Integrity most vital ingredient in talking to kids about divorce

In this last of five installments, it is vital to remember that I am now talking about only the most common kind of divorce: normal marital malaise.

When talking to kids about this kind of divorce, the greatest enemy is ego, especially in the case of the unilateral choice for divorce (the other spouse is still in love, still wants to fight for the marriage and believes divorce to be unnecessary).

It is normal — and, believe it or not, necessary — to suffer the weight of failure and guilt even in a divorce that you are choosing, a divorce you’re convinced is the right choice. Go to a competent therapist, and you will not be encouraged out of this suffering; rather, into it and through it.

But in this agony, divorcing parents become desperate “not to be the bad guy.” It is precisely here that they are most likely to err in their communications with kids. The communications easily become obfuscations, post-marital power struggles and duplicitous self-promotions disguised as true interventions aimed at a child’s best interest.

What follows are examples of things I think parents will regret saying to their children, and an anticipatory peek inside their child’s heart and mind:

Parent: “Honey (smile, nod), these things just happen, and everybody is a good person, and everybody likes everybody, and your mother/father is a beautiful person, and we’ll always love you … and none of this is any of your business, so stop asking.”

Child: “So, if all that is true, why are you divorcing? And why are you talking to me like I’m stupid? Who are you kidding? And what are you hiding?”

Parent: “Your mother/father needs to find someone who will love her/him for who she/he is!”

Child: “You mean somewhere out there might be someone who is dweeby and pathetic and immature enough to think my mom/dad is a great catch? But you’re way too cool for her/him?”

Parent: “It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. It took strength and courage I didn’t know I had.”

Child: “But mom/dad, what if there was an even harder decision to make, a decision requiring even more strength and more courage: the decision to stay.”

Parent: “I lost respect for your mom/dad.”

Child: “But I should respect and admire her/him?”

Parent: “I just couldn’t get my needs met.”

Child: “What?! Pardon me, Mom/Dad, but get a life.”

Parent: “I fell out of love.”

Child: “Is that like you were minding your own business and got cancer, or got run over by a bus? Are you saying that falling in or out of love is a phenomenon completely out of our control, and therefore something for which we bear no moral responsibility?”

Parent: “We just grew apart.”

Child: “Like sometimes gamma rays just descend from outer space and grow people apart? Nobody just grows apart.”

See what I mean? So much blah blah blah. Duplicity posed as reasons and explanations.

For years in the therapeutic industry, the No. 1 rule for divorcing parents was Thou Shalt Not Bash the Other Parent. But we were wrong. It remains a very important rule. But not an absolute rule.

The No. 1 rule is credibility. What children of divorced parents need the most from their parents is to see those parents as credible.

Still with me? Try this for credibility:

Parent: “I decided to divorce. I lost the will to be married. I said ‘no’ to my promise and my commitment. My love for your mother/father failed. I would understand if you were angry and disappointed in me. If it means anything, I’m disappointed in myself. I hope someday you can forgive me, and we can move on.”

Child: “Mom/Dad, what happens if your love for me fails? If you lose the will to be my parent?”

Parent: “Oh, sweetie. Love in a marriage is a very different thing from love between a parent and a child. And yes, it’s uncommon, but some parents do lose the will to be parents. But that will never happen between you and me. I’ll always love you.”

Child: “But that’s what you said to Mom/Dad!”

Parent: “You’re right. That is what I said.”

Child: “So how do I know you’ll keep your promise to me?”

Parent: “You won’t know. Love is a risk. So, between now and then, I’ll just keep saying it, and I hope you’ll keep taking the risk that it’s true.”

This is the real hero’s journey. Sad. Painful. Difficult. But true and real and credible. Worthy of your child’s respect.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@review journal.com.

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