Being a Great Divorced Father
Real-Life Advice From a Dad Who's Been There
August 2010, 1st Edition
Maintain a great relationship with your kids during and after divorce
More than half of all marriages end in divorce, many with kids caught in the middle. If you're a father going through divorce and you want to keep a close relationship with your children, you need practical guidance and advice on building a new life, keeping your kids' needs front and center.
Being a Great Divorced Father gives you the strategies and building blocks for maintaining a relationship with your children and shows you how to prioritize their needs as your life changes. Learn how to:
- create a new home and make room for your kids in it
- manage babysitters, after-school care and other details of daily life
- create and enforce house rules governing homework, TV, game use, and recreation
- communicate effectively with your ex: being nice, sparing the kids, establishing boundaries, and finding ways to agree
- settle legal and custody issues
- handle dating and remarriage
Being a Great Divorced Father, written by a dad who's been there, helps you learn how to cooperate and collaborate with your former spouse and prioritize your children's needs. Plus, read insightful examples of families who have met the challenges of divorce transition with success.
“We’ve never seen a Nolo book we didn’t like.” - Small Business Opportunities
“The nation’s largest publisher of self-help legal books and software.” - The Wall Street Journal
Paul Mandelstein is a pioneer in the field of personal communications and technology reference publishing; as president and publisher of The Book Publishing Company he directed a line of books in the family planning, comparative religion and community life categories. Along with other stints in publishing, he served six years as director of outreach publications for a nonprofit charitable relief organization working with the United Nations. Paul is a divorced father with three children. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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Introduction - Lemons into Lemonade
- A Chance for Growth
- Getting Started
- It's All About the Kids
Chapter One - Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
- One Last Try
- Honoring the Bonds of Our Children
- Taking Care of Yourself
- Who Moves Out?
- Leave the Lawyer Stuff for Later if You Can
- Money, Money, Money, Money
- Hang In There
Chapter Two - Creating Your New Home
- Making a Home
- Location, Location, Location
- Make Room for the Kids
- What's Cookin'?
- Excuse Me! Do I Look Like a Taxi?
- Remember You're Human
- Taking Stock
Chapter Three - Daily Life as a Single Dad
- A Typical Day
- On Less-Than-Ideal Days
- Managing the Details
- Caring for Your Kids
- Baby Sitters and After-School Care
- Homework, TV, Games, & Leisure
- "Right Speech" and Staying Focused on the Future
Chapter Four - The Noncustodial Dance
- Dealing with the Changes
- Some Things Don't Change
- Staying Connected
- Different Voices, Different Homes
- Establishing Your House Rules
- Getting Flexible at Work
- Show Up When You Say You Will
- Presence, Not Presents
Chapter Five - Ex-Communications: 10 Ways to Make Talking to Your Ex Easier
- 1. Be Nice
- 2. Spare the Kids
- 3. Get Help
- 4. Take 24
- 5. Create Clear Boundaries
- 6. Don't Try to Change Her
- 7. Find Ways to Agree
- 8. Listen to Your Ex-Spouse without Defending Yourself
- 9. Let Your Ex Have Her Way While Not Giving Up Yours
- 10. Ask for What You Want
- 11. Bonus Advice: Ground Rules for Face-to-Face Meetings
Chapter Six - Settling Up: Legal and Custody Issues
- The High Cost of Conflict
- The Basics of the Legal Divorce
- Dividing the Pie: Spousal Support and Property Division
- How to Choose an Attorney
- Making a Paper Trail
- When You Have to Fight
- Assume the Impossible Is Possible
- Don't Underestimate Your Stress
- Opportunities for Personal Growth
Chapter Seven - Let's Get Real About the Kids
- Becoming the Parent You Want to Be
- Keeping Your Kids Out of the Fray
- Setting Limits
- Watching for Signs of Stress in Your Kids
- Our Teenagers, Ourselves
Chapter Eight - Keeping Yourself Together
- Recognizing and Managing Stress
- 10 Not-So-Hard-and-Fast Rules for Managing Stress
- Recognizing and Managing Depression
- Choosing Your Problems
- Letting Go of Your Problems
- Don't Go It Alone
Chapter Nine - Birthdays and Holidays
- Happy Birthday for All
- Have a Happy Holiday
- 10 Tips for Keeping Birthdays and Holidays Sane and Happy
Chapter Ten - Kids, Friends, Dating, and Lovers
- The Dating Game: Ready or Not?
