5 Inconvenient Truths about Divorcing with Children

By Rebecca Bitton

Gwyneth Paltrow annoyed millions when she referred to her impending divorce from Chris Martin as “conscious uncoupling.” I find it noble that they’re attempting to split amicably; however, framing this as some kind of enticing spiritual experience belies the reality of how difficult divorce is when children are involved. I see no point in sugar-coating. I’m in the midst of separation with two kids and I can attest, it’s best to face the truth, have strategies for coping and support lined up.

Here are 5 Inconvenient Truths about Divorcing with Children:

1. Kids are not THAT resilient. 
When I told a friend I was getting divorced, he asked, “Why don’t you just run over your kids with a truck?” Immediately, I knew he “got it.” Most divorcing parents hear repeatedly that “kids are resilient.” This platitude sets up very unrealistic expectations. In the same vein, the notion that “if you are okay, your kids will be okay” is also an exaggeration. While you must take care of yourself and stabilize as quickly as possible, your children are not extensions of you; they have their own interpretations, their own desires and their own processes. In fact, if children are experiencing grief or struggling to comprehend, it can be disturbing and offensive when parents are glib or celebratory. Even if divorce makes perfect sense to you, it most likely does not make sense to your children. They should be allowed to see it from their own perspectives and not talked out of that. Rather, help them work toward acceptance while understanding how their new lives will operate. Allow them to heal in their own time (which could take many years). Don’t be defensive or shut down their experiences of what is happening.

2. Most likely one, if not both spouses, will flip out (at least temporarily).
Divorce can propel one or both spouses into destitution, depression, and even physical jeopardy. Likely, the “left spouse” will feel screwed over, betrayed, distraught, desperate, terrified, abandoned, vengeful or some combination of negative emotions. These feelings may not be comprehensible to the other spouse who feels some equally potent mix of heightened emotions (perhaps even relief and elation). So, a cycle of misunderstanding and defensiveness is set in motion. In the middle of all of this upheaval are children who need present, stable parents. Both spouses must remember that the well-being of your ex directly impacts that of your children. That doesn’t mean you should accept manipulation or unreasonable settlements; it means temper your behavior with the awareness that, because you created children with this person, you may not be able to cut ties as swiftly and easily as you’d like. It is essential to employ a great deal of empathy, as well as patience, when managing communication with an ex.

3. Many problems don’t go away (and the ones that do, get replaced by new ones).
Ah, the biggest bitch about divorcing someone with whom you’ve had children is that you still have to deal with them on a regular basis. The things that pissed you off about your ex will still piss you off. In fact, I’ve observed that, at least temporarily, most spouses become the worst versions of themselves during divorce. There are huge paradigm shifts when a family breaks up and new problems emerge in the process. Do the spouses keep agreements? Is there enough money for two households? Are new partners or lovers being introduced to the children? Are the parents abiding by common child-rearing methods or contradicting each other? Is one parent absent? Is one parent bad-mouthing the other? Are the kids falling apart, acting out or struggling to adapt? The list of issues that may arise is endless. Obviously, there were problems in the marriage that precipitated the divorce but just know that there is no panacea. Relative freedom comes at a price and it can take time to feel that it’s worth that cost.

4. Divorce is a failure.
Two people make a legal commitment to stay together for a lifetime. By definition, divorce is reneging on that agreement. Yes, you failed to keep that commitment — I’m not judging — I did too; I’m just calling a spade a spade. People like to reframe experiences in a way that feels more comfortable and less damning (e.g., “conscious uncoupling”). I get that, but we all fail sometimes. Can’t we admit that we’ve failed? Healing from divorce requires a great deal of forgiveness on the part of all parties involved. If you can’t even admit that you failed, how do you even know what to apologize for? This is not to say there aren’t valid reasons to divorce. We humans make mistakes and fail a lot; hopefully we glean something in the process.

5. This ain’t no Eat, Pray, Love. 
Certainly, being wealthy can make divorce significantly less stressful. But if you’re a parent, there’s no amount of money that will afford you the ability to set off on a personal pilgrimage AND be a half-decent parent in the process. Even if I had the means, I wouldn’t trade my time with my kids for hot romances, meditating on a mountain or decadent meals in exotic locales (although that does sound enticing). And while, in my worst moments, I’ve contemplated driving north and never turning back, the reality is, I’d happily settle for a night out, a yoga class, or even just a decent stretch of sleep. Living is stressful, parenting is stressful, living and parenting while going through divorce is a whole other level. You have to process your own pain and upheaval while managing that of your children. The presentation of divorce as some sort of personal renaissance is rather distasteful to me. There are certainly opportunities borne out of all struggles. If I were clubbed in the knees tomorrow, I would gain strength and self-love in the process of recovering; that does not mean I want to get clubbed in the knees, nor do I recommend it!

As for “conscious uncoupling,” that strikes me as a fancy way of labeling something that many of us parents are already in the trenches doing — attempting to soften the blow of divorce by getting along with our exes. But let’s be real here. There is no pleasant way to skin a cat and there is no pain-free way to divorce, especially with children.