If you are considering divorce, this means, of course, that your marriage isn’t working. And that raises all sorts of questions about you and your marriage that are emotionally difficult — you may be filled with self-doubt, shame, guilt, anger, or fear. This can make it very hard to be fair to yourself, your spouse, your marriage, your loved ones, and your future. Let’s think this through.
An assessment of your marriage — its history, current reality and future possibilities — is usually not a rational calculation of pros and cons. It emerges from feelings like “I feel trapped,” “I just can’t take it anymore,” “I feel like I am dying emotionally.” Or you feel it through your children — “this marriage is not good for them” — which means that it is not good for you.
Beyond feelings of disappointment and hurt, you may notice that you are shutting down emotionally, or that you have been emotionally shut down for a long time. These emotional realities need to be honoured. Try doing something based on your feelings before the emotional shutdown process locks in. Shutdowns are very hard to reverse.
First, try to determine whether change is possible within your marriage. Is there flexibility in the marriage patterns? Is there still enough emotional openness and caring to try to change? You have options. Most options involve doing something new. What are the obstacles? Fear is a big obstacle. Change usually happens when people decide to no longer act solely on basis of their fears. What are your fears? Try imagining acting without fear.
The possibility of conflict is another obstacle. Confronting the marital problem can result in hurt feelings, panic, and arguments. This is the “sound of change.” The key is to keep the change going, to stick with it. Be firm rather than “reactive.” Firmness will communicate that you are serious. “Reactivity” (responding to anger with anger, giving in, etc.) will keep you stuck.
Uncertainty can be a big obstacle. Change always involves leaving behind the certainty of the rut, the predictability of stalemate, the safety of the familiar. Be ready to face the uncertainty of not knowing whether your marriage will survive. Real change usually won’t happen until both partners experience the stark reality of being uncertain about whether the marriage will survive.
Being caught in a repetitive “script” is a serious obstacle. Marriages usually succumb to patterns and emotional issues that overwhelm them and reduce them to repetitive interactions that go nowhere. Try to identify these patterns and issues — your spouse’s and your own — and to confront them. They are usually rooted in your lives prior to marriage. Counseling can be very helpful in this regard.
Being “stuck” in complementary roles is another obstacle. Most marital problems involve people being stuck in roles in which personal growth has been curtailed and in which they function as only half of a full person: “I am the parent, he is the child;” “I am creative, she is boring;” “I do the bills, he spends money foolishly,” etc.
Try being more separate and complete — reclaim for yourself the “other half” which has been your spouse’s role. Separation is the best chance to become a full person; the “irresponsible spouse” has to become more responsible, the “soft spouse” will have to become “hard,” etc. Personal growth can begin again. “Separation” can involve going back to school, reviving friendships, or getting a new job. For some, separation may involve returning home to parents or trying out a “fantasy relationship.” Because these steps can highlight the difficulties that undermined the marriage in the first place, such separations provide an opportunity for the original problem to be worked through and for each partner to become more realistic about the marriage.
Not being able to express your loving feelings is an obstacle. Try taking the initiative in expressing love, but do it on your own terms. Notice how “being loving” has become defined in certain ways (”if you loved me, you would…”) and caught up in the repetitive patterns of “if only…” or “you first….” Try breaking out of these constraints and surprising your spouse with some unexpected loving. You can be unpredictably caring and delightfully confusing. You can suspend the demands you have been making as preconditions to loving. There is a chance that, once you suspend the demands, your spouse will “spontaneously” begin to do what you have been demanding. It’s worth a try.
In any case, before the emotional shutdown, you have the opportunity to “assess” your marriage — its limitations and its possibilities, if any. Who knows what might happen?
Extremities: The Pain and Promise of Divorce by Robert Stone November 4, 2006 As the divorce process unfolds, especially within the first several months, you will probably go through a series of emotional extremes. The divorce, as it tears apart the fabric of your marriage, will probably tear you up as well. You will be astounded by the intensity of raw pain that can sweep over you, sometimes quite unexpectedly.
This is a dangerous time psychologically, and it may not be clear how this emotional eruption could lead to extreme consequences. The person you thought you knew and loved is no longer there, “replaced” by some scary, spiteful stranger. Frightening scenarios, involving both yourself and the other person, become immediately present as possibilities; you will no longer know what to expect from your former spouse or even from yourself. Even if you struggle to hold onto some shred of love, or at least positive feeling, for your former spouse, you will be afflicted by thoughts and feelings that seem to flood into your mind from some primitive, nightmare side of reality.
