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My husband and I are divorcing in the coming months. My kids have no idea this is happening. He wasn’t faithful to me and refused to get any help to save our marriage. To say I’m devastated would be a serious understatement. I’m writing you because I want to know how I can help my children not develop an identity of someone from a broken home. Even though they are going to lose their family, as they know it, I want them to be confident and not feel like they’re bad because they come from a divorced family. Is there a way I can do this?
Your children are fortunate to have you in their lives. I can tell you’re going to do everything you can to help your children through this mess so they can build strong futures. When going through betrayal, it’s easy to get pulled into your own narrow vortex of despair and hopelessness and completely ignore the emotional needs of your children. Even though your family is going to be fragmented, there are things you can do to build resilience in your children.
First, make sure they know this divorce had absolutely nothing to do with their behavior. Children are egocentric and will believe something they did or didn’t do caused the demise of the marriage. After they learn about the impending divorce, they may start to do things to save the marriage. If you see them acting out of character (i.e., being extra obedient or helpful), identify what you see happening and let them know they can’t save the marriage with their behavior. Express appreciation and love for their efforts and identify how fearful they must be to see their family change.
Next, don’t shroud the divorce and resultant changes in secrecy and shame. Your children need to know it’s okay to talk about this with others, each other, and with you. They need to know they can talk about it for as long as they need to. You need to answer their questions directly and age-appropriately. They have to know that this isn’t something they should hide. If your children struggle to talk, purchase them special journals where they privately write their feelings and thoughts.
Err on the side of closeness with your children. They may not have a lot to say, as their feelings are going to be profoundly complex. Proximity is key. You have to stay close to them. It’s easier for them to tell you to give them space then it is for them to ask you to come close. Make it easy for them to be close to you, even if you’re not talking about anything significant.
It’s also helpful for you to become educated on how divorce will affect your children’s emotional and relational world. I like Elizabeth Marquardt’s book, “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce.” She is a child of divorce and has extensively studied the long-term effects of divorce on children as they progress into adulthood. Talk with your children about what to expect as they go through the coming months and years following the divorce. They need to know they’re not bad or weird for feeling these things.
The divorce isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility to now prepare yourself and your children to know what’s coming down the road. Your children are less likely to feel broken if you can identify the growth that your family is experiencing from these struggles. You can be honest about the struggles, but it’s also to be honest about the growth. This unexpected crisis will present you and your children with new opportunities to grow and heal.
Your children will run the risk of feeling afraid of forming families of their own. This shame can paralyze them from taking a chance on love. It can cause them and others to believe that kids from divorced families are ticking time bombs. While I agree that divorce affects future relationships, children who come from divorced homes are often asked to examine their own beliefs and feelings about what they want in a way children from intact families never have to.
In fact, Elizabeth Marquardt feels that children from divorced families can make great marriage partners. Even though there is work to do to heal from the effects of divorce, children of divorce can learn to live in a healthy marriage and family. She says that, “children of divorce value marriage because we know what life is like when it’s gone. We grew up fast and we know how to take care of ourselves. Many of us are, frankly, quite wonderful. Marry us.”[i]
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.