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Divorce: should you rule it out just for your children's sake?

Children make a painful decision even harder

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2015, 6:01am

My wife doesn't want a divorce and she is telling our children we could stay together as a family if I work on the relationship. The reality is that we tried, but our values, lifestyles and parenting styles are so vastly different that it just won't work. She has been sending me articles about how damaging divorce is for children. I know they want us to stay married, but should I do that for the children's sake?

My experience working with children in divorce, running a court-ordered divorce co-parenting course and research all tell me that youngsters would definitely prefer their parents to stay together, even if they have been apart for some time.

Youngsters often tell me that they think their parents should get back together so they will have more money in the family and they can go on holiday together like their friends.

In one of my cases, the parents divorced before the child was born, but managed to go on holiday once a year together. As a teenager, my client still maintained the fantasy that one day the parents might live together again if only they both left their respective partners.

I often wonder how much the parents are doing it for the children and how much it is for the adults to feel better about being able to maintain a relationship with each other or the image of a "happy family", even if just once a year. I wonder whether they know the kinds of mixed messages that accumulate and take root to fuel the fantasy.

Your children will always want you and their mother to be together no matter how dysfunctional and unhappy your relationship is. But they will also likely want to stay up until 2am to play video games or chat on Facebook or never have to say thank you or sit down at the table to eat dinner or brush their teeth or do homework.

I don't know the history of your marriage and can't address one of the most difficult choices you are going to face. Divorce is never easy. It adds stress and hurt to everyone involved.

Ask yourself honestly whether you have a strong foundation for a healthy marriage. If your marriage is built on trust, love, common interest and respect, you are more likely able to work together towards a solution. If you really have nothing in common and if love and respect are no longer in the relationship, what kind of marriage relationship are you role-modelling for your children? What is the cost of your children living in an emotionally toxic environment?

As Dr Robert Emery (The Truth About Children and Divorce) points out: "The truth is that dozens of scientists have shown that the quality of parent-child relationships and the conflict between parents - married or divorced - are the most important predictors of psychological problems in children."

Divorce is not a one-off event and there is no quick or pain-free way to do it. An experienced marriage counsellor could help both of you see whether the relationship can go forward and, if not, help with the tasks of uncoupling in ways that are less damaging psychologically.

It appears your wife is not ready for the transition. With professional help, the two of you can assess the situation objectively, assess the fear and anger, see the situation through the eyes and heart of the mother, and focus on what is best for the children in the long run.

A word of warning: choose your counsellor wisely, as an unqualified counsellor can do more harm than good.

Seeing a marriage/divorce counsellor could also help both of you manage your strong feelings and develop self-calming strategies. Angry feelings combined with rigid and negative thinking are usually the main culprit in a high-conflict divorce, when one or both parents feel the need to attack the other.

Divorce is painful for everyone, but there are steps you can take to help your children adjust. If you decide to end the relationship, you can help your wife accept the decision. (Please don't do it over the phone, either by calling or text messages. You would be surprised how often I hear about that in counselling sessions.)

You might want to avoid the unpleasantness of announcing your decision, but if you don't show respect to someone you once loved and try to develop a business-like co-parenting relationship with for the rest of your life, you will only make the transition harder and longer.

Lora Lee is a registered psychologist and parenting counsellor working in private practice as an adjunct to her work at St John's Counselling