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I’m at the point where I have to divorce my husband to save my sanity. I won’t go into the details of my failed marriage, but it’s enough to say that he didn’t keep his end of the deal through years of addiction and abusive behaviors. I feel so broken and need to move on so I can keep functioning.
My question is this: How do I make sure I’m holding my own loneliness and grief and not burden my children with those feelings? My children range from ages of 10 to 20 years old. The older ones know something serious is going on, but the younger ones are confused. I really don’t want to burden them with my grief and sorrow.
You’re smart to recognize the need to protect your innocent children from adult drama. Your children can’t do anything about these adult decisions. Putting them in a position to see all of the moving parts of a failing marriage only creates more feelings of powerlessness. It also puts them at risk for feeling the need to pick sides. They didn’t get to choose their parents, so their loyalties run deep, even when there is dysfunction.
I don’t want you to hold onto your loneliness and grief. You need safe places to share your sorrow. Do you have any close confidants or friends who can carry this burden with you? None of us are designed to hold onto emotional pain. We are social creatures who need connection and reassurance, especially when we’re in pain.
Even though your marriage problems have been private up until this point, they’re about to manifest in a very public way. The questions will start coming from people you don’t care to include in your circle of support. Your children will also get questions they don’t know how to answer. I recommend you proactively form a small support system instead of waiting to deal with the flow of questions that will be directed your way once the news of your marriage problems has broken.
If you have a strong support system you won’t feel the need to tell everyone, including your children, all the details of your situation. You’ll know you have support from people you’ve chosen to have your back through this crisis. If you don’t create that support right now, you will run the risk of over sharing with strangers and then retreating into more isolation from shame and embarrassment.
You don’t need to hide your pain from your children. This doesn’t mean you spill all of the details and turn them into confidants. Instead, let your children see that you acknowledge the emotional struggle you’re having. If they don’t already know about the impending divorce, work closely with a trusted advisor or counselor to plan how you’ll tell them. Don’t forget to seek spiritual guidance and priesthood blessings from trusted leaders and family members.
In the meantime, you can acknowledge the sadness, pain, and struggle your children feel when they’re around you. Even though you think you’re hiding your pain from them, my guess is that your children already sense something is different with you. If you don’t own your experience with them, they’re more likely to blame themselves or make up stories in their heads about why things feel odd in their home.
The details of what you share will depend on how much your children have seen of the abuse and addictive behaviors in the home. If they have witnessed these harmful behaviors, you don’t need to minimize their experience and tell your children something they won’t believe. For example, if you try to convince them that this is simply because you and their father aren’t getting along, it will minimize the seriousness of addiction and abuse. They have to know that these behaviors are harmful to the family.
If they haven’t seen anything, then make sure to still own your emotional experience and let your children understand what they’re feeling. They need help making sense of their own emotions. They’ll be better able to cope with their feelings if you can help them name what they’re experiencing.
Your children need to know it’s healthy to pass through difficult emotions. You don’t want to create a culture that suppresses uncomfortable emotions. They can still feel close and connected to you and each other in the midst of such emotions. As your children get older, the details of their father’s destructive behaviors will become clearer.
For now, they need to know they have at least one parent who is tuned into their emotions and can unselfishly guide them through the uncertainties that lie ahead. Your ability to offer this gift to your children rests on the strength and accessibility of your own emotional and spiritual support system. Both you and your children will need this support as you enter into this significant and unfortunate family transition. None of you asked for this reality, but you can ask for support from others and offer your children your love and support so no one has to do this alone.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.