In such moments, you may feel like you are losing your mind. You can go places emotionally where no one else can reach you. You may scream, cry, shake, or rage uncontrollably. You may feel exhausted one moment and then keyed up the next. Sleep is difficult. You do not know what to do with yourself.
Violated and violent, perhaps even filled with thoughts of hurting yourself or others, you may experience the urge to act on these extreme emotions, to enact the evils which now plague you, to overcome fear by becoming frightening, to overcome alienation by making your hell real for others, to inflict what you are suffering on the one “responsible” for it, to let others know how it feels to be in such pain, to give vent to the rage, to destroy the marriage that is “destroying” you. You want your day in court; want the indifferent world to know you have been wronged!
You may be appalled at yourself, and yet continue to hold onto this desperate “remedy,” as if it were a perverse life saver, as if this pain is all that holds you together and keeps you emotionally connected with the marriage you are losing. You know that you need to “get over it,” as friends would recommend if they knew what you were feeling and contemplating, and yet it seems that “getting over it” would leave you with nothing.
This extreme state may last for a brief moment, or several days, or longer. You may be able to suppress or contain it, for the most part. Some people may not even feel it. But most do. If you ever find yourself on this pathway toward extreme action, do not give in. Hold on. Give life a chance to make things better for you, even if you can’t see any hope and don’t have a clue about how to keep going. Take a long walk. Call someone who loves you. Seek professional assistance if necessary, but remember that the extreme pain will eventually pass, while the consequences of extreme actions may not. You are bereft now, but not forever. Seeds of new life will eventually spring up. You can look for these little hints of life, simple, small, seemingly inconsequential moments in which you catch a glimpse of something and feel yourself respond and know that you might survive.
In the throes of divorce, people experience the pain of disrupted emotional attachment. The roots of emotional attachment go very deep in our lives. Establishing and maintaining attachment is the most crucial thing at the earliest point in life; without it, we would have died as an infant. Even now, as adults, any threat to emotional attachment feels highly upsetting and dangerous. We can feel like we are dying emotionally, like there is no more life in our life.
We may try to fill the “blankness” with the “stimulation” of sex, or with endless hours of work, or with concern about the kids, or with a new relationship. But the blankness tends to remain. With time and reflection, however, there may be a shift of feeling and new emotional connections may become possible.
Surviving the breakup of a marriage or, for that matter, surviving the loss of any cherished individual, can leave us a little wiser about love. By getting a little distance from the pain, we come to know that:
relationships can and do end;
love has many unforeseen, but inevitable, twists and turns;
love is based as much on a decision to remain steadfast, in spite of the inevitable twists and turns, as it is on the fulfillment of fantasy or gratification of unmet needs
we can survive loss.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, by distancing ourselves from the intensity of extreme pain experienced during a breakup, we are able more fully to appreciate the gift of a meaningful, satisfying relationship and, with time, take steps to build such a relationship in the future.
Reduce the Stress of a Divorce by Jane Collingwood June 4, 2007 No matter how frustrated you may have become with your partner, the decision to divorce never is an easy one. Strong emotions often arise on both sides. But there are healthy ways to cope.
Making the Decision - The decision legally to end a relationship sets off a long and difficult process. Even without complicated legal and financial issues, the upheaval is often enormous, affecting children, grandparents, friends and the extended family. The chances are that some of the family members involved will experience a drop in their standard of living. All will face an emotional challenge. So before deciding to divorce, make sure you have done all you can to improve your relationship. Are you certain that there is no alternative, such as separation? Think about talking it over with a marriage and family therapist or getting other expert advice and help. A consultation with a lawyer can provide an idea of the likely legal and financial outcomes. Often lawyers will provide free initial consultations. Look in the Yellow Pages under “attorneys” for those who specifically handle divorces, as lawyers often specialize, or ask your psychologist for a referral.
Coping with the Stress of Divorce - Separation and divorce are two of the most painful life events there are. They can lead you to question everything in your life, including your own identity and your ability to cope by yourself. Divorce highlights your fears and sensitivities, so old wounds from the past might resurface. You will need to recover your self-esteem, which will take time. Below are some coping techniques to help you take care of yourself and others.
Consider joining a support group, and going through mediation. It can lead to better communication and fewer confrontations with your ex-partner.
