Creating a smooth transition through divorce is not easy. Here’s how one couple turned their hurt, anger and sadness into compassion and acceptance and commited to their kids’ well being above all else.
The other day I came across my marriage certificate. It was among the files I brought to my new home this September when I moved out of the marital home and away from my spouse. My heart ached as memories of 18 years of marriage—both wonderful and torturous—raced through my mind. The marriage is officially over. The family broken. Well, maybe not broken. That’s not how I wish to see it, nor is it the way my ex-husband and I wish our children to experience this new chapter in life. The family is changed. The love remains encompassing, nurturing, and encouraging as we support them in the journey toward adulthood. But broken? We’ve worked hard to keep everyone whole even amid these difficult circumstances.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, this transition from marriage to separation. It’s fraught with sadness, fear, excitement, and doubt. And, no worry has been more pronounced than the well-being of our kids. We’ve all heard the platitudes about the ill effects of divorce on kids. However, buoyed by stories of friends who’d thrived despite, or even because of, their parents’ divorce, I was determined to transition our family in the most compassionate way possible. And, let me tell you again that it hasn’t been easy.
It meant no walking out the door and leaving a mess on the doorstep. It meant no abdication of responsibility for my role in the dissolution of a 18-year marriage, or placating my inner “victim” by turning my spouse into the villain. Nor was it time to run from the tsunami of sadness and fear that results from marital breakdown; it was the time to step into it. The map to ending a marriage with compassion and respect starts with accepting the bare circumstances—the marriage is not fixable. This fact can get muddied with blame and finger pointing. And, certainly my husband and I did our fair share of that. But always, it was important to return to that compass of non-blame and acceptance. This is what is.
Our kids did not know our marriage had entered the “do not resuscitate” mode for an entire year as my ex and I hobbled through the new reality. As with most marriage breakdowns, one of us was more ready for this than the other, and so we began marriage counseling. The motivation behind this was to reach an equilibrium. The sessions would either resurrect our mutual love and repair our marriage (to better match one spouse’s desire) or enable us to find acceptance in ending a journey with gratitude and healing (to better match the other spouse’s desire).
For ten month, we met with a generous therapist who guided us through the greatest emotional roller coaster ride either of us had ever experienced. The tug and pull of stay or go forced us into a perennial state of limbo. Meanwhile, our routines and rituals with our three boys continued uninterrupted. As far as we knew, they remained unaware of the pain chipping away at their parents. At night, we would frequently break into heated arguments and gut-wrenching sobs using hushed tones and desperately muted pleas. By day, we treated one another with respect and maintained our kids’ happiness as a mutual priority.
The moment eventually arrived when we had to tell our three boys that their parents were getting a divorce. It was in mid-April, almost a year from the day we’d started down the harrowing journey toward separation. It was a task we took very seriously. Each of us researched the right way to share the news (hoping there was a “right” way). We’d met with our therapist to define exactly who would say what and in what order this devastating news would unfold. And, took advice from our mediator on what should and shouldn’t be shared. We chose to tell them at the dinner table after finishing our meal and dreaded that it would be the most horrific conversation of our lives. It was. Nonetheless, we followed our script between tears. In fact, everyone cried, united in our grief. It’s the kind of experience that a person never forgets. And for many, it can be life-defining.
During that talk, my ex and I explained that we continued to respect and care for one another, and that the kids were in no way to blame for these circumstances. We encouraged them to feel sad if they needed to feel sad. But to also be okay with being happy if they felt that, too. We asked them to feel free to talk to either of us about anything to do with the divorce without guilt or shame. That we would do our best to answer their questions as honestly as possible.
This post-dinner talk set the tone for the remaining five months we lived together in the matrimonial home. Our kids, while still struggling with sadness, adapted quickly to the new reality. They were excited by the prospect of living in two homes, and helped me select the home I’m in now. There was never any fear of retribution when they spoke openly about what life might be like living under two roofs, often asking for clarification on how it would all work out. We answered honestly, honouring their need to find the goodness and clarity in an unknown situation.
I moved into my own house the first week of September. My ex-husband and I continue to treat one another with compassion and respect. Helping one another when needed, and, staying as flexible as necessary to help the kids transition into living in two homes. While I can’t say with certainty that my boys have overcome the sadness that sprang from that April night, I will say that I have no regrets over how my ex and I managed a profoundly difficult situation.
Creating a smooth transition through divorce is not an easy path. It requires both parents to commit to their kids’ well-being above all else. It also requires both parents to turn their hurt, anger, and sadness into compassion and acceptance. This is likely the greatest challenge in divorce. The tug to place blame and indulge in a victim mentality is tremendously tempting. That’s why, I believe, a separation takes time to do well. And yes, it is possible to separate well. We took the time to heal alongside our suffering. We gave one another space to explore why this marriage had stopped working and process how it would be possible to move forward as separate individuals while still providing all the love and nurturing our kids needed. It was hard work. But we did it.
This is #1000families post number 157. Do you have a family story of your own to contribute to the 1,000 Families Project? Or do you know a family that might want to do so? Learn more about how the series got started and how to get involved here. You can find all of the #1000families posts here.