Divorcing, with Children

Divorcing, with Children

Divorcing with Children:  How to break up like a grown up even though you feel five years old.

“Ah,” said our friend, “I remember when a break-up was a break-up. You hated each other, and all of your friends were on your side. That was loyalty. Now, you break up, and you’re still stuck with each other, and you’re not allowed to say anything bad because that’s the other parent. Just when you have something worth a real bad-mouth break-up, you can’t.”

It’s true. Having children together gives us more to hang in there for, and more to feel angry and disappointed about if it ends. And yet, no matter how bad we feel, trashing the other parent is just the wrong thing to do. Expert after expert repeats what common sense should teach us: working together respectfully after a breakup is absolutely essential when children are involved.

And yet, it is so very difficult. Parents living together can support one another in so many ways. Each parent can help teach children to respect and value the other. They can “tag team” when one notices fatigue creeping in or a temper about to flare. They can talk over decisions, share accomplishments and worries, and coach one another in the skills that both need. When a break-up damages the trust between partners, all of that may go out the window. Each one is now flying solo with no cheering section, coaching, or tag team support. That’s enough to make anyone feel let down, angry, and not very mature.

No one warned us that divorce can temporarily turn normal, well-functioning and mature people into hurting, frightened insecure children in grown-up bodies. Or that when we feel five years old, we will still have to be parents to even smaller people. To top it off, our real children also behave younger than they are because they, too, are hurting and frightened worried. They desperately need us to be the grown-ups that we look like, not the children that we feel like.

So, how does one hold it together to work with an ex-spouse for the children?

First, get support from other grown-ups. Spend time with people whose good sense and maturity you admire. Resist the urge to confide your troubles in your children, even if they seem mature. They may try to be a mature friend because they imagine that you need it. But a child should never not be a confidant to a parent’s troubles.

Second, think carefully and seek good advice about what to tell the children for their own sake. It’s an easy decision (or, it should be) to keep the details of your spouse’s affairs from your children. It’s also an easy decision to protect, whenever we can, the child’s view that their parent is a good person. But what of a spouse’s tendency to drink and then drive with children in the car? What of a parent who doesn’t show up for visits, or behaves in disturbing ways?  Get a consult.

When living together, we can use tag team parenting, monitoring and coaching to soften the effects of a spouse’s bad behaviors poor choices on the children. But when the break-up occurs, those very behaviors can escalate until we are genuinely worried about leaving children with the other parent. What should we tell children, and when should we limit or forbid contact when safety issues arise? These are situations without a fool-proof, one-size-fits-all solution. A professional counselor with experience and training in working with separating parents is needed. Ideally, both parents will see the a counselor and work out plans that everyone can live with. But even if only one parent is willing to see the counselor, the professional advice and support is may well be worth the time and expense involved.

Third, remember that time is on your side. The pain and confusion will subside. When it does, you will want to look back with pride, not shame on your words and behavior. Keeping the long-term picture in mind may help you to keep short-term impulses in check.

Fourth,  your lawyer’s job is not to “get as much as possible” for you; it to help you stay clear-headed, to avoid unnecessary conflict, and to move as efficiently through the necessary conflict as possible. If you have a lawyer who seems to be ratcheting up the conflict and increasing the negative emotions between you and your former spouse, start with a firm and clear conversation about values and goals.  Bring along somebody you trust.  If your lawyer’s values do not match your own, get another lawyer.  If your lawyer wants to interview and pressure your children, get another lawyer.

Finally, divorce with children involved is one of the hardest experiences that life can dish up, and no one should have to just tough it out on their own.  Seek a counselor, not just for your children but for yourself first, so that you can be the parent they need.  If your ex-partner will come along, so much the better. Find a one who has training and experience in this area, who is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC), Social Worker (RSW), or Psychologist (R.Psych.), and who you trust to be fair, clear-headed and honest. Look for a counselor who will take the side of support the grown-up within you, and who will help you find the strategies that work for yourself and your children.

Dr. Serena Patterson
Written by Dr. Serena Patterson