Rather than withdrawing socially, surround yourself with friends. Remember how important they are in providing support, perspective and practical help.
Learn how to balance giving and receiving. You don’t have to be perfect.
Don’t beat yourself up over what you should have done. Stop the negative self-talk and guilt.
You can’t change the past, so try to learn the lessons the present offers, then focus on a positive future.
Set aside time just for yourself to help you find balance.
Don’t worry about what other people might think.
Declutter your environment. If something is too painful to look at or is useless to you now that you’re alone, throw it out.
Determine what most needs doing and in what order. Then break up the tasks into smaller steps that can be done in several shorter periods of time. That way larger tasks seem moremanageable and you are more likely to get them done.
If you have been a stay-at-home mom and out of the workforce for some time, you probably will need to go back to school for training in a marketable skill. Bringing home your own money is satisfying and creates independence. It also sets a positive example for your children.
Work toward forgiveness and moving on. Don’t deny your anger, but don’t let it drain your energy by getting stuck in resentment.
Don’t be scared of going out on your own and opening up to new people.
Divorce and Money Issues - In addition to the difficulties of ending a relationship, you also will have to deal with finances. This can be particularly tricky if there is an atmosphere of mistrust because of the break-up. Many divorces actually are caused my money issues. If your partner used to deal with all the financial matters, make it a priority to learn how to budget and manage your finances. Get advice on the financial decisions you need to make, especially if you are selling your house. Ask for help from your lawyer or an organization which supports those going through a divorce. Most couples agree on a financial settlement without going to court, but even so, a typical divorce settlement can take over a year to finalize. Deciding on child maintenance payments can be especially difficult. Make a list of all your assets and debts, close joint accounts as soon as possible, and get advice on how your pension, savings and investments will be affected.
Getting Support While Going Through Divorce by Robert Stone November 4, 2006 The feeling of being alone and isolated can be devastating. Support from friends and family is crucial. If you are in need of support, here are some suggestions:
Acknowledge your need for support. Put aside the idea that “needing support” is shameful or that you “have to be strong” all the time.
Take the initiative. Don’t just wait for the phone to ring. Let people know that you want their support and be specific about your needs. Set up regular phone calls or times to get together. If people offer to help, be ready to say “yes” and to make specific plans rather than just leaving things vague.
Open yourself to the support people offer you — as much as you can. When people have been hurt emotionally, it often takes a while before they can open up again to any kind of emotional input, including support. There is the threat that it will reopen the wound. You will need to respect your own timing in this regard. It is not something that you can control. But right from the beginning, you can “allow” as much support as possible even if it is painful.
Try to not be afraid of reopening the wound. Actually, it can be helpful. When people have been hit with something that is emotionally overwhelming, they can’t deal with it all at once. It is too painful. However, if you let yourself feel your feelings, you will learn that reopening the wound is not going to bring back all the pain at once, even though that is the way it may feel at the start. You will learn that the pain comes back in smaller chunks, and, as you can survive these “little bits,” you will end up feeling emotionally stronger and less afraid. Overwhelming emotional pain gets dealt with in “little chunks” experienced over and over again.
Be appreciative but careful. People will extend support in ways that don’t match where you are emotionally. They may support only one set of feelings when you actually have mixed feelings: both anger and hurt, both hate and love. They may advise you to do one thing — “never talk to him again” — when you are still unsure and need to allow your emotional process to swing back and forth. They may want to “protect you” by getting into the middle of things. They may confuse your situation with their own history of hurt, their own set of unresolved issues.
Find one friend with whom you can talk on a daily basis, or a counselor who can keep your emotional process, however painful, on track. It is such a blessing to have someone who can hear your pain without trying to take over or back away, who can give you a push when your emotional process gets stuck, or who can confront you when you are acting in an unbalanced way.
Divorce and the Unexpected Reversal by Robert Stone November 4, 2006 You have just begun putting a new life together, having somehow gotten through the most painful experience of your life. The extreme feelings of hurt and anger and fear are subsiding. The emotional roller coaster has become tolerable. A day or two can now go by without thinking about him. You have begun to lose track of what is going on with her. Maybe you have begun to feel a commitment to the person that helped you get through the tough time, and then… The unexpected reversal.
“She kicked me out and now she wants me back.” “He left me to be with her and now he wants to come home.” “She says she is sorry.” “He realizes that he made a mistake and that he still loves me.” “I never expected this.”
This is one of the most predictable “surprises” in the unfolding process of divorce. The emotional impact of these revelations can be quite powerful. Rather than the “raw emotions” of the separation, these feelings can be painfully poignant and confused. “How should I respond?” “I can’t just toss aside my new life — or could I?” “Maybe I still love him?”
Whatever the answer to these questions, you will probably feel that something has shifted. And you are probably right. The emotional framework of the divorce may be evolving. Roles are changing. Feelings, initially polarized by the divorce (yes or no) are becoming “mixed feelings” (yes and no). The divorce decision is no longer so one-sided. Communication may become possible once more. A certain kind of caring may emerge. Mutual support — helping each other with the trials and tribulations of the “new lives” you are attempting to launch — may replace anger and bitterness. This may lead to the reestablishment of some sort of relationship, a kind of friendship. Or it might make possible a more gentle parting as you increasingly go your separate ways into new relationships and new lives. Overall, this can be an opportunity for healing and growth. Both you and your ex-spouse may become more balanced within yourselves. A reduction in tensions would also benefit your children. And a renewed commitment to your “new life” might make a difference for those you choose to share it with you.
Single and Dating. . . Again! by Robert Stone December 12, 2006 In the immortal words of Neil Sedaka, “breaking up is hard to do.” But it isn’t the hardest thing to do. Finding yourself newly single after an extended romantic relationship and facing that awful question of what to do on Saturday night is much harder. How do you get over your old relationship while, at the same time, opening yourself to new possibilities? How can you cope with feelings of insecurity and uncertainty as you once more step cautiously into the dating scene? Who will you meet, and where will your next relationship take you?
First Things First: Working Through the Loss - The feelings of loss that accompany the ending of a dating relationship are common and need not be feared. It’s your mind’ s way of letting you know how close that person was to you and reminding you that life is challenging and often unpredictable. Losing a significant relationship in your life is not much different from losing a person to death.
There are five stages of grief that many people go through as they learn to accept the loss. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has categorized and described these stages through decades of research. The stages include denial, anger or resentment, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Many people will recognize these stages in themselves, and in other situations that involve a loss. It is generally considered healthy for a person to go through these stages to arrive at a place, emotionally, where they can begin to carry on with life.
It is, in some ways, more difficult to recover from the loss of a close relationship when that person is not only alive, but dating others. The intensity of the loss can be multiplied when our imaginations are allowed to run wild with thoughts of the other person in a new relationship while we feel stuck in a stage of doubt and self-pity.
The loss of a relationship must be fully appreciated and the mix of feelings that loss evokes must be experienced before you can move on. Until you are able to let go of a relationship that has ended, it will be difficult to open up your life to another individual. Allow yourself the time and emotional energy it takes to work through your feelings of loss before moving on.
Making Better Choices in the Future - We can learn a lot from old relationships if we only take the time to sit down and try to figure out what went wrong. Too often, people are in such a hurry to put the old relationship behind them that they spend no time in trying to examine what was good and what was lacking in that relationship. Examining and learning from a relationship is not the same as analyzing it to the point of obsession; spending some quiet, reflective time, writing in a journal, talking with a friend, or talking with a professional can help you put a relationship that has ended into perspective and assist you in moving on.
One way this learning process immediately benefits you is that it can help improve your self-esteem and outlook. Try to be honest about what happened in your last relationship: it’s rarely the case that one partner can be faulted for a relationship that didn’t succeed. Each person brought something to the table, but it didn’t work out as you had hoped it would. Sometimes it’s a matter of two people simply not being as compatible as they thought they were (a fact often discovered only after marriage or moving in together). Sometimes it’s a matter of not knowing the other person well enough, or the relationship being one- sided in terms of emotional or daily support.
By determining what was right with the relationship, as well as what was wrong with it, you can be in the position of making better judgments about future involvements. Remember, nothing in life is simply black or white. Relationships, as much as anything else in this world, are composed of fine and varying degrees of gray. Learn to discern those grays and you’ll be well on your way to having healthier, happier relationships in the future.
“Breaking In” a New Relationship - One difficult aspect of leaving a familiar relationship is the tendency to compare every new dating partner to your old flame. It may help to know that, at first, nobody will be able to match up to your lost love. You’ll miss the comfort of being with someone who knew you so well that, on some occasions, words just weren’t necessary. Being with someone new can feel strange and unfamiliar, and will likely require you to “teach” this person about the way you think and feel (and vice versa).