- Back in the Game
- Dating and Your Ex
- Introducing Your New Love to the Kids
- You're the Boss of You
- When Your Ex Starts Dating
Chapter Eleven - Taking a Chance on Love Again: Remarriage and Blending Families
- Parenting in a Blended Family
- Make Space for Mourning, and Change Will Happen
- New Family, New Rituals
- Dealing with Your Ex About Your Marriage-and Hers
- Do We Really Have to Talk About This?
- Nurturing Your Relationship
- Nurturing Your Extended Family
Appendix - Divorce and Fathering Resources
Making the Decision to Divorce
One Last Try 10
Honoring the Bonds of Our Children 14
Tell Them You Love Them, and Tell Them Often 18
Decide to Be the Best Dad You Can Be 20
Taking Care of Yourself 22
Who Moves Out? 23
Leave the Lawyer Stuff for Later if You Can 26
Money, Money, Money, Money 28
Hang In There 30
im and Gina met while they were both on vacation in Southern California. Tim had just received a dream promotion at his first serious job; he was riding high and confident of his future. Gina, however, was healing from a painful breakup with the man she’d been dating for two years and was feeling like many things were up in the air for her. She certainly wasn’t looking for a new relationship. She welcomed Tim’s company but made it clear that she was only interested in having someone to pal around with.
Tim said okay, though he was absolutely certain he’d found the love of his life. He’d take his time and give her whatever space she needed. Tim’s caring attention was exactly what Gina needed to help her through this difficult time. And after several months of telephone conversations across the miles—she lived in Tucson, he in Seattle—they agreed to meet in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend. Gina was ready to give love another chance.
Six months later they were making wedding plans. Gina wanted a traditional church wedding, which was fine with Tim as long as they could have a large reception at a place near the ocean, with all their friends celebrating with them. This was one marriage, they told their friends, that would last forever.
In fact, it lasted for nine and a half years, long enough for Alexia and Ben to be born. Neither Gina nor Tim could remember when the arguments actually started. They were over small things at first, but soon even the small disagreements were turning into major fights. It seemed that no matter what one of them suggested to the other, it was steel on flint. Sparks flew, whether the discussion was what to fix for dinner, what to plant in the garden, where to spend their vacation, or how best to discipline the kids. The loving intimacy they’d shared eroded with each argument. Finally, they were sleeping in different rooms, and Tim sought every opportunity for out-of-town business trips. Gina noticed she was relieved and more relaxed when Tim was out of town and she avoided intimate contact when he was home.
Tim and Gina both felt very alone in their marriage and were depressed and anxious over the loss of the mutual support they’d once experienced. It was nearly impossible for either of them to accept the fact that something that had started so beautifully had come to this.
The children, now five and seven, were beginning to show the effects of the constant tension between their parents. In family counseling, Gina and Tim pledged to stay together and resolve their differences. Somehow, they’d make the marriage work. Above all, they both understood the negative impact their separation would have on the kids, and they wanted to avoid this at all costs—well, nearly all costs.
It all came to a head at Alexia’s soccer game, when Tim and Gina started arguing in front of the kids and other parents. Deeply humiliated by their own behavior, and aware of how they’d also humiliated their children, they apologized to the people around them and made their way home. Although they were still furious with each other, they made a pact that evening never again to air their conflicts in public. And they would try their best not to argue in front of the kids.
But the conflicts persisted, and the tension continued to affect Alexia and Ben. At last, after much soul-searching and many tears, Tim and Gina made the decision to end their marriage. It was the first thing they’d agreed on in months. They also made a pledge, suggested by their counselor, to make the break with a specific goal in mind: to do everything in their power to treat one another with respect and dignity. With two beautiful children, they had much to be grateful for. The marriage had blessed them in this way regardless of the fact that they could no longer live together. The therapist assured them that she would be available to help them through the separation, guiding them through what she called a “collaborative divorce.”
By “collaborative divorce,” the therapist meant a way that divorcing parties can relate to each other starting from an assumption of collaboration rather than conflict. In the legal field, there is also a growing movement called “collaborative divorce,” which refers to a specific way of going through a legal divorce, in which both parties and their lawyers agree to keep the matter out of court. In this book, the term means a way of relating to your spouse during a divorce, not to the legal process.
You probably recognize Tim and Gina’s story. Every marriage is different, and so is every divorce—but the common thread for divorcing parents with children is the need to come to terms with the ongoing relationship you’ll have as divorced parents. This book is about that relationship, and about how you can move through the divorce with a commitment to being the best ex-husband and the best divorced father you can be.
