In addition to the specifics of personality, temperament, and
family history, your children’s response to divorce will vary according to
their age. Below is a brief and broad
outline of typical responses based on different developmental stages.
Because 2-5 year olds’ worlds revolves around themselves, they are prone to
believe that the divorce is related to their behavior. This could derive from thoughts like “I was
bad” to more primitive notions of causality such as “If I hadn’t spilt my
spaghetti last night, Mom and Dad would not have fought, and they wouldn’t be
divorcing.” It is important to be
attuned to this thought process and relieve your children of the idea that the
divorce is their fault and that they have the power to fix it.
Preschoolers tend to focus on what is immediately visible to
them, and their fears will correspond accordingly. These can run the gamut of
the tragic (“Will I ever see my mommy again?”) to the mundane (“Will I still be
having macaroni and cheese on Friday nights?”).
Having an abundance of these fears can lead to regressive behaviors
(such as clinginess, problems in toilet training, and seeking out security
objects) or even aggressive behavior.
And because they are rooted in the present, expressions of grief rarely
last a long time and are likely to be expressed during play or in artwork.
School Children – If not addressed directly, 6-8 year oldsmay see themselves as holding the power
to reunite their parents. This can lead
to futile attempts to be good so as to “heal” the family or, the opposite, an
unconscious effort to reunite mom and dad by forcing them to deal with the
child’s negative, acting out behavior.
It is normal for this age group to express more grief than
preschoolers and engage in more crying or sobbing, so it is helpful to elicit
their emotions and validate their sadness.
See < http://robertdterris.wordpress.com/2010/11/> That being said, some children at this age
(particularly girls) are prone to taking responsibility for their parents’
emotions. Don’t be complicit in your
children’s parentification (in which they repress their emotions in favor of
taking care of yours).
Lastly, be prepared for your children to idealize the
missing parent and express anger towards the physically present custodial
parent. This, while painful to you, is a
commonplace phenomenon and is a symptom of the separation rather than a
reflection of their attachment to the custodial parent. Don’t let this dynamic slip into a loyalty
conflict where you try to get your children to understand your perspective and side
with you against your ex-spouse. This is
deeply harmful to their wellbeing. Being
cajoled into taking sides can develop into an uncomfortable disconnection (or
even alignment) with the “bad” parent. And, either way, they will feel forced to
betray one parent or the other. Reassure
them that it is OK to have angry feelings and to have a close relationship with
School Children and Tweens – 9-12 years olds can have a tendency to repress
their feelings and deny grief, anger or sadness around missing one or the other
parent. As a result, you may notice that
your child is experiencing more negative, physical symptoms -- a somatic manifestation of their intense
emotions. Try to coax out their feelings by asking questions and listening without reassuring them too quickly or persuading them to feel differently.
This age group’s comparative intellectual sophistication can
sometimes lead to the child having a more “objective” analysis regarding the
causes for the divorce and, therefore, more anger at the parents for breaking
up the family and creating all the challenges that divorce entails. It is helpful to present a Divorce Story [see
below] that your child can fall back on that comfortably frames the reasons for
divorce, offers hope that the logistics surrounding the child’s life will
remain stable, and assures the child that he/she can maintain a relationship
with both parents.
Lastly, these children are increasingly self-conscious of
what others think, and may carry shame around the marital breakup. Spend time hearing and understanding their
perspective. Help them by validating
their emotions and normalizing their experience through peer support or group
During adolescence, children are very peer oriented. Their sense of belonging, identity, intimacy,
and security are all mediated through the prism of their social group. And, at the same time, adolescents are trying
very hard to individuate and form a sense of self that is separate from their
parents. Consequently, don’t be
surprised if your teenager seeks out his/her peers during this sensitive time. While it is always important to be emotionally
available for your children, and to facilitate authentic expression of their
feelings, don’t worry if your teenager is choosing to find support within the
comfort of his/her social group. Red
flags that you should be alert to are antisocial or lonely behavior,
delinquency, academic failure, substance abuse, and the loss of interest in
formerly pleasurable activities.
Also, teenagers need clear and consistent structure and
discipline. Divorced parents should
provide a unified front and the clear message to their teen that they will
continue to act as a cohesive parental unit.
