Lessons learned from my parents’ divorce

As a kid, I remember being very sad when my parents announced they were separating. I didn’t want my dad to move out and I was scared about what it would mean for our family when he did. I remember sitting in the family room in our little cape cod on Morgan Avenue, wildly sobbing, begging them to change their minds.

After Dad moved into a little apartment on the south end of town, the sadness began to dissipate. A peaceful calm settled over our house – there was no more arguing, no more tension-filled dinners.

Even as a 10 year old, I remember realizing that this new arrangement was better.

I learned that my parents’ happiness was what was important – regardless of if they lived in the same house or not. And, I realized that happy parents – not stressed out, bitter, argumentative ones – make a kid feel more secure and confident. They’re also more fun. Looking back, I have more memories of having fun and laughing after they divorced.

I’ve applied this lesson to my own divorce. I’m a firm believer that kids aren’t screwed up because their parents are divorced – they’re screwed up because their parents didn’t handle the divorce well.

I watched an Oprah once where a bunch of unhappy women blamed their parents for all of their troubles with love and money. One woman said her inability to form lasting, healthy relationships was because her parents were divorced and she never had positive role models to show what a happy, successful marriage looks like. She said she just didn’t want to make the same mistake as her parents did.

That’s bullshit.

Life is a collection of experiences – good and bad. I don’t view my marriage and subsequent divorce as mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t my favorite of all my experiences – but none of it was a mistake. I have three amazing children from that relationship. Getting divorced was hard, but I’ve emerged a stronger, more confident person now. And that’s better, right?

So, even with the benefit of hindsight, I’d accept that proposal all over again.

I feel I represent someone who’s better because of divorce (my parents and my own). I have observed my parents’ parting and have applied those lessons to become better communicator, better mother and better participant in my own relationships.

In addition, I’ve applied those lessons to make my own divorce better…better for me, my ex-husband and my kids.

As you may know, I’m a big fan of lists, so I’ve put together a list of Lessons Learned from my Parents’ Divorce. Some of these things I’ve learned by watching them do things well and to be fair, (and with all due respect to my beloved parents), some of these lessons are based on things they didn’t handle quite so well. Nevertheless, here it is – in no particular order…

Lessons Learned from my Parents’ Divorce

1) Be honest and open with your kids and explain things to them in a way they can understand.

Back in 1983, on that sad day in our living room, I remember my dad used a clever way to help my brothers and I understand what was happening. He held his hand up and explained that it represented our family (five fingers = five family members). He crossed two of his fingers (like you do for luck) and said that that’s how he and Mom used to be – very close.

Then he uncrossed his fingers to illustrate that they’d grown apart. He pointed out that even though the fingers were uncrossed, the hand was still intact. The fingers would always be a part of the same hand. Like the hand, our family would always be connected, regardless of who lived where.

I explained my own divorce to my kids in this very same way and I continue to try to explain things in terms they understand.

2) Respect your kids’ relationship with your ex.

My kids love and trust both me and my ex-husband. I try hard to make sure my words and actions about him are influenced by this fact. Bashing my ex verbally may make me look or feel better in the short term, but what’s the gain for my kids?

Even if he is at fault in some way, it doesn’t matter. I need to keep my mouth shut and respect the kids’ relationship with their dad. Otherwise I look petty and spiteful (the exact opposite of trying to make myself look/feel better in the first place).

Respecting those boundaries is better for everyone – really, it is.

3) Co-parent in a business-like manner.

I like to think of me and my ex as business associates. Together, we’re Family Incorporated, and our mission statement centers around the common goal of turning our kids into confident, responsible tax-payers.

We need to agree on the major points of upbringing (our business model) and pool our resources (time, money, energy) to successfully implement our strategic plan (growing little people into self-sufficient big ones). We set emotion aside and try to approach challenges logically and in a way that works for each associate.

For example, when my three year-old son breaks standard operating procedures and refused to stay in bed (at my house and at his dad’s), we held a conference call to address the issue.

Together, we determined that a zero-tolerance approach was best and outlined a game plan. Our objective was to overcome the obstacle of the boy getting up repeatedly, seeking attention. So our plan was this: The minute he’s out of his room, he’s marched straight back to bed without any coddling and with minimal conversation. This plan would be implemented each time he got up – regardless of at whose house he was sleeping.