One Last Try
Maybe, just maybe, you’re not quite ready to call it quits. You’re talking about breaking up, and perhaps you’ve gone through a few periods of reconciliation, but you haven’t signed any papers or made any property agreements. Is it worth trying once more? If you think it might be possible to save your marriage, now is the time to try, before one of you moves out. Once you have stepped over that particular threshold, your chances of getting back together are diminished; it’s a big step and one that is not easily reversed.
Before separating, is it worth it to try counseling? If you’re not in counseling already, and you are sincere about giving the marriage one last try, then you should seriously consider asking a third party for help. Let your wife know that you would very much like to enter counseling because you want to stay married to her.
Bear in mind, however, that while professional help can be a great asset, it will help save your marriage only if you and your spouse are both committed to working it out. That means you want to stay together no matter how uncomfortable the changes you are facing might be—including the need for you to accept your wife’s shortcomings and to ask her to accept yours.
Counseling can be helpful to your own processing of the relationship, too. If you find your doubts and fears keeping you awake at night or distracting you during the day, you might want to consider private therapy, just for you, in addition to any work you are doing as a couple with a marriage counselor. (There’s more about counseling below and in Chapter 7.)
Because separating can be so complicated and frightening, many couples go through a trial separation before making their final decision. By the time a couple has gotten to the point of choosing to live apart, it’s likely that they’ll eventually go on to make the separation permanent. But sometimes, given some time apart, a couple will get a better perspective on what it would really mean to be divorced. That may lead them to accept shared responsibility for creating the current estrangement and develop the motivation to work a little harder to get back together.
Does Counseling Make Sense If You Know You’re Splitting Up?
Counseling is absolutely worth trying when your goal is to save your marriage, but it can also be worthwhile if you know you’re splitting up. A counselor can help you work out how you want to communicate during your separation and after your divorce, especially as your communication relates to parenting your kids together. A counselor can also help you make some of the nitty-gritty decisions about your separation—who will move out of the house, how you will pay for the expenses of two households while you work out a formal agreement, and how you will deal with the kids about the divorce.
People have shared many stories with me about how counseling helped them through breakups. For example, in a group for recently divorced fathers, one man confessed, “My wife had to drag me into counseling kicking and screaming. I made some effort to participate but I was never really into it. I knew our marriage was over, and I wanted out more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. Looking back on it, though, I’m really glad I went. It helped both of us work through some of the fears we had about ending it, and we were able to actually help each other in the separation. Today, we’re good friends. We’ve been able to cooperate really well where the kids are concerned, and that’s something both of us consider valuable. I don’t think we could have gotten to this place as fast as we did had it not been for those last sessions with the shrink.”
A trial separation can be difficult where the kids are concerned, however. What do you tell them? Do you say, “I (or maybe Mom) am(is) going to have a place of my (her) own for a while, but don’t worry, we’ll be getting back together?” Given that you can’t actually promise your kids that you’ll reconcile, it’s better to offer them something solid they can deal with. Just assure them that “Even though I am is going to have a place of my own now, I’m still your dad, and will always be your dad. You’ll still see a lot of me, and you’ll also have another home where you can go to be with me.” Assuring the kids that while things are changing, you will always be Dad helps them deal with their primary fear—that you won’t love them anymore.
If you decide to try a separation period, be sure that you jointly decide how long the separation will be. Between six and twelve months is reasonable. But be specific. Both of you should agree on a date. After that time, you can take a look at your situation—perhaps with the help of your marriage counselor or therapist—and then decide what your next move is going to be.
If this is to be a trial separation, make sure you’re in agreement about what this means: You are still married to each other, and your goal is to get back together. If you get emotionally and sexually involved with another person, it’s no longer a trial separation. If that’s happened already and is a part of why you’re separating, you need to end the outside relationship so that you can focus on your marriage. It’s important to remember that, even after the divorce is final, most of us feel pangs of sadness, and perhaps even anger, when we see our ex-partner with someone else. Time does heal such wounds, but if you’re sincere about a trial separation, you’ll realize, early on, that this is not a time to open up new wounds. Instead, it is a time to heal the ones that are threatening your marriage.