If divorced parents become preoccupied with their own conflict, teens
will take advantage of the lack of supervision and/or play one parent against
the other to exercise their will in an unhealthy way.
On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, which predicts the
probability of illness based on recent life events, only the death of a spouse is
considered more stressful and more likely to lead to physical illness than is divorce.
For many reasons—from the psychological and emotional to the practical and
financial—divorce is nearly always extremely challenging for everyone involved.
And for the non-wage earning spouse, finding
personal and financial balance can be particularly challenging.
The Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is comprised of the
symbols for both ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’ In other words, divorce constitutes both great
challenges and also great opportunities – ones that can see you ending up
stronger, happier, and better prepared for the future than you might have ever
imagined. However, to convert these
challenges into opportunities, and to make success much more likely, it is
imperative in most cases that you don’t
try to go it alone; instead, seek appropriate assistance and support wherever
and whenever you need it.
For example, with the right kind of emotional support, be it
from friends and family or mental health professionals, you can much more
easily and gracefully move through the trauma you have experienced and
establish a new identity and an emotionally satisfying social life. Similarly,
if you find the right kind of financial support—for example, a financial
advisor experienced in and dedicated to understanding, assisting, and educating
recently divorced women—you can reestablish yourself in a pragmatically
grounded life trajectory that will attend to the immediate needs before you
(and your children, if any) and take you into retirement.
Some Crucial Divorce-Related
First, it’s important to realize that divorce almost always
results in a lower standard of living for the family. From paying for food and cable to paying for living
quarters and vacations, where there used to be one outlay there will now be
two. With the many efficiencies of
living together as a family no longer present, and with the many costs of
getting to a divorce agreement and finalizing the paperwork a substantial
financial drain, divorce inevitably results in everyone involved being poorer
after the fact.
Second – and this can be a particularly hard fact to swallow
– even a good, fair, collaborative settlement will often leave you, the non-wage
earner, with less money than you need to comfortably maintain your pre-divorce
lifestyle and prepare for the future. This is especially true if children are
involved, regardless of the size of alimony and child support payments. For
example, suppose $1,200 a month is awarded as child support for one child. In some months that may be enough, but in
other months it might not be nearly enough, and you will no longer have your
spouse’s (usually larger) paycheck to turn to. Additionally, while you are
expected to find employment in an expedited time frame, some divorce
settlements don’t take into full account the cost of additional education and
Third, if you have not been in charge of the finances, you
may be ill-prepared for the financial and financial-related head-of-household
responsibilities. This can include
everything from handling household and automobile maintenance to overseeing
investment portfolios and, in some cases, even paying bills and balancing
checking accounts. Additionally, you may
be ill-equipped to run down and follow through on important financial details
and legal details such as the retitling of assets, confirmation of access to
online banking and trading accounts, and the revision and redrafting of key
estate-planning documents (wills, trusts, legal and medical powers of attorney,
Finally, in major metropolitan areas such as the Bay Area, the
financial centrality of the house cannot and should not be underestimated, especially
because it tends to warp decision-making in unsustainable ways. It’s quite typical for one spouse to have a
strong attachment to the house they have lived in and to want to hold on to it
at all costs. This is easy to
understand, especially when children are involved – children who love their
rooms, their schools, and their friends and who may have never known another
home. Undertaking a rational assessment of whether the house can be held on to
without the higher wage earner’s income in the picture – and whether it’s worth
holding on to, given the expense of maintaining it vis-à-vis all the other
financial needs that will arise – is absolutely crucial. Often the house simply can’t be held on to, and in many cases it simply shouldn’t be held on to.
Three Criteria for
Finding the Right Financial Advisor
Finding the right financial professional can itself amount
to a substantial challenge. Unfortunately, far too few financial advisors are truly
client-centric—that is, dedicated to providing their clients with the kind of
comprehensive advice and financial services that will make a real difference in
their lives. The following three criteria can help you
identify the right financial professional.