Slowly, this period of awkwardness passes, and you come to realize that the other person has many attributes that you find endearing. The other person is also learning about you, and coming to know your strengths and weaknesses as a potential partner. The more compatible the match, the more likely it is that you both will value those attributes you each bring into the relationship. Two people who share common values and at least some common interests usually will get along easily and well over time. The hardest part is sticking it out long enough to move past the obstacles that inevitably arise in the “getting to know you” process. Remember that it will take time to build the kind of familiarity and comfort you came to experience in your previous relationship, but it can happen once again and may well be worth the effort.
The Next Relationship: Rebounds and Replays by Robert Stone November 4, 2006 People often get into a new relationship during the painful ending of their marriage or soon after their divorce. How wonderful it feels to be desired and appreciated, to no longer feel rejected. What a welcome relief from empty weekends and lonely nights, from feeling so restless and so single. A spark of life replaces despair and self-doubt. There is even the return of romance and sex.
The future now has some glimmer of possibility rather than the grim blankness of nothing-to-look-forward-to. Your new partner seems just the opposite of your old partner: attentive, kind, interested. You are having more fun than you have had in years. You are re-experiencing a bit of adolescent energy that you may have thought would never be rekindled. It makes you smile and you feel your spirit rebounding from the pain of your marriage and divorce. Could it be that your ex and all that went wrong is being Xed out?
If only this new relationship could keep going as smoothly and happily as it began. Some new relationships do, but it frequently happens that problems begin to crop up in the new relationship and that they are typical enough to be somewhat predictable. What could go wrong?
It is common for there to be a crisis as the enthusiasm of the new relationship leads to emotional attachment and the relationship moves toward the possibility of commitment. All of a sudden, anxiety arises, and the “wonderful relationship” hits the skids. What is the source of this anxiety? One possibility is that you have detected a new wrinkle in the relationship. There are moments when it seems as if you don’t even know your new partner. Traits emerge that had never been seen before. And then, suddenly, there is the awareness that what you are seeing and experiencing is all too familiar. Haven’t I been here before? What is going on? Why do I feel like I am back in some version of my old relationship, re-experiencing the nightmare with the “ex” and feeling abandoned or pressured or disrespected or abused, just like I used to feel?
In this case, the new relationship is no longer masking old problems. It may be that the emotional impact of the divorce is resurfacing in the midst of this new relationship. Perhaps new emotional attachments and commitments are anxiety-provoking because we are still scared; after all, it didn’t work out well last time. And then our fears are really set off when “similarities” begin to occur. When our new partner, who initially was the opposite of our old partner, disappoints us or begins to get demanding or starts to pull back, it is as if our old partner has returned and we have fallen back into all our old issues.
Often this awareness is enough to jinx the new relationship. Many new relationships and many second marriages do not make it for this reason. Some people will continue to cycle through unsuccessful relationships, but typically, at some point, most people back off from “serious” involvements while they continue to heal emotionally and try to get their lives together in other respects. For instance, divorce typically causes a financial crisis, and it usually takes several years before people feel they are able to stand on their own two feet with confidence. This accomplishment is usually accompanied by well- deserved pride and by a sense of enjoyment and empowerment deriving from the experience of being the decision-maker in one’s own life. New self-confidence, achieved in other areas of life, can form the basis for a new and healthier love relationship. Of course, old problems will threaten to resurface and new anxieties often come into play. Will diving into a new relationship wipe out my feeling of greater independence? Will moving back into a relationship threaten the hard-won accomplishment of having become the chief decision-maker in my own life? For some, there is a determination never to give up the independence that has been attained at such a cost and through such an effort. Can I once again be a partner without losing myself in the process? These questions can only be answered by venturing once again into the challenge of a new relationship. Hopefully, the lessons learned about the value of relationship and the value of independence will see you through and provide a firm foundation for a more emotionally and psychologically satisfying partnership.
Talking to Your Children About Divorce by Robert Stone November 4, 2006 One of the most painful and important events in the divorce process is telling the children about your plans to end the marriage. In this act, the marital problem moves beyond the marriage, affecting loved ones and tearing the fabric of the family. Telling the children marks an ending of the “old” family and the beginning of “new” family relationships. Here are some suggestions:
Don’t jump the gun - The “divorce announcement” is a bomb that should not be set off until the divorce decision is certain. Before the decision is finalized, you can say, “Your dad and I are having problems which we are working on.” If the children ask if you are getting a divorce, a truthful reply would be “I don’t know.” Or if the question is “why,” a general answer is, “We are having a hard time dealing with each other.” This keeps an appropriate boundary around the marital problem and keeps your children from getting in the middle of things.
