If you have children and are divorced or headed that way, I have bad news. Some news that left me consumed by guilt and worry every time I thought about my own three sons after asking their dad for a divorce: Divorce hurts kids.
It hurts our children not just in the short run, but studies have measured and found a connection between childhood trauma and ongoing negative consequences as an adult. The best known study is ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, which correlated abuse, neglect and household dysfunction — which included divorce as a tangible measure of this last one — with increased risk for diseases and other negative outcomes.
Now that you’re upset as well, I want to suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is always a best-case scenario for every changing family and it is created (or not) by the adults.
I’m guessing just by being a consumer of Medium articles, you like to do things well and improve on things you suck at. When going through a divorce, most of us don’t know how to be an ex-spouse because it’s all new. But sometime while consumed by the thought that I’d damaged my sons for life by pursuing divorce, I asked myself What if divorce was an opportunity? An opportunity to show our children how to part well. Years after the first ACEs study, there is now recognition that when difficult experiences are balanced or overshadowed by positive, the result is often resilience.
Why is this important?
Chances are high that every human brave enough to care for another will experience the dissolution of a major relationship at some point. Which means our children may have their hearts broken and break others’ hearts in their lifetime. Perhaps there will be children involved. What have they learned from us about loving and leaving? What have they learned about integrity and responsibility while re-defining a relationship with someone?
I can’t tell you what parting well and creating a decent co-parenting relationship with your ex-spouse is for you, but I can tell you there’s a best possible situation for every child affected by divorce and you play a big role in what that looks like. I’ve watched many friends and acquaintances go through divorces with children in the years since my own and I can tell you what parting and co-parenting well isn’t:
- It isn’t fighting over “stuff” or material things.
- It isn’t saying disparaging, blaming remarks about your ex in front of your children.
- It isn’t trying to compete with your ex to be the better/cooler/more fun parent.
- It isn’t relying on your children to be therapists or mediators.
- It isn’t using your children as go-betweens to avoid communicating with your ex.
- It isn’t creating a rigid visitation schedule as a weapon to “get back” at your ex.
- It isn’t basing your behavior on your ex’s behavior towards you.
That last one requires a bit more explanation. I’m not suggesting anyone become a professional doormat or ever compromise their own or their childrens’ safety. But treating others as you would like to be treated puts you in the role as leader, whether you’re recognized as such or not. There are always the things within our zone of control and those that are not. How we treat and react to others — and the example we set for our kids this way — is all on us. When we respond to an ex who’s acting shitty (perhaps due to unresolved anger or hurt or simply because that’s how they roll) and we respond in kind, chances are high that we’re not gonna exit the whirlpool of shittiness that way.
Despite my conviction early on to part well and be the best co-parent I could, I am guilty of some of these behaviors over the years. But 15 years after divorce I can see that upping my kindness (or at least decency) game 95 percent of the time for my kids’ sake — even when I sure as hell wasn’t feeling it and had to muscle my way there — has benefited me as well.
Today we have an expanded definition of family in my home. I remarried years ago and luckily all three of us — my ex-husband, my husband and I have embraced the idea that there is enough love to go around and that getting along is worth the effort.
Last night what that looked like was my three 20-something sons, their dad and their stepdad all together at the table with me, enjoying an easy Sunday dinner as we do most every week now. I never would have predicted this back when newly divorced and all I wanted was to move as far away from my ex as possible. There were a lot of baby steps between here and there, which I’ll share in future articles. But directing interactions with awareness that our kids learn from our behavior has a compounding effect over the years that can ease their initial pain from divorce; it gets easier and our kids are so worth the investment.