The Truth About Children and Divorce
Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive
Nationally recognized expert Robert Emery applies his twenty-five years of experience as a researcher, therapist, and mediator to offer parents a new road map to divorce. Dr. Emery shows how our powerful emotions and the way we handle them shape how we divorce—and whether our children suffer or thrive in the long run. His message is hopeful, yet realistic—divorce is invariably painful, but parents can help promote their children’s resilience. With compassion and authority, Dr. Emery explains:
• Why it is so hard to really make divorce work
As a psychologist and a dad myself, I found this especially distressing since the couple had a six-year-old child, Sam. Danielle and Frank had each met with lawyers, but Danielle told me that she—and, she hoped, Frank—didn’t want to go that route. They both made the same amount of money, so they weren’t going to be fighting over finances. Even though Frank wanted to work things out, Danielle said, there was little chance of saving the marriage now.
“Could you please meet with us before Christmas?” she asked urgently.
After we agreed on a date, Danielle offered some additional, crucial background: She had only recently confessed to Frank that she was having an affair. She was worried about what Frank might do. Whenever she tried to talk seriously about separation, he made it very clear that he wanted to have Sam with him all the time. Danielle said this was a ridiculous suggestion. After all, she had spent more time raising Sam, and she loved him so much. She couldn’t stand being apart from him. But Danielle also felt guilty and uncertain about what was right and what might happen legally. After all, she was having an affair. As I penciled in the appointment, I wondered how much Christmas spirit any of us would be feeling by the time they left.
Later, as I read through my notes from the conversation, I saw that Danielle and Frank had all the ingredients for a volatile and ugly divorce: a one-sided separation, the surprise and betrayal that comes with a partner’s affair, a rush to accomplish in a matter of days the tasks of separation that typically take months or even years, potentially adversarial lawyers, and terrible timing. What could be worse for young Sam than his parents’ separating over Christmas break? There was no question that as former partners and future exes, Danielle and Frank were in for a rough time. Despite all this, though, I hoped that one thing Danielle had told me on the telephone would hold true: that she and Frank shared an abiding love and concern for Sam.
But children like Sam don’t have a choice. In the United States today over one million children every year find themselves in Sam’s shoes. So I put myself in the middle in the hope of getting children like Sam out of the middle. For I know with absolute certainty how important it is to get kids out of conflict and put them first in a divorce. All of my research and all of my work with couples and families demonstrates that what parents do after divorce—how they parent, how they handle their emotions, how they relate to each other and work together—is the key to children’s resilience in coping with divorce.
Believe me. I know just how real (and just how unreal) the world gets in divorce. I know the helpless, sinking feeling you get facing the end of your marriage and grappling with what you are supposed to do now. I know this from those twenty-five years of professional work. And let me be frank up front: I also know the pain of divorce from personal experience.
As I write this, my daughter from my first marriage, Maggie, is a happy, energetic, and independent twenty-one-year-old woman who is soon to graduate from college and chart her own course in life. (I have since remarried and have four more lovely and lively children.) Maggie’s mother and I certainly have our share of regrets, but we also are incredibly proud of Maggie and the job we’ve done in raising her.
Sure, with divorce or the separation of their unmarried parents a part of the lives of close to half of children today, parents and experts alike want to put children first, at least in theory. But one of the things I have learned from the real world, and especially from my personal experience, is how hard it can be to keep our children’s best interests first in the middle of all of the emotional complications of divorce. What isn’t obvious, but what research and clinical experience can explain, is why it’s so hard and what steps can be taken to overcome the difficulties—no matter what kind of divorce you might be experiencing.
The insights in this book apply to all couples—whether they are facing angry, distant, or cooperative relationships with their exes. In the case of Danielle, she was ready to focus on Sam, but Danielle wanted the divorce. She had a new life all planned for herself. But could Frank put Sam ahead of his own emotional devastation? Could you? Or maybe the question is, can you?
My goal in writing this book is to give parents the understanding, practical advice, and, I hope, some compelling arguments for putting children first—and keeping children out of the middle—during the crisis of separation. Ideally, this means devoting a few months before your separation and two to three years afterward to working through the legal, social, practical, and especially the emotional process of divorce. My goal is to help you do with your heart and your actions the things you might know in your head you should be doing. And if you didn’t do it right from the beginning, the time to start doing it right is now. This book offers you a new understanding of this crucial time and shows you how to take steps toward building a new life and how to lay the foundation for a respectful (if, in some cases, a distant), low-conflict relationship with your ex and continuous involvement with your kids. It will help you understand the emotional realities so you can make better choices in dealing with the practical realities. Some of the key points you will learn are:
Finding Truth—and Hope—in a Time of Crisis
Emotionally, however, a divorce can take forever.
