Have you ever agreed with someone on a topic only to realize later, after closer consideration that you didn’t agree at all, and you wish wish wish you could go back in time and change your answer?
Just me? Oh.
As a guest on the online radio show Coparenting Matters, one of the co-hosts Talibah asked me this question (I’m paraphrasing): “Would you agree that it’s not divorce itself but how parents can conduct themselves after divorce that hurts children?”
It’s an interesting question and something that I’ve heard before and yet never carefully considered.
It sounded logical enough. We all know that parental conflict whether it’s pre or post divorce hurts children. That research is well documented. It would follow, that in such cases a child would benefit from divorce. Most would also agree that happy parents are more effective in their parenting, so again if a marriage is making parents unhappy, their children will benefit from a divorce. And with children benefiting from divorce, all parents really have to worry about is co-parenting effectively while keeping conflict to a minimum and well beyond their children’s eyes and ears. By doing so, their children will be just fine.
So…I agreed. But it bothered me. I kept thinking about that question. And when I really thought about it, I was surprised by how much I didn’t agree. In fact, I don’t know if I could disagree more.
The statement, ‘Divorce doesn’t hurt children, only conflict does’ says to me, ‘Don’t worry about helping children with their negative emotions related directly to divorce because there aren’t any. Coparent effectively while conducting yourself appropriately and children of divorce shouldn’t have to any negative emotions at all.’
It’s an almost ridiculous premise.
And yet, I agreed. I can’t believe I agreed. Because in that agreement I essentially sold out all of my fellow children of divorce. Shame on me.
So I’m going to fix it.
Divorce in and of itself, emotionally hurts children. Even if at the same time it benefits them. And if divorced parents don’t acknowledge that, they are doing their children a disservice.
I understand my parent’s divorce. It doesn’t make me angry and I’ve never once in my whole life wished for them to reconcile. I do not believe that parents should remain in unhappy or conflictual marriages for the sake of their children. Don’t believe me? Check out this post I wrote months ago. But does any of that mean my parents’ divorce didn’t hurt me? Of course not. It hurt me on a fundamental level.
My parent’s divorce shattered my core senses of stability, family and love. I was no longer a kid simply worrying about kid things. Suddenly I was navigating immense changes to my family while realizing it would never look or feel the same again. From then on, I was always either missing my dad or missing my mom. My belief in unconditional love came to a screeching halt and I started to wonder what might negate their love for me too. And the fact that my parents never talked badly about one another and never involved me in anything inappropriate didn’t help me deal with any of those emotions.
If you’re not a child of divorce, put yourself in our shoes for just one minute. Imagine having your family torn apart and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. Imagine everything in your life changing and you don’t know where it’s headed or if you’ll recognize anything once it stops. Imagine everything being turned upside down and being told that you have focus on reorienting yourself to being upside down for the rest of your life, because that’s just the way it’s going to be from now on. Loved ones away from you, not knowing what the hell is going on or what’s going to happen, and learning to live your life inverted.
Now that you’ve walked a minute in my shoes, try the ‘divorce doesn’t hurt’ statement out. See if you can not shake your head at it’s absurdity. It would be like saying ‘someone living the rest of their life upside down shouldn’t really be bothered by that fact. The only thing that hurts the upside down ones is when others point and laugh at them.’ The fact that insult isn’t added to injury doesn’t mean the injury doesn’t exist. The same goes that just because divorced parents work well together in the aftermath of their divorce, doesn’t mean that their divorce hasn’t shaken their children to their cores.
The belief that ‘divorce doesn’t hurt’ is a fallacy that I think parents need to be careful not to adopt. A child’s long term or even immediate benefit does not counteract divorce’s pain. And acknowledging that, is the first real step in helping your child cope. Allowing guilt to blind you to the reality that your actions, your divorce, has hurt your child is understandable. Nobody wants to believe they’ve hurt their kids. But by not accepting, acknowledging, or validating your child’s pain, not only are you not helping them to work through it, you are actually encouraging them to both question their own feelings and consequently bury them deeper.
So come on divorced parents! Get comfortable with your guilt. Look it in the face and then get ready to do the hard work that’s required to be rid of it by actually helping your kids. Divorce hurts everyone. You have the benefit (hopefully) of your knowledge, hope and understanding that it’s pain will fade or be outweighed by it’s benefits. Your children do not, so don’t expect that from them. Don’t allow them to comfort you and take away your guilt by showing you how ‘unaffected’ they are. Accept responsibility for the pain you’ve caused and then do something about it.
In short, you be the parent. Let them be the child.
Even if they never say the words, they’ll thank you for it.