Changing Families: Divorce with Dignity

Years ago I returned late from a weekend ski trip with a group of middle school students. I watched as the kids collected skis, boots, poles and bags from the bus and waited to be picked up. The throng of children slowly departed until only one girl was left. As the January evening grew later and colder, she called on the phone, but no one seemed to be connected with her.

Finally, she began to cry. The story was that her parents, divorced for some time, had simply mixed up their messages, and neither thought they had the responsibility to pick up their daughter — a fitting metaphor for the effect divorce often has on our young.

Let’s face it, if you’re not divorced, then your neighbors are. And even if you have a loving, cooperative marriage, there’s a good possibility that someone in your extended family is angrily dissolving a broken one. Here’s a guarantee: If you have children, some of their friends will definitely be children living in a divorced situation. Your children will visit those homes, have sleepovers and parties and talk with their friends. They’ll play on teams with them and maybe when they’re older, they’ll date them. Better you get your mind straight about divorce so you can help your children understand what it’s about, rather than allowing them to form opinions solely from the things they hear and see.

In the U.S., a little more than 1 million children are affected by a new divorce each year. And every divorce affects each one of those children uniquely and differently. As a guidance counselor, I try to caution a parent that for a child divorce is like losing their little finger. You can live just fine without your pinky. You can learn to throw a ball and paint and ride a bike and do just about anything. But it’s not automatic and it will take some getting used to. And you’ll always miss that finger. Unfortunately, for some children it’s more like losing a thumb. Or their entire hand. Or their legs. Those kids are in trouble. They survive, but not without damage.
Even divorces that work quite well, where the former husband and wife respect each other and deal fairly and lovingly with their children, can be fraught with difficulty. I’ve heard any number of children basically paraphrase this same thought: “If my parents work so well together now, why couldn’t they just stay married?” There’s a contradiction in the “good” divorce.

Each child has his or her own temperament, and each divorce plays out differently. Two factors converge for a child in divorce. One is the child’s attitude, character and make-up. Some children are resilient almost by nature.
Confidence, self-esteem, mastery over life and a positive outlook all contribute to a child who can overcome many obstacles and hurdles in life, the divorce of his or her parents simply being one of those difficulties. Parents should do their best from early on to instill and create the kind of youngster who will be able to deal with life’s unfairness. That’s another guarantee that you can share in small doses with your children. The world isn’t always even, moral or nice. A favored pet dies. People get in car crashes. Bad things do happen, sometimes to good people.

The other major factor affecting divorced children is how the parents dissolve their relationship. It’s obvious that anger and rancor poison everything within earshot. Many of my students are happy about their parents’ divorce simply because they don’t have to listen to the fighting anymore. I’ve heard countless stories like “I’d go to my room and put the pillow over my head” (or turn the music up, or put on my head phones, or cry myself to sleep). Parents often play out the final death scenes of their marriage in front of their children, trying to win allies and support for their view of what happened and who is to blame. As visitation and the months and years go by, subtle, undermining attacks linger and damage relationships on all sides. You will be their parents and they will be your children for as long as you live. Both parents will attend their graduations. Someone will stand to witness their wedding. Someone will want to visit the grandkids. Holidays need to be shared or rotated each year. A divorce turns all those monumental and positive life experiences into opportunities filled with awkwardness and difficulty.

So what to do about divorce? It seems inevitable for millions of adults in modern American society. If you, a friend, or a family member is embarking on the rocky road to a divorce, keep dignity close at hand. And if it’s difficult to hold dignity for the other person, then hold on tightly to your own. No amount of sarcasm and ridicule, finger pointing or blame will help to retain your dignity. Better to be silent. Kids may interpret as they will. Perhaps your ex-spouse will try to turn them against you. But you won’t have fallen to the appealing and pervasive desire to be defensive, or even worse, accusing the other. Don’t use words that will come back to haunt you one day.

Reflecting back to your wedding, no one ever took a vow and said: “For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part — or until we get tired or mad or just worn out with each other …” Everyone expects and hopes that their marriage will last forever.

You had a choice when you married. You chose your partner among millions of possibilities. You chose to get married. Your children had no such choice. You are their parents, married or not, “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part.” You owe them better, even through divorce.

Carl Bosch is a middle school guidance counselor who regularly writes on parenting topics.