Telling Family about a Pending Divorce

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It feels like… 

Remember those days in school when the principal handed you a note addressed to your parents, and you knew full well what that note was all about? It’s a “summons” from the school to your folks to inform them of your failing grades and to discuss ways of saving you from failing a full year of academic work.

You’d keep the note for days, telling the principal your parents were out of town on business. At the dinner table, you cringe every time your father turned to you and ask, “so how are things at school, Jason?”

Fast forward. You’ve got kids of your own now and you and your wife have come to the decision to divorce. There’s no turning back, you’ve filed the papers and you’ve hired the legal minds to see you through the entire exercise. Soon, it will be time to drop the bomb – not on Hiroshima but on your own family and hers.

Telling Family about a Pending Divorce:

Prep Them, Psyche Them, Do Something

Don’t just sit there. You might as well face the music and get this assignment over and done with so you can concentrate on the divorce proceedings. Breaking news of a divorce is not easy. It’s an art. A skill. A talent that’s spiked with tons of diplomacy.

If we had our way, as soon as the first signs of trouble came up to the surface and your gut instincts tell you that your marriage is going downhill quickly, we’d prepare our family for it. Well…sort of. How does one psyche them up?

Parents and In-laws

Remember the adage, actions speak louder than words? During family reunions and holiday get-togethers, you can send out “vibes” to family members that all is not well in your marriage. Those with a heightened sense of sensitivity will pick up the signals immediately. Tell them of trouble via the most eloquent of communication methods – body language.

Avoid a display of affection for your spouse, contradict whatever he/she is saying in front of people (with respect), and avoid looking at each other. You need not spell it out because we’re 99.9% sure they’ll notice the strain and the tension between the two of you.

You can also drop a few hints when you’re asked…

Are you going away for the summer? Doing some traveling perhaps?
Your reply: No, I don’t think so. I’d much rather we spend our vacations apart. That’ll give us a break from each other, give us time to think…

Are the two of you still going to the gym?
Your reply: Heavens, no. I do my own thing and she does her own thing.

What do you think she’d like for her birthday?
Your reply: I could be wrong, but my guess is she’d probably like a divorce.

You coming up to the cottage next weekend – join your dad and I for some R&R?
Your reply: Thanks, but no. Greg and I have some issues to resolve. We’re going through a rough period, I’m afraid.

Feelers. Hints. With answers like that, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to smell something fishy. Of course, they won’t come right out and ask you – they prefer to respect your privacy – but they’ll sniff the fact that divorce is hovering in the family atmosphere.

What you should NOT do is pretend that things are rosy and cozy between the two of you. What you should NOT do is show affection for one another – rubbing each other’s shoulders, throwing kisses at one another, hugging and playing lovey-dovey because really, showing the whole world you’re the best pair of lovebirds around when in fact you get at each other’s throats at home is a farce – a pathetic one. A dishonesty and an outright lie. You love your family enough to believe that they’re entitled to the truth.

Sentences like “I had dinner alone” or “I went to the movies by myself” or “I stayed in a motel last weekend” should be good clues as to how well or unwell your marriage is.

That way when it is time to announce the divorce, it doesn’t feel like a bomb to them. They may have had suspicions and half guessed the truth because you “prepped” them for this major event.

Your parents and your spouse’s parents will probably be disappointed especially if they themselves never once entertained the idea of divorcing. But it is your life, not theirs, and as long as you’ve convinced them that a divorce is in the best interests of everyone, they won’t interfere or stop you from getting one.

The Children

What about the children? How do you tell the children that mom and dad will no longer be living together in the same house?

Telling your parents and in-laws about a pending divorce is one thing. It can be a piece of cake – only because they’re adults and are aware of how unstable unions are these days. But telling the children requires a lot more work. Some of that work can be excruciatingly painful.

Let’s look at some suggestions for telling the children about a pending divorce.

Easy does it

Children’s feelings are fragile. Children have fears – two that stand out are the fear of no longer being loved by their parents and that they were responsible for the break-up, and the second fear is a lost sense of security.

Rule # 1: Sooner, rather than later

Regardless of their ages, your children deserve honesty and openness from you. You’ve been telling them to be honest and respectful of other people’s feelings, so this is the time to practice what you preach. As soon as you have decided to divorce, you should tell them without any delay. There’s the risk that they could find out from someone else. Their first reaction to finding out from someone else would be you broke your own rules and you’ve betrayed them.

Rule # 2: “We are still one…”

Divorce experts and family counselors advise that when breaking the news, both mother and father should be present. A family meeting must take place. When you show you’re united (in spite of getting disunited soon), you have more credibility with the children. It tells them that the decision was mutual, that you thought long and hard about this and that you will remain friends despite the break-up. It “feels” better when both mom and dad are explaining to them, rather than one parent doing most of the talking.

Rule # 3: “Because…”

Never underestimate your children’s ability to understand “adult stuff” – no matter what ages they are. Children are very smart and can smell a rat a mile away. They can also read in between the lines and are more knowledgeable than what you give them credit for. Explain clearly why you are getting divorced. Don’t rush through it. Entertain their questions and be as honest as you can, even if you feel they will get hurt. They need to know the reasons WHY you are no longer in love with each other, not just be told that there’s a divorce looming in the horizon. And when you do, don’t put the blame on the other.

Rule # 4: “Kids, this is how the ballgame will be played…”

Don’t leave a half-baked pie on the kitchen counter. You’ve told them about the divorce and the reasons for it. You also need to tell them what it’s going to be like as far as living arrangements are concerned, visitation, holidays, school activities, etc.

One of your kids might be thinking: “does that mean I can’t go to soccer practice anymore?” Or “are we moving to a smaller house?” Or “what do I tell my friends?”

You’ll need to layout the roadmap. Make them feel that they’re not losing anything and that while they will be expected to make certain sacrifices, they will continue to be loved and looked after.

Pamela Weintraub and Terry Hillman (Surviving Divorce, 2005) believe that the children should at least have been informed of the following after the first family meeting:

  • Reasons why parents are divorcing
  • Date of the divorce
  • Where the moving-out parent will live
  • Which parent they will live with, or whether they get to choose who to live with
  • How often will they see the leaving parent
  • Whether they will be moving out of the house and out of the neighborhood
  • If they will attend the same school
  • If they can communicate with the departing parent by phone

A friendly reminder: While most kids experience the divorce of their parents with few negative effects, some are unable to adjust and may need professional help. As soon as you notice changes in your child that don’t disappear after a few weeks – loss of interest, sadness, unexplained crying, aggression, poor grades, withdrawal from society, isolation – arrange for mental health professionals who are experienced dealing with children to examine or talk to your child. These changes are a sign that your child’s process of adjustment is erratic and needs to be monitored closely.

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