When parents contemplate divorce, it's usually a long, intense, thoughtful process. It may start with intensive quarreling or silent treatment building up over several years. Parents often are conflicted as to how a divorce will affect their children, so they take their time contemplating what to do. This makes good sense and often leads to problems being worked out and even divorce plans being suspended.
However, once the decision is made a separation occurs. This often involves one parent moving out of the house. At this point, children who have been worried for quite a while seeing the tension between their parents now need a clear explanation as to what is happening. Even the kindest most empathic children first want to know what changes are in store for them. They want to be assured of their safety and security and that their parents' love for them is not compromised.
However, sometimes following the separation, parents' doubts renew. They feel guilty and beset with self-blame and a sense of failure. They are sure they want the divorce, but are unsure of the timing that's best. That's when the divorce plans, even those with the best legal advice, get prolonged. When months and even years go by with a prolonged separation, children get very confused. They begin to watch their parents closely deciding if their parents may get back together. If there are several siblings, they may all have differing points of view, but the subject preoccupies them and distracts them from school work and enjoyable play.
Sometimes religious reasons for not getting the divorce finalized come into play. Some feel divorce isn't condoned by their religion and that remarriage is even wrong. This complicates matters of course because it raises matters of conscience.
Other times, friends and extended family start giving their elaborate negative opinions about divorce. Parents who grew up with parents who divorced are loathe to repeat the pattern and are very affected by this advice. They forget some of the positives that came from their parents divorcing such as no more quarreling in the home, more pleasurable time spent with each parent, and successful remarriages and blended families.
The main issue is that when the divorce is prolonged extensively, the children grow older and more confused. They deserve to know what is happening with their lives. It's incumbent on the parents to settle their inner conflicts, so they can talk one on one with each of their children and explain the future plans.
Effective co-parenting of divorced couples can smooth the way for effectively helping the children through the transition. This may be done with a marriage counselor trained to help parents set aside their marital differences for the best interests of their children.
Children react very differently. Some are relieved that the divorce is final. They knew it was coming and now feel not only their parents, but they can go on with their lives. Other children are deeply disappointed and even surprised if the prolongation of the divorce gave them false hope and reasons for denial. The latter children need more care to get over the hurdle of their false hopes and see the reality of the divorce.
Divorce can be healthy and benefit all involved if done carefully in a timely manner. Decisions need to be made clearly and soundly and then the children need to be informed openly and honestly especially with regard to how it will affect them.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst with a recent book that will assist parents understanding their children as they experience divorcing parents, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child's Behavior, found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Familius and wherever books are sold.