As told to Anna Maxted for The Times, 23rd of April, 2022
Dialogue and clarity will make it easier on the children — and yourselves, says family therapist Jean-Claude Chalmet
Even if you hate each other, you need to co-parent
When a child-free marriage is over, it’s likely that you’ll both move on. But when there are children, you’ll need to have a relationship with each other for the next 20 years. That means, no matter how much bitterness there is between you, you must both find a way to manage it. Difficult though it may be, behaving reasonably and decently is what will serve children best. Often I see adults in divorces become selfish brats, because they’re angry and hurt.
They want to inflict pain on the person who’s inflicted it on them. Inevitably, the children suffer. In this situation, you must focus on your one common aim: what’s best for your children. That means supporting each other as parents, no matter what you think privately.
Behave in a way that your children can be proud of. Imagine them as adults, saying, “My parents separated, but we never felt abandoned. They did everything possible to give us the most beautiful childhood.”
Consider seeking help from a therapist
If you are finding it impossible to manage your hostilities, seek professional help. You may need several sessions with a mediator or therapist. With anger and resentment, hurt is what lies underneath.
It’s helpful to understand the source of your hurt, but also your partner’s. In my clinic, I use a technique where each partner listens while the other speaks, then articulates the other’s viewpoint back to them.
The idea is to leave each other with a modicum of understanding on both sides, what has happened for each individual partner. This will help to reduce the anger and make it easier to work together as co-parents.
How to tell your children
This is best done together, always, because the children want to be reassured. Choose your moment, ideally the weekend so they have time to reel. Communicate clearly. “Mum and Dad are not getting on, and we’ve decided to divorce.” If they cry and say, “We don’t want this” — or if they’re silent or disbelieving — be patient.
This is not one conversation. You might explain, “We aren’t in love any more, but we still love each other because we have you.” If that’s unsayable, keep it to “We aren’t in love any more” — but avoid upsetting detail. If they push for reasons why, you might say, “We are both unhappy — and we know we will be happier apart.”
Acknowledge that it is sad — which gives them permission to feel sad — but stress that while the marriage is at an end, the family continues.
Never criticise your partner to the children
Your children love and want to stay loyal to both of you — so if you criticise their other parent, you put them in an impossible position. It’s our responsibility as adults to make sure our children never feel that they have to take sides, or that they’re in danger of being rejected for not taking our side.
Children stuck between warring parