Travelling to my second school drop-off the other day, I was listening to the Patrick Madrid Show and he was discussing the Fatima apparitions, the breakdown of marriages, and divorce’s impact on families. My daughter, 13, was sitting next to me. We were both quiet, so I inquired if she was listening, and she said, “Yes.” I paused a few seconds and said what I had a dozen or so times since her mom and I divorced several years ago, “I’m sorry.” Her response was a quick, “It’s ok.” And I responded back, “No, it’s not, but I know you and your brother will be.” We both looked at each other and shared a moment of understanding. After dropping her at school and reminding her again that I love her, I thought of a previous experience.
About a year ago I stumbled onto a friend’s lively Facebook discussion about divorce. The premise was that divorce is horrible and that there is no such thing as a good divorce. True enough, I thought then, but it is not that simple. Being my daring self, I jumped into the discussion and submitted that while divorce is indeed horrible and everything should be done to preserve a marital covenant, there are ways to make divorce less impactful on kids. You would think I had detonated a bomb, as I quickly faced many objections. Eventually, though, a few eventually sought some understanding about my point.
Divorce As A Death In The Family
Dennis Prager said a few years ago, paraphrasing, that divorce is somewhat like a death in the family. It is a single event, and a very tragic one, but how parents handle that event largely determines how children will be impacted. I found Dennis’ words to be very profound, and they have stuck with me. Divorcing parents have a choice to make: Is their divorce going to be a single, onetime event from which the family all suffers great loss and begins to move on and heal as time passes, or is it going to be an ongoing event relived with every phone call, drop off, pick up, shared expense, holiday, vacation, and family decision?
We all know people who have divorced, and we have seen how it affects their children. Some situations are clearly better than others, but when pride, ego, and vindictiveness remain part of the equation – often many years later – we typically see such situations at their worst. I know parents who still fight all the time, years after their divorce, years after getting remarried. I know some who refuse to cooperate and be flexible even for major life events. I also know parents who still will not drop their own kids at each other’s houses, and who have to converse through mediators. Worse, I have witnessed some of their kids go through agony as a result, and end up resenting one parent or the other, or both. Too often some kids believe the problems are their fault, and seek unhealthy ways to ease their pain. Every conflict, disparaging remark, or jab at the other parent is essentially a knife in their kids’ hearts. The parents – sometimes just one or the other – refuse to get over the break-up, and ultimately punish their kids through the unceasing, spiteful behavior, again and again, day after day, for something in which their kids had no fault.
Divorce happens for a variety of reasons. Those familiar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding divorce certainly understand the implications from a faith perspective. It is a very tragic thing when it occurs, and it is exponentially worse when children are involved. Eight years later, I still consider my divorce my biggest life failing, and I am guessing it always will be. And it is not something I can undo at Confession. But as I did in that Facebook conversation, I still contend that if divorce has happened, there are ways to lessen the impact on one’s children. By how much, I do not think we can quantify, but it requires parents putting their kids first, and I think the kids themselves ultimately reflect those efforts.
Suggestions For Not Compounding The Pain Of Divorce 1-5
There are many things to think about after a divorce, and many emotions are experienced. Below are ten suggestions for those already divorced who are actively seeking to lessen the long-term impact on their children. I understand every situation is different, but I have found these to be helpful. The key is to make an effort. First, as Dennis Prager suggests, try to treat the divorce as one terrible, painful life event, even though there are marital and spiritual implications that last much longer for the parents. If it is recent, everyone understands your mourning, weeping, and needing time for recovery. You should take the time you need and seek help from qualified, faith-based people if necessary. Most friends, I would submit, are not qualified, and often make things much worse, albeit unintentionally. They often take sides and offer spiteful suggestions that sound appealing, but ultimately have a negative impact on kids.
Second, you need to decide who you are, and who you are going to be given this dramatic change in life; this is essential! If you were the non-initiating party, are you now a person scorned who cannot get past the rejection and who is going to see your former spouse’s destruction at all costs, children and all others be damned? Or, are you still a loving mother or father who wants what is best for your kids, and is willing to make that happen, despite the change in life and a loss of a spouse? If you were the initiating party, is this the time to set aside your faith and start dating or enjoying your new freedom by catching up for “lost years?” Or, are you a loving parent who wants to ensure your kids are cared for as best they can be given the new circumstance? Who you are is critical to who your kids will be. If you remain vindictive and spiteful, or too carefree and hedonistic, your kids will follow suit. Be aware of what you are projecting.
Third, do your best to recognize your former spouse as an equal parent, and more importantly, forgive them. Whatever your spouse did or did not do to end up in a failed marriage, they are human and a child of God, and you cannot enter Heaven unless you forgive those who have trespassed against you. As Catholics, we understand well that people are flawed and sinful. We are oriented toward sin and must fight temptations throughout our lives to be just good, let alone holy. Working on forgiveness early will save your kids much unnecessary strife, and you much heartache in the long term.
