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.
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.