“We need to wait until the children are out of school to divorce.”
“Our children will be irreparably harmed if we divorce.”
“For the children, I need to stay in the house.”
“I don’t want to divorce my children.”
Not uncommonly, parental discussions on divorce begin with conversations about children. Individuals who divorce after long-term marriages will often attribute their delayed divorces to concerns about their children. “Our marriage was over years ago, but we stayed together for the sake of the children.” Not an uncommon lament – right? We’ve all heard about sacrifices made for the children, including deciding to stay married.
Yet the psychological literature tells a different story. Indeed, the children of divorced parents do not necessarily fare poorly. In fact, these children do as well as their peers in intact families if their parents are able to continue to function together as parents after divorce.
The real question that parents need to ask is not how to preserve a marriage in which the partners are unhappy and unable to repair their relationship. A household in which the adult members are unable to provide their children with loving and stable role models is not a home in which children flourish. The more relevant question is how do we co-parent our children after divorce? How do we demonstrate that despite divorce, we will always be there for them, individually and as a couple? How can we ensure that our children benefit from the best we each have to offer? How can we respond to their needs, whether verbalized or silent?
Obviously few children want their parents to divorce. A separation is often unimaginable and change is scary. Children fear loss, even abandonment. They worry if love can end for a marital partner, can it also end for them? If their behavior had been better, would this divorce have happened? They ponder the future; they try to undo the past.
Parents need to still their children’s fears, to allay their concerns for a dismal and lonely future. They need to tell their children that they are loved by mommy and daddy and will always be so, that they will continue to have birthdays, and yes, Santa will still pay them a visit. No, life will not be over!
At first, divorcing couples, trying to perform as model parents, feel that they deserve a nomination for an academy award. Some question why a relatively uninvolved parent is suddenly so hands on or why a parent typically engaged in power struggles with a teenager is now patient and understanding. We need to recognize that good changes are to be appreciated, not depreciated.
If parental worries over losing their children or damaging their relationships with their children result in an awakening of a more conscientious, interactive parent, better late than never. Change is truly to be applauded. For the real sake of the children, parents need to design a co-parenting plan. Here they need to consider:
How to ensure that the children have two involved parents
How to structure a parenting plan that is built on consideration of each parent’s availability
How to plan holiday time with the children with access to each parent’s family, if geography so permits
How to encourage both parents’ attendance at school and community events involving their children
How to plan special occasions with the attendance of both parents (e.g., birthday parties)
How to share responsibility for child-related chores (e.g., doctor appointments, clothes shopping)
How, in short, to maximize each parent’s availability and encourage the children’s ongoing access to parental love and oversight
In our thirty years of mediation at the Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution, we have seen many couples struggle with fears that their children will suffer from their decision to divorce, that they will experience academic, social, and personal harm. The simple truth is that parents can avert this negative prognostication.
They, and only they, can ensure that their children will not lose a parent and will not be used as a tool to punish the other party. It is the responsibility and the obligation of each parent to work cooperatively and collaboratively to build a safe world for their children, a world in which they have two loving parents who are able to function as a unit for the “sake” of their children. Mediation offers a unique environment in which parents can place their children first and commit to a lifetime of working together for their well-being.