Supporting Kids Through Divorce: Making the Decision to Divorce (Part 1)

By: Julie Burke, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Susan Gonzales, LPC-S

When thinking about marriage, people generally think of all of the happy aspects of it–a life together forever in pure bliss…which is everyone’s ultimate goal, right?  We can assume so.  But, what happens when things do not work out as planned?  According to the Encyclopedia of Psychology, more than 90 percent of people marry by age 50 in Western cultures, however, approximately 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce.

I am not an advocate for divorce, but I also believe circumstances are situational and, at times, it may be right for certain couples.  This will help normalize some of the emotion, decision, and reason for divorce and how to make that decision when children are involved.  

When interacting with someone once about divorce, he reported he hoped his partner agreed (and understood) that they, as a couple, did not fail, however, their time together was done.  He said so with a certain sadness in his voice, however, certainty that things were good when they were good, however, they were hanging on to a dynamics of a relationship that no longer existed.  There is a lot of judgment and shame around getting divorced and so often, different phrases around the topic get thrown around, including:

  • “We love each other. Why can’t we make it work?”
  • “You’re the perfect couple. Why couldn’t you make it work?”
  • “Whose fault is it? Why are you getting divorced?”
  • “You’re breaking up our family. How could you do this?”

The list, unfortunately, could go on and on.

When these judgments get thrown around, people are making presumptions and are not taking into consideration the many variables people encounter in their own relationships.  I was interacting with another clinician once and when talking about her own divorce, she made the comment, “Nobody wants to get divorced…it’s like having a limb amputated.  Nobody wants it, but sometimes is inevitable.”  

There is a societal pressure for couples to obey the status quo and stay together forever–because that is what is expected of them and so that we have that expectation for ourselves when we get married to a partner.  In fact, the idea that marriage should (and always will) last forever, makes people feel safe and there is comfort in that.  I should reiterate that I’m not pro-divorce or anti-marriage, by any means, but I do believe more empathy and support should exist for those making the difficult decision for dissolution of marriage.  

Divorce is intrinsically hard, but our attitudes make it harder than it needs to be. Guilt, shame, and a sense of failure significantly raise the emotional cost of divorce” – A & D Teller

So…Why Do People Get Divorced?  

Things That Predict Divorce according to the Dr. John Gottman relationship blog.  

  • The tone of conversations regarding conflict resolution and marriage/divorce.
    • If these conversations have a harsh startup and begin with criticism and/or sarcasm, it is highly likely that the conversation will end on a negative note.  
  • “The Four Horseman”
    • Criticism of your partner.  
    • Communicating with contempt.  This can include treating your partner with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language (eg: eye rolling).
    • Defensiveness.  This is quite common when there is a lot of conflict or it feels like your relationship is on the rocks.  In the moment, it can make sense to be defensive over actions (and it’s the easier thing to do), but it ultimately can be a way to blame your partner for something.  
      • Partner A: “You said you would pay the insurance bill this morning.  Did you do it yet?”
      • Partner B: “I was extremely busy today and you knew that.  Why didn’t you just do it?”  

(as opposed to)

      • Partner A: “You said you would pay the insurance bill this morning.  Did you do it yet?”
      • Partner B: “I was extremely busy today and completely forgot.  I’m sorry.  I will pay it in a few minutes, unless you could help me?”  
    • Stonewalling–this occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction.  This can look like a variety of things (eg: tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors).  
  • Body Language/Responsiveness
    • Watch this video of Dr. Dan Siegel discussing brain biology and the idea of a “flipped lid”.  The video explains, neurologically, what is happening in your brain when you are angry and why people are unable to think logically in bouts of intense emotion.  Keep this in mind next time you and your partner are in conflict so you can know how what you need before you try to discuss (and resolve) the issue.    
    • Additionally, as mentioned above (when communicating with contempt)–be mindful of your body language and interactions with your partner.  Be aware of how you are communicating with your body–are you rolling your eyes or closing yourself off from your partner?
  • Failed Repair Attempts.  Repair attempts are efforts a couple makes to deescalate the tensions during a discussion; the failure of these attempts is an accurate marker for an unhappy future.  
  • Memories of the Relationship
    • How do you reflect time spent together in the relationship?  Do you have fond memories?  How do you discuss former struggles experienced in the relationship?  Reflecting on emotions and interactions from “then to now” and seeing how things have changed (for better or worse) can be very telling of the connectivity of the relationship.  

