In the past three months, three couples with children who are friends of mine have told me they are divorcing. In the past few years, I've watched a handful of other families go through the same experience. I've noticed parents are often hesitant to even consider a divorce when they have children at home. When they finally do decide to "break up the family", inevitably they tell me their relationship has become unworkable and the problems too big to fix.
I'm not one of those people who believe in "Till death do us part." I'm happily married, most days. But how can we expect a relationship we begin in our twenties to be what we need in our forties? A few generations ago, marriage was a twenty year commitment. Today it's more likely to be much, much longer. While I would prefer families remain together, my own included, I'm not sure the guilt I see on the faces of my friends as they tell me their marriages are "failing" is helpful to anyone, least of all their children.
Here's why. Over and over, studies of divorcing families show that when done right, children don't suffer any long-term emotional disadvantage because of a divorce. In some cases, when there is emotional or physical violence between parents, a divorced family may actually be better for children's psychosocial development.
When Joseph Gumina at Alliant International University in San Francisco interviewed 30 adults about their experiences of growing up in families where their parents had divorced, he found children were remarkably resilient when the adults around them played by a few good rules. Based on his suggestions, here are a few tips for a divorce that keeps kids doing well:
• Break the news of the divorce to the kids together so they hear the same thing from both parents.
• Avoid any negative talk about the other parent, or about the marriage.
• Both parents need to take responsibility for the decision to divorce.
• Don't give children too many details. They don't need, or want, to know too much about the reasons for the divorce. They need to know, however, that they are loved and how the divorce is going to affect them in the near future.
• Invite children to ask questions. Wait, then ask them again a few days later.
To this list, I would also add the following:
• Keep the child in the same home, school, and neighborhood, if you can. Remember, children don't choose to divorce and moving disrupts the peer and school connections children need to support them during this transition.
• Do what you can as parents to ensure the child's standard of living doesn't go down. This is one of the biggest things children say causes them stress after their parents divorce.
• Be together (at least in the same place) when your child needs you both. School concerts and graduations shouldn't require the child to choose which parent he or she invites. Nor should the child feel awkward about having you both attend a meeting with his or her principal when there's trouble at school.
Divorce can be a workable transition, even if it is emotionally difficult for everyone. We'd all rather, I'm sure, avoid the stress and live happily ever after. But a promise to never leave seems a bit naive when who we are as adults and our expectations of our spouses changes over time.
If you are thinking of leaving, reach out for help and do whatever you can to make the marriage work. Don't, however, stay together just for the kids. They likely won't thank you if they sense the discord between you and your spouse, or know you're only staying in the marriage because of them. They are more resilient than you think! It's up to parents, however, to make their children's resilience more likely. As I've talked about in an earlier blog (you can link here to read it), resilience isn't a quality of the individual. It is a quality of the individual's environment and what the child gets from others. Give the child a supportive relationship with two parents after a divorce and he or she isn't likely to be harmed.