The little guy eventually learned that Mom and Dad (co-CEOs of Family Incorporated) have the same expectation and deliver the same consequence for not following our family’s Code of Business Conduct. While we have two branch offices (Dad’s place and Mom’s house), the company’s rules and expectations are the same.

4) Communicate!!

Information is power and it’s true in divorced families too. Withholding information doesn’t help anyone. Again, thinking of this like a business relationship, what would happen if the project manager didn’t communicate with the rest of the team?

Thankfully, advances in technology support the ability to communicate with minimal human interaction. My ex and I prefer to text via cell phone, verses have real, live conversations. Text messaging for us is convenient, non-intrusive and keeps communications brief and on-point.

I’m sure my parents would’ve loved to have text messaging and email communication tools back in the mid-eighties. Electronic communication eliminates those, “I didn’t like your tone of voice,”-type problems.

Lessons learned, lessons taught

I learned a lot from my parents’ divorce. I don’t blame them for how my life has turned out – they’ve influenced choices I’ve made, but they’re not responsible for them.

I know my kids are all going to grow up and have problems. I know they’ll sit in a therapist’s office, spilling their guts and I’m pretty sure my name will come up.

And I’m okay with that, really. They may not agree with the choices I’ve made, but will hopefully recognize that my choices and actions have shaped their own decision making in a good way.

Now that I think of it, I hope they’ll get their money’s worth for those therapy sessions. Blaming your divorced parents for your problems will be pretty passé in 2028.

Maybe I should try harder to give them something good and juicy to work with.


Super Woman said...

I'm totally with you in feeling that my parents' divorce was actually better for me and my siblings than them trying to stay together "for the kids' sake" when they were miserable. My parents divorced when I was 8 and while those first two years were rough, especially once my mom started dating my stepdad and got married to him when I was 10, our lives turned out so much better, and we ended up with two FABULOUS models of marriage to learn from. My parents weren't perfect in how they handled themselves post-divorce, but they did a respectable job and we turned out pretty darn well, if I do say so myself.

Great post - thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I agree also that my parents divorce might have been a negative experience but I turned it into a positive experience and when I went through my divorce my mommy was the one that coached me through mine (God rest her soul. It made me understand my mother and why she never remarried after 30-35 years of marriage to my father. I believe that she learned to enjoy the single life and realized that she was a stronger woman just taking care of her children and home. I have ways just like my mother I don't fee that I have to have a huband. I am a very strong woman ,Mother,sister,friend, counselor, confidiant really it feels like superwoman. I am because of my mother her mother and her mother were very strong women they didn't allow whether their husbands decided to stay or move on to dictate to their lives. And for that I am grateful because I see my daughter is just as strong. Everything meant for a negative affect on you is not always my divorce has become a positive in my life and I am greatful.

Michelle said...

Divorce between parents might have an adverse effect on the child's growth, but if the child's mind can understand the situation, the problem won't be huge. When I divorced my ex-husband with the help of the divorce lawyers (Jacksonville, FL located lawyers) the whole process is smooth.

With my ex-husband giving child support to my kids, with all thanks to the family law (Jacksonville, FL), the financial troubles are little to none.

Guy Chambliss said...

Sorry to hear about your ordeal. Divorce can be mentally and emotionally tough to handle. I like what you said about letting your children understand the situation. A divorce affects the whole family, so it is best to let the kids know what is happening and what might be the outcome of the situation to help them accept and understand whatever happens next.

Darcy Nimmons said...

Even though divorce is hard to handle, at least you learned some lessons from your own and your parents’ divorce. Children can have a hard time dealing with the matter, so it would be good to let the kids understand what it is all about, what is happening, and what can still happen when the procedure ends. Parents should listen to what the children have to say, especially the concerns and feelings they have. Helping them understand can help them cope with the situation.

Janay Stiles said...

Divorce can really have a big impact on the life of kids. So parents should remain a role model to them with the limited time they have. And I agree with all the items on your list, especially #1. Even before the divorce is finalized, you should let your children understand what the situation is. Tell them that they have nothing to do with the problem, and they don’t have to worry about it. Otherwise, you would end up not only giving problems to yourself, but also to your children.