First, you want someone who is an understanding, patient, and effective teacher. You want to work with someone who is aware of
how difficult divorce is and who will help you take small, concrete steps in
the right direction as you build a new foundation. You don’t want someone who will pat you on the head and say, “It will
be OK, I’ll take care of everything from here.” Even if that were possible, it wouldn’t be
advisable, because part of what you need to do now is learn to master your finances
for the long run. Seek out a financial
professional who finds it satisfying to teach you new things and watch you rise
to the occasion to apply what you have learned.
Second, you want someone who understands and embodies the basic tenets of comprehensive wealth
management. Look for a financial
advisor who starts with long-term goals, needs, and dreams and works backward
from them. Your advisor should follow a consultative process, and he or she
should understand the value of a team approach – that is, someone who works
with a network of professionals that can help evaluate and work through everything
from mortgage and real estate needs to insurance and estate planning. Also, you want someone who takes a
conservative financial approach and follows the principles of investing your
money intelligently without promising “big returns.”
Finally, seek a financial advisor who comes well recommended by others you know and who is experienced in
working with divorce. Some things can be learned only by actually doing
them, such as how to tell a client that she/he can no longer afford to do
certain sorts of things – for example, going on a multiweek Hawaiian vacation
every summer – in a way that the client can hear without feeling utterly
defeated. A financial advisor who is a compassionate,
effective, and realistic advocate will come to know you well enough to be able
to lay things out for you in understandable terms while providing a meaningful
and ultimately encouraging perspective.
a New Life for the Long Run
Ultimately, look to identify and work with a financial
advisor who understands what you need and who is dedicated to helping you achieve
it. To find this person, you will have to trust your head, your heart, and your
gut: Is this the right financial professional to help me (and my children, if
any) get on the right track financially for the long run? Is this the kind of
person who can help me separate those decisions that have to be made
immediately – even if I feel I’m not ready to make them – from those that can
be made in a few weeks, months, or years? Is this someone who will look me in the eye,
always tell me the truth, and always encourage me to learn more and become
better able to face whatever the future brings?
While the personal and emotional aspects of divorce are
typically the most difficult, the financial aspects often come in a close
second. For starters, make sure you take all of the following steps:
Recognize how universally financially difficult
divorce is for everyone involved.
Familiarize yourself with the four crucial financial
facts laid out in the second section of this article.
- Commit to finding a financial advisor to work
with – you really don’t want to go it
alone – and consider the three criteria laid out above in your search.
Be prepared to do the necessary work to live the
life you want for yourself and your family for the long run.
Few things are harder than divorce, which is exactly why
it’s important to find ways to optimize your immediate and long-term financial
situations. When you find a financial advisor who understands what you’ve been
through, who follows a comprehensive process, and who will be your realistic
yet creative advocate, you will have taken one of the most important steps
toward rebuilding and re-creating your life.
One of the most delicate aspects of getting divorced is
breaking the news to your children. This
is a very important event, as it is your first opportunity to set the tone for
how your children will experience your separation. The explicit and implicit messages that you
convey at this time are critical to your children’s emotional well-being and their future relationship with both their
parents. Here is what I suggest:
Create a United Front
– Agree upon a unified “divorce story” with your
spouse and tell your children together about the decision to separate. Deliberate beforehand and choose your words carefully.
Keep the narrative as honest as possible, while at the same time protecting
them from too much detail or hurtful information. For example, “Mommy and Daddy want to stop
fighting so much” or “We think we can be happier people and better parents if
we live in separate houses” are two explanations.
Let them know attempts have been made to preserve the
relationship. Emphasize that they are
not to blame, and that they did not cause the divorce or conflict. And tell them there is nothing they can do to
prevent the divorce or to get you back together.
Reassure them that you two are still working together for their
overall well-being. Convey to them that
you are still a cohesive parenting unit. Set the stage so your children don’t start
playing one parent off the other. Don’t create a situation that will undermine
one parent’s authority and make it more difficult to co-parent in the future.