Tell the children together - This will be the final activity of the family you and your children have known. It makes sense to gather together as you would for any solemn occasion. Consider keeping this an “announcement,” not a time for explanations or for blame. You can give “facts” about what will happen from this point on: “I will be moving next Saturday.” Some reassurance may be helpful: “We both love you” and “We will work together as best we can to help you through this.” Consider making “we- statements” or “factual statements,” not “I-statements,” which can be self-serving, or “he/she statements,” which can be blaming.
Say it briefly - Let your children feel their feelings. Go with whatever response they offer, even if it is a minimal or puzzling reaction. This marks the beginning of their “grieving” and we all grieve in different ways and in different time-frames. One of the challenges of divorce is dealing with the fact that the emotional processing of various family members can get out of sync. When you yourself are dealing with strong feelings, it is may be difficult to connect with a family member who is grieving differently.
Remember to adjourn the family meeting - Don’t let it go on and on hoping to make everything OK. Tolerate ending without emotional resolution - resolution will take a much longer time. Ending the family meeting mirrors the larger ending the family is experiencing, an ending that leaves much to be resolved.
Later in the day, each parent can “check in” with each child - You could consider this to be the beginning of the new parent-child relationship, your post-divorce relationship with your child. This may feel awkward at first. The established routines of family life may no longer quite “fit.” You may realize that you and your child will need to find your own way of talking to each other in a meaningful way. This will probably involve a new mix of listening and appreciating, being patient and assertive, giving space and reconnecting.
Focus on the one-to-one relationship with your child - The foundation of your post-divorce relationship with your child is going to be a one-to-one relationship. Instead of “your mother and me” or “you and your mother” or “you and your brother,” the primary relationship will be “you and me.”
You could begin to put this into practice by switching from the “we” statements of the family meeting to “I” and “you” statements as you check in with your child. Gradually, a new “we” will emerge from this “I” and “you.” You can begin to show that “one-to-one” means that:
We will take the initiative to keep the relationship going, as demonstrated by this “checking in” with one another;
We won’t use someone else to resolve our differences or facilitate our communication
We can be emotionally upset with each other and see it through successfully.
While this new one-to-one parent-child relationship may need a lot of time to find its way,
certain things can be established from the beginning by your example:
We will not draw other people into disagreements that occur between us.
We will still be parent and child, but with greater emotional intensity grounded in our new one-to-one relationship.
We will respect each other’s evolving situation in life.
We will avoid “loyalty” battles.
We will give each other a lot of latitude to work things out.
We will appreciate other relationships in each other’s lives.
We will take greater responsibility to share our lives with one another.
We will explore new ways of enjoying time and activities together, fostering new meaningful connections with one another.
Following up - Just as you have followed up on the family meeting by checking in with your child, you can to continue to check-in throughout the divorce process and the post-divorce adjustment period. “How are you doing?” Be consistently interested, but not insistently so. Most kids, especially adolescents, deal with divorce issues with their peers. Respect this approach and give it room to happen.
Longer-term follow up - Be prepared for divorce to be a longer-term, recurring concern in your child’s life. Children will explore unresolved issues by asking questions, and may return to these issues as they grow up. A seven-year-old will have certain questions; when he or she is 15, there could be new questions; and when your child is a young adult, there may be still other questions. You can accept this ongoing questioning as a part of your child’s learning about life. Listen carefully, explore the concerns that have given rise to their questions, and be informative, fair and sparing in your answers. Your answer is less important than their freedom to ask questions and come to their own answers. “I don’t know” can offer room for further exploration.
A less obvious way that your children will explore their concerns is through their own relationships. They may replay aspects of your marital relationship with their other parent or, ultimately, with their own romantic partner in an effort to “master” unresolved feelings over the divorce. In these efforts, they will attempt to avoid or rework the pitfalls that they perceived as critical to the breakdown of your own marriage. Your perspective may be of use to them as they try to work things out for themselves.