Public discussions of divorce often center on the legal, financial, and social aspects of divorce, not the emotional ones. It is all too easy to forget that the primary responsibility of parents at all times, but especially in a time of crisis like divorce, is to be parents, and the primary right of kids is to be kids. Children are at risk when parents fail to contain their own emotional issues (which then, in turn, often complicate and exacerbate their legal issues). When parents abandon their parental responsibilities in divorce, children lose one of their greatest gifts and rights: the opportunity to be children.
Reading this, you might have thought to yourself, “This is so obvious and so simple.” And in some ways it is. Yet I know from the statistics, my studies, and hundreds of personal stories, including my own, that for many people there is no harder time to be a parent or a child than in the wake of divorce.
I am convinced that professionals like me now have a more realistic, more nuanced, and in many ways a more hopeful picture of the prospects for children in divorce. This is not to diminish the real challenges and risks children face. For virtually all children, divorce is a deeply painful, difficult transition—but it does not remain so forever. Children whose parents have divorced are not “doomed” or “damned.” The vast majority of children are resilient. Yes, they are, to varying degrees, shaped by their parents’ divorce. Yes, in their eyes, divorce is a life-changing event. Yes, most wish the divorce had never occurred. Despite all of that, most children carry the marks of their parents’ divorce, but they are not permanently wounded by the experience.
The fact is, even if you have failed at your marriage, you can succeed at divorce. While some may feel that all divorces are bad, the fact is there are better divorces and there are worse divorces. Children fare better in a divorce when parents work together cooperatively and limit their children’s exposure to conflict. Dozens of studies, including my own, have found this to be true.
Children can emerge from divorce emotionally healthy and resilient, but it takes a conscientious effort—sometimes a heroic one—on the part of parents to manage the personal and legal business of divorce in a responsible, adult manner. Protecting their children demands that parents deal with their own anger, hurt, grief, fear, and longing on a schedule dictated by their children’s needs, not their own.
Parents have many specific tasks to accomplish in divorce: working through grief, reducing conflict, renegotiating their relationship, establishing a working coparenting relationship, resolving all legal issues, learning how to parent effectively on their own— to name only a few. In the best of worlds, they would do so quickly and easily so that they could be available to their children every step of the way. In that ideal divorce (an oxymoron), events would proceed in a clear, logical order. You would, for example, discuss your separation with your children when you were both ready—or at least before one of you moved out in a rage, had the other served with divorce papers, or your child heard the news from a well-meaning relative or friend.
In real life, however, people make mistakes. Things happen that are sometimes unpredictable, unexpected, and unintended. One of the most challenging aspects of divorce is not that parents have so many things to do, but that they often must do them all simultaneously when they may be feeling depressed, angry, sad, confused, anxious, and perhaps not able to be the parents they would like to be. And we can add the fears, guilt, and conflict parents have about their children to this bubbling emotional stew.
The message of this book is very simple: Children whose parents put them first from the start have a tremendous advantage over those whose parents cannot separate their feelings about their failed marriage from their feelings about the coparenting partnership that will last the rest of their lives. Most of the couples I see for the first time walk into my office thinking about the relationship they are ending. My first priority, if the marriage cannot be saved, is to convince parents to focus at the same time on the new relationship they are about to begin.
Rather than ruining my Christmas, Danielle and Frank made my holiday. At the beginning of our first session, Danielle, a confident, assertive corporate accountant, took charge. A redhead in her midthirties, Danielle was conservatively dressed, radiated a healthy glow, and had a sense of ease about who she was. For the first twenty minutes or so, she did most of the talking. As she did, I closely watched Frank, her husband of nearly fifteen years, out of the corner of my eye. Frank had the weatherworn permanent tan and lean build of a man who obviously loved working outdoors. A top landscape architect, he had a national reputation for several major corporate projects and the newly renovated local park. Sitting in my office, however, he looked deflated. He was clearly distraught as Danielle repeated in greater detail what she had told me on the telephone. She admitted to her yearlong affair with a co-worker and confessed the guilt she felt over her indiscretion and the pain it caused Frank.
Looking at me, Frank said quietly, “I’ve loved Danielle since high school. I never thought this would ever happen to us.” He reminisced about how long it had taken them to conceive Sam and how he had always believed that no one could ever have had a better family than he did. “Why?” he seemed to be asking no one in particular. “Why?” “Because . . . ,” Danielle began, as tears ran down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Frank. I’m really sorry. What can I say? I feel so guilty.”
“Right,” Frank snapped sarcastically. “Sorry if I make you feel guilty. It must be my fault.”
