Let's say the most brutal part right up front: an alarming number of divorcing parents who say they're trying to "protect" their children from the effects of divorce are actually making things much worse. And the biggest reason is that the parents just can't take their egos out of the equation to make room for their children. For these parents, the drama is everything, and the kids become the suffering audience for a "poor wronged me" scenario that drags on and on.
The most important thing you can do for your kids is this: realize that from the moment you file for divorce, it's all over. Everything he did, everything she did, from that second on is now irrelevant. You're done. No matter how bad it was, and no matter how much you're hurting, it's over now. From here on in, it's no longer about you and your ex and your problems – it's about making life easier for your children.
If you have kids, you're still going to have to be dealing with your ex. And this is the time to man- or woman-up. You and your ex have already made your mistakes, and now you have a more important mission: to help your children, who are almost certainly suffering, and probably have been for some time. No matter how much you hate or resent your ex, you're just going to have to get over it. Or act as if you have. Frankly, so what if it hurts you to pretend? Make a commitment to your kids and swallow your pride. They're the important people now. Ask yourself what's more important to you – your being "in the right" or your child's peace of mind?
Here's one thing you should keep in mind. KIDS THINK EVERYTHING IS THEIR FAULT. No matter how much you reassure them that the divorce isn't about them, they'll always think it is. Always. Kids are very self-absorbed; it's a natural state for them. And the first thing they think about divorce – or even arguments between parents – is that it's somehow their fault. And the longer the parents' resentments of each other goes on, the deeper the guilt of the kids is going to be. They almost never admit this to their parents, but you can be sure they're feeling it. And don't think the kids are old enough to understand what's going on. They might be, but it's still going to hurt them in ways you'll never know until it's too late.
Here are some of the worst things divorcing parents can do to their children, and unfortunately do all the time.
- The parents are unwilling to move on, or realize that the marriage is over. The parents just can't shut up, even in front of the children. They can't let go of the worst parts of the relationship and must talk it over endlessly. If there was infidelity involved, the injured party must re-hash this over and over, to all the friends, all the relatives. The unfaithful partner feels that he or she was "forced" into it by his or her mate's actions or for "true love," and must now make excuses. Worse, the kids are made to feel – or are even told – that "Daddy/Mommy didn't want us any more."
- Each parent has to be in the right. This is the worst, because it escalates the battles. The parents are so invested in proving that the other one is/was wrong, they're so interested in "winning," that they don't even notice what they're doing to their kids. The most important person in their lives now is their lawyer. They think that once they've "won" and proved to the world that the ex is a bitch or bastard, then everything will be all right with the kids. In the first place, neither of you is going to win, in the second place, you've already damaged your children. GROW UP AND WALK AWAY, NOW!
- The parents use the kids as revenge. This is the common extension of parents wanting to be in the right. They usually subject their kids to a long and acrimonious custody battle that they convince themselves is in the "best interests of the children." It never is. Unless there's actual child abuse going on, the kids are just the excuse to keep the drama and resentment going, sometimes for years, and the parents are so blindly selfish they don't see it.
- The parents use child support or visits as revenge. A common complaint is "Why should I pay when he/she doesn't let me see the kids?" or "Why should I let him/her see the kids when he/she isn't paying child support?" Because the kids should see each parent and because parents should financially support their children, that's why. You're teaching your kids that it's all about the money. That your kids are on the same level as entertainment – if you don't get any enjoyment from them, why should you pay? That your ex should pay for the company of their children?
- The parents involve the whole family in the divorce. A divorce is between two people and two people only: the husband and wife. But those two frequently involve their own parents and their own siblings, each side enlisting the family members to take sides. Do they even care that they're alienating their children from their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins? That the kids now don't even have uninvolved family members to whom they can turn for comfort?
- The parents badmouth the ex to the kids. Or subject the kids to a relentless cross-examination or "innocent questions" about what the ex is doing, or about the new wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend every time the child comes back from a parental visit. The parents use the excuse that "after all, my child is being exposed to that person." That isn't the real reason and the parent is lying to him or herself. This petty behavior hurts your children by putting them in the position of having to either "tattle" on the parent or learn to lie or keep silent. If you want to know something, be adult enough to call your ex and ask – and if doing this makes you feel small or uncomfortable, think how it makes your child feel.
- Parents are unwilling to get help for the kids. These are usually parents who wouldn't even get help to save their own relationship. They don't "believe" in counseling. Or they convince themselves that the kids are "handling it." But it's guaranteed that your children are going through more trauma than you realize, or can even see. Get some kind of counseling for your children immediately, because they need it. No question.
There's no such thing as a happy divorce, but there really is such a thing as an "amicable" divorce, and that's because those parents really do put the interest of the kids before their own. Any kind of divorce is trauma for children, you can't escape it. But you can keep it from ruining your kids' lives if you're really, honestly willing to put aside your resentment – no matter how "justified" you think it is – and act like adults instead of squabbling adolescents.