The Family Divorce
Going through a divorce is likely to be one of the toughest experiences you will ever tackle. By staying strong, and with good support, you can emerge with your psycho-spiritual-emotional health intact.
How you manage your divorce will have a direct effect on you and your children. You want that impact to be positive. The collaborative divorce model can help you manage, express, and let go of mutual resentments so you and your children emerge with a healthy, loving, and supportive relationship.
The Collaborative Divorce Model
Do you want an amicable divorce? Do you think your spouse would want that? Is having a future, functioning relationship with your former spouse for the sake of your children important to you?
Collaborative Divorce is an out-of-court model where you agree on the important issues that will impact your family together, at your own pace and in your own way, assisted by competent professionals. It can help bring out the best in a couple (even when they feel their worst) by encouraging calm, rational conversations about the future. It keeps the focus on creating a positive future for the family as a whole. It is based upon principals like integrity, mutual respect, dignity, compassion, and transparency. The process itself can help a couple move confidently through one of the most difficult events of their lives, short of a death. It is an option to discuss with your divorce attorney or therapist. If they don’t know about it, then it is important to do some research on the process.
Most people know or should know that fighting over children in a custody fight, putting down the other parent’s parenting style, undermining the other parent, engaging in emotionally abusive language in front of the children, unjustified gatekeeping, and parental alienation are risk factors for children. It is not the divorce itself that is the risk factor, but how the child experiences his or her parents’ divorce and how the parents treat the child during the divorce process that matter most.
Divorcing couples now have an opportunity to be happy, mutually respectful co-parents. If you don’t see yourself as a fifty-fifty shared parent, say so. If you both realize that you really love and want to care for your children, and you have both the ability and disposition (not just one or the other) to meet their current and future emotional, physical and developmental needs, acknowledge it, celebrate it, and be grateful for it. Not everyone has that.
Short Marriages with Children
This divorce may happen when a couple thought that having children would save their relationship, or perhaps the pregnancy was unplanned. Having a child won’t save a marriage in trouble. It just makes the divorce harder and more complicated. As difficult as it is, it is still better to get out of a marriage that is not working for you, sooner rather than later, including before having a child together.
If there are very young children involved, most folks already feel sleep deprived and stressed about how hard it is to take care of another human being, plus the pressure of trying to spend time together as a couple, and work outside the home. It is astounding that more marriages don’t fall apart after the first child or two.
Each spouse must step up and into a new role as a “co-parent.” Many people think that they don’t want to do that with the person they are divorcing. But one of the most important decisions to make is “How can the children be successfully parented as a divorced couple?”
If intense emotions like contempt, or intolerance of the other parent is present, this needs to be discussed and carefully managed. Most people don’t know how to have this type of conversation in a healthy way. This is a good time to start post-separation communication coaching with a skilled mental health professional. A collaborative professional can help make this type of referral. This isn’t intended to be couple’s counseling to get back together. This is an opportunity to learn more effective communication tools so that people feel safe to use their words and express themselves in an open and honest way -- where words can be used to appropriately express feelings, frustrations, and appreciations in a safe environment. This also helps the couple feel empowered to speak their most authentic truth, now that a marriage’s greatest fear (getting divorced) is about to happen. This is not the time to revert to passive-aggressive, hostile, nonverbal communication. Hostile communication undermines the character of your spouse in front of the children and demonstrates to them that you haven’t successfully worked through your emotions. Just because it is a short marriage doesn’t mean the feelings of loss aren’t substantial for each spouse and extended families.
The collaborative divorce model can help manage, express, and let go of mutual resentments so spouses can give their children the gift of a healthy, loving, and supportive relationship with two parents (and possibly stepparents and other supportive adults). The children don’t need to know what went wrong. If they are little, they won’t remember much of these early years, so long as their basic needs for connection, love, food, and care, are present and they are not witness to yelling or other aggressive behaviors between their parents. If the children are a bit older, it is reasonable to expect them to experience their parent’s divorce more deeply and in different ways.
