A Broken Family or a Restructured Family?

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Does divorce have to break a family completely, or can a family emerge from a split in a restructured form that is healthy and hopeful?   Similar to debt restructure in bankruptcy, restructuring a life can be painful, uncertain, promising, challenging, and ultimately either provide a new framework for a satisfying life OR lead down to a path of destruction.  Viability is determined not by the decision to restructure, but by the careful planning and steps taken after the decision has been made.

The following excerpt downloaded May 11, 2010 from Children and marital conflict: the impact of family dispute and resolution by E. Mark Cummings, Patrick Davies notes that it is not necessarily the divorce, but the level of ongoing conflict that affects children in a negative way:

It is increasingly recognized that the way children function after their parents are divorced depends on the quality of the family environment during the period surrounding the marital separation.  One of the most important aspects of the family environment for children whose parents are divorcing is the level of parental fighting.  In fact, parental fighting is actually a better forecaster of children’s functioning after the divorce than the changes in the parents’ marital status (from intact to separated to divorced) and the children’s subsequent separation from a parent.  That is, high levels of marital conflict are more closely related to children’s behavior problems than family structure per se."
(Amato & Keith, 1991; Emery, 1982, 1988; Rutter 1979).

What can be done to promote peace and reduce conflict during separation, divorce, and post-divorce stages?  Seven topics will be explored:  Acknowledge Connection Points and Limitations, Build a Broad Safety Net, Evaluate your Work/Life Balance, Look for the Good, Be Thankful. Decide How Much to Share,  The Right to Know / The Right to Speak.

Acknowledge Connection Points and Limitations. Intimate relationships require many areas of connection to be satisfying; some connections can be made and strengthened over time, but a few are handed to us in a more or less unyielding state.  It is mature to acknowledge our limited control over another person’s choices and behaviors; we can only work at building discipline and pleasing qualities into our own behaviors.

Areas of potential change and strengthening within a marriage include:

  • building cohesive philosophies about parenting styles
  • finances and spending habits
  • religious beliefs
  • matching the other’s sexual desire
  • agreement about employment commitments and educational opportunities

Other qualities have less potential for change:

  • physical and mental health
  • energy levels
  • intellect
  • the ability to read social cues with accuracy
  • social introversion or extroversion

The greater the ability to meet a partner on many levels, the more satisfying a relationship can be.   When a marriage is bankrupt of connections, separation may produce a better outcome for your life and for your children’s well being than remaining in a virtual war zone.

Build a Broad Safety Net.  Where are your supports?  Where are the greatest supports for your children?  It is essential to develop and maintain supportive relationships; this is true for any stable life and particularly important for times of transition.  Do you have supportive family members or close friendships who you can call on during and after the divorce transition?  If not, this should become a primary focus.  It is essential to work on creating a supportive network where you are now.

Join a group such as Parents without Partners or a Divorce Recovery Group to build connections with others who understand what you are going through.  Get involved with your children’s school or youth group – you will find other parents who have children of a similar age and stage as your own.  Find other single parents to swap babysitting so that you can recharge your batteries; this has the added benefit of allowing your children to build friendships with other kids who have experienced a divorce also.  If the grandparents are uninvolved or live far away, find other elderly people who enjoy children and might be willing to fill a substitute role of grandparent to your children.  Friends are the family we make for ourselves!

Diligently foster that most precious relationship with your own children - the greatest support you will enjoy for the rest of your life.  Create positive memories during this transition time by reading together, cooking interesting meals, long bike rides, turn up the radio and dance together.  Choose activities that cost little money but offer the potential for wonderful memories.  Engage God in the conversation of your daily life – to those who ask, He can be a ready help in the time of need.

Evaluate your Work/Life Balance.  When do you have time to be together as a family in a relaxed state?  Do you cook together, play board games, read together?  Do you really know your children as people – their dreams, friends, struggles, and triumphs?  Do they know you as not only their parent but also as a person with goals, desires, memories, and philosophies of your own?  The concept of “quality family time” when there is little “quantity” may simply be a myth.  My frequent comment to divorcing couples is, “Never sacrifice the temporary on the altar of the permanent.”

We take for granted that children need to be in several extracurricular activities, parents need to go to the gym; are there activities that can be combined into full family participation rather than individual endeavors?   As parents, we have the ability to direct a more relaxed and quality family life.  Sometimes it is simply a matter of slowing down and involving each other in the mundane chores rather than using a compartmentalized approach of “you do this, I’ll do that”.   

