Lately, many people I know are working their way through a divorce or separation, trying to figure out the "right" way to handle their emotions and this difficult time.
The end of a marriage is a tragic thing. Even when it's the right thing to do for both parties, it means closing a door on something that started out so hopeful, something you believed would stay the course. The number of self-help books on the topic of divorce makes it clear that it's something many people have trouble working through. Like parenting, it's almost inevitable that you'll make mistakes. Emotions are so heightened around divorce that it's difficult to behave and react like the best version of yourself at all times.
But when there are children involved, that's exactly what you have to do. Children can too easily get caught in the crossfire of a bitter divorce. The impact on them can be profound, shaping their own future relationships and outlook on marriage. The biggest role model we have for relationships is our parents. Teaching children how to have a healthy relationship is important. I really believe it's also important to teach them how to deal with relationships that aren't working, showing them it's okay to move on and that sometimes this is the right decision. And also teaching them that moving on doesn't mean the end... there's always hope for love.
I've been through a divorce myself. Ensuring a mutually respectful end was important so that my son wasn't stuck in a crossfire of negativity. I was really happy and grateful when my ex's new partner treated my son with evident kindness. Later, after I'd found new love myself, my son's father and his new partner were having their first child -- a sibling for my son! Instead of focusing on failure and negativity, I embraced the fact that love came into our lives in beautiful new ways!
Of course, during divorce, emotions run high. I think it's impossible to conceal what a fraught time it is from children, family, even co-workers. Everything becomes very heart-on-sleeve. But there's still a right and wrong way to handle that. Whether your child is three or 22, it's not easy. A three-year-old understands less of what's going on, but is more vulnerable to moods and nuances that they can't reason their way through. A 22-year-old is more likely to reflect and draw their own conclusions. They'll judge situations -- and people -- for themselves. At any age, you have to be honest with your children. Inconsistency is very confusing... You have to be frank without being bitter, forthright without being negative.
When emotions are so close to the surface, judgement can become clouded. Judging when you should be open and honest with your child versus when your honesty puts them in a difficult position, making them feel torn between you and your former partner is a very fine line. As I said, there's no perfect parent or childhood. Mistakes seem somewhat inevitable. But parents can definitely make conscious choices to minimize the pain of divorce for a child.
As parents, our main instinct is to protect and I was determined to ensure I didn't lose sight of that as I went through my own divorce. I read the book Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing by Dr. Richard Warshak to help guide me through the process. In the book, Dr. Warshak describes worst case scenarios, where parents enlist children as allies in their war against their former spouse. This can happen very deliberately with strategic bashing. But it can also happen less consciously, if a parent is too open with their child and unselfconsciously badmouths their spouse to the child. When you're going through a divorce, there are definitely times when you want to rant about your former partner. That's understandable. Doing it in front of your child should be off-limits.
During a divorce, there's a running catalogue of blame, a profound sense of failure and second-guessing. It's easy to become so wrapped up in and warped by all those warring emotions -- anger, indignation, blame, shame, fear, self-doubt -- that you drop the filter between yourself and your children. It really is important that you have a confidant to help you work through all those warring emotions so you don't put your child in that position. That might mean finding a professional therapist or confiding in a friend. But the WORST thing you can do is expect your child to play that role. Children (especially young ones) may have that fairy-tale understanding of a world where people are either "goodies" and "baddies," so even off-the-cuff remarks can make a villain of your former spouse.
It's much more important to remember your real priorities in life: To be happy and healthy, to have your children be happy and healthy too, and to have a love-filled life. When a marriage collapses, it can feel like you've lost that love-filled life. But you haven't really; that is still all possible. Your real goal should be focused on helping everybody move on so they can get back to that happy, healthy, love-filled life. It may not be the one you imagined... sometimes life follows the script and other times you have to learn to improvise!
When you make the decision to separate, you are creating a new definition of family for yourself and your children. For me, family is where there's love. A separation gives your child the opportunity to form new, individual relationships with you and your former partner. Instead of seeing you as a parental unit, they begin to see you as a person... And that individual relationship they form can be just as loving as the one they had with you as a couple. As long as that love exists, you're still a family. Remember: children want the same thing for you that you want for them... for you to be happy.
OK, it sounds like I've got this all sorted out. Trust me, this was and is very hard. While I may sound wise and philosophical about it here, when those huge waves of emotions wash over me, all this sage wisdom can get very blurry. But here's the good thing: Thinking about your children and about their feelings is really grounding. If I was more alone, I might have sunk down deeper, wallowed in those negative feelings for longer. But thinking about my son and focusing on how my behaviour affects him actually helped me every day. In the end, HE was the one who helped me be the better version of myself.