No one, especially not parents, takes the decision to divorce lightly. Most people flounder in their marriages for long periods of time and question themselves endlessly before throwing in the towel. The last thing parents want to do is to hurt their children. That’s why when it comes time to break the news to the kids, people want guidelines to help minimize the pain. That’s when they turn to the experts.
Most advice is sound — don’t talk about divorce unless you’re certain it’s going to happen, remind the kids the divorce isn’t their fault and that they will be taken care of and loved by both parents, outline the ways in which their lives will change and/or remain the same and don’t burden them unnecessarily with details and so on.
However, there is a consensus among professionals about a particular piece of advice with which I vehemently disagree. It goes like this- When breaking the news to the kids, parents should always present a united front. Regardless of the reasons for the divorce, parents are instructed to say that it is a decision made by both of them.
The truth is that most divorces in our country are unilateral decisions — one person wants out and the other desperately wants to keep the marriage and family together. In the rare situation where both partners are equally motivated to end their marriage, a united front makes sense. But when two parents are at odds about the viability of their relationship and tell the children that it is a mutual decision, it is a flat-out lie.
There are several problems with lying to your children.
First, kids are so much smarter than we give them credit for. If they don’t recognize there’s a discrepancy between their parents’ views of divorce at the time the news is announced, eventually, they will. And then they will know that their parents lied, not exactly the world’s best legacy.
Parents generally preach the importance of honesty. Research tells us that the axiom, “Actions speak louder than words,” is an accurate description of the way kids actually learn life’s lessons from their parents. They do as we do, not as we say. Furthermore, when they figure out the truth, which they will, they will feel deceived. No one wants that for our children.
Secondly, it is frequently the case that the parent who desperately wants to save the marriage places the utmost value on not being a quitter in life, of staying the course even when things aren’t easy. When tough situations arise in their children’s lives, these parents have encouraged them to stick things out despite the fact that dropping out might be easier or more fun.
To the parent who prizes stick-to-it-tive-ness, presenting a united front about the dissolution of the marriage defies every bone in his or her body; it’s disingenuous. It just can’t be done.
That said, presenting something less than a united front can be tricky. It can lead to a labyrinth of blame and counter-blame. It can tempt the spouse who wants out to justify the choice by explaining the source of unhappiness with the other partner, which is too much information for children. Plus, things can escalate from there.
Children may be inclined to take sides or feel the need to be emotional caretakers for the parent who seems sad or angry about the marriage ending.
In order to avoid these unfortunate outcomes, how can two people with opposing goals and visions for the future talk to their children about their impending divorce?
The fact is, there is no perfect solution to this dilemma.
But why not consider the following. Parents could tell their children that they have been fighting a lot lately and disagreeing on many things, including what should happen with their marriage. Nonetheless, since it takes two people to want to make a marriage work, they are going to _____(divorce/separate). There is no need to go into detail about why one person wants out and the other doesn’t.
Then, the couple could shift the conversation to emphasize those things about which they do agree — (this is where one inserts what conventional wisdom suggests) — that they love their children, and the children are not to blame for the divorce, and a description of the plan for their future, and so on.
Telling the truth to children is by no means a panacea for the pain they will feel about the disruption in their lives due to their parents’ divorce. But it goes a long way to setting a positive precedent for honest and open parent-child communication. William Shakespeare once wrote, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”