Married or divorced, parents need to be a part of their children’s lives. When parents divorce, they must take on the singularly difficult task of parenting apart from each other yet together. Divorce upends the routines of everyone involved, but for children, particularly young ones old enough to understand at least part of what is involved, the dislocation of divorce affects them in all facets of their young lives -- not only at home, but in school and with friends, vanished in-laws and estranged grandparents.
In divorce, a fracture redefines a family that now must function in a very different way. The intact family manages, however imperfectly, to function as a unit; a family redefined by divorce marches to the beat of a different drum along a rougher road, up a steeper climb.
Many divorces are highly emotional and draw children into a vortex of conflict and anger, while they struggle to grasp an uncertain future.
Worse still, children very often blame themselves for the breakup and go to great lengths to recover the family they had. As described by one mental health expert, "Marriages may end but families do not. Divorce begins a period of unparalleled stress and psychological pain for all involved. Few children are relieved by the initial decision to separate because, no matter how bad the family situation is, it gives them vital support and protection."
Depending upon the custody and visitation routine, some degree of physical separation from at least one parent is inevitable, but both parents individually remain responsible for their offspring. One of the saddest phenomenon of divorce today happens when one parent -- often the noncustodial father -- drifts from the lives of his children, very often after he marries and starts a second family.
A divorce paradoxically increases the demands on both parents at a time when they themselves are very vulnerable, when life problems that may have been difficult but manageable for an intact family become seemingly intractable for a family reeling in the tsumani of a divorce.
Hard as it may seem to grasp, particularly at the onset, the phrase "a good divorce" is not an oxymoron. And the consequences of a bad one can be long lasting and damaging for everyone involved.
In her book Mom’s House, Dad’s House, Isolina Ricci describes the consequences when a spouse fails to obtain what she calls a "decent divorce." Not only will he still be angry at his former mate, "his children’s poor adjustment to the divorce was now a major worry [and] his second marriage was limping because of the problems with his first wife." Legally divorced and remarried, he remained "’divorced to’ his former partner, spending as much or more energy on the battle as he did before." In a way, his past captured his future.
Buffering the pain and suffering children endure when their parents part is one of the most important responsibilities of a divorcing couple. Parents must keep close watch on how their children cope and adjust to the divorce, not only on a day-to-day basis but also for the long-term.
Divorce fractures the bond between two spouses as husband and wife, but the bond between the two as parents remains intact. It is still the responsibility of both spouses to be parents. Marriages may end but families do not. The fracture and redefinition, without proper and continuing care, puts young children, who love both parents by the entirety, in an untenable position.
Children question their feelings, and a child must speak openly and freely with his or her parents and love them both equally and talk to both parents openly. Trust remains a key ingredient in establishing a healthy and emotionally sound child.
Any adult who comes from a divorced family understands what divorce can do to a child. If the separation occurs when a child is quite young, the memories generally fade as the child ages. The adolescent child remembers more than a toddler. But at any age, if parents work together, children of divorce can thrive and develop healthy, emotional attitudes.
This is truly what co-parenting is all about. Despite the fact that the change in the marriage has occurred, the responsibilities of the parent has basically gone unchanged. Co-parenting does not work for all families, but it does reduce the anxiety that a child suffers. No matter how harsh the relationship between former spouses, the relationship with their children will be a successful one when the two parents work together.
The purpose for this section is not to tell you what to legally do with your children. The purpose is to encourage separated parents to develop a constructive view of divorced parenting.
Common Questions and Answers
Q. What is the single most important factor a divorcing parent must remember?
A. He or she remains the parent of the children.
Q. How can a parent best buffer the pain and suffering of children suffering divorce?
A. By reassuring the children that no matter what happens, the parent will always be there for them.
Q. Why is divorce so terribly painful, even when it ends a marriage gone terribly wrong?
A. Most people who made a good faith effort at making a marriage work liken a divorce to surviving the death of a loved one. A divorcing couple moves through stages very similar to those described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her landmark On Death and Dying, including denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Pain and suffering are natural and inescapable consequences of any divorce. Sadness and anger, fear and anxiety, sorrow and denial -- all are voices in a Greek chorus reiterated in a divorce and its aftermath. Even when divorce ends a bad marriage gone terribly wrong, a divorce does not make people happy. Happiness, such as it is, is something that happens after the bad marriage ends, not because the bad marriage ends. "Time," as Thomas Jefferson said in a letter written in connection with the death of his wife, "is the Great Physician." The same is true for divorce.
Children, who are the innocent third parties, are the living evidence of the hope brought to marriage. A divorcing couple are no longer spouses; they remain parents for life, and they are actively involved in the lives of their children.
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