When I meet with parents who are contemplating divorce, one of the first questions asked is, ‘Do you think we should stay together for our children? A question with no ‘easy one size fits all’ answer. And taking a cue from Facebook – ‘it’s complicated.’ But, before that question can be answered, I believe there to be better questions to ask and so I pose those questions to couples to help them start thinking more strategically and rationally, than emotionally. I ask that of them knowing they are in a very difficult time in their lives because truth be told, in the moment, it is challenging for parents to step away from their emotional pain and think rationally, but this they must do to help them make an informed decision.
When we start working together, I begin with validating that this is one of the most important and game-changing decisions they will ever make in their life. I also share with them what a difficult and painstaking process it is but with help, they have the opportunity to ultimately make a decision that works for everyone.
We discuss how maintaining the emotional and psychological health of their children is vital when making this important decision because children are rarely equipped to manage an impending divorce. For example, heightened patterns of conflict or disconnection and chronic tension filled can serve as a poor model of a healthy relationship. Children look to their parents for modeling and guidance. Thus, children may grow up believing if they are in a similar situation as their parents, they too should stay together for their children.
Parents also need to be mindful that their children are keen and pick up on the tension and angst experienced by their parents. Don’t get fooled by thinking or believing children are not perceptive enough to pick up the nuances in the home. They watch and listen. All the time. They are and will continue to look for signs that either their parents are going to stay together or divorce because they too, feel the tension.
Children exposed to parental conflict can develop symptoms as an unconscious desire to shift the attention from the conflict to the child in an effort to distract the child’s parents from their conflict. And because of their loyalty towards their parents, children may and often do take on the role of attempting to prevent their parents from fighting or get in between the fights. These behaviors are all too common.
To gain clarity in the emotional roller of making this decision, parents are best served by being able to think about the concept of divorce – not only how it will affect them individually – but the family as a whole. For children, a divorce means their family is breaking apart and the end of a life as they know it. Thus, parents must take the lead and do what is necessary to promote as much stability and certainty as they can.
Parents need to take a look at themselves individually to determine what they contribute to the unhealthy behaviors and demise of the family, what changes they need to make, and how their current issues (for example poor communication is often common) will affect how they are able to communicate, among other things and still move forward.
Although these questions are equally complicated, they help couples decide which path they want to take given their particular circumstances and where they are in the divorce decision-making process.
Asking and answering these questions provides a foundation and a framework for parents. It helps change their lens and thus provides greater clarity so answering ‘should we stay together or divorce’ becomes easier even though it’s important to recognize and validate the emotional roller coaster and complicated process they will undertake so they can eventually pick their path.
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