Even when it’s the best option, it’s still a bad option. And this is doubly so when there are kids involved. (Actually, that’s probably an understatement. A divorce with no children is painful; a divorce with children is cataclysmic.)
Again, that’s not to say that it’s a bad thing to do. Sometimes it’s the only viable option. So by no means should you feel guilty about getting a divorce if that’s what was needed for your own well-being and that of your children. In fact, research shows that children growing up in households where there is tension and fighting (especially physical violence) fare far worse than children of divorced parents – assuming, of course, that divorce reduces stress in the home and doesn’t increase it.
To that end, let’s talk a little bit about some important rules for couples with children who have decided to split. (These are just as relevant to couples who were not formally married as to couples who were.) Abiding by these rules will mean that your children get through what will inevitably be a difficult time in the healthiest and most comfortable way possible. (I am assuming here that the best interests of your children are your priority. If you are more interested in punishing your ex-spouse than you are in taking care of your children, then these rules probably won’t help you very much.)
1. Never badmouth your ex.
This is the foremost rule of helping your kids get through a divorce. Do not badmouth their other parent. Children have a natural need to love and respect both of their parents. When you put down their other parent, it puts them in a real bind. They feel love and connection to the other parent (this is often true in some small way even when the relationship is really distant or strained); at the same time, they are hearing nasty things about this person from another person whom they love. This leads to a significant experience of inner conflict.
In addition, they begin to feel that to be loyal to you, they must agree with the picture you are painting; but then this means being disloyal to their other parent. It’s a real tough spot to be in. Please don’t put your kids in it.
I must emphasize that this rule applies even when your ex really deserves it. If your ex-partner was a real sleazeball, belligerent, difficult, you name it – it is still in the children’s best interest for you not to point this out.
This does not mean you let an abusive person destroy your children. You should absolutely protect them from a parent who cannot or will not care for them appropriately. But you can do that without putting that person down to your kids. This is called taking the high road. You do not point out the (many) failings of your ex to your kids, even though s/he may deserve it, because it is best for them.
Letting it all hang out in the name of honesty may give you a feeling of relief and satisfaction, temporarily. But then you are putting your own good feelings above the well-being of your children. If that’s not who you aspire to be, then leave out the smack talk.
2. Be cordial or even friendly with your ex.
For much the same reasons as above, your kids will fare best when you and your ex are not at war. They have to be allowed to love both of you, warts and all, without feeling they are hurting one parent by loving and remaining connected to the other.
If you can be friends with your ex, that’s great. Share photos of the kids, plan life cycle events together, work together to raise the kids. It’s wonderful.
If you can’t be friends for any number of good reasons, that’s very understandable. You must do your utmost to remain cordial. A pleasant hello, please and thank you and all the rest – these are not impossible requests. As angry/hurt/disgusted as you may be, you can still put on a pretty face when your ex shows up. (I know you can do this, because you do it when your boss or someone else important shows up. You can be in the middle of a real snit with your kid, but if the phone rings and it’s someone important, your voice is pure honey when you pick it up. Right?)
Sure, it can be harder when it involves your ex. Push yourself. Open conflict is excruciating for the kids to witness. So is guerilla warfare – the under-your-breath comments, the subtle sabotage, the passive-aggressiveness. I get it – your ex is impossible. Honestly, I believe you. I’ve seen many couples where one or both parties was tanking the relationship.
But you still have to be civil with them, if you want the best outcome for your kids. Again, it’s taking the high road. It might be lonely up there – but what a view from the top!
Being cordial may mean that you only discuss with each other matters related to the children. If other topics inevitably lead to quarreling, then leave out the other topics. Certainly you should avoid getting into whatever issues led you to this situation in the first place. If you want to work out your issues with each other, go to a couples counselor or a mediator. Don’t let them leak out during your interactions about, with, or in front of the kids.
3. Don’t use your children as messengers.
Rule #2 is not a conditional one, as in, “be nice to your ex if you can’t avoid communicating with them.” It is not a good idea to avoid any interaction whatsoever, because that leaves the burden of passing information between the two parents on the children, and a burden it is.
If there is a practical issue at hand – scheduling, supplies, etc. – you will have to learn how to discuss these in a way that is functional (see rule #2) (and also rule #1 for good measure). It is not healthy for them to have to carry messages between the two of you. This underscores the lack of good will between you, which again is a significant stressor for the kids. It also puts pressure on them to get the message right – and what consequences will there be if they don’t? Or if they fail to sugarcoat things enough?