It is virtually impossible to know with absolute certainty that separating from your partner is the right way to go, even after you’ve tried every other option. What you do know is that you are in pain, and your wife is in pain, and your children are in pain and may be showing the stresses of your struggle. If you’ve reached the point where you feel there’s no other option but to separate permanently, you’re about to find out that you are not alone on the journey. Everyone in the immediate family is affected, to say nothing of grandparents, friends, and even distant cousins. While that might feel like a lot of pressure, it should also support your commitment to a collaborative process that won’t drag those friends and relatives into your conflicts with your spouse.
Honoring the Bonds of Our Children
One evening in a men’s divorce group, a father was commemorating the third year of his separation from his ex-wife. He reflected on the most difficult parts of the separation and divorce and reiterated how relieved he was to be out of the marriage. He then made this comment: “In the beginning there are those little moments of grace when you think how mellow it is to be out of this hassle. No more arguments. No more impossible standoffs you know are futile. And then, maybe a couple months out of the house, you start to realize that as long as you live you’ll be a part of this family unit, by virtue of the fact of your children. For the first time in my life, I know what they mean by that saying, blood is thicker than water.”
In so many ways, divorce—at least when there are children of the marriage—is not ending a relationship but changing it. Where children are concerned, Dad is still Dad and Mom is still Mom. There may be stepparents who at least partially take on those roles, and who your children may even come to call Dad or Mom, but the reality is that the bonds you share with your children do not go away. Keeping that in mind, look for ways to honor those bonds even as you are making plans to leave the marriage.
True Stories: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
A friend recently shared with me an experience he’d had at his daughter’s wedding, 12 years after he and her mother divorced. Before the wedding, he and his ex-wife spoke on the phone, promising each other that while they were both attending the wedding, there would be no scenes between them. This was a time of celebration, not a time for opening old wounds. What surprised my friend, he said, was that when the band started playing at the reception, he had a profound yearning to dance with his ex. When he timidly walked up to her to ask, she smiled brightly and eagerly drew him out onto the dance floor. Later she said, “I was so afraid you wouldn’t ask me.” It was not anything like a reconciliation, he said, for they had both gone on with their lives and remarried. But, clearly, they shared a bond through their daughter, and it felt good to acknowledge and celebrate it in this way. “I am so glad we were able to share this moment,” my friend told his former wife.
Where there are children involved, there is a bond that we will share with our kids’ moms forever. After the divorce, we’re still going to be raising the children together with our former spouses, and this will take a collaborative effort if we’re to do it right. In the ideal world, of course, there would be no domestic strife and no divorce. But that’s not what this book is about. Living as we do in a world where divorce is all too prevalent, we would do well to look at the best ways through it—beginning with the realization that a family with children is a family that is bonded together for many, many years to come. But that’s the big picture. In the moment, you’re first going to have to tell the kids about the impending divorce.
Calling a Truce
This is a big one. You still have many unresolved differences between you. You may be feeling raw and hurt. Even so, once you’ve made the decision to divorce, there’s business to attend to, some of which is going to require strength that you may have never imagined you possess. You’ve got to step back, survey what needs to be done, and then move on to complete what you’ve set into motion. This is where true collaboration begins, with an agreement to call a truce: an end to active fighting. This book will help you keep your commitment to that collaboration.
Your first purpose in calling a truce is to be able to sit down with the kids and tell them what’s going on. This is not about you or how you feel; it is about your kids. This moment will stay with them forever, so be prepared to put your hurt and anger aside and focus on what they need.
There are other reasons to call a truce with your spouse, though. The stress of continual conflict, as you already know, takes its toll. Now that you have decided to split, you have an opportunity to relieve some of that stress by agreeing to deal with each other in a collaborative way. Doing so will make everything easier, from arranging a visitation schedule to splitting your bank accounts. There is no way around it—this is a very hard time for everyone. There’s no need to make it harder by fighting over every little detail.
It’s best for the kids if you and your spouse talk to them at the same time—but make certain you agree to this ahead of time and talk over how it’s going to go. If your kids are very different ages, you’ll need to speak to each of them in a way that will make sense to them. For example, a four-year old child may only need to hear three things, though you may have to repeat these three statements many times in the weeks ahead: 1) “I love you,” 2) “I will always be your daddy,” and 3) “I am going to be living in a different house where you will have your own room and toys, just like here.” Telling a teenager may be more challenging. The main thing with teenagers will be to keep focused while avoiding discussions that are critical of their mother.
If you’re feeling very unsure, seek help from a marriage counselor. This can greatly reduce your anxiety by giving you some guidelines to follow. A counselor can help you understand where your kids are developmentally and how to talk to each of them.
