Divorce hurts. When you entwine your life with another and co-nurture children through all their magic and mess, whether it's 1 or 6, whether they were womb-dwellers or adopted, the untwining can feel like unravelling. Unravelling is normal. Staying sufficiently together whenever your children need you amidst the buffeting winds around your aching heart, simply isn't.
Most children's experience of divorce will depend on how their parent's perceive their own situation. It is sometimes possible to separate with compassion, amicability and with a loving belief that, as author Bryon Katie says, "If I lose anyone or anything, I've been spared." And that applies both ways. With those beliefs children can recognise the gratitude each parent has for the other and if you have children you love, then your marriage never failed.
Divorce however has a tendency to overwhelm us with invitations. Invitations that ask us to look closely and for some time at our responsibilities, our self-dishonesty, our desires, our distortions, our self-love. Imagine doing all those things while being needed practically and emotionally by children trying to cope with missing the only family they've probably ever known. How do we help ourselves and our children? Here are four suggestions to help...
- Resource yourself
When the deep change that comes with divorce is underway, the only thing you can really have any influence over are your own thoughts. Using the time you have to yourself, nurture your body and question whichever thoughts are most keen to be believed. The difference between believing and not believing can be the difference between suffering and peace.
Find a truly supportive friend who's not interested in becoming an actor in your drama. Or make use of a coach or facilitator who can support you in honouring your felt experience without encouraging you to pick over the carcass of your story like a dejected and wounded animal (while acknowledging that's just how you feel in certain moments).
- Be present for your child
When your child's emotional excess overflows, when it sounds horrid or personal, remember it's not, it never can be. You can't control the thoughts your child has and you can't second guess the cause of upset - often your child won't know, so how can we know better? As the coach Michael Neill reminds us, "There's no such thing as a solution to a feeling." Children's thoughts come and go quite naturally. It's only when we take those thoughts as personal attacks or hooks for our own insecure thinking that we interrupt the seamless movement of the mind and it's inherent ability to return to well-being against the odds.
Aggression, tantrums and hyper-sensitivity are innocent expressions of feelings of insecurity. Tears are nature's download reset system. When the tears flow or the anger rages stay as steady as you can, and if it helps to say less so you can just feel the love you have for your child, then do that. You can't fix their feelings, you can only love them and give them your presence and time when you have it to give.
- Respect each parent
One of the most painful things for a child is hearing one parent blaming, mistrusting or criticising the other. Children are much more forgiving than most adults. They seem to be innately wired to want relationships with kin even when, as parents, we can't appreciate their motivation or consider their loving behaviour towards others to be underserved.
Children adjust better when they have regular and frequent contact with both parents and usually want both parents to be involved for special occasions. Support and affection with fathers is also linked to a more positive relationship with the mother. If seeing your ex-partner leaves you nauseated or angry you can guarantee your child will be the most powerful trigger for difficult feelings about them. Respecting the relationship between you child and your ex will be essential so go gently with your tender hearts.
- Support transitions
All decisions for the family need to hold the child at the centre and that's way harder to add up in the heat of transition than the equation suggests. Doing what works best might involve a meticulously detailed 'contract' of commitment and expectation, right down to who pays for school crayons or what the geographical limits are for where the non-primary carer lives. It might mean the children living in the one home with parents moving in and out to share responsibility. Whatever you choose, allow the children to move around with the things that might feel meaningful to them and reassure them you'll be reunited after separation.
Don't force contact or make demands of phone calls and don't allow children to run to the other parent in upset - stick with things and follow through on your promises no matter how distracting other relationships might seem. To prevent the child becoming an involuntary rule-dodger it's also important that the boundaries of the primary carer are respected by the other parent - children will do better with continuity and knowing that their parents are communicating in a helpful way.
No matter what, divorce is a challenge which happens for us, not to us. It can reveal to a child our strongest values and expose our deepest insecurities. It can also show them our honesty and vulnerability as strengths they had not yet witnessed. When everything changes and the familiar becomes new, stay close to the home within you for it's the one place your children can rest in.