My husband and I are getting ready to tell our 8 and 12 year-old boys that we’re going to split. He insists on telling them that I had an affair and that this whole thing is my fault. Even though I have met someone else, the marriage has been rocky for years. I don’t want to be portrayed as evil to my kids. Any advice? – Not-the-Villain, Wyoming
Your husband is understandably hurt and angry. But maybe you can help him to see that giving your children the message that you’re the “bad one” in your divorce doesn’t punish you, it punishes them. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Kids not only need and love both parents, but they identify with both parents. This means if you’re critical of your spouse, you’re actually being critical of the part of your child that wants to be like your spouse. Your child’s self-esteem will suffer as a result.
- In order to make a good post-divorce adjustment, kids need to feel free to express their whole range of feelings about the experience. If you send your children a strong message that you want them to feel a particular way (i.e. angry at the other parent), you may inadvertently force them to hide their true feelings from themselves, and/or you.
- Blaming the other parent can backfire because kids often come to feel protective of the blamed parent, and angry at the blaming parent.
- If one parent paints the other as a villain, then there is a victim. Kids need to feel both parents are good people in sturdy enough emotional shape to care for them through this tough time.
We suggest you share these thoughts with your husband, and see if you can convince him to stick to a neutral narrative in which both of you claim some ownership of the decision to separate. A simple message like this is a good start: “Mom and I have decided we can’t be married any more. We both feel sad about it, but we both love you very much and will continue to be your parents together.”
Finally, while it might be hard to imagine, your husband’s feelings of anger will likely soften over time. It would be too bad if he sent a message to your children now that he couldn’t take back later.
Lisa Herrick PhD and Kate Scharff, MSW each have over 20 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families. They are co-founders of the Collaborative Practice Center of Greater Washington, DC, and maintain private practices in psychotherapy, mediation, Collaborative Practice, divorce consultation, and parenting coordination. Lisa and Kate conduct national trainings on all of these topics. They are the co-authors of “Navigating Emotional Currents in Collaborative Divorce: A Guide to Enlightened Team Practice” (ABA 2011) available here. Kate is also the author of “Therapy Demystified: An Insider’s Guide to Getting the Right Help (Without Going Broke)” available here. Visit Lisa and Kate at their websites: www.lisaherrick.com and www.katescharff.com.