Whatever you do, after you explain to the kids about the changes that are about to happen, make sure you take each child aside separately to address concerns and needs one on one. Encourage them to ask questions and to express what they are feeling. Answer their questions without putting down their mother in any way. And take the time to acknowledge their feelings without dissecting them or trying to talk them out of it.
For example, if your daughter tells you she is “sad and angry and scared all at the same time,” let her know that you understand why she would feel that way, that she may feel that way for a while, and that it will get better. If she’s angry at you, you might say “I’m sure you are angry, sweetheart. I’m sorry that you feel this way and I understand why you do right now. I believe that you’ll feel better as time goes on, but it might take a while. I still love you very much, and that will never change.”
True Stories: A Cautionary Tale
When my wife and I split up, we told each of our three kids at different times and places. We did not make a lot of time for them to express their reactions or ask questions, which was a mistake. My eight-year-old son was especially confused by the way we told him. Both his mom and I held him in our laps in such a loving way that he thought something wonderful was about to happen. When we explained that his mom and I were getting a divorce, it didn’t make sense to him. He couldn’t put together the loving nurturing and the shocking news of the divorce. It was a lack of planning on our part, and a failure to consider what message our actions might send, that caused his confusion and meant we had to backtrack and start over dealing with his feelings. On the other hand, we tried not to get too down on ourselves—we did the best we could in the moment, and there’s no perfect way to break news like this. Most kids are going to need ongoing help in coping with the divorce, no matter how well the initial conversation goes.
Regardless of how you choose to tell your kids, do it in a way that is sensitive to their individual needs and in an age-appropriate way, with your actions and words expressing a coherent message. It’s not possible to avoid some upset—yours and theirs. Be as aware as you possibly can be of your children’s reactions. The more you are able to observe how they are taking the news, the better able you’ll be to handle any difficulties they may be having, now and in the future.
Tell Them You Love Them, and Tell Them Often
As much as you want to ease your kids’ and your own pain at this point, it’s here that the old Taoist saying, “Don’t push the river,” becomes the rule of the day. Healing takes time—but there are things you can say and do that will help your kids through the transition, keeping them in a place of relative safety as they negotiate this new territory. Here are key concepts that you’ll want to convey to your kids. Don’t drag out your discussion of these points—keep your communication clear, simple, and age appropriate:
• Assure them the divorce is not their fault and that they are not in any way responsible for Mom and Dad wanting to live in different houses.
• Tell them you’re sorry.
• Assure them that even though you may not be living in the same house with them, you will not ever abandon them—you are all still a family, and that will never change.
• Ask them to be patient and tell them that many other kids have gone through this—and that, eventually, it will get easier and they will feel “normal” again.
• Tell them often that you love them.
True Stories: Acting Out the Teenage Ways
When Jerry and Brenda broke up, their 14-year-old son, Craig, acted out by cutting school and getting involved with a group of kids who were experimenting with drugs. Jerry had the boy come and live with him in the hope of getting him away from the kids he was hanging out with. “It was hellish,” Jerry said. “Craig lied constantly, stole from me, and eventually got suspended from school.
“One day a cop came to the door and reported that my son was selling weed. We were subpoenaed to appear for a hearing with a juvenile probation officer. That meeting scared the crap out of both of us. When we got home afterwards, I asked Craig what it was that bothered him so much. His first answer was that I bugged him, and he hated my guts. Then he broke down and sobbed, ‘I don’t have a family anymore.’
“I contacted a family therapist the next day. What came out in our meeting with the therapist was a great revelation to both Craig and me: We learned that, regardless of the divorce, we were still a family. My ex and I had not destroyed that family by breaking up, but we had forced it to change its form.
“For several weeks, Craig and I and our counselor worked together to decide ways our new family structure might work. To make a long story short, Craig chose to go back and live with his Mom and my other two kids. His acting out has stopped and he’s taken a very caring and responsible role with his younger siblings. I’m really proud for both of us because I think we got to the bottom of a pretty big problem that might otherwise have been a real tragedy.”
Decide to Be the Best Dad You Can Be
Dissolving a marriage, particularly when children are involved, is a complex and trying process. It’s hard on everyone. As one recently divorced father put it, “It is like having the cosmic carpet pulled suddenly out from under you. Even though I thought I was prepared for it, and had done a lot in therapy around it, when I walked out that door for the last time, I felt like the earth had crumbled under my feet.”
