A Time To Be Tender

Divorce is as hard on your kids as you choose to make it

"Divorces don't wreck children's lives - people do!" - Vicky Lansky

Do you know someone who is getting a divorce or a separation? With more than half of first marriages, 60% of second, and 90% of third marriages ending in divorce, who doesn't? If you are one of these, there is something that is important to remember: the children. That is, we need to be mindful of how our behavior affects our children, and take care not to sacrifice their long-term wellbeing for our own short-term emotional release.

Going through a divorce is tough on the parties. But it's even tougher on the kids. Suddenly thrown into a situation they had no hand in creating, kids find themselves in rough waters. The waves are howling; the wind blows, and they look up to see their parents--the captains of the ship-fighting at the helm! It's very unsettling.

Parents are people, just like everyone else. But to their children, parents are like gods who shape the very structure of their world. Children learn what they live. Most of us are wise enough to see this as we try to raise our children. But in a divorce, it's easy to forget what the children are seeing, hearing, and learning from our behavior. The fact that parents begin to live in two different homes can be seen as a tragedy - the "disintegration of the family"- or as abundance: now you have two peaceful homes instead of one conflict riven dwelling. It's all in how we choose to paint the picture.

I am a Michigan divorce lawyer. My goal is guide my clients through the process of dissolving their marriage so as to minimize the impact on their children, and set them up for continued success as parents, during and after the divorce is finalized. Just because Mom and Dad no longer want to live together is no reason for the kids not to love them both. Helping parents see that is the most important challenge divorce lawyers face.

The parent-child relationship is different from the husband-wife relationship. Yet so often when parents split up, they bring the children into the conflict, with disastrous results. The children are encouraged to take sides, to see one parent as the "bad" parent and the other parent as the "victim." This does not serve our children.

Unlike marriage, most divorces last forever. This can be a good thing. So often people choose to stay together "for the sake of the children," but is it a service to our children to stay in relationships which have dissolved into rancor, screaming, or worse? We all tend to recreate as adults what we knew as home when we were kids. If our childhood home was a war zone, then we will recreate the same environment in our homes as adults. Is that what we want to wish on our kids? Of course not! That's why parties in divorce need to make a commitment to each other to speak well of one another as much as possible. Children need to know that their parents' breakup was not their fault; that both parents still love them and will always be there for them. The best way to establish these principles in the childrens' minds is for them to hear it from their parents. Promising not to use the children as weapons is nothing hard. It's just something to decide and do.

It's easy to say, "I love you", when the wedding bells are sounding and hopes are high. It's hard to show love to our spouse when the marriage has failed and the pain starts getting spread around. Divorce gives us a chance to send our children a message that, even if the spousal relationship did not work out, we as parents can still respect and honor each other. This is using our parental power wisely. The alternative serves no one.

A friend of mine is going through the latter situation. Both parents are well-intentioned people, but the parents have not been careful to keep the children out of the conflict. As a result, they have been made privy to private details of the parents' lives, and the parent-child relationship has suffered. The kids have identified with one of the parents and made the other their enemy. This is crushing to the ostracized parent, and he talks of nothing else. Although his pain is deep, his children's pain is worse.

We need to recognize our power in helping our children adjust to a family breakup. Divorce is generally viewed as a negative event in families, and rightly so; because children who experience it are often more susceptible to developing emotional and behavioral difficulties than children who do not experience divorce. But a new study by sociologists Paul Amato of the University of Nebraska and Alan Booth of Pennsylvania State University shows that one of the worst situations for children is actually high-conflict marriages that last.

Research shows that three quarters of children and adults who go through divorce do not experience long-term emotional problems. In many instances, divorce even leads to an improved life. Simply by becoming aware of the ways divorce can impact children, parents can decrease, and even prevent, some of the negative consequences of divorce.

It has been established that educational programs can help parents communicate with their children about issues related to divorce. One such program is Parents Forever, an educational program for families in transition. This program was designed to help parents stop fighting in front of their children, to keep the children out of parent issues, to provide access to both parents, and to put the best interests of the children first.

In truth, divorce can be the catalyst for an extraordinary life. That's why the best educational programs for divorce issues emphasize the positive impact of the process in helping families turn a page. Whatever the purported grounds, the truth in divorce is that there is no villain and there is no victim. There are just two people who tried, and didn't make it. Accepting this reality frees us to learn the lessons we need to learn and move on. If we remain stuck in the "blame game" we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Children of divorce admittedly do experience trauma. Yet nearly 80 percent of these children don't suffer long-term damage. The key? If the parents recover quickly from the emotional blows of divorce and resume their roles as parents, the kids will do fine.

"Can you get up in the morning and make breakfast?" asks Robert Hughes, psychologist and professor of human development at the University of Missouri, "Can you go to work? If you can recover quickly, get back on your feet and become parents again, the kids will be OK," Hughes says.

It's been said that circumstances don't make a man, they reveal him to himself. Divorce is an opportunity for us to start anew, not a call to slander our partner. Remember; the door that you close on this relationship is the same door that opens to the rest of your life. Make yours a door of love and healing, for all concerned.