It's the beginning of a new year, which we associate with hopes and goals for the year ahead. Ironic as it may seem, many couples reach the decision to end their marriage during the holiday season, so the new year brings with it not just new beginnings, but also the prospect of some endings as well. In fact, most family law practices report January as their busiest month, with many lawyers so backed up that they're unable to meet new clients for weeks after the new year.
The holidays can be intense as families juggle choosing/purchasing/wrapping gifts, increased social commitments, events with in-laws and other stressors in a compressed time period. This stress can accentuate the issues in a marriage as one partner may feel the other isn't carrying their part of the workload, that gifts demonstrated a lack of consideration or partners simply can't stand spending that much time together. The new year can also bring the desire for a fresh start.
Regardless of how your decision to separate came about, if you and your estranged spouse are parents you'll need to make some plans right away to ensure your children have the support they need to manage the big changes ahead of them. The knee jerk reaction can sometimes be to attempt to hammer out the legal details first. However, given the New Year's bottleneck, it may be most practical to first work out the logistics of your separation as a family — perhaps with the guidance of a counselor — as you wait for an appointment with legal counsel.
First and foremost, you'll want to ensure your children's emotional safety is preserved. If you haven't already shared the news of your separation with your children, consider how best to do so. I always suggest that whenever possible, both parents come together to deliver the news in a united front. Of course, if there is any risk of hostility or open animosity between you and your partner, it is best to have the parent who is most likely to remain calm tell the kids.
You may wonder what to say to your children to help them understand what's happening. Many parents have found it helpful to explain it something like this: that you love the other parent, that you will always love them, but you could not be happy living together. This change is being made to give each other a chance to be happy again. You can follow this explanation with a message of hope and security. Say things like, "We will always be a family" and, "There will be a some changes to get used to, but everything will be ok" and, "No matter what happens, our love for you will never end!"
It's perfectly normal for children to ask the same question repeatedly, or need to hear an explanation several times over, as they process a big change and start to build an understanding. Be patient and make yourself available to talk it through each and every time. As children are still developing a sense of self and how they fit into the world, they tend to be somewhat egocentric and often blame themselves for things that go wrong, even if they played no part. Ensure your children understand that they were in no way responsible for the events. Remind them over and over as needed.
Everything that needs to be hashed out can be done away from little ears
When it comes to communication between yourself and your estranged partner, agree that as you move forward you will not have any arguments or conflict in front of your children. Tensions can be very high in times of transition; combine that with feelings of disappointment and hurt and it can make it challenging to keep reactions in check. Schedule alone time to process some of these feelings, away from your estranged spouse and kids. You'll also need to set aside time to have conversations with your spouse about plans moving forward; slotting in dedicated time to have discussions reduces the likelihood of conflict boiling over into family time. Everything that needs to be hashed out can be done away from little ears, with the presence of a family counselor or mediator if needed.
Think about how your new living arrangements should look. This includes who will move out and when, how temporary custody could work, etc. Consider logistics around school or daycare, pets, extended family and how to be least disruptive to these peripheral, but very vital, routines in your kids' lives. Try your best to consider everything from within the paradigm of "co-parents first, ex-partners second." When we're hurting deeply, it can be tempting (almost primal or automatic) to want to retaliate against the person who hurt us. All too often, children become the unknowing ammunition in this battle. Before reacting, stop and carefully contemplate how any decisions around living situations, custody, visitation or other circumstances will impact your children.
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I've created a free online course to help families navigate this change together: Supporting Kids Through Separation & Divorce. This course helps you find the words to speak with your child(ren) and provides suggestions on how to create an effective and respectful co-parenting relationship.
The decision to end a marriage is undoubtedly one of the most challenging life events, and the stakes feel even higher when there are children in the family. But the good news is that with your love and support, your kids can adapt to the changes in your family and develop into resilient, happy and healthy people.
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