Finally, you should be aware that children will try to resolve the divorce “inside themselves.” They will identify with both parents and attempt to combine these identifications into their own evolving personality, there by “reconnecting” what was seemingly separated through the divorce. You will want to respect and support this process, particularly if you are able to recognize that you yourself have done something similar since the divorce — balanced your own personality by reclaiming and integrating some of the traits and roles that your spouse had enacted in the marriage.
Kids and Divorce: Tough Issues by Robert Stone November 4, 2006 Children have an especially difficult time with divorce. Many times, parents neglect to consider the ramifications of the effects of the divorce on their children. Understanding how children will view the divorce and the resulting parental relationship is an important component to helping minimize the emotional turmoil of divorce for children.
Children do not get divorced from their divorced parents - Respect this truth, for it manifests itself in many different ways and is a guiding principle for dealing with children. For a child, father is always father, and mother is always mother. There are no replacements. Even if a parent is “out of the picture,” in the children’s mind that parent is always part of the picture, both now and in the future. This needs to be accepted and addressed.
Children will identify with their same-sex parent - These identifications are the building blocks of children’s personalities. Daughters will identify with their mothers, and sons will identify with their fathers — regardless of whether the parents are divorced. If children get the message “don’t be like your father” or “being like your mother will result in rejection,” then their development can stall — usually as they begin stepping into the adult roles modeled for them by their same-sex parent: spouse, parent, worker. Even if this parent’s example has been “bad,” children will identify, act similarly, and then, perhaps, try to remedy the “bad” that derailed their parent and led to their family’s breakup through their own relationships.
Daughters will tend to secretly identify with “the other woman” and sons with the “other man” - Daughters want to be the “apple of Dad’s eye.” If Dad is more desirous of another woman or more interested in something other than the family (like being at the bar), the daughter will, at some point, want to explore this “other world.” The daughter will tend to keep this a secret from mom for fear of being “disloyal” to her. The case is similar for sons. It is helpful to bring this “secret” to light and to talk about it non-judgmentally.
Beware of children “filling in the gaps” - Divorce can create “gaps” in the family structure and in the lives of both parents. Children will be drawn toward filling these gaps. Some will resist and pull away, often to their parents’ dismay. Some will get stuck in the “gap.” For instance, children will try to solve their parent’s loneliness. Sons may try to discipline their younger siblings — like a father. Daughters may become their father’s companion. When gap-plugging takes precedence over the child’s own personal development, then the plug needs to be pulled.
Conflict can be especially intense if a child acts like a junior version of the divorced spouse - This can be interpreted as “disloyal,” “a stab in the back,” and the marital conflict can get replayed with the children as stand-ins. However, rather than a deliberate affront, the child is more likely shoring up his personal identity through identification or trying to keep the old family structure going through gap-plugging. If you are sympathetic and accepting of these motives, then you can probably work with your child in a positive way.
Don’t lock into triangles and “go-between” set-ups - A “triangle” occurs when a third person is drawn into a one-to-one relationship: you and me against him. “Go- betweens” are third persons who are “in the middle” between two persons who should be dealing directly with each other. Children can “go-between” their divorced parents, trying to bridge the gap. Parents can put children “in the middle,” pumping for information or battling for “loyalty.” One parent can try to be the go-between for their ex-spouse and their child. Remember that strong one-to-one relationships are the best basis for post-divorce family functioning.
Don’t confuse your concerns with your children’s concerns - Whenever you “feel for your children,” double-check about whether you are “projecting” your own feelings and concerns onto them. If you are concerned that your child is feeling abandoned, hurt or scared, try saying: “I am feeling abandoned, hurt, scared.” Deal with your feelings first. Only then will you be able to help your children if, indeed, they have similar feelings.
Beware of trying to “make it up” to your children - Guilt is not a good basis for parenting. Parents need to return to “parenting” as soon as they are emotionally able — but it may not be the same parenting role as it had been prior to the divorce. For instance, the “soft parent” will need to do more “disciplining;” the “hard parent” will need to be “softer.” For some parents, this will be a welcome opportunity to explore their own parenting possibilities. For others, it may be difficult to incorporate new behaviors into their parenting. The soft parent may get even “softer,” “making it up to their children” (while drafting someone else to play the “hard parent” role), until they get so frustrated with their “spoiled darling” that they explode and become too hard.
