Many couples postpone or avoid a divorce out of concern for their children. While noble and well-intentioned, refusing to consider divorce as a solution is not a solution in and of itself, and can end up causing more harm than good. Children are usually more observant than we think, and even if you’re careful to avoid fighting in front of them, it’s very difficult, if not outright impossible, to keep a truly unhealthy relationship from affecting them as well. Holding on in a broken marriage may seem selfless, but the lessons and relationship model you’re passing on to your children through your behavior may be less than ideal.
So for the sake of yourself and your children, you reluctantly decide divorce is the best option. But how do you go about protecting your children’s well-being in the inevitably painful and sometimes prolonged and contentious process of the actual legal separation? You know divorce can be an emotional and traumatic event for kids in the middle of the conflict, and you want to do everything you can to shield them from that. You might be choosing divorce to protect your kids from an unhealthy relationship and tense, harmful environment. So how do you protect them from the conflicts that arise when that relationship is ending for good? Here are a few key principles to keep in mind.
Never Put Them in the Middle
The number one guiding principle for parenting while going through a divorce is to keep your children out of it. They need to know the logistics of what’s happening and what’s changing, and they need to be reassured about all of the things that aren’t going to change, like their relationships with both parents, but that’s it. Children should never play any more significant part in a divorce than that. Even in a contentious custody battle, where the children are obviously at the center of the conflict, they need to be kept our of the conflict itself as much as possible.
One of the worst things you can do for a child when your relationship with your partner is breaking down is use your child as a go-between. Making your child a messenger because direct communication between you and your partner has broken down is not going to help your relationship or the child. You and your partner are going to need to make the effort to swallow your pride and keep communicating directly, if only for the sake of your children. Never forget that you and your partner are the most important role models for your children. They are watching the way you handle your relationship and navigate conflicts, so take that responsibility seriously.
No Questions, No Choices
Keeping your children out of divorce conflict also means never giving them a choice or an option in any way when it comes to their parents. Of course, this doesn’t mean that children shouldn’t have a voice. Throughout the process and beyond you should give your child space to speak their mind and share their thoughts and worries about the divorce. “The testimony of the children can be essential in a custody battle. It’s often the ability of the respective parents and the safety of the children that are in contention, and there’s no better witness than the children themselves,” says Sherry Cross, a family lawyer in Los Angeles. “But children should never be pushed or pressured to speak up or make their own decisions about their parents or the divorce.”
Even simple choices for children, like whose car to ride in or whose house to stay at for which holiday, can, in the shadow of a divorce, project the marital conflict beyond the couple and onto the children. When you give a child such a choice, you’re telling them to take sides, to choose between their parents. Even if you truly don’t take such decisions personally, the child may feel as if they’re being put at the center of the conflict, and that’s exactly what you want to avoid.
Put in the Work for Co-Parenting Ahead of Time
If you’re going to keep your child out of the conflict side of the divorce and avoid putting them between you and your partner, it’s going to require serious communication with your partner. This is no simple task, as naturally many divorces are accompanied with breakdowns in communication between parents. But just as the conflict with your partner is reaching the breaking point, you both need to find a way to put the needs of your children first and come to an agreement.
If you and your partner are going to share custody of the kids after the divorce, that doesn’t mean you’ll have to speak to them all the time. The more planning and negotiating you do ahead of time, the smoother it’ll be to continue co-parenting with your ex. Consider putting together a plan and a contract of some kind to govern your co-parenting schedule and help you avoid conflicts in the future. Co-parenting is a continuing battle that takes regular effort, but the more conflicts you can address and avoid ahead of time, the more conflicts you’re protecting your children from. Finding a mediator or counselor to help you and your partner put together the co-parenting contract can be effective and worthwhile if your communication with your ex is in particularly bad shape.
Your Child Is Not Your Therapist
Divorce can be an emotionally painful process for everyone, and you may naturally have unresolved conflicts with your ex and built-up emotions after the final separation. Even if you feel fine and only relieved to be out of the relationship, you should consider seeking out a therapist or someone else you can talk to about the divorce. If you don’t seek out someone specifically to talk to, you may find yourself talking about your issues with the divorce with your children instead, and that only serves to unnecessarily involve them in the conflict after the fact.
Even if you and your partner have both worked hard to shield your children throughout the changes of the divorce, it’s natural for them to take to time to adjust and come to terms with the new ways their life has changed. They may also need to talk to someone about what they’re going through, and if you can’t be that person without venting, blaming your ex or otherwise using it as your own emotional outlet, you should consider seeking out a therapist for your child as well. Children are resilient, but they are going through enough stress on their own and shouldn’t be expected to bear the burden of your emotions and confidence as well.
Life After Divorce
Years will pass, life will find a new normal, and you and your children and ex will adjust and move on. But that doesn’t mean you can forget these principles. You and your ex are divorced, but your children are not. Your ex will never stop being their parent, and even if you don’t share custody, that is a relationship that will never go away. Just because your divorce was 20 years ago doesn’t mean you can start to share the dirty secrets of your divorce or make your adult children choose between you and your ex.
By this point your children may no longer be as vulnerable to these conflicts, but that doesn’t mean it’s fine to start putting them in the middle now. But at the end of the day, no one is perfect, and that’s a lesson your children may have learned well this point. If you prioritize your children’s well-being and make sure they know that you love and support them, everything will turn out all right.