Manage Your Feelings
– It is important not to expose them to, or saddle them with, the feelings of
turmoil, anger, pain, betrayal, abandonment, and anxiety that you might be
experiencing. Explain that both parents
have made the decision to divorce. Assigning
blame to one parent will actually harm your children. While it may feel cathartic to demonize your
spouse for breaking up the family, forcing your children to judge or choose
sides takes a toll on their well-being. Allow your children to continue loving
the other parent without having to feel disloyal to either of you. Otherwise,
your children will feel they need to choose sides, thereby creating either an
uncomfortable disconnection from, or alignment with, the “bad” parent. The idea that they have “betrayed” one parent
can create feelings of anxiety. And identifying with the parent who has been labeled
as “bad” can cause self-esteem issues (e.g., “I see myself in Dad. Dad is bad. Therefore, I must be bad too.”). Reassure them that it is OK to have a
relationship with the other parent and that you both will continue to have a
close relationship with them.
– A sense of continuity is important to children. Kids will usually want to know
how much of their lives will change. Take
the time to address the logistics of the separation. What will happen with school? Will they continue to be able to see their
friends? What will happen with their
room, clothes, and toys? Tell them specifically
how they will be maintaining their relationship with both parents (when will they
be with you, and when with your spouse). The younger the children, the more helpful it
will be to create prominently displayed charts so that they can set their
expectations and feel in control of the schedule.
Be Attuned to Their Feelings
– Even grown children will need you to be emotionally present to allay their
fears and empathize with their concerns. Have this be a foundational
moment where you are able to hold and validate your children’s feelings. I have
written in detail about how to elicit and respond to your children’s emotions
in my therapy blog [click here].
The crux of this skill is to listen, ask a lot of curious questions, and don’t
convince your child out of their emotions (even if they are sad and you want to
console them). While there is a place
for reassurances, also make the time to simply allow them to explore,
articulate, and process their feelings.
Follow Their Lead
– While I advise that you follow the outline above, ultimately let your
children set the pace for what they want to hear and talk about. Some will be relieved, and others will be devastated.
Some will be concerned with the logistics, and others caught up in the
emotions. Some will want to process this information at length, and others will
want to come back and address it in manageable bite-sizes. There is no wrong or right way for the
children to react. Your job is to remain
responsive to where your child is emotionally and to what
your child needs.
Keep the Conflict Away
from Your Children - Studies show that divorce, per se, is not harmful to
children’s emotional development. The
mere fact that parents live in two separate domiciles and don’t see their
children daily does not cause irrevocable harm.
Rather, it is the prevalent discord between separating parents which
exacts a toll on children and creates mental health and behavioral problems. When
there is an absence of conflict, children tend to be incredibly resilient to
the pain and challenges of divorce. So keep in mind
when breaking the news of your divorce that, while your marriage is ending,
your responsibility to collaborate with your ex-partner for your children’s well-being persists.
Divorce: Ending Marriage with Integrity," by Susan Allison
Parenting and Divorce: Shielding Your Child from Conflict," by Susan Boyan
the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce,” by Joan Kelley
Ways To Protect Your Kids from the Fallout of a High Conflict Break-Up” by Joan
Kelley [click here]
Divorce is a significant event in the life of your child. Whether he or she becomes permanently scarred or thrives can depend on how you and your partner manage conflict and create a cooperative parenting environment. One book that I highly recommend to parents committed to protecting their children's emotional well-being during this difficult transition is titled "Cooperative Parenting and Divorce: Shielding Your Child from Conflict -- A Parent Guide to Effective Co-Parenting" by Susan Boyan and Ann Termini. I am excerpting from their book (below) some helpful guidelines (written in the child's voice) on how to avoid putting your son or daughter in an uncomfortable situation while you negotiate joint custody and living arrangements.
Do not talk badly about my other
parent. (This make me feel torn apart!
It also makes me feel
bad about myself!)
Do not talk about my other parent’s
friends or relatives. (Let me
care for someone even if
Do not talk about the divorce or other
grown-up stuff. (This
makes me feel sick. Please
leave me out of it!)
Do not talk about money or child
support. (This makes me feel guilty or
like I’m a possession
instead of your kid.)
Do not make me feel bad when I enjoy my
time with my other parent. (This
makes me afraid
to tell you things.)
Do not block my visits or prevent me
from speaking to my other parent on the
phone. (This makes me very upset.)
Do not interrupt my time with my other
parent by calling too much or by planning
my activities during our time together.
Do not argue in front of me or on the
phone when I can hear you! (This
just turns my
stomach inside out.)