During this period of transition, you’ll no doubt encounter a great deal of confusion and emotional upheaval. You’ll probably be feeling every emotion imaginable, from anger and fear to relief to deep sadness. Regardless of what else is going on, hold the intention uppermost in your mind that you’ll do everything you can to be the best father you can possibly be. If you make and keep that commitment to yourself, you may encounter trials of many kinds, but you will find a way to keep your kids’ mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health at the top of your priority list.
What does this mean in a practical sense? It means that you put your kids’ needs before your own—a theme that we’ll return to again and again in this book. It means that you pay attention to what your kids are saying and what they’re doing—with you, your spouse, and their friends, at home and at school. It means that no matter how stressed out, overwhelmed, or burned out you feel, you find a way to show up for your kids—not just when they are in crisis or acting out, but when it’s time to help with the homework or drive the carpool on any given day.
If you can do this, you’ll receive two enormous benefits. First, you’ll improve your relationship with your kids and offer them the support that they need. And second, you’ll undoubtedly improve your own emotional state. Focusing on something other than your own problems will help you heal and move on.
True Stories: Brent Learns to Be a Parent
Brent, whose daughter was five years old when he divorced her mother, told the story of how, soon after leaving the family home and finding an apartment for himself, he felt literally overcome by anxiety and depression. The first time he was supposed to have Shelly for the weekend, he called and cancelled. “I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I was a total basket case.” In his own mind, he was a failure as a dad, and his first reaction was to withdraw entirely from his daughter’s life.
“Fortunately,” he said, “I had a friend who’d been through a similar thing. She told me not to beat myself up for not seeing Shelly that weekend. I should still hold my intention and do my level best to get myself together.”
Brent did exactly that, and from that day on, unless he was out of town on business he kept his weekend visits with his daughter. Ultimately, he did become the kind of father he wanted to be—present, available, consistent—and while there were difficulties over the years, he was able to keep a loving and caring focus with her.
Taking Care of Yourself
Finding your way to a collaborative divorce depends on your ability to recognize when it’s okay to go it alone and when you can use experienced help. Above all, don’t be the victim of false pride. It’s not always easy to ask for help, whether it’s about the best way to get from Point A to Point B, or how to best handle personal matters. Try to resist the I can do this myself approach. At this stage of the journey, you’re best off looking for the shortest and easiest route through the divorce process, the one that will inflict minimal damage upon everyone involved. Getting help from a therapist or counselor will usually support that effort. After all, if you had been able to sort out your problems on your own, you would not now be divorcing.
Experienced professionals have helped others through the process many times and can ease you through it. Having an unbiased third party involved will make communication with your spouse much easier, increasing your ability to resolve issues together.
Through all of it, stay focused. Your goal is to learn a way of relating to your soon-to-be ex-spouse that will be healthy for your kids. You are not in therapy to get back together. Yes, it does happen now and then, but don’t confuse your own counseling with couples therapy. What you are doing here is resolving your own core issues that will have serious long-term effects on your children and their mother.
There are lots of other ways that you can take care of yourself, including the old standbys of eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Make sure you do whatever works for you, whether it’s daily meditation or joining a softball league.
What Are Friends For?
In times of crisis, most of us seek out the comfort and solace of our friends. In the beginning, you may be very angry, looking for ways to justify what’s happened to your marriage. You need the support of friends and family at this time, but be careful not to abuse their willingness to listen. Family members need to be told, of course, but they don’t need an itemized account of your grievances. As one man told me, “I look back on the period of my divorce with genuine regret. What happened is that I not only lost my marriage but a couple of good friendships I really valued. I never should have burdened them with my rants—and believe me, I really did rant.”
Divorce is a touchy subject for nearly everyone. Even the best relationships have a few sharp edges. Your stories can open old wounds, or create new ones, with the friends you share them with. So no matter how much you may want to transform the sour feelings that are lodged in your heart, take a moment to consider how helping you with that work will impact your friend.
Who Moves Out?
In most cases, it’s the father who moves out of the family home because Mom is the primary caregiver and the idea is to minimize the disruption in the children’s lives. From the kids’ point of view, this is a painful transition, so make sure that regardless of who leaves the house, you maintain the home base that gives the kids a sense of familiarity and security. This is not always possible, of course—sometimes a family must downsize to a smaller home or move to another neighborhood or city. No matter what, though, don’t ever lose sight of how important it is for children to have the security of a place that feels like home.
