Divorce affects children; few people would dispute that. Fortunately, they are resilient and can adapt, especially when the grown-ups keep things amiable in front of them. However, for adults whose parents split, the emotions (and emotional baggage) can be harder to handle. As Diana Mercer, an attorney-mediator and author of several books on divorce, puts it, “They may feel like ‘everything I thought was real, isn’t.’”
This makes sense. After all, when you’ve had 30 years to get used to something being the way it is, it can be harder to let go than if you’ve only had three or 13 years in that reality. I have repeatedly heard stories of children who refuse to speak to one or both of their parents when they decide to split. Some children side with the “wronged” parent, especially in cases including “infidelity.” Others simply feel the need to side with someone. I have heard of one woman who stopped communicating with her father when her parents divorced, because she simply “could not do that to Mom.” This was the case even though Dad continued to provide her with financial support.
I was a child when my parents split. For the last 30 years the closest thing that I’ve known to their acrimony is when the family gets together and they have some political disagreement. And when those occur, I really could care-less. Overall they get along, We all have some Sunday dinners, and travel together. And my dad has remarried (she is definitely welcome and comes too).
So, how do we make divorce easier on our children? We set more realistic expectations for them about love and marriage so that they don’t feel like their lives (and your love) were all a big lie. This means dropping that tone of holiness that some parents attempt to project around fidelity, the sanctity of marriage and lifelong love. The truth is that half of all marriages end in divorce, and that’s OK. Legal marriage doesn’t have to last forever for it to have been real and meaningful. So, let’s stop teaching our children fairy tales that just leave them befuddled and angry when reality slaps them in the face later in life.
How do you do this? Make it clear that you love your spouse but that there is always a possibility you may split in the years to come. Also, when people that you and/or your children know get divorced, explain that this does not mean they are bad people, bad parents or even bad spouses, but simply that sometimes marriages don’t last a lifetime. Many children will, at some point, ask their parents, “Are you going to get a divorce?” This could happen because their friends at school have parents who are going through it, or maybe just because they hear you fighting. Instead of saying, “Of course not,” explain that this could happen one day, even if your marriage is great at the moment.
If you believe that you or your partner might stray at some point (and maybe even if you don’t believe it, as people often think they’ll never do it … until they do), show compassion for yourself and/or your partner. If someone in your family or a friend deals with infidelity as a part of a break-up, resist the urge to say things like, “I can’t believe he would stay with her after she cheated on him” or “It serves him right that she left him after he did that to her.” Instead, explain to your child that every person deserves to be able to make their own decisions, even if those decisions hurt other people’s feelings. After all, even the most compassionate decisions have casualties. Talk about compassion and the fact that none of us is perfect. Teach your children not to judge people based on what they do in their marriages.
And if your parents suddenly announce that they are ending their long-standing marriage (for whatever reason) remember that both of them probably need your support through a critical change in their lives together. Admittedly, you have a stake in their relationship, and you may be hurting and needing support as well. But they are the primary players. Show as much compassion as possible and stay out of their stuff. After all, a Powerful Person in a Partnership understands that we must all be true to ourselves first and foremost … and that includes your parents.
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