Within my counselling practice, I generally talk to couples who are trying to avoid divorce or who are recovering from divorce. In between, are those who have are in the midst of a divorce. I don’t often see these people, possibly because the emotional and financial toll is overwhelming, and self-care may take a back seat at this time.
When recalling their divorce, many individuals describe feeling as if they were just barely hanging on in the midst of an intense storm. The emotional upheaval can be intense, even in so-called ‘amicable’ divorces. The practicalities of dividing a household and of working out the details of this with someone who may have broken your heart, and possibly your trust, or with whom you’ve held a grudge towards for years, or whom you have slowly grown apart from and had to let go of the hopes and dreams you once shared, can be excruciating. Unexpected vindictiveness on the part of someone you once loved and cherished, or bitterness on the part of yourself can override your rational mind. The needs of children in all of this seem to undulate in the consciousness of the adults, from the realm of forgotten, to all consuming, depending on the situation. Sometimes children’s needs get confused with the needs, anger, or desire of the adults. Daily routines, the practical support of child raising and daily chores or financial support may be gone, or, if it was never there, may suddenly be interrupted with an ex who now, maybe for the first time, wants a say in the day to day activities of life.
Legal costs, delays in procedures, and losses of property compound the chaos, stress and upheaval of these times.
There have been many studies done on the impact of divorce on children, on mental health on finances, etc. (See Is Divorce Bad for Children? – Scientific American). There have been many proposals for changes to the laws surrounding divorce, with an attempt to lessen the financial burden and the role of the current legal system that tends to escalate conflict. (For more on this work in Manitoba, see Manitoba Court of Appeal Family Law Reform).
Outside of the legal system, there are ways in which we can all contribute to changing divorce culture in our society, with the goal of reducing the upheaval and damage to adults and children.
Divorce is not going away. While there are many things that you can do to improve a relationship that you want to keep, for some, even when both parties have done all they know to do to save it, a decision may be made to end the relationship.
What happens next can dramatically impact the level of upheaval to follow.
We, as a society need to start challenging assumptions about divorce, which only serve to perpetuate the damage caused by divorce, to all involved by acknowledging that :
1. Divorce does not have to mean failure
The assumption that, if a relationship ends we have somehow failed, fuels shame and guilt and despair. We need to acknowledge that there are MANY unknowns in all of our futures, that all of us, make decisions with the information and tools we have, at that moment. Information and tools are gained over time and so our decisions might be different over time. Growth means change and re-evaluation. What we need at one point in life might change. What we are willing to live with at one point in life, might also change.
Change can be an indicator of growth.
If you are a friend or family member of someone going through a divorce, you can be supportive of a person who feels that they’ve failed but you don’t have to support the assumption that a failure has occurred. Acknowledging grief and fears are helpful, but reframing shame towards ways to move forward will do more for the wellbeing of that person and couple, or family than expressing disappointment to someone who may already be paralyzed by their own overwhelming situation.
Helpful hint: Guilt is useful if it points to something that someone has done wrong and which they need to either learn from for next time, or do something to fix or re-balance that which they have broken or unbalanced. If there nothing specific to learn or fix, then you are more likely dealing with shame which immobilizes and makes it difficult to take responsibility, leaving the individual in the victim role with little hope. This is not helpful to anyone. If shame is the primary feeling it can be useful to redirect thoughts towards things that you have control over or distract yourself altogether if you’ve already addressed what needs to be addressed.
See 5 Steps to Recovering from Failure
2. Divorce does not have to be tragic
The end of a relationship is a loss. That loss deserves to be grieved and attended to. Grief does not have specific time limits or levels of intensity, but requires attention and work to process. Knowing what has been lost is integral to the process of grief. What aspects of the relationship are you mourning? Often, these losses occur at various points within the relationship, not just at the moment that divorce is spoken. Divorce is a sign, a signal of something that has been lost already.
But, not all is lost. Some things remain and, some things are gained.
It takes acknowledging those things to be able to really understand where things stand. You may discover new aspects of loss or of what remains or of what has been gained, with time, but the task is to acknowledge them, pay attention to what you feel about all of it and honour all of those feelings.
For friends and family, you can find ways to promote hope without denying a person’s grief. Acknowledge the grief, don’t minimize, but ALSO, listen for the hope, ask about hope, communicate things you see as hopeful. See 5 Ways We Respond to Other People’s Tragedies
3. Divorce is not inherently destructive
Divorce can be destructive, but it doesn’t have to be. Couples can divorce without destruction. Change is not inherently destructive. Assuming that harm is being done feeds the narrative that someone is doing harm and that that person is the enemy. An ending to one aspect of a relationship can be a start to another aspect of the relationship. When children are involved, your relationship will have to be reviewed. This can be difficult, uncomfortable and, especially when you are angry and grieving, extremely painful. IT does not have to be destructive.
