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‘In a divorce? Tell them you care’

‘In a divorce? Tell them you care’
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First Published: Sat, Sep 13 2008. 12 17 AM IST

Stay connected: Your children should not be drawn into the details of your break-up battle. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
Stay connected: Your children should not be drawn into the details of your break-up battle. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
Updated: Sat, Sep 13 2008. 12 17 AM IST
I am a 40-year-old man on the verge of divorce. I have two teenage children who are totally unaware of this since they are in boarding school. My wife and I have decided on an out-of-court settlement: I will bear the cost of the children’s education, and while they will live with my wife, I’ll be allowed to meet them whenever I want. How should we tell them?
All children in such situations deserve to be told the facts as they are, in very straight, simple and truthful terms. Since you say your kids have no idea about the state of your marriage, they are bound to be shocked and will ask you what the problem is. Your wife and you need to be prepared with a mutually agreed-on reply. Match your versions as it could be very distressing for your kids if you
Stay connected: Your children should not be drawn into the details of your break-up battle. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
began to argue about why you’re divorcing while you’re trying to explain it to them. If you find it hard to arrive at a “common version”, take the help of a counsellor or a well-wisher. At all costs, avoid the risk of giving them conflicting messages about your divorce and its possible impact on them.
Children or teenagers faced with this situation sometimes try to get into the nitty-gritty of the marital problems, hoping desperately to sort it out for you. Discourage this gently, telling them that events have gone beyond that. Underline the fact that you and your wife are parting on amicable terms.
Telling them is one step; keeping the lines of communication open for the weeks following this revelation is another very important step. While you, as an adult, can look ahead and see how this can be worked with minimum damage, your children cannot see it that way right now, for sure.
Assure them that you have decided to part ways, but that you remain their father in all senses of the term. In a divorce situation, many children as well as teenagers fear that they will lose one of their parents or, worse, be forced to divide their loyalties and “choose” whose “side” they are on. You must clearly articulate that you respect each other as parents, and do not want anyone to be on anyone’s side.
From your letter, it seems that you are one of the fortunate few who are not going to be at war, and use the children to inflict collateral damage. Good for you. You will therefore be able to assure your kids that though your marriage may be ending, you can cooperate as their parents, always.
Some children feel anxious that a divorce means that they will now be abandoned in some way, and that they will have to fend for themselves. Both of you need to convey in your words and deeds that you will always be there for them. Let them know that you have a game plan. It may not, of course, sound to them as good as when you were together as a family, but at least they will be assured that you are accounting for them in your future plans.
Some kids are known to “introject” the whole situation, not showing much on the surface, but assuming that somehow they may have “caused” your split. Children are known to think that if only they had behaved better or done better at school, their parents would have been happier, and therefore remained together. If you get any sense of this, be very clear with your children that your divorce has absolutely nothing to do with them.
Give your children time to absorb this — there will be tears, or anger, or sometimes no reaction at all. Sensitively let them remain with those emotions, and avoid papering over everything with too many words.
As for yourselves, be assured that if you remain genuinely connected with your children, the sense of loss and unhappiness can be minimized.
My parents are having a bad time in their marriage, and my sister and I are sick of listening to both their sides of the story. My sister has just switched off. I am stuck with being the “sensible” one. I can’t concentrate on my class X studies and feel guilty when I go out with friends; I come home to long faces and bad moods. They are possibly heading for a divorce and, frankly, I’d be quite okay with it. How do I get them to sort out things, or to seek help?
This is a very unfortunate situation. You will have to find a way to tell them that you cannot be their shoulder to cry on. And that they need to involve family/friends or a counsellor to help sort out things. I suggest that you do not bring this up with them when either of them comes to you in a bad state. Say it to them clearly and without hesitation, separately, when they are fine, and can receive what you are saying. Emphasize that you love them and feel for them both, but you cannot be their sounding board, confidant, or marriage counsellor.
What’s probably happening is that once they unburden themselves to you and release some steam, they go right back into their respective situations, without any forward movement. So it’s important that you stay out of the process and make it clear that they need to take this to someone who will help them mend or end it.
Be prepared to be called “uncaring” and “selfish” by them when you take this firm, non-involved stand, but rest assured that you are being none of these.
The only thing you could specifically say to them is that if they’re hanging together in misery “for the sake of the children”, it’s just not doing you any good. The bickering and unhappiness is obviously creating a joyless atmosphere in your home and you’d much rather see them apart and peaceful rather than together and so obviously miserable. This is all you need to say to them. After this, try not to get drawn into any kind of analysis of the situation.
This is a classic instance of parental discord not just affecting the children, but drawing them in at a level that is grossly unfair and savagely demanding of their growing psyches. It can lead to depression, anxiety and children making premature career/further studies/relationship/marriage decisions based solely on how to get as far as possible from the home situation.
While parents in such situations keep saying “we’re staying together for the children”, they are literally forcing their kids to run away in some “legitimate” form. “Anywhere but here” becomes the guiding principle in choosing further studies and jobs. Hasty marriages to “anyone who will have me” are also a route of escape. None of these “jailbreak” decisions serve them well usually.
Already, because of the home situation, they are ill-equipped emotionally to handle living on their own or in hostels, to judge people, to hold their own in social situations, get into healthy relationships and take sound decisions.
Parents bringing up kids inside the shaky edifice of a crumbling marriage heap all sorts of invisible burdens on their kids, as this email query from a 15-year-old shows. It really is time that parents in problem-marriages take a good hard look at what they’re hiding under the “for the children” carpet. And the price that their children pay at so many levels.
Send your queries to Gouri at learningcurve@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Sep 13 2008. 12 17 AM IST
More Topics: Children | Marriage | Divorce | Parenting |