sets of household rules, and two sets of parental expectations.
Your child will learn that rules are arbitrary—not absolute truths. “Right” and “wrong” are often defined very differently in each home. The ability to agree on similar rules, chores, expectations, and consequences in both households after the divorce is highly improbable. The good news is that your child can discern these differences. Kids are astute, and if you take the time to explain things to them—they can understand it. For example: “When you are here you will follow Mommy’s rules—which are my choices. When you are at Daddy’s house you will follow Daddy’s rules—which are Daddy’s choices. In the future you’ll get to make your own choices for yourself.”
Feelings of guilt can hinder your ability to talk openly with your child. However, now is the time to talk with them, and continue talking. They can handle truth that is appropriate for their developmental age and stage. Your child will develop their own ideas about why your marriage failed. They have witnessed your conflict and dysfunction. Therefore, if you try to place all the blame on the other parent—you’re likely to get busted! Typically, the older the child, the greater their need for details. Be prepared for pointed questions. Be direct and clear about the changes your child can expect during and after the divorce.
Avoid the temptation to paint a rosier picture of events or circumstances than will likely occur. Many changes will be difficult and unpleasant for your child. Parents need to be honest about that fact, or risk a significant loss of trust with their child. Don’t guess at change. Don’t speculate. Wait for facts. Provide information as soon as you know it, so your child has time to adjust to the expected change. The most comforting thing that you can do for your child is to let them know what’s going to happen and exactly how it’s going to affect them. Lastly, don’t answer for the other parent.
At some point, almost all children think the divorce is their fault. They need repeated reassurances that your problems are adult problems. Your child will worry about you at times. They need permission not to worry about you. They need permission not to feel they have to take care of you. They need permission to be a child. It is your responsibility to mitigate the negative effects of your divorce on your child to the best of your ability. Reassure that you will both always love your child. After all, they will worry: “If Daddy can stop loving Mommy, then maybe he will stop loving me too?”
A child’s experience of their parent’s divorce is a defining moment in their life. Parents need to remember that, for their child, life has changed without their permission. They will certainly have lost some of their innocence. Divorce forces them to cope with very grown-up things earlier than any of us would choose for them. However, they can also learn important lessons through it all that will inform their own future and help them to keenly identify their own choices later on.
Finally, behave with integrity because your child is watching you. They will stand witness to your life and your choices, long after the divorce. They will draw conclusions about how you conducted yourself. Consider how you might like them to describe their experience of you someday? Ask yourself if you are behaving in a manner that you would like to hear them describe to others? Attending to and honoring your child’s experience of your divorce is the healthiest example of appropriate parenting that you can provide during this challenging transition in the life of your family.