The divorce is not their responsibility to manage, it’s yours and your ex’s. You can certainly lighten the load by using a professional (such as a parenting coordinator), but be vigilant not to put your children in that role.
Even worse is to grill your kids about what’s going on at the other parent’s home. Now you’ve turned them into not only messengers but spies. Who your ex is dating or what new accoutrements they’re buying are none of your business, and it’s also generally not relevant to the well-being of your kids.
Again, it’s definitely important to make sure they are safe. You can ask questions about what they did, whether they enjoyed themselves, and whether they have any concerns, no different than if they went to a sleepover with a friend or a school trip. When your goal is truly to care for your children and not for personal reasons, you aren’t burdening them with extra guilt or responsibilities. And certainly if you hear that they are uncomfortable or scared around your ex or their new partner, you may need to act on their behalf.
4. Don’t share details with the kids.
Again folks, I urge you to take the high road. If Dad was an alcoholic or Mom was unfaithful, it is not the kids’ business. Whatever the reason for the end of the marriage, the children do not need to and should not be hearing it. It is harmful for them to be exposed to such details. (It’s important for me to emphasize again that you must protect your children if your ex or their new partner is unsafe for them to be around; sharing historical information, however, rarely falls into the category of protecting them.)
Likewise, details about the friction that may continue to exist should be kept from them. That doesn’t mean you have to put on a happy face for them at all times. It does mean you don’t vent to them about how Dad didn’t send money on time for the third month in a row.
On the other hand, you don’t have to cover for your ex either. If they consistently show up late, you don’t need to make excuses for them; but you shouldn’t throw them under the bus either. Why are they late? “I don’t know” is a great answer, and probably generally true. Let the kids draw their own conclusions, and evolve their own relationships, with their other parent.
Even if the other parents puts on a front and always has gifts and candy for them (the “Disneyland Dad” syndrome) – if they aren’t genuine about taking care of and relating to the kids, the kids will grow wise over time. They don’t need you to fill them in on all the details to decide whether they like and respect their other parent or not.
5. Check in with your kids.
Even if you think they are doing totally fine with the divorce, they almost certainly aren’t. Hopefully they are managing, surviving, getting by, but it’s unlikely they are experiencing no negative effects. (The major exceptions to this are when your ex was abusive to you or to them, or when there was such a high level of conflict in the house prior to the divorce that everyone is better off after it.)
Ask them how they’re doing on a regular basis. And don’t be that general about it (because you and I both know the answer to that question is “fine.”) Go ahead and press right on that button. “Have you been thinking about the divorce?” “Do you miss Mommy?” “Do you ever wish we would get back together?” Then just listen to their answers without judgment. Validate their experience. This sounds like, “I can totally understand how you would feel that way.” Do not then cap that off with a “but”. “I can totally understand how you would feel that way, but Daddy and I aren’t getting back together.” That is far less helpful than a simple bucket where they can dump their feelings. Be the bucket.
One question that can be really meaningful to ask is, “Do you ever worry that it’s your fault we got divorced?” It is common and normal for kids to believe this. Kids are inherently egocentric and often believe that whatever happens in their lives is related to or even caused by them.
It is super helpful for you to name it – and here’s one issue that you are allowed to refute. Let them know that in no way did they cause the divorce. Again, don’t get into the details, but offer general explanations like “Mommy and I felt we couldn’t get along anymore so we decided to divorce. You had nothing to do with it. We both love you and will always love you.”
Divorce is difficult for everyone involved, the children arguably most of all. This is often surprisingly true regardless of age or circumstances – meaning, even adults find it painful when their parents divorce; so do children who may have alternate living arrangements apart from their parents. It’s a seismic event in a person’s life.
With young children especially, abiding by the code of conduct described here will help them through their experience immensely. If you find you are not able to take the high road and not able to leave your kids out of the conflict, seeking individual counseling might be a good idea to help you manage the situation. If you and your ex want to work together for the best outcome, co-parenting counseling might be helpful as well.
Whatever the case, if your children are your priority, don’t let your own struggles turn into theirs. If you need support through a difficult time in your life, don’t hesitate to reach out to us today.