Mid-Marriage Divorce with Children
Mid-length marriages (roughly 7-14 years) with children are among the hardest to understand and manage. Often, one spouse did not see this coming. These divorces can happen when there is an affair, or where addiction or untreated mental health issues arise, and there is no space or ability to communicate openly and honestly about what is going on and the feelings associated with it all. Feelings get stuffed, and resentments build, until there is not much is left to say. Communication fails.
If the children are older, they will be impacted by the divorce in a much more conscious way. They are capable of expressing themselves. They have a ton of needs that still must meet (consistency, stability, emotional and physical safety, friends, homework, sports, activities, and more). They may have simple or profound questions about why this is happening. You need a common narrative (the divorce story, the mutually agreed upon reason-such as “We decided we would be better parents than a married couple”). Remember, the children did not ask for this massive disruption to their lives and sense of security. Divorcing parents require their children to adjust to a new reality they didn’t ask for at the same time each spouse is adjusting to a new, separate, not-married reality, regardless of who initiated the divorce. This is a time to be gentle and compassionate with one another. This is important so that the couple doesn’t screw up their own lives, but also the lives of their children with an ugly, contested, and litigious divorce.
If the children are older and showing signs of stress, depression, or anxiety, recognize that these older children may be reacting to the way their parents communicate both verbally and non-verbally. The attitudes of the parents will contribute to how the children manage the stress of a divorce. It can be a time to come together as a family, find good therapists, and Collaborative Divorce attorneys. It is the moment to walk the walk and talk the talk: actually put the needs of the children ahead of negative, temporary feelings about the other parent or the divorce process itself. This is much easier said than done.
Long-Term Marriages with Minor or Adult Children
There are many reasons why, after all this time, a couple that has been married a long time (15+ years) would be calling it quits. If both spouses agree the marriage isn’t working, that’s a good place to start, and it might make the experience less painful than if the decision to divorce is coming out of left field. It is still a huge loss and a grieving process, even when you know it’s the right thing to do.
Each spouse deserves to be living a life that satisfies them. What was interesting, important or sexy at twenty-five or thirty-five may not be what turns someone on or interests them at forty-five or older. At this stage of a relationship, it doesn’t matter the reason for the divorce. A divorce with dignity and mutual respect is absolutely possible and available. Be mindful of the narrative being told to the children. It is easy to mistakenly assume that just because the children are no longer minors that the divorce will not have significant impact on them. Adult children have a host of questions and concerns. They may seek to protect a parent they believe is more vulnerable. They may worry about the financial impact on their lives, such as college or other support. They may be stunned to discover the happy home life they thought they lived feels like a mirage. They may worry that they will end up divorced, or be concerned about where they will go for the holidays, or how the grandchildren will be impacted. The considerations are myriad. Many adult children refuse to speak to a parent because of the way the divorce was mishandled. This can be avoided by carefully considering the different options for how to get divorced.
Resist the temptation to go to court to play out a drama of hurt feelings and unsatisfied dreams. The money saved in attorneys’ fees could be used for college education, a first vacation alone, or other self-care opportunities to heal from the pain of the divorce. The paradox is this: Divorce is an opportunity to find your best self. It is the catalyst to examine and reconsider your current attachment to your identity. This is a huge personal growth opportunity.
Just because a marriage doesn’t work out doesn’t mean anyone failed, or that the children are necessarily going to suffer. Managed collaboratively, a divorce process can help co-create a life that will be satisfying, if not better, than it was during the marriage. The relationship continues over time. Children thrive and feel secure knowing that their parents are handling themselves well, wherever they are in their own process and experience of your divorce.
Nanci A. Smith, Esq., is an attorney licensed to practice in Vermont and New York. She is the chair of the Collaborative Divorce section of the Vermont Bar Association, a leader in her collaborative divorce practice group, and a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. She frequently writes and talks about divorce, family law, ethics, and collaborative divorce practices. She believes that a good divorce is possible when you show up for it with humility, compassion, and the correct support. Smith is the author of Untangling Your Marriage: A Guide to Collaborative Divorce (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Oct 11, 2022). Learn more at nancismithlaw.com.
Originally published at Wellbeing Magazine