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Staying Friendly with Your Ex

When my husband and I finally agreed it was time to throw in the towel, I wasn't fooling myself: I knew that for Maggie, then 5, and Evan, then 3, our divorce would be a tragedy. The kids loved Jack; they loved me; they loved our family. Our divorce was going to rock their world.

But I didn't realize how much. The first three days after Jack moved out, Evan screamed himself awake; Maggie cried herself to sleep. Months later, I was bragging to my sister about how well the kids were doing, and she started flipping through a stack of Maggie's drawings. In almost every picture, a heart was flying out of a dog's chest with tiny red teardrops. "Look," my sister pointed out. "Bleeding hearts."

Seven years later, I'd like to say my kids have adjusted. Jack and I have a supportive, flexible arrangement. He sees them at least three times a week, usually more, and is a totally involved father. But as much as Jack and I would like to see our divorce as past tense, it's a permanent state to my kids. With each new developmental stage, they have new questions and worries.

That's because divorce plants a persistent fear in children, no matter how old they are: "If one parent can leave another, it's only natural for a child to wonder, 'How do I know they won't leave me?' " says Judith S. Wallerstein, Ph.D., a leading divorce researcher and coauthor of What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce.

However, there are experts who say that children of divorce can thrive if parents consciously focus on helping them feel secure. An increasing number of divorcing couples are determined to do what's best for their kids, and they're willing to make peace with one another to achieve that, says E. Mavis Hetherington, Ph.D., coauthor of For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered.

Why the trend toward "friendly" divorces? First of all, divorce courts have undergone sweeping changes to emphasize children's needs. Today, for example, in 28 states, divorcing parents must by law attend classes that explain how children are wounded by high-conflict divorces and that teach the importance of cooperative parenting.

In addition, the newest generation of parents is far more likely to have experienced divorce themselves as children, and they want to make it easier on their own kids. Young dads in particular are committed to staying involved in their children's lives, says therapist M. Gary Neuman, creator of the Sandcastles divorce therapy program used in many courts and author of Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way. That dad factor is priceless: Children who remain close to their fathers are less distressed by divorce, and dads who are connected to their kids are more likely to keep up their financial obligations.

In fact, friendlier divorces benefit mothers, fathers, and kids. "Everyone's realized that it's not so much the divorce that hurts children," says Claire Barnes, executive director of Kids' Turn, a program in San Francisco for parents and kids affected by divorce or separation. "It's the conflict that comes afterward."

Finding a Way to Get Along

The problem, of course, is that divorcing couples probably aren't feeling too friendly. The collapse of a marriage (even a lousy one) leaves most people feeling depressed, angry, vengeful, or betrayed, and prone to all kinds of out-of-character behavior. But no matter how bad couples feel, it's important for them to take the high road. While it's tough to be civil to an ex who's being difficult, research shows that the way parents interact and handle visitation during the initial separation will set the tone for the years ahead. Here are eight ways to make a divorce less traumatic for the children.

  1. Break the news lovingly.

    Children will remember this initial conversation for a long time, and it can have a major impact on how anxious -- or safe -- they'll feel. (They should be told at least a few days before someone moves out; a parent's vanishing without an explanation is just too frightening.) Ideally, a couple should talk to their kids together and let them know that they've both decided this is best for the family, Neuman notes. You might say that your marriage started with love and that you expected you would live together forever, but that you haven't been getting along, and you're making each other unhappy. You should acknowledge how upsetting the situation is so the kids will know it's okay to cry and show their feelings, Dr. Wallerstein says. It's important to make it clear that the separation is not your children's fault and to reiterate that both parents will always love them and be there for them even if the parents live in different homes.
  2. Keep it together in the early days.

    Try to maintain a calm and positive attitude in front of the children without being phony. It's okay to tell your kids that everyone will have to be brave together, Dr. Wallerstein says. "But the truth is that a successful divorce requires you to be stronger than you've ever been."
  3. Don't bad-mouth your ex.

    While most people realize it's harmful to put their children in the middle this way, it's often hard to grasp how much kids -- even toddlers -- can pick up on. If you need to call a friend to vent about what an SOB your ex is being, you need to remember that your child may be eavesdropping.
  4. Stick to a schedule.

    Children of divorce depend on routines in order to feel in control, Neuman explains. "The biggest effect the divorce has had on my son, Logan, is that he always wants to know what the plan is," Mark Fleener, of Nashville, says. "He has to know exactly who's picking him up, where, and at what time. He was 3 when we split up, and I got a calendar for him at my house so I could mark down which days he'd see me and how many days he'd spend away."
  5. Create peaceful transitions.

    The moments when parents exchange their child are the most stressful for him. He's very aware of tension between the two people he loves most. This isn't the time to ask where that child-support check is or point out that french fries don't count as a vegetable. Save important conversations for a private phone call or e-mail. By simply saying, "Have a good time!" you're telling your child that you're happy he has a good relationship with his dad and that you want them to have fun.
  6. Just worry about your own rules.

    Many parents think that expectations and consequences need to be the same in both homes to avoid confusing their kids. But it's simply not possible to control what happens when the children are at one's ex's house, and unless it's a safety issue, it's probably not worth fighting over. "Even very young kids are capable of understanding that there are different rules in different places," Dr. Hetherington says.
  7. Remember, it's a big family.

    Another important step, if you're the parent with primary custody, experts say, is to make sure your ex's family knows you want them to stay involved in your child's life. Betsy Gallup, of Lenaxa, Kansas, has remarried and now has 1-year-old twins, but she's delighted that her son James, who was 3 when she and his father divorced, gets to see his dad's parents almost every weekend. "I've made it as easy as possible for them to have contact with him."
  8. Go easy in new relationships.

    While it may seem unthinkable at first, the odds are great that you and your ex will find new spouses, and in less time than you think: The average length of time between marriages is 3.6 years. But expect some bumps in the road. While stepfamilies can be great for kids, a parents' remarriage creates a short-term disruption almost as intense as divorce, Dr. Hetherington says.

Finally, while it's smart to recognize that divorce puts children at higher risk for many problems, including learning difficulties and depression, with the right support, kids can beat the odds. And keep in mind that it's never too late to have a good divorce. Even if it takes you years to let go of the past and deal more maturely with each other, your kids will still benefit.

Copyright © 2004 Sarah Mahoney. Reprinted with permission of Parents magazine May 2004 issue.