Do not ask me to spy for you when I am
at my other parent’s home. (This
makes me feel
disloyal and dishonest.)
Do not ask me to keep secrets from my
other parent. (Secrets
make me feel anxious.)
Do not ask me questions about my other
parent’s life or about our time together. (This
makes me feel uncomfortable. So just let me tell you.)
Do not give me verbal messages to
deliver to my other parent. (I end up feeling anxious
about their reaction. So please just call them, leave them a message
at work or put a note in the
Do not send written messages with me or
place them in my bag. (This also
Do not blame my other parent for the
divorce or for things that go wrong in your
life. (This really feels terrible! I end up wanting
to defend them from your attack.
Sometimes it makes me feel sorry for you and that makes me want to
protect you. I
want to be a kid, so please, please…stop putting me into the middle!)
Do not treat me like an adult; it
causes way too much stress for me. (Please find a
friend or a therapist to talk to.)
Do not ignore my other parent or sit on
opposite sides of the room during my
school or sports activities. (This makes me very sad and embarrassed.
Please act like
parents and be friendly, even if it is just for me.)
Do let me take items to my other home
as long as I can carry them back and forth.
(Otherwise it feels like you are treating me
as a possession.)
Do not use guilt to pressure me to love
you more and do not ask me where I want to live.
Do realize that I have two homes, not
just one. (It doesn’t matter how much
time I spend there.)
Do let me love both of you and see each
of you as much as possible! Be flexible even when
it is not part of our regular schedule.
THANKS, your loving child
I remember a case I worked on a few years ago at a big San Francisco law firm
where our client was caught up in litigation over an easement across her
property. When our client initially visited
the property before purchase, she saw her neighbor walking across her
driveway. She asked the real estate
agent to get that neighbor’s signature acknowledging no right to an easement
across the property (which the neighbor had enjoyed for years with the previous
owner). The neighbor signed the letter
and the client purchased the house. After moving in, our client physically
blocked off her neighbor’s access to the driveway with a very large tool shed.
Enraged and insulted, the neighbor sued for right to an easement. They spent years and hundreds of thousands of
dollars in litigation. At no point in
the dispute did they speak to one another face-to-face.
Let’s be honest – if we tried really hard, could we come up
with a more dysfunctional way to communicate amongst ourselves than via
motions, discovery requests, and the occasional outraged, attorney-to-attorney
It is ironic. Clients
come to us with a problem. Technically, at the center of the maelstrom is a
legal issue. But swirling around that point of law is a storm of emotions –
anger, frustration, disappointment, anxiety, etc. And even when it is about money, it is not
just about money. Money is highly symbolic. It represents security, prestige,
respect, acknowledgment of harm done, and the desire to be made whole.
What got me excited about mediation was the possibility of
fundamentally changing the way aggrieved parties seek damages. Instead of running from conflict, or hiring
someone to wage our battles for us, we can find a safe space to re-engage, seek
understanding, find power, and earn respect.
Instead of duking it out through discovery and motions, we can discuss
the problem in more commonsensical and personal notions of what it means to be
harmed. Instead of assigning just a
dollar value to our harm, we can allow parties to define and experience deeper,
and perhaps emotional, components to their restitution.
This vision seemed to be reinforced by my law school courses
and subsequent CLE trainings for budding mediators, which all seemed to teach
the same understanding-based approach, namely, that the mediator should use an
open session to facilitate direct, continual communication between the parties
with the goal of unearthing issues, interests and emotions. The idea is that by
addressing the parties' frustration, anger and pain, the mediator allows for
catharsis and a communicative transformation that paves the way toward a
creative and viable solution. Rarely have I seen that approach used in practice.
For example, I participated as an advocate at a JAMS
mediation where the issue was a commercial lease dispute between a
trust-landlord and a vineyard-tenant. As is the norm, after a perfunctory open
session where the lawyers stated their positions, the mediator/retired judge
put the parties in two separate rooms and ferried back and forth, evaluating
the strengths and weaknesses of the cases and soliciting settlement proposals.