If you’re the one who moves out, it’s likely the kids will believe that you are the one ending the marriage. The reality is that the children don’t need to know the details of why you’re divorcing or whose idea it was. Placing blame won’t bring them any peace of mind and can create a conflict that can never be fully resolved. Older children might ask you whose decision it was. What should you answer? Simply explain that who’s to blame really isn’t the issue, and that both of you had your part in causing the deterioration of your relationship.
What else should you discuss with them? The kids don’t need to know the gory details of what goes on in private between you and your spouse. Spare the kids the details, and never discuss with them anything about your sexual relationship or other adult concerns.
There’s no point lying to your kids about what’s been going on—they were there. Even children who appear to only have the most rudimentary grasp of language often know the difference between truth and falsehood. Young children won’t understand the same issues as the older kids, of course, so you need to offer age-appropriate information when they do start asking.
If there has been a lot of tension between you and your spouse, the kids will have experienced it too. And, obviously, if there have been other overt problems, such as emotional or physical violence, mental illness, or drug or alcohol abuse, the kids will likely already be aware of this too, no matter what their ages. Kids often feel great relief when the tension is relieved once one parent moves out. That relief needs to be acknowledged along with all of their other feelings.
Most important, don’t ever put down your spouse in any way. If you’re very angry, this may cut down on how much you can talk to your kids about their other parent, but it will be well worth it in the long run. Negative talk about your ex will make your kids feel that they’re caught in the middle. They’ll be learning a lesson of resentment and anger, rather than one of compassion and patience. And they’ll see you as someone who’s harsh and unforgiving, which is likely to alienate them from you. In short, there’s no benefit and a lot of downside to trashing your ex to your kids.
True Stories: Kids’ Feelings
“I thought my kids were taking the whole thing pretty well,” Don told the men’s group one evening. “Dianna, my daughter, who’s eight, even told me, ‘you’ll always be my Daddy, forever.’ I believed she understood everything I was telling her. But when I went back to pick her up for the weekend, she wouldn’t say a word to me. She just sulked the whole weekend.”
Many divorced parents have this experience. No matter how understanding and mature your kids may seem to be, your leaving will cause them to feel abandoned and angry. They’ll probably also feel ambivalent as they try to reconcile their anger with the love for you and the sense of permanence that you represent in their lives.
No matter what their ages and levels of maturity, you can count on the kids reacting in a variety of different ways—sometimes all within a matter of minutes. They are providing you with the information you’ll need to deal with the transitions you are all going through. Here is a list of just some of the feelings you might expect to hear about:
• relief to be free from witnessing fighting and arguments
• disbelief and shock
• worry about how their lives will change (one friend who was about five when her parents divorced said her first thought was “Who will put me to bed?”)
• anger and blame directed at one or both parents, especially the parent who is leaving the family home
• shame and embarrassment
• confusion about loyalty to one or other parent
• bewilderment about who to believe when the parents disagree, and
• guilt—believing they may be to blame for the breakup.
Be prepared and know that the best medicine at this time is to support them in acknowledging and sharing their feelings, regardless of what those feelings might be.
Your kids’ difficult reactions don’t mean that you should rethink the
divorce or consider going back to the family home to assuage their feelings. What it does mean is that you need to listen very carefully to their complaints—and their silences. Their sense of security, which is so important at this stage of the divorce, will depend on your ability to listen and to let them know that you accept their feelings.
Leave the Lawyer Stuff for Later If You Can
When first splitting up, many people believe they must immediately seek out an attorney and file for divorce. For some people, starting the legal process is a way to reduce confusing feelings and feel some relief. For others, it’s necessary because of support or custody issues. But it’s not necessary for everyone. Here are some factors to consider:
• If you have young children and you and your spouse can’t agree about how you will divide time with them or pay for their support, you’ll need to get some temporary orders from a court right away. This requires that one of you file the papers to start the divorce.
• If you can’t agree who will move out of the home, you’ll also have to get a court to decide that, meaning that someone will have to file papers.
• If you can agree on who moves out, an amount of temporary support, and how you will share time with the kids, then you can hold off on starting the legal proceedings.
• If you have reasons to stay legally married, such as wanting to keep insurance in force for your wife and kids as long as possible, you can also wait to file until some time has passed.
• Your divorce won’t be final for quite a while after it’s filed. States have different rules on this but in most states, there’s a waiting period of six to 12 months. So, if you have some reason to want the divorce to be finalized promptly—such as that you want to get married again—you’ll need to file soon.
It’s definitely true that while you and your soon-to-be ex are still volatile emotionally—which is normal for a while—you should not be trying to make any big decisions. Wait until you start to feel more solid. If you can hold off on filing for a while, fine.