Frank was hurt, and he wanted to hurt back; that’s human nature. And Danielle felt guilty and defensive; that’s normal, too. What does not come naturally at a time like this is an ability to put aside these powerful emotions. I could see that Frank was at war with himself. He wanted to rage and to attack Danielle, but he knew that Sam would be devastated if he did. Frank desperately wanted Danielle back despite her affair, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit it. At the same time, he wasn’t blind to her actions and desires. He knew that he couldn’t force her to stay with him and that trying to do so would only drive her further away.
The only time Frank raised his voice was when the custody issue came up. Frank wanted sole custody of his son. His arguments about sole custody caused Danielle to lose her composure and she angrily blurted out, “If anyone should have sole custody, I should!” But when she calmed herself, Danielle made it clear that she wanted to share custody equally. Frank wanted Danielle to lose some of her time with Sam the same way he was losing her. After all, he reasoned with an edge to his voice, “Why should I lose my son for even one day a week just because she decided to cheat on me?”
Danielle looked away; I held my breath. “You’re right, Frank,” she said softly. “You shouldn’t lose. But neither should Sam.”
Frank nodded, then said sadly, “You’re right. I’m so angry with you, but this isn’t Sam’s fault, either.” Then looking at me to avoid Danielle’s gaze, he added, “He loves his mother, and she loves him. I could never stand between them.”
“We’re not here about our marriage, or even the terms of our divorce,” Danielle said, as Frank nodded silently. “I think we agree that we’re here about Sam. He doesn’t even know that we’re about to separate—”
“He doesn’t even know that Mommy and Daddy ever fight,” Frank quickly added, completing Danielle’s thought the way even parting couples sometimes do. “I know this is going to break his heart, and we worry how it may affect him.”
“We love Sam,” Danielle said. “And we want to have a plan for him. Despite the mess I’ve made of our marriage, and the horrible way it’s going to end for us, we want to do what’s best for him.”
Frank won my respect with his ability to separate his feelings from Sam’s needs, and Danielle did, too. Rather than going on the defensive, she admitted her mistakes and absorbed Frank’s anger, painful as that was. She listened, reflected, apologized, and compromised. They touched hands, and both admitted to their ambivalence about splitting up. Danielle repeatedly made it clear that she wanted a separation despite her caring for Frank. Yet she and Frank confessed to fighting one minute, crying the next, and, soon thereafter, comforting each other with a hug.
Their mixed emotions confused them. It would have been much easier to just stomp off angrily and never speak to each other again, never admit to the sadness and tenderness that accompany the anger and hurt of divorce. Fortunately for them—and especially for Sam—Danielle and Frank were mature enough to contain their own emotions and work together for their son.
In the two years since I first met them, Danielle and Frank have lived up to the promises they made for Sam’s sake. They found a way to cooperate as parents even as their marriage unraveled. Was it easy? No. Perfect? No way. Danielle and Frank took several missteps along the way. But overall they have done a remarkable job, and the first years bode well for the rest of their relationship and for Sam’s future, too.
You may be surprised to learn that almost everything I have said so far about divorce runs counter to what was considered the common professional wisdom just twenty-five years ago. In 1977, I was a graduate student in clinical psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island. As part of my graduate work, I treated a family I will never forget—a family that did not have the knowledge, support, or professional guidance to help them make the kind of decisions Danielle and Frank could make today. I have thought of them often in the years since.
My client was Beverly—attractive, thirtysomething, and recently divorced, with a seven- year-old boy, Adam, and a five-year-old girl, Hannah. Like most parents living through divorce, Beverly was struggling. She had not asked for this divorce, nor did she expect it. One day she was a happy suburban homemaker, and the next she was a divorced mom struggling with her emotions and sense of identity, her children’s emotions, her drastically reduced financial resources, and ongoing conflicts with her ex-husband, Jake. One afternoon, Beverly arrived at our session panic stricken. “I can’t believe this,” she said between tears. “The divorce was final just two months ago, Jake has already remarried, and now he’s threatening to seek full custody of Adam and Hannah.” As Beverly explained, Jake argued that he could give the children a home with two parents. And wasn’t that “better” for the children than living with only one—even if she was their mother who had provided most of the caregiving throughout their lives?
Though Jake’s argument might sound far-fetched today, it didn’t to Beverly. Her ex spoke with authority; she was full of self-doubt. He had money for a court battle; she didn’t. He spoke with a lawyer often; she spoke with a lawyer briefly, one who told her— honestly and accurately—that, technically, she should win a custody battle, but nothing was certain once one went to court.
What strikes me when I look back on this case is that although Beverly and Jake were positioning to fight over the kids, it had not occurred to anyone to fight for the kids, for something better. At that time, most child psychologists and other experts on divorce believed that the chief threat to the emotional well-being of children was the lack of having both parents, or at least two married adults, in the household.
