Q: I appreciate the concrete suggestions you gave the newly divorced woman who wanted practical guidelines to help her create a new home for her family. However, emerging emotional issues make the transitions in divorce even more difficult.
I feel that my children seem to have forgotten how much yelling and tension existed in our home in the past. “The good old days” (as my children sometimes describe them) were not so good. My older children blame different people and reasons for why things deteriorated in our home, and they alternate between blaming their father and me for not doing enough to save our marriage. It is hard for them to imagine how difficult it was for me. I covered up a lot of their father’s mistakes (in order for them to respect him). Their father was very opposed to the divorce and has been making things very hard for me. How should I respond to them?
A: The pain of divorce is experienced by children for many years and reverberates through their consciousness, as does any severe change in life patterns and family structure. Help with pain reduction is a tremendous benefit one can give to one’s children or any children going through this challenge.
Initially, if one could start the divorce process with mediation, much less damage and anguish would occur. Unfortunately, many people in this situation are already embroiled in anger. They do not desire a more peaceable means to end their marriage and go directly through legal systems, causing both emotional and financial stress.
Perhaps the most difficult question children struggle with during this period is “Whose fault is it that this marriage is falling apart?” A younger child may blame himself for somehow being part of the problem — perhaps the child’s misbehavior caused the parents to fight more and disturbed their marital harmony, thinks the child. A child can also blame the “least-favored parent” for the cause of the break-up, as this parent generally is the one to “mess things up,” according to the child. Older children have to respect boundaries and keep their “philosophical theories” to themselves. It is not your role to be their therapist and listen to the analyses and hypotheses they create. Your children can speak to a trusted adult (be it a Rav, teacher, or mental health professional) to deal with these feelings and thoughts.
A parent needs to “reframe” the situation and recreate the picture to make it more workable and sane to children. For example: “Sometimes things are very difficult, and the most important thing is having happy mothers and fathers. Sometimes people can be happiest only when they are living apart, though it can hurt their children very much. Your mother is still your mother, even if she is not living together with your father. Your father also remains your father, wherever he may live. Everything is hashgachah pratis, and everyone in this situation (for some unknowable reason) is where he or she is meant to be.”
Children have to know that it is okay to enjoy the company of one parent and not feel that they are being disloyal to the other parent while doing so. Also, a parent’s irritation with the ex-spouse should not get in the way of the children’s relationship with the other parent.
If a child thinks that either of his parents is deplorable, he might say to himself: “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree; how good can I possibly be?” Parents need to foresee the far-reaching ramifications of words and actions towards their ex-spouse and how these will color their children’s self-esteem.