If balance is an area in need of restructuring, carefully consider the requirements placed on you by your current profession.  Work can be a wonderful escape from an unhappy personal life if you enjoy your profession; however, your children may be extremely frightened during such a pronounced transition as divorce.  Ask yourself, “Can I meet the emotional needs of my kids with my present job?”  If not, is it possible to modify your current position or find a new job or occupation that allows you to build in more flexibility?  You may consider a less stressful occupation, or working shifts such as a 4 by 10 or 3 by 12 in order to have fewer days away in favor of concentrated time at home.  Consider taking a mental health day as a family – suspend outside obligations to work and school in favor of a time of bonding together.  The same evaluation is necessary for your children’s activities.  With each child going to different sporting, musical, and recreational activities, does your family have a chance to enjoy each other?  The relationships between siblings and between parents and children are precious.  When nurtured properly, they are strong bonds that follow us throughout our lifetimes.  The strengthening of these relationships requires cognition of their importance and placing them in higher priority than other things in life.

During my divorce, my elementary-aged children were on opposite tracks of a year-around school system.  There was no overlapping time off from school, such as the summer break in a traditional school.  I decided that we, as a restructuring family, needed to connect, relax, and have fun.  We loaded up the car, drove 1,000 miles round trip to Yellowstone National Park, and camped our way to precious memories that we still laugh about and remember today.  Did my kids suffer from missing a week’s worth of school?  Hardly.  Would they have suffered from not experiencing the love that we shared and mutual support of each other during our family restructure?  Absolutely!

Look for the Good.  Catching your children (or even your soon to be ex-spouse) being good and praising them for their accomplishments greatly improves self-esteem and confidence.   Praise is a perfect example of “Low Cost / High Value”.  It costs nothing to acknowledge another with extreme appreciation, yet the high value of such a complement or acknowledgement is often of long term importance.  Use humor liberally.  Pick up Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and enjoy reading silly poems to each other.

Try to find the positive in your ex-spouse’s new partner.  It is possible that they may add an additional layer of safety and acceptance for the children.  Remember the proverb, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”  The new partner may be difficult to accept initially; however, many restructured families have successfully created supportive relationships between ex-spouses and new partners, creating an unusual but meaningful “extended family.”

If you are exiting a marriage that has been particularly contentious, find one or two good things that you can honestly say about your ex-spouse (“Your dad always pays his child support on time, every time…”  “Your mom loves to help you with your homework because she is interested in your education and future…”    “Your mom/dad is working very hard to get through school so she/he can take the best care of you in the future…”).  Be ridiculously habitual in reminding the children of the good point(s) in the other parent.  Try to refrain from saying negative things or paying false compliments, because children are very observant and see for themselves.  Accurate assessments provide congruence between messages and realities, and children learn to either trust or disregard a parent’s evaluation based on this congruence.

Be Thankful.  No one enters into marriage with the plan to divorce.  The painful disentanglement of two lives can, however, provide an unlikely impetus for re-evaluation of many areas of our personal lives in an honest manner not possible when things are good.  If you are escaping an abusive or unhappy relationship, be thankful if you have a peaceful new home of your very own to return to at the end of the day.  If you were previously a homemaker, be thankful if you find a job that provides interest or intellectual challenge; making your own money has its own rewards in terms of building confidence.  If you have the opportunity to go back to school to improve your employment possibilities, enjoy the new community of friends in your classes.  Life is particularly difficult for the first year after a separation or divorce.  But after this transition, many newly-single people report that life is satisfying and rich in possibilities.  Remember the good that existed between you and your former spouse.  If you had children together, this is a blessing for a lifetime that would not have been possible without the prior relationship.  If your former partner participates in the life of your child, celebrate the fact that your children have two parents that love them so much.  Enjoy the free time you have while your child is enjoying time with the other parent.  Look for opportunities to be grateful and say “thanks” often.

