Just like when you announce any other life event, like marriage or having a baby, if you announce you’re getting a divorce, opinions will abound. Your loved ones just want to help, but some of their advice will just be bad. How do you know what will help you through this difficult process, and what is well-intentioned nonsense? Today, a licensed marriage and family therapist is going to help you wade through the worst advice for couples considering divorce, and steer you in the right direction.
“Stay together for the kids.”
Let me begin by saying that no one is disputing the benefits of a healthy, two-parent household. And of course, that’s what goes through the minds of those who give this classic piece of misguided advice. Unfortunately, if the marriage is unhealthy enough to warrant considering divorce, it’s highly likely that the effects are already seeping into the children’s awareness. Children are resilient, but they’re also much more intuitive than we give them credit for. They know when you’re unhappy and can sense a shift in their home environment when you’re fighting. They are also extremely caring, pure creatures who will try to protect and comfort you in what small ways they can. While there’s nothing better than some extra love from your kiddos, their job is to be kids. And that does not involve comforting you, or otherwise monitoring their behavior for your sake. In short, don’t assume that they’re blind to these adult issues just because they’re children, and don’t put them in a position to become tiny adults before their time.
Any reference to “divorce” as a “failed marriage.”
Sure, this isn’t advice per se, but it is important to recognize that a lot of people think “divorce” is synonymous with a “failed marriage, so this falls into the category of assumptions about your life that can really hurt. The connotation is that you have failed because you’re considering divorce, and that evokes shame. But where is the failure in having created children whom you love with all your heart? Where is the failure in the personal growth and self-respect that it takes to come to this decision? Where is the failure in having put your heart and soul into something, even if it doesn’t work in the end? My friends, the only failure in the world is a failure to try. And if you’ve done that, the term “failed marriage” certainly does not apply.
“Don’t be angry with your ex.”
This piece of advice is in the ranks with “hey, don’t be sad!” Or “there’s so much to smile about!”
Yes, there is. But you are also perfectly within your right to be blindingly angry. Or gut-wrenchingly sad. Or empty. Or excited. Those who offer this advice love you so much that they don’t want to see you in pain. But that’s about them, not you! You deserve to feel whatever you’re feeling, even if it makes others uncomfortable at times.
That being said, your emotions do not give you the right to act out. There is a difference between your emotion of anger (or sadness, excitement, etc) and the corresponding behaviors that you choose. Anger, for example is a secondary emotion. I often call it a “bodyguard emotion.” It’s protecting those more vulnerable ones underneath like sadness, loneliness, and fear, and it often leads to behaviors that look like “acting out.” While you have every right to feel angry, make sure you’re aware of what lies under the surface, and that you have an arsenal of healthy coping skills for the emotions you face. Individual therapy can help you with this.
Or the converse: “Cut off all ties to your ex ASAP.”
This one likely comes from those who have contentious relationships with their own ex-partners, but that does not have to be you (unless there is abuse). Some people will even go so far as to say that you should file a restraining order against your partner so you don’t have to communicate with them, and you’re more likely to get what you want in court. I hope it goes without saying that this does a great deal more harm than good. For one thing, it’s difficult enough for real victims of abuse to gain rightful retribution because of people who abuse the system this way. It’s also poor execution of dealing with your anger. Go back and read the last paragraph one more time 🙂
Another reason NOT to cut off all ties when you’re considering divorce is the negative effects this behavior can have on your kids. Demonizing your spouse is demonizing half of your child. Of course, you don’t mean it that way. But they don’t know that. They may begin to think that you hate the parts of them that are “just like their mother/father.” Of, even if they know you love them wholeheartedly, they may begin to fear that they’ll end up just like the person you hate most. This behavior is not a recipe for good self-esteem.
“Don’t allow access to the kids without receiving child support” or its buddy “don’t give child support unless you’re seeing the kids.”
I hope the heading alone reveals the conundrum this behavior will leave you with. Of course, people offering this advice only want to protect you and your children, but at what cost? If you make spending time with the kids transactional, it’s a slippery slope toward making love for them look conditional. As adults, again, we know that it’s not, but kids don’t have the capacity for that depth of understanding.
In the case of withholding the children until you receive the money, the message being sent to the kids is that you need to protect them from their other parent until a certain amount of money has been reached. At that point, they are left either confused about their level of safety with that parent, or thinking that their safety is only worth a certain amount of money. In the case of withholding child support unless you have access to the kids, the message is that you have conditions to be met before you care for your children’s wellbeing. After all, that’s what the money is for.
“Push through the divorce as quickly as possible” or the reverse “drag it out.”
The well-intentioned people who suggest you push a divorce along quickly are thinking of your wallet. There’s no denying that divorce is expensive. However, if you prioritize your budget, you may be doing so at the cost of your familial relationships. Divorce is a restructuring of your family, not a cut-off from them. Creating a workable plan for that restructuring will take time, attention, and yes, money. The alternative is not fighting enough for what you need, or not fighting enough for your children. The repercussions of the latter are twofold– your children may not see how much you care for them, and you’ll miss them.
Someone who tells you to drag it out, on the other hand, is being spiteful on your behalf. I urge you again to consider your priorities and find healthy ways to cope with your emotions. You have every right to be in unimaginable pain at a time when you’re considering divorce, or in the middle of one. But that does not give you a right to be spiteful. In fact, this will come back to bite you in both lawyer fees and strained relationships.
“Protect yourself in the divorce first.”
This piece of bad advice comes again from people who want to protect you. But assuming you’re co-parenting with your ex, you don’t have that luxury.
When I’m counseling a couple or family, I always begin by explaining that no individual person in the room is my client; the relationship itself is my client. We are working toward that family’s shared goal, so we have to act in the best interest of that goal, not in that of any particular person. It works the same way for you and your potential divorce. THe two of you have a shared goal of arranging a new family structure that works for all of you.
The effects of your actions her won’t just ripple back and forth between you. They will wash over your children, your spouse,any future romantic relationships, and your support systems such as your parents and friends. While you have every right to stand up for your needs, it’s also important to put the children’s needs first, and be respectful and considerate when it comes to your own.
“Happy endings don’t exist with divorce.”
This final piece of bad divorce advice comes from those who are embittered by their own struggles. They may even have a scary statistic to back it up– that over 60% of second marriages fail. And indeed, the statistic rises in third and fourth marriages. This is a result of people not realizing that they take themselves with them wherever they go, and that does not have to be you.
If and when you meet someone new who makes you feel great after a long stretch of hardship, it becomes easy to believe that things will be this good forever since you’ve now met “the right person.” But we all bring our own plates to the table, and sometimes they’ve got some less-than-healthy stuff on them. Therapy is a fantastic way to help you find a happy ending, whether that is through reconciliation with your current partner, or finding a way to co-exist and co-parent peacefully. A good marriage and family therapist is well-equipped to help you balance your own self-growth with shared family goals. They can help you process your feelings during any step of this process. And best of all, they know that YOU are the expert on your own life, so there is no chance of bad advice!
Wherever you are on your path of considering divorce, we can help.
If you’re seeking someone to help you with your marriage, Prologue Therapy & Relationship Counseling is ready to help in many different ways. Reach out to one of our qualified therapists by filling out the form below, or sign up for one of our upcoming workshops.