Breaking up with your partner, coming to terms with the heartbreak, the destruction of your dreams and the guilt, of parting from the person you once believed you'd share everything, build a home and family and grow old with, that's gut-wrenchingly bad. Believe me, I've been through it myself, as well as helping many of my clients work their way past it. And the worst of it is, just when you think you can't take any more pain, you have to tell your children that the whole fabric of their existence is about to be torn apart.
It's a dark day, and there's no sugar-coating to make the fact that Mummy and Daddy aren't going to be living together any more sound like good news. But if you handle it right, it can be a temporarily painful experience rather than a catastrophe, and one that can even make your children stronger, closer to you both and better able to cope with the future.
1. Tell them together if it feels right, but don't force that. If your relations are great and you can do it without one of you breaking down and sobbing "how can you do this to us?" then all well and good, but don't risk putting your children through that kind of scene. They don't want to see Mummy and Daddy playing out a daytime soap opera. They need to hear the news from a grown-up, strong parent, calm, confident and reassuring, so that when they remember it, the messages are clear, warm and optimistic.
2. Say -- I have to tell you about some changes that are going to happen in our family, but the first thing you need to know is that Daddy and I are going to manage things so that everything is OK for you. And you can trust us to do that.
3. Explain -- for example: Daddy and I haven't been getting along for a long time, and we've been fighting/not talking/not feeling close to each other, and we've been trying really hard to fix that, but we just can't, and we don't want to make an unhappy home together, so we've decided that the best thing for the family is for us to live in different homes, and (if you plan, in the normal way, to share out the time with the children) you'll live with us in both of them, so you can have two happy homes instead of one unhappy one.
4. Avoid blame or the sense that they should be angry with one of you -- explain that relationships are tricky, and what people want or need can change. Don't say "because Daddy betrayed me/beat me/ran off with that baggage with the peroxide-blonde hair," avoid at all costs creating in your child, who just overwhelmingly loves you both, the feeling that he or she is supposed to hate their father to show love and support for you.
In the most difficult cases, if the child has witnessed violence or bitter, abusive arguments, or knows about an infidelity, talk about it, explain that it was wrong, even profoundly, terribly wrong, explain how it made you feel and how they should never, themselves, do that to anyone, but do so with compassion and a sense that they can still love their father. If you're the one who did the bad things, again, talk about it, as honestly as you can, accept responsibility and be fair. Understand that children are really far more deeply comprehending and perceptive than their parents usually give them credit for, and will know a lot more about what's been going on than you expect.
5. Be honest about your own emotional pain. There's no point pretending it's all hunky dory when you're feeling as if your insides are dissolving and the world is a black emptiness of despair. But give them your very best self, the you that feels flickers of almost-happiness every now and then, that senses the green shoots of a future. The hopeful you. The "I feel bad now, but I'm going to be fine soon, no need to worry" you.
For your children, feeling that you are experiencing distress, as they are, will help them to feel engaged with and close to you, not shut off and misunderstood. It will help them to accept that feeling emotional pain is normal and OK, and something to live and breathe through until it passes. Not to medicate with drugs or alcohol or random sex, but to experience as a part of life, and then move past.
I remember telling my little boys, aged 4 and 6, a couple of years after I broke up with their father -- "My heart was completely broken and I thought I could never be happy again, but you mended it, with your love." The boys remembered that, and they reminded me of it over the years, and felt proud of having done that for me. It's been one of our precious things together.
6. Reassure them they will stop feeling upset, everyone will, and life will be entirely normal. I remember my daughter, aged 5, asking me why other children's parents lived together and hers didn't, and I explained, but I also told her that, in reality, in a few years the same thing would happen to many of her friends' families, and it would come as a shock to them, and then she would need to comfort them and show them that you can have a perfectly happy family after your parents stop living together. Sure enough, now she's 11, that's happening all around her, and she is indeed providing that comfort.
7. Tell them, as much as you can, what the plan is for them spending time with both you and their father. Make them part of the process so they feel more in control. If there are houses to be bought or rented, bring them along to help find them, to share that part of the adventure with you. Make it something creative, something hopeful, about your future together.
8. Never speak ill of their father, try never to speak ill of their father's new partner, even if you'd like to stick a dagger through their heart: smile and look jolly when they pick up and drop off, encourage the children to be happy and excited about seeing their father, do everything you can to make the new arrangements happy and positive and fun, even if you close the door and go back inside and weep your heart out on your own. You've just got to do it, for the kids. Avoid any sense for them of conflict, tension or hostility. You can have the lawyers battling away for you in the background, but for the children, you and their father have to be models of sweetness and light together.
9. Resist the temptation to cut their time with their father - even if you're feeling horribly insecure because his new partner's showing off her perfect Mummy skills, even if every moment they're happy with him feels like a piece of you is being cut out, just go with it. They need him, they need to feel his love and have his time and attention, to be happy, well-balanced little creatures. You don't want to be possessive and make them pay for it in a tormented adolescence and years of therapy. Take the high road, and build rather than undermine their relationship with him, for their sakes.
10. Start making happy times together. I recently watched an old video of my little sons and me dancing to pop music as they opened presents around our Christmas tree. It was the first Christmas after my marriage broke down and I was in a right old mess. But I'd resisted going back to my mother's for Christmas and determined to prove to myself that I could make a fun first Christmas for the boys and me in our new state. And looking at that video, with them giggling and boogying and all of us having so much fun, it really was.
You will find your own way, but just keep firmly in your mind that you are helping your child not only to make sense of their present, but to have a set of tools to deal with what the future might throw at them. They need to see that love and family can go on after couples part, that human beings can rebuild themselves after pain and loss, that resentment and vindictiveness have no place in a strong and confident future, and that however bad things may be, you, and they, will get back to a place where you're all laughing and dancing and happy again. Just going through that as a child will make them stronger than those around them who have been protected from emotional wounds and never learned that they heal. They will look to you for their model, and what you show them in yourself may one day save them.