Fourth, though things are very different for you and your kids, try to keep as many things as normal for them as possible. Do not let your new single life get in the way of being there for your kids, even if they are with the other parent. And if you get a Decree of Nullity and start dating, do not let new relationships interfere with those of your kids. Your vocation is still parenting first, and it is not a part-time responsibility. Call your kids to check on them each day and tell them you love them. When sports or other events are involved, try to never miss a game, and share in the excitement of a win, or the pain of a defeat, with them, and your former spouse if present. Do not be the parent who must stand at one end of the field if your former spouse is at the other. Such public displays of separation only hurt your kids.
Fifth, try to share holidays and be flexible to your former spouse’s, and kids’ needs. Understanding the court has likely prescribed a plan, be open to being flexible for the sake of your kids and their lives. Don’t be rigid for the sake of following the “rule of law” and your own convenience. Also, be flexible with pick-ups and drop-offs when you can be. When you do these things, kids can witness their parents working together and acting like adults, which is what we strive for them to become one day.
Suggestions For Not Compounding The Pain Of Divorce 6-10
Sixth, raise your kids together, though separately. What I mean is make decisions together, as parents. There should not be one set of rules at mom’s and another at dad’s. It only confuses the kids. Parenting is a partnership, so find ways to put your kids’ best interests first, together. Do not let your kids play one parent off the other, and when your kids need to be punished, work on it together. When a parent tries to be the “cool” or the “friend” parent, it undermines the kids’ stability and relationships with both parents.
Seventh, be a better, more attentive parent than you were before, especially if you work(ed) away from the home. Though you can never fill in for the absence of the other parent, it is critical to make sure your kids know they are loved, unconditionally, at both houses, and by both parents. It is also important to underscore and recognize both extended families. Kids come from two parents, and thus they need to keep the relationships on both family sides intact and much as possible. And if you do eventually get a Decree of Nullity and remarry, do not try to replace the other parent with the new spouse. No one will ever replace their mom or dad.
Eighth, and this may be hard initially, try to treat the other parent as you would a friend. This goes beyond just forgiveness. They are your kids’ mother or father, and you did presumably love them at one point. Even if you are not sure, your kids do love them. Do not make their love seem wrong or misdirected, even if you think yours might have been. Tell your kids complementary things about their other parent when situations arise. Thank them when they do good things, or try to do good things, even when you might have done something differently. After a divorce, it is easy to nitpick and find fault, but it only makes us look petty, and affects our kids, who are God-given products of that same “flawed” parent.
Ninth, live your faith. Go to Mass and celebrate the sacraments with the kids. If your faith is not strong, seek assistance in Christ’s saving grace via a priest, deacon, or other. I found great solace there, and in Church teachings, and was eventually driven to study my faith much more deeply. As such, I am better able to pass on my faith to my kids, and help them better comprehend our family’s situation on a more spiritual level. They understand that they have two parents who made mistakes, are still nowhere near perfect, but work together to never squander an ounce of love they deserve. Also, pray for your former spouse, regularly, and of course your kids.
Last, but not at all least, remind your kids that the divorce is not their fault. And tell them again. And again when you think they might need to hear it. Make them understand that they are innocent victims of circumstance, and in no way responsible. Help them understand that they are unconditionally loved by both parents, even if one parent may do it better. And importantly, do not cast blame for a divorce on the other spouse, especially to young kids, no matter how clear cut you believe the evidence. Besides, no matter what you think at this moment, marriages usually fail for a variety of reasons – some of which do not get uncovered until after many years of reflection and introspection.
Barring special circumstances, divorce is never a good or preferable choice for Catholic parents. Yet it happens. We can chastise and judge those who have divorced, and ignore the fact that we have not walked in their shoes, but I am not sure how that helps anyone. Or we can instead try to prevent such occurrences among our friends and family in the future by mitigating the best we can the issues in our own lives, and helping counsel others both in divorce avoidance, and family healing after the fact. As a divorced father, I choose the latter, and I am hoping to help kids not get permanently devastated as a result of a divorce.
A divorce is never easy nor non-impactful, but it can be an infectious disease that spreads throughout the family, impacting generations, or it can be a single blow from which all parties work to heal for the sake of each other, but especially shared children. The aforementioned suggestions I set forth do not represent an exhaustive list, but are all things I have done and continue to do, which have helped allow my former spouse and me to have a good relationship. I know that pain, anger, and so many other emotions are part of the crosses we carry, and that others may be in different places emotionally and spiritually. I recommend thus trying to recall what Christ did for our sins, and more importantly, why He forgives us and continues to do it regularly. If you find it hard to forgive your spouse and move past the divorce for your own sake, do it as Christ does for you, and for the unique and beautiful blessings of children He created for you during your marriage.