Whether you file sooner or later, consider getting an hour’s consultation with an attorney at an early stage. Here’s a brief list of things you may want to know right away—and there’s more about dealing with lawyers in Chapter 5:
• What custody rights are customary? What is possible given any special circumstances you might have, such as either spouse’s desire to relocate?
• How will marital property be divided and who will be responsible for debts?
• How much might you be required to pay to your spouse as child support? What about alimony?
• How will the divorce affect your taxes?
You may be able to make a rough calculation, on the basis of this meeting, of how the divorce is going to affect your finances and how much money you’ll have available for your own expenses. You may also be able to set at rest worries you’re having about seeing your kids.
Money, Money, Money, Money
Money is a major issue in most divorces—just as it is in most marriages. If you’re a two-income family, sharing expenses will make the burden a bit easier to handle. If you are the main breadwinner, you’ll have to start supporting two households. Clearly, this can be a major financial burden, one that may necessitate some big changes in your lifestyle. This alone may stir up feelings of frustration, anxiety, and anger.
This is the point at which many men withdraw because they are overwhelmed by their feelings and by the changes in their family structure. Some even abandon their fathering responsibilities. As much you might want to cut and run, hang on. Don’t bail out on your responsibilities to your family.
Sure, you’re going to have to do some belt-tightening. And, yes, you may feel resentful if your ex stays in the house and gets to spend more time with the kids, all using money you earn. Just keep in mind that the home she’s living in is providing shelter and security for your children; the sacrifices you’re making are for their benefit. It’s also statistically true that for many women, divorce is financially disastrous. Your spouse is probably panicked about how she is going to afford to live and help to support the kids in the long run. The big house may feel more like a burden than a blessing at this transition point. And she’s just as emotionally raw as you are about the divorce and the money issues involved. So, try to cut her a break wherever you can.
Financial worries can be frightening and distracting. But once again, remind yourself to keep your kids on the top of your priority list. Be available to them emotionally. Show up for them a hundred percent.
Money and Control as a Substitute for Relationship
One of the biggest shocks that you face in the first months of your divorce is how radically your relationship with your ex changes. Suddenly, money becomes the main focus of virtually every interaction between you. This is especially true if you have been the major breadwinner and will now be supporting two households. After a while, you’ll wonder what happened to the person you once loved and who loved you. Why is it now only about the bucks?
And what about her? She’ll be amazed at your seeming indifference to her financial needs. (And if your spouse has been the breadwinner, you’ll probably feel the same, in addition to whatever feelings you have about asking her to continue supporting you.) There’s a great distance between you now, maybe even a wall that neither of you can scale. One divorcing father admitted after he and his wife spent years working in couples’ therapy, only to conclude that they couldn’t save their marriage: “I miss part of what we had always shared and can hardly believe the way money has become the only thing we ever discuss anymore ... with every exchange between us turning into a power struggle.”
In short, what divorcing couples find, and what you will have to accept, is that divorcing and living apart create perhaps as many demands—and when it comes to finances, even more demands—as being together.
Whether or not you hire a lawyer, make sure you get informed. There are lots of useful divorce resources out there, including:
• Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow (Nolo). Clear, practical advice and information about every aspect of the divorce process, from the different divorce options to the big three issues of property, custody, and support.
• Divorce & Money: How to Make the Best Financial Decisions During Divorce, by Violet Woodhouse with Dale Fetherling (Nolo). Proactive advice to help you protect yourself and safeguard your financial future. Reduces the financial complications of divorce into comprehensible strategies.
• The Complete Guide to Protecting Your Financial Security When Getting a Divorce, by Alan Feigenbaum (McGraw-Hill). Arms readers with the knowledge and tools they need to make it through a divorce with their financial skins intact.
• Divorce and Money: Everything You Need to Know, by Gayle Rosenwald Smith (Perigee Books). Explains the financial issues involved in divorce and advises the reader how to better understand the situation and take proper action.
Hang In There
You are at the beginning of a journey that may very well bring you face to face with some very difficult feelings, including resentment, anger, sadness, and anxiety. Have faith, however, that there is a way through these challenges. You’ll find, in the pages to come, a compilation of the experiences of many other men who have traveled this path before you and who have not only survived the difficult times, but have come to a place of peace. Some have even come full circle to enjoy amicable relationships with their ex-wives. Trust that things will get easier over time. All you can do is hang in there and put one foot in front of the other—and read on. •