Dear Dr. Coleman,
I recently saw your appearance on ABC-TV where you stated that it is important for both parents, no matter what the circumstances leading to deciding to divorce, to tell the children it is a mutual decision. I can understand your reason for this yet I have this question. For me, choosing to divorce is a destruction of a child’s safe, protected, secure world of a stable family. I would like them to think that at least one of the most important people in their lives would not choose to do that to them but sought to preserve their world as they knew it. I do not want them to be angry at their father, I would seek to encourage their relationship as much as I am able. But somehow making it appear as if we are both willingly breaking up their home makes me feel they are left feeling that their security is not important enough to either one of their parents. I would really appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you.
Thank you for your question. This is a very common point of pain and confusion for parents.
Especially, if you don’t want your marriage to end or because your spouse behaved in ways that were very painful to you and led to your wanting to end the marriage.
And you make a good point, why wouldn’t it feel better for children to feel like one of their parents wanted to keep the family together, rather than both of them agreeing to break it up? The reason is that children don’t really care that much about whose fault it is, or whether one parent wanted to keep the family together or behaved reasonably and the other didn’t. Children are much more interested in knowing the answers to the following questions when their parents are planning to divorce:
- Is it my fault?
- If you can fall out of love with each other, can you fall out of love with me?
- If you don’t like my Mom or Dad’s behavior and want to leave them, will you leave me if you don’t like my behavior?
- Do we have to move?
- Do I get to go to the same school?
- How often will I get to see the parent who’s moving out?
- If Mom or Dad remarries or starts dating someone new, will they love that person more than me?
- Am I being disloyal to Mom or Dad if I like their new spouse or significant other?
- Will there be enough money for me to continue to do the things that give me pleasure?
- If you hate my Mom or Dad, do I have to, too?
- Do I have to take care of you now that Mom or Dad has gone?
- Is it selfish of me to not want to take care of you and just think about myself?
The reason that explaining your innocence or dedication to the marriage in light of the other parent’s behavior is that it pitches you as the good guy and the other parent as the bad guy. “Well, what if that’s true?” you may rightly ask. “What if the marriage is ending because my spouse was a lying, cheating, terrible person and I was actually a dedicated parent and spouse?” Well, fair enough, but if that’s the case, your children will likely discover that for themselves when they’re older. And, if not, you can tell them that when they’re older. Much older. Old enough to have had time to grow and develop as individuals without being pulled into the almost inevitable loyalty conflict that even a good divorce brings.
Because, as much as you may dislike or even hate your spouse, your children probably still love him. And their love for him is the same as their love for themselves. It can’t be separated out. They have a right, a need to love, admire, and respect him because it helps them to love, admire, and respect themselves.
It’s a lot to swallow, I know. But, it’s a bit of what we signed up for when we became parents, however unknowing we were of what we would one day, be asked to do.