Parenting through divorce: Dos and don'ts

Psychotherapist Liza Finlay shares some dos and don’ts for parents negotiating a parting of the ways.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Normally, I use this space to provide you with whatever wisdom I’ve gained counseling couples in conflict. My aim is to help you have a happier partnership. But sometimes the best thing for a marriage is, well, the dissolution of the marriage.

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Yup, divorce is sometimes the best solution, for all parties—and that includes the kids. Now, that may seem like a strange statement, coming from a family therapist, but if divorce is done right, it actually increases family harmony. “Huh?” you say, “There’s a ‘right’ way to do divorce?” You bet there is.

Here are some dos and don’ts for parents negotiating a parting of the ways…

Don’t stay in a bad marriage “for the sake of the kids.” The vast majority of couples in conflict who claim to be sticking it out for the welfare of their children are lying. They stay because they’re too afraid, or too ashamed, to face the failure of the marriage. They’re using their kids as an alibi. And those of you who truly are sticking it out solely for your offspring? Stop. You are providing an abysmal prototype of self-love and a poorer prototype of a loving, mutually respectful relationship.

Do put the kids first. You and your ex are still the executive committee of your child’s family—whether you share the same address or not. You need to remain a united front no matter how much your partner pisses you off. That means you reserve your gripes for your girlfriends. Let me put this in stark terms: I had a teen client come to me in tears after a family member told her she was “just like her dad.” Confused, I asked her why that was so troubling. “Because my mom says my dad is a complete idiot,” she replied.

Don’t fret if the rules at Dad’s house aren’t the same as they are at Mom’s. Sure, in an ideal world you and your ex would be on the same parenting page. But what’s more important than consistency between two households is consistency within each one. In other words, set your own limits and then follow through—every time. Children are more adaptable than we give them credit for; they’ll adjust to the culture at each parent’s home provided that culture is consistently maintained. Then, when they say things like, “But mom, dad always lets me have donuts for breakfast,” you can laugh and reply, “How lovely for you! Now, would you like milk or yogurt with your granola?”

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Do attempt to remain flexible. As kids grow, their needs will change. So will their schedules. In order for harmony to prevail, both parties will need to stay limber. Being intractable (“I don’t care if it’s your mother’s birthday—this is my custody day!”) won’t win you any points with your children or your ex. One day you may need some of that goodwill.

Above all…

Do keep the lines of communication open—between you and your ex-partner, and you and your kids. With two households, the one thing you can count on is constant change—the addition of a new partner (and possibly even new step-siblings), for example, the move to a new house, and so forth—and you want your kids to process this stuff out loud.

 

Wondering how to talk to your kids about divorce? Check out this video for some ideas:

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