When children become adolescents, they may want to be with their other parent. This can be very painful for the custodial parent, who may take it personally. In most cases, however, the child’s motive is to have a first-hand experience of their other parent, especially if there has been a separation. They may have been raised on the stories others have told them about this parent whom they have secretly idealized. The adolescent wants a “reality check.” Also, adolescents may need to know if their custodial parent can make it without them, freeing them up to pursue their own development.
Communicate values rather than insist on control - For various reasons, control over your children may become very difficult to achieve or reassert. It will help if you keep control of yourself. Be firm but patient. Keep asserting expectations: homework, tidiness, curfews, etc. But try thinking that there is something more important than control and that is the communication of your positive values. Even in the midst of conflict and defiance, and even if it doesn’t look as if you are getting anywhere, don’t give up. Your values will emerge in your children as their own values, especially as they become young adults. Keep your eye on the bigger picture and have faith.
Tips for Helping Children Handle Divorce by Walter Brown, Ph.D. June 22, 2007 Much of how children are affected depends on how their parents handle the divorce process. Parents who end their marriage in a mature and healthy way can reduce the negative effects of divorce on their children. Being sensitive to how each child is reacting to and handling this difficult experience is also very important. Here are a few ways parents can help their children handle divorce.
Make certain the children understand they did not cause the divorce.
Explain to the children the reasons for the divorce, using common sense as a guide.
Allow the children to express their feelings about the divorce.
Do not lie or withhold information from the children that will help them better understand the
reasons for the divorce.
Be sensitive to how each child is handling the divorce.
Help the children feel secure by showing love and commitment to them.
See that each child’s behavior remains appropriate to his or her current stage of
Allow the children to adjust to the divorce at their own rates.
Help the children maintain their usual routines.
Set a good example for the children by handling the divorce in a mature and healthy way.
Determine custody based on a rational decision that meets the needs and best interests of
Maintain regular contacts between the absent parent and the children.
Do not expect a child to fill the absent parent’s shoes.
Do not tamper with the children’s love or loyalty to the other parent.
Do not ask the children to take sides against the other parent.
Do not say bad things about the other parent.
Do not attempt to buy the children’s affections by playing “weekend Santa.”
Do not use the children as messengers or question them about the other parent.
Spend time alone with each child so that he or she will feel like a special individual.
Fix my kids I often hear the following request from parents: “fix my kids.” “They won’t listen to me, they’re disrespectful, won’t do chores,” etc. I am sure you can add to this list. For such parents, I have a reassuring, although frustrating, solution: Your children can be “fixed,” but I can’t do it. What I will do is teach you how to do it. Now, how badly do you want to fix your kids?
You Get To Make the Rules Times are changing fast, and so are we. But children’s basic needs haven’t changed over the years. Besides food, clothing, and shelter, children need to feel loved, need to feel safe and secure, and need to know that their parents are interested. Children will act in a way to make sure they get their needs met. Children need rules, boundaries, expectations and security. This is how your children will have their needs met. I know that we are all very busy. But you don’t have to give up your career or your sleep to be an effective, loving parent.
Your child needs rules. Think about how unsafe one might feel if there were no rules to follow. The good news is that you get to make the rules and your child gets to follow them. Your rules need to be clear and age appropriate, and most of all they need to be followed. Do not bend the rules; this gives the wrong message. You want your children to know that rules are to be followed and if they are not, there will be consequences. Your child needs to know about consequences and you also get to decide what they will be.
Children Will Test Those Rules “But every time I try to stick to the rules, my child has a fit!” Yes, this is to be expected. Your child will always be testing the rules and always be testing you; he or she wants to make sure that you are in charge. As the parent, it is appropriate for you to make decisions about bedtime, dinnertime, playtime, etc. Your children need to know that you are the boss; this helps them to feel safe and secure. And yet, because children recognize that they do not have control over these decisions, they will often “push their parent’s buttons” to feel control over something — in this case, you.
Never respond emotionally to a child’s negative behaviors. This is what makes children think they have control. If a child can make you yell and scream, he or she has accomplished a lot and what you have on your hands is a power struggle. If you can control your responses and they can’t get a rise out of you, the behavior will usually fade away. But remember: You are the boss and you can prove this by maintaining your control.
We also need to discuss boundaries, meaning how much we are willing to tolerate. This is when clear-cut punishment and discipline come into play. Some people like to call it “structure” and it is a must for every household. Does your child have a curfew? Is your child allowed to swear in your home? How long can a child whine before he or she gets a timeout? Again, your child needs to know about these boundaries to feel safe and secure.
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