When divorce is an obvious solution to a disastrous marriage, it’s easier for kids to understand. If either parent is abusive to partner and kids, an addict whose habit has thrown the family into poverty, or a criminal in the world and a tyrant at home, it makes sense to children that the more balanced parent would want to take them away from all that. When home is a place filled with tension, where everyone has to walk on eggshells to avoid a blowup, where the primary contact between the grownups is fighting and violence or seething hostility, kids often want out as much as one of their parents.
But what can the kids make of it when the reasons for the divorce aren’t so obvious? Adult reasons aren’t always appropriate to share with kids. The reasons you can share may seem lame to them. You’re not happy. You and your partner don’t share the same interests, activities, or goals. You or your partner is attracted to someone else. Sex isn’t what you think it should be. Daily life is boring at best; clouded by low-grade hostility at worst. Little decisions get left to one or the other. Big decisions seem impossible. Maybe there is a hidden addiction (gambling, shopping, Internet porn) that is eroding the marriage but isn’t visible to the children. You and your partner aren’t a team. You aren’t in love. You think life has to be better than this. But you’ve been wise enough to shield the children from your growing unhappiness.
Adding to the kids’ confusion is that you and the other parent have managed to work out a way to be responsible parents in spite of growing apart from each other. Maybe you’ve divided the turf, with each of you taking on different tasks one becoming the caregiver; the other doing specific routines. Maybe you can’t talk to each other but you can both talk to the kids. Most important, the kids know you both love them. Kids, being kids, think the way you are together is the way all parents live. They think your family is no different from anyone else’s. They think everything is fine.
Although an amicable divorce is what most adults would want and what is ultimately better for the kids, it only adds to their bewilderment. If you guys can get along so well, they think, why couldn’t you just stay married and keep our family together?
Make no mistake. For the children in such a situation, your divorce is their catastrophe. They can’t believe it. From where they sit, you’ve got a good family. They love you both and don’t believe that you don’t love each other. Their usual reaction is panic and protest. They don’t want it to happen. They worry it’s their fault. They fantasize they can do something to stop it or fix it. They worry their parents will divorce them, just as they are divorcing each other. They hate it. They may even hate you for disrupting their life, for making the other parent leave, for changing things that seemed just fine to them.
Helping your kids through your amicable divorce is a long-term proposition. Since there was no obvious blowup and blowout, the kids will return to questioning the decision at each stage of their development. If you expect it, if you respond with age-appropriate answers, if you can avoid being defensive, the issue will quiet down again until the next developmental milestone. It often takes until they are adults and have had experience with adult relationships for them to really understand.
There are some common and predictable issues at every “why did you have to go and get a divorce?” conversation along the way:
- The kids will wonder if somehow the divorce is their fault. Since they don’t understand adult reasons for separating, since they are by definition narcissistic little beings, they will assume that it is something they did or didn’t do that drove one parent away or made the other one unwilling to stay a couple. Little kids will think it’s because they did something “bad.” Older kids will think they didn’t do well enough in school or didn’t obey enough of the rules or weren’t the right kind of kid. Teens are especially vulnerable to thinking it’s all their fault. You and their other parent will need to reassure them many, many times that the divorce is not about them.
- The flip side is that they will fantasize that they can get you two back together. They may even try to engineer it. They will try hard to be extra, extra “good” so that you will want to be a family again. They will try to manipulate situations so that you and the other parent have to get together and talk. They may try to sabotage a new relationship. You and their other parent will need to relieve them of their imagined responsibility for recreating the family. You’ll need to explain many, many times that the divorce is permanent.
- The kids will worry you will “divorce” them too. Their reasoning is that since you once loved your partner but left, you could leave them too. You and their other parent will need to explain to them frequently that partner love is different from parent love and that there is nothing they can do that will make either of you stop loving them or being their parents.
- In their efforts to make sense of the situation, kids will sometimes decide that one or the other parent is really the bad guy. Sometimes in a moment of temper, they will say terrible things: “You’re such a ____, it’s no wonder my father/mother left you!” “My dad/mom must have an awful secret or you wouldn’t have left!” Whatever your own feelings about your former spouse, kids need to feel that they have two good parents. You both will need to explain many, many times that the other parent is a perfectly good person but wasn’t a good partner for you.
- Often kids will make threats in attempts to get their parents to stay together or reunite. “I’ll run away.” “I’ll hate you forever.” “I won’t cooperate with your arrangements for where I should live or who I should be with.” You and their other parent need to repeat many, many times that you understand why they are so upset but that threats don’t solve the problems. You’ll need to have many, many serious talks about what might make things work better for them.
There’s no such thing as an easy divorce when there are children. Divorcing amicably doesn’t guarantee that the children will go along with the new arrangement without turmoil. They need empathy. They need your support. They need you to acknowledge that you are disrupting their lives. They need to be validated that you are making the choice that, yes, you are really so unhappy that at this point your happiness comes before theirs.
When parents are honest about how hard the divorce is on their children, the kids usually eventually accept it. It’s unfair to expect them to like it. It’s unreasonable to look to them to support the decision. But when children and teens feel heard, they are more likely to join in constructing a new idea of their family. The parents’ job is to work very hard to be cooperative co-parents and to do as much as possible to accommodate the kids’ needs for predictability and stability in the midst of the major disruption that even the most amicable divorce creates for them.