Tips For Making a Decision That Feels Right For You

  • Surround yourself with people who will be supportive of you.  
    • You don’t want to be around people who are pushy and will antagonize you for not leaving soon enough, but you also should have people who can gently call you out when needed.  
      • You don’t want someone who repeatedly tells you “Leave your partner…they’re no good for you” but you also don’t want to live in denial and have your support system let you continue doing that.  You should be supported, but also held accountable.  
    • Similarly, you should part ways who are critical or judgmental of you and what you are going through.  
  • Get professional help.  
    • Going to therapy will help have an objective view of the situation.  Therapists will have no agenda on whether you stay or leave and may help you weigh out your options and think, hypothetically, about life in different scenarios.  
  • Be honest with your partner.  
    • These conversations can be difficult to have, but it’s imperative.  There is also a way to do this without being rude or angry and placing blame.  This will also be necessary, if you have children, for co-parenting purposes.  Communicating assertively allows people to be kind and firm at the same time and creates a setting for honest discussion and (ideally) decreases the opportunity for dismissive and/or passive aggressive responses.
    • Often, people appear to be seemingly happy; however, if one partner has been contemplating leaving for months and then they share that desire with their significant other, the significant other feels derailed, humiliated and completely caught off guard.  This happens more than people would like to admit for a variety of reasons.  Most often, one partner in the relationship is “conflict-avoidant” and will do everything necessary to avoid any kind of discord–and may even act as if everything is fine (and even to the extreme that they believe everything is fine).  But that dishonesty with yourself and your emotions can only go on for so long.  But because everything seems fine, people are inevitably confused when someone comes home and out of the blue states, “I want out of this marriage”.  It’s confusing and unfair and is a result of not being honest with your partner.  
  • Be gentle with yourself.  
    • Divorce is a sad, scary, and difficult decision.  When making this decision, take care of yourself in the process.  
    • Self-care can look like a number of things so you have to do what’s right for you–whether it’s journaling, exercising, meditating…anything that feels right and helps clear you mind (as much as possible).  

This decision will undoubtedly be a difficult one, so it’s best to make a decision that feels right for you.  

What About If We Have Kids? How Does That Work?

Many couples choose to stay together for the sake of their children and wanting to do what is best for their kids.  This leads to many other questions, then–if I want to stay for the sake of my children, when do we get divorced?  Do I wait till they’re a certain age?  How do I protect them from divorce?  What does that look like?  

The truth of the matter is, there is never really an “ideal” time for a divorce–with or without children.  Adult influence and parent interactions do impact a child’s well-being, however, the timing of a divorce isn’t necessarily the most significant factor.  I know someone whose parents got divorced when he was in middle school; he reported only having positive memories of his parent’s separation and feeling supported by both.  I also know someone whose parents waited until she was a young adult to get divorced; this left her confused and frustrated with her parents–believing what she knew about marriage and love her entire life were not authentic.  

Divorce will not damage children or leave them jaded when they think about love, however, that requires cohesiveness and teamwork from both parents–even if the divorce is not amicable.  Here are tips on how to help your children adjust and thrive during a divorce:

  • Strive for cooperative co-parenting and minimize conflict with their other parent
  • Establish stability and a reliable routine
  • Reassure your children that you both love them and will continue to be a family
  • Ensure your children know that it is not their fault
  • Get help to recuperate from your own sadness and/or anger  
  • Consult with professionals for help for your children, too, during the transition.  If nothing else, it will help them express their emotions and talk about the transition(s) and what that means

At the end of the day, making the decision to get a divorce will be emotional, difficult, and probably scary; making that decision when you have children likely amplifies any and all emotions that are being experienced.  It is important for you to take care of yourself and do what feels right (and what will be best) for you.  Know that children are resilient and, with proper parental support and co-parenting, you can help them navigate the various uncertainties and tasks of childhood–just as you would if you were married to your partner.