A couple of times, my client said to the mediator: “I was really insulted by
the letter the tenant’s lawyer sent me accusing me of being grossly unfair. I have
had a long history with this tenant where I have tried to be accommodating, and
it hurt my feelings.” The mediator never
invited the other party in to process those emotions or discuss repairing the
relationship. Moreover, when I cornered the
mediator in the hallway and pointed out the utility of doing so, he looked at
me with an attentive but blank stare. We
didn’t settle. [To his credit, he did
say to me afterwards: “I would really like to get together some time and talk
about this whole ‘processing of emotions’ thing.”] I wanted to refer him to Gary
Friedman, a well-respected mediation trainer in Marin. Gary encourages parties
to speak about difficult emotions that have been part of the original conflict (and
subsequent litigation process). Speaking about difficult emotions gives both
parties a fuller understanding of how the conflict evolved, allows for a more
meaningful dialogue about what is important to them going forward, and gives
them a formative experience that they can carry over into life.
I recently mediated a family law matter in which divorced
parents returned to me after the father stopped paying child expenses (in clear
breach of the marital settlement agreement I had mediated a year earlier). Following the parties lead, we spent the
first hour and a half processing lingering resentments from the marriage and
dissatisfaction with current parenting roles. The father felt that, during the
marriage, he wasn’t valued as a partner but only as a financial provider. These feelings of exclusion and lack of
appreciation around his role as a parent were surfacing once again in their
post-divorce relationship. During the mediation, his ex-wife articulated her
perceived sense of abandonment by him after their daughter was born. Her feelings that she was not getting enough
physical and emotional support from him in caring for their daughter led to
resentment and distance. He, in turn,
described how, during that first year of their daughter’s life, he was
struggling to balance his economic and professional responsibilities and his
need to spend time with both his new family and a son from a previous marriage.
He felt that she did not appreciate his commitment and efforts to do the right
thing by everyone and, instead, got angry at him and pushed him away. And now, as the co-parent without primary
custody, he was feeling excluded once again in important decisions related to
The majority of this session was structured to enhance
understanding and gain clarity. We did not problem solve around the issues they
raised, but rather focused on increasing empathy. And only toward the very end of our session did we turn to finances. After five minutes of hearing the mother’s
explanations about the reason for the increase in their daughter’s expenses, the
father said: “OK. I have heard enough. I get it now.” He cut her a check and walked
out the door. He has not missed a support payment since.
Obviously, family law is more prone to emotionality than
civil cases. But I would posit that every case has a significant, if not
critical, emotional component – and one whose resolution is crucial to the
overall settlement of the case. For example, the easement case cited above was
about interpersonal, not street, access.
In practical terms, not having an easement added one minute to the
neighbor’s walk to the street. But symbolically, the tool shed embodied the
message that “You are cut off!” from
good neighborly relations like she had with the previous owner. It was, therefore, a deep insult and
constituted a fight against the owner’s social message that “We will not be
And the landlord in the commercial lease dispute felt that
her moral character had been unjustly impugned. She could not contemplate a continuing
business relationship with a tenant who viewed her in such a negative light.
She needed not only a lease agreement that was financially advantageous, but
the resolution of a slight that was detrimental to her self-image.
Even the sophisticated business client wants to resolve
issues on a deeper, more fundamental level than just the financial outcome. And I do not think it is presumptuous for
mediators to facilitate such an experience.
But I would posit that lawyers (particularly litigators) are not trained
to delve into emotions and are not practiced in holding difficult, if
respectful, conversations. And things
don’t suddenly shift when we become mediators.
Mediation can be a challenging and anxiety-provoking
endeavor. We all want to feel competent
in our trade, so we fall back on what we know -- evaluation and traditional
settlement-type negotiation. Asking
mediators to contain difficult conversations in an open session, or to delve
into emotional aspects, when that is not their strong suit, is a lot to
ask. Particularly when counsel for the
parties are also leery of those conversations and are pushing the mediator to
evaluate their case and facilitate
financial offers in a caucus dynamic.
When done well, the process of mediation, not just the financial outcome, makes the client whole. Through understanding-based mediation, anger can subside, relationships can be repaired or closure achieved, and clients can move on. Intelligent
minds can disagree about what is appropriate, or perhaps feasible, during
mediation and how our clients can best be served. But let’s at least not allow
our limitations to define our aspirations.