Monday, March 30, 2009

When divorce comes calling

I got divorced from my first husband 22 years ago this month. My two oldest sons - products of that short-lived and mostly unfortunate union - seem to have gotten through the two decades-long aftermath pretty unscathed. But then again, this is just my opinion; I imagine having to forever explain "my parents are divorced" must carry with it some baggage.

Not to sound trite, but divorce happens; we've all seen the statistics. Sometimes all the best efforts to avoid a dissolution of a marriage aren't fruitful. And then there are vague attempts made at staying married, and, of course, steps to prevent it not even ventured: adultery, domestic abuse or abandonment may yield no forgiveness whatsoever. It goes without saying that the adults involved are cut to the core, especially when there are children as a result of the marriage. Those children are unequivocally the collateral damage of a failed relationship.

Kenny and Blake were too young - ages two and three-and-a-half, respectively - to have had the all-too-common child reaction that perhaps the decision to divorce was somehow their fault. Blake claims to have had memories of us together (not always happy), and Kenny - none. I always maintained the feeling that I wouldn't have to get into the reasons behind the split, that their father would make it clear as to why by his actions (chronically unemployed, among a few other things), and that notion did, in fact, come to fruition. As they got older, I did explain a cause or two, leaving myself in the equation; it takes two to tango after all.

Reassuring your child that a separation or divorce was none of their doing and that their relationship with both parents should remain intact is important. As much honesty as possible or, rather, as appropriate, is also key. Trying to hide the conflict may drive the child away, convinced that their parents lie and aren't to be trusted. Yet again, don't give them details that are better kept between adults, especially when the children are young.

One common by-product in separation is that of the angry or resentful parent (or parents) unwittingly taking that anger out on or through the children. To use the vernacular: "That ain't cool." Yet were my ex-husband and I 100-percent successful on that score? Sadly and uncomfortably: No.
And I have heard the same, and observed it as well, from more than a dozen divorcing or divorced people over the years. The goal, nonetheless, is to keep one's frustrations between yourself and your ex. Another suggestion among the professionals (i.e. lawyers, mediators, those in the mental health field) is to help your children through the difficult task of family change with a therapist, or via support groups targeted at children of divorce. Schools may offer such groups through the guidance department - Blake and Kenny attended several of those discussion gatherings at their elementary school - and your local youth services department is another source of information. Although its been over 20 years since I divorced, it still stings somewhat; the stigma of it. Nobody enters into marriage imagining that it will collapse. My older two obviously have a different last name than myself and, of course, their two half-siblings, and I am still a tad ill-at-ease while explaining the dissimilar names to new friends. Oh - I won't even get into how I had to explain to my younger two why I was married before, and who that guy was that Blake and Kenny would spend every-other-weekend with, and why. Sure, some anecdotes are comical, but mostly it was uncomfortable for me. That and handling their pre-school and elementary-school thinking that since I divorced once, I could easily act that out again with their father. Suffice it to say that explaining a broken marriage to children is a tricky business. Sometimes, such as in my case, kids may simply be too young to truly notice a significant change in their family unit. As a friend of mine, Erin, shared with me, her now teenagers were but one and three years old when she divorced: "They didn't know any different; they don't know any different." Whether a divorce comes after five, 15, or 25 years of marriage, the end of a marriage is still uncharted territory. It is a life-altering event to be sure, but it needn't be eyed as a "life-ending" one. On the contrary, both parent and child can view - or grow to view it - as a positive solution to a chronic problem.
"Someone may have stolen your dream when it was young and fresh and you were innocent. Anger is natural. Grief is appropriate. Healing is mandatory. Restoration is possible."

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