The emotional problems of children whose parents were divorced were understood in terms of the psychological theory of the time, particularly Freudian theory, which viewed children’s emotional problems as all in their heads, seemingly ignoring the upheaval in children’s lives. At the time, almost no one focused, much less did research, on the actual turmoil caused by divorce and the toll parental conflict exacted on children. Like too many divorcing parents then—and today—Beverly and Jake naïvely assumed that the professionals and the system knew more about the consequences of divorce and could make better decisions for their children than they could. After twenty-five years of work on this topic, I am absolutely convinced that while professionals certainly can help, in the final analysis parents are by far the best experts for helping their own children through divorce. The task for parents is not to master Freudian theory (or, really, any theory), but to begin to master their own emotions so they can really put their children first.
When Beverly, who had little confidence left (much less the resolve to take on Jake in another legal fight), asked me what I thought she should do, I wondered about the very real and immediate problems for Adam and Hannah in dealing with two parents who were at war—over them. I urged Beverly to trust her feelings. She knew that her children loved and needed her. She also believed in her heart that her children needed their father, too, but she didn’t think it was possible for them to have both. Everyone—including Jake and even her own attorney—told her that it had to be one way, one parent, or the other. Was fighting this out with Jake the only way to go?
Beverly could see what a battle between her and her ex was going to do to the kids. She had told me how Adam got mad at his dad when they fought and how he screamed at him to “leave Mom alone.” Hannah withdrew into her shell during fights, and when pressed, she said in a plaintive voice, “Please don’t fight. It makes me scared!” Beverly’s observations of her children coupled with her own self-doubt left her torn with indecision.
I decided to trust my intuition and asked Beverly, “What do you think about getting the children’s father in here to talk about these things?” Today this seems so simple and so obvious. At that time, however, it was anything but. There were no textbooks or studies or experts I could cite for this approach. Still, it felt right. What I didn’t know then was that not only were most divorce professionals reluctant to encourage parents to get together to work out their problems, but they were actually reluctant to have them get together at all. There was too much fighting, too much conflict and recrimination. I now find it rather ironic that adult professionals with no emotional stake or involvement in a couple’s conflict were afraid (and I do mean afraid) to share an office for an hour or two with a divorcing couple. What about the kids who were exposed to that conflict for days, weeks, even years?
Within a few moments of Jake’s arrival at our joint meeting, I won’t say that I had second thoughts, but it was clear that this was not going to be easy. “Let me just tell you something,” Jake said in a no-nonsense voice. “My attorney is not happy that I’m here. Not happy at all. He says I’ve got a good case for getting my kids, and that’s what I think is best.” With that, he folded his arms across his chest and glared at Beverly.
She glanced at Jake, then at me, then looked down at the floor. No wonder she’s as nervous as she is, I thought. Jake was an intimidating presence. After talking a bit to Beverly and Jake, I convinced them that I wasn’t there to be on anyone’s side, only to help the two of them try to reach a decision about their children that neither of them felt coerced into. For all of his bluster, Jake was a loving dad; he would tear up at the mention of either child’s name, and he gave both kids a big, long hug when he met them in the waiting room.
Once we got through some tense moments, Jake began to relax and Beverly could see that she actually had more power in the situation than she thought. She was the expert when it came to her children. Most important, it was clear that both Jake and Beverly wanted what was best for their kids. In the neutral zone of my office, perhaps for the first time since they separated, they reached a decision about their children that did not involve a fight, personal or legal.
Why was this important? Because though the divorce had changed these children’s lives in countless ways great and small, the most immediate and potentially damaging problem was not the divorce itself but the parents’ ongoing conflict. Technically speaking, I had one client, Beverly. But divorce is a process that touches the entire family, a family transformed and maybe shaken, but a family nonetheless. I would meet with Beverly and Jake a half dozen times, and it would be a few months before I saw Adam and Hannah relaxed—smiling and laughing—in the presence of both parents, but it happened. My experience with Beverly and her family led to the subject of my doctorate and my career. My work with them also eventually led me to conduct a series of research studies that prove parents can work together even in the midst of divorce (see chapter 6)—and that doing so makes a huge difference for their children.
The key to putting children first is reducing parental conflict. Divorce mediation is one way; so is talking over your kitchen table or using lawyers who work in a collaborative as opposed to an adversarial fashion. All the little things that thousands of divorced parents do day in and day out are also incredibly important. They swallow a little of their own pain, anger, and pride, and they find a way to work together in parenting their children. It doesn’t even matter so much how they get there as when—the sooner the better.
—John Gottman, PhD, author of The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
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