Decide How Much to Share.  Others in your community have, at best, an incomplete knowledge of what the marriage has been.  Inaccurate opinions of each spouse’s performance exist because no one can truly understand what the marriage experience has been like except those involved.  Each person must conduct a “cost/benefit analysis” of setting the record straight.  The necessity of making these decisions of disclosure or privacy in the midst of our greatest psychological pain is particularly harsh, because it comes at a time of needing support the most.  Deciding what to say to whom, and when to say it, will have its own benefits and consequences.  The Indigo Girls sing about “working through the grammar of my fears” “that I might reap the praise of strangers and end up on my own.”

The willingness to share or maintain privacy about the reasons for divorce can be influenced by any number of factors, including personality type, generational or cultural values, political/public image reasons, religious teaching, etc.  If a spouse chooses to withhold the reasons for the divorce from their children and community in order to “protect” their ex, it can backfire.  If both spouses commit to keeping private matters private, this may yield the best results.  Trouble is found when one is silent and the other spins a story to slant public opinion to their favor.  Lacking accurate information (affairs, vices, physical abuse, etc.) the community may withdraw support and children may draw inaccurate conclusions about their parent’s divorce that follow painfully into adult parent/child relationships.  A silent spouse may suffer lifelong judgments and alienation of their adult children and community.

Some are willing to talk at length to anyone willing to listen.  Our current culture has a multitude of media avenues to “tell all”, and the broadcasted dishing of dirt on high profile divorcing couples is common place.  Discretion may be simply a peripheral tinge of an afterthought.  Yet children are not able to process and evaluate matters beyond their scope of understanding and experience.  Too much information may lead to depression, high anxiety and fear, and acting out in unacceptable ways.  Additionally, children need heroes, and their first heroes are usually their parents.  Sanding the shine off of the other parent may embitter your children and create despondency in them.  There is an appropriate time to talk to your children.  It may be when they are older and demonstrate an ability to evaluate more complex situations.  It may be never.  The choice is yours, and once said, it cannot be taken back.  Be as gracious as possible.

The Right to Know / The Right to Speak

The social stigma of divorce can be hurtful.  A spouse who is left, not of their own choosing, may hear from friends, “It takes two to tango.”  This can be particularly harsh when the spouse is side-swiped with a sudden demand for divorce in a marriage previously thought to be going well.  Friendships may begin to chill with married friends seeking to insulate their own marriage from a similar fate or to protect against the possibility of an affair with the divorcing friend.  As ludicrous as this may seem to one getting divorced, it seems to be a common reality.  Divorce changes other relationships.

This is the time to protect your heart; this is the time to evaluate other relationships that may need restructuring.  Carefully listen to clues your support circle is giving you.  Do you detect judgment or acceptance?  Are your friends able to give you honest clues that are helpful and should be listened to, even if they are painful?  Weigh the messages your friends convey against your assessment of their own success in making good choices.  Do you respect their opinions and advice?

Not everyone has the right to know the fine details of your divorce.  Your parents may be devoutly supportive of you, with their love covering over the obvious contributions you may have made to the split.  Other times, parents can be honest with a graciousness that gives you an opportunity to understand yourself in a new way that might be helpful in the future.  

We discover previously hidden qualities and capabilities in ourselves during any major transition.  Stevie Nicks question in her song Landslide, “Can I handle the seasons of my life?” is an honest one.  We either surprise ourselves with a strength we didn’t know we possessed, or we can choose to shrink into a smaller self, ignoring the opportunity for growth.

As a family mediator, I’ve been contacted by grandparents over the years who have been extremely involved in their grandchildren’s lives, assuming many parental duties that the parents did not perform.  Whatever causes the situation (sheer love & joy of having grandkids, a parent’s drug problem, financially lack, career obligations, mental illness, etc.) the children bond with this alternate parental figure and learn to rely upon them for their needs to be met.  In creating divorce agreements when there has been significant support from a grandparent or other supportive person, it is very wise to address this relationship and grant continuing rights of the grandparent to see the children on an ongoing basis.  It may seem obvious that the relationship will continue, but if one parent dies or moves out of state, significant changes may be experienced.  In restructuring your life, don’t fail to address and honor those relationships that have been truly important.  It’s not about what makes you happy; it’s about what works for the kids and about honoring the investments of others into your family’s lives.

Divorce rates have climbed dramatically in the last 100 years.  Along with this climb comes a level of social acceptance, legal enforcement for payment of child support, judicial accessibility (court forms are generally accessible online), etc.  While divorce can be devastating, it can also be a transition point that leads to personal growth and future satisfaction.