Children’s experience of divorce has a lot to do with the parent’s enactment of divorce. Parents who can process their own feelings, get healthy support from friends and family, see hope, and find ways to partner in the process of relationship change will find that, like any large change, there will be stress and children will be affected by it. But that it doesn’t have to be destructive. It can be constructive. Of course you can only control your side of things, but you don’t have to perpetuate negativity. You may need to set boundaries Where Do I Draw the Line? and When Boundaries Aren’t Respected.
You may need to work hard to understand the decisions and behaviors of you see. See 9 Steps to Making Sense of Other People.
4. Everybody does not have to take sides
People who have lived together as partners in a marriage can also continue to be partners in parenting. They can also be partners in working out the distribution of assets or in promoting the best interest of all involved.
Friends and family may need to be coached in not taking side. It is possible to be friends with two people who were once married and are no longer married to each other without having to take a side. If you are a friend of two people in this situation, you can support your friends in moving forward in a non-destructive partnership by acknowledging fears, anger, pain or guilt and encouraging people to make decisions based on what they have control over in non-vindictive ways. Encourage decision making based on the long term goals of being able to work together harmoniously, as needed and on the goal of self-respect. Acting in a way that one would not be embarrassed to relay to any future partners or which would alienate the person whose cooperation you may require in the settlement of property, finances or parenting.
5. Your co-parent does not need to be policed/ micromanaged all the time
When trust has been broken in a relationship, it can be difficult to believe that you can trust the other person with important things like parenting, finances, and general fair play.
There is a difference between assuming the worst and preparing for the worst.
Assuming the worst means you believe that the other person is out to harm you. Your response to otherwise benign interactions may become aggressive, if you believe this and you may actually find yourself working against your goals of being able to come to a satisfactory agreement on decisions that need to be made and work together constructively on parenting or other issues that require cooperation.
Preparing for the worst means that, based on past experience, you have an idea of what you can expect from this person. Being realistic about this may require an objective outsider. You may find it difficult to be objective. If a person has consistently been dishonest, and then tells you that a situation is a certain way, you may have to prepare yourself for the fact that it might not be that way. But, if a person has always told the truth it does not make sense to assume that they are lying, in a time when you are feeling angry or hurt, just because you feel this way.
IN terms of parenting, there is a lot of letting go that needs to happen when an ex-partner, who may have hurt you, emotionally, is caring for your children. They may not do things that way that you would do them. They may be parenting differently than they used to, given the new circumstances, and so may you. In most cases, your kids will want to have a good relationship with both of their parents. They will want to spend time with both parents, even if one seems less engaged when they are present. Don’t assume that that relationship is not healthy for them. Physical safety is obviously important and needs to be addressed. More difficult is the perception that your child’s emotional state is not being supported. You will need to work on managing your own emotions and biases in order to observe how your child is doing and what they need. You will need to ensure that any concerns you have over parenting are discussed between parents and that children are never asked to carry the burden of this.
The following are basic rules of parenting when there is divorce:
- Do not ask children (of any age) to carry messages between parents.
- Do not share intimate details of your relationship with children
- Do not ask children to choose between parents.
- Do not use children as sounding boards for your frustration with your ex.
- Do not rely on children for emotional support. Find emotional support elsewhere so that you can be an emotional support for your children.
- Obtain professional supports for children if you are feeling that their needs are beyond your abilities, at this time.
- Work on expanding your own support network and relationships.
Friends and family need to follow the same rules as above when interacting with children during and after a divorce. Be a support to children means that you are able to hear positive things about both parents without putting your own biases or ‘inside information’ on the children. If you are able to maintain a positive relationship with both parents, and children see this, they will feel more relaxed and supported because they also want a good relationship with both parents and want other adults to want the same.
Working toward better divorce is important for everyone. Vengeance is not a recommended mental health strategy, neither is bitterness. While nobody has control over everything in these situations, everyone has control of their own selves.
Considering what you want to take from this experience is part of learning how to work through this in a way that honours what was, and can be good about the relationship and addressing the new relationship in more positive ways.
Negative interactions are still a form of trying to maintain attachment with someone who has asked for a change in the relationship. It will keep you from moving forward and growing.
Friends and family can support people who are divorcing by acknowledging pain and supporting interactions that build positive relationships and solutions. We can all do better, when it comes to divorce.
For further reading on this, check out Conscious Uncoupling by Katherine Woodward Thomas *
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.