In last week’s column, we talked about what to do when, despite your best efforts, your relationship with your partner is about to end. Strategies we discussed included getting legal advice, considering alternatives to litigation, and understanding that there’s no such thing as “winning” custody. This week I want to share a few more strategies that are designed to improve your entire family’s communication.
Talk to your children.
One of the hardest things about a breakup is having to tell your child about it. If possible, you and your partner should do it together. Regardless of your child’s age, what he or she really wants to know is, “How is this going to affect me?” Everything you say should answer that question in age-appropriate terms.
Start with a short explanation of what divorce is: “Mommy and Daddy are going to be living in different houses. But we both love you, and we will always take care of you.” Your child most likely won’t ask many questions, but that doesn’t mean she’s not affected. So try to anticipate—and preemptively answer—as many of her concerns as possible. Tell her, for example, “You’re going to have one room at Daddy’s house and one at Mommy’s”; “You’ll be able to bring your favorite blankie with you wherever you go”; “Mommies and daddies can get divorced from each other, but they never get divorced from their children. We will always love you and take care of you”; “No, this is not happening because of anything you did.”
Let your child know that feelings—even strong ones—are okay. “Divorce is hard for mommies and daddies and kids too, and it’s okay to be sad or mad. But no matter what happens, we’ll always love you and be here to care for you.” (Are you seeing the theme here?)
You may also want to read your child a few of the excellent books out there that deal with divorce and how kids process it.
Never badmouth your child’s other parent or use your child as a spy.
Your child sees herself as being “half Daddy and half Mommy” and she’ll take a criticism of her mother (or you) as a criticism of her. Asking her to spy puts her in the horrible position of having to side with one parent over the other.
Get more counseling.
Like it or not, you and your partner—even if you aren’t partners anymore—you will be your child’s parents until the day you die. For that reason, it’s to everyone’s advantage, especially your child’s, that you two get to a point where you can communicate civilly and reasonably and that you get there as soon as possible. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to go to joint counseling, which comes in two basic flavors: pre-divorce counseling and co-parent counseling. As you can probably guess, pre-divorce counseling takes place in the early stages of the divorce process, most likely before any kind of custody or separation arrangements have been finalized. Pre-divorce counseling is designed to help you and your partner dissipate some of the anger and hostility between you so you can build a better base of communication. Then, hopefully, you’ll be able to make mature, informed, and rational decisions and not get tripped up by your own vindictiveness. Co-parent counseling is similar, except that it happens after initial custody and separation arrangements are in place. You and your partner may find that your counselor’s office is a safe, neutral place to have discussions about the kids.
If your partner refuses at attend joint counseling with you, go by yourself. Hopefully you’ll learn some skills that will help you in your lifelong relationship with each other. And if you do end up in court, the fact that you went to counseling is a clear demonstration of your desire to work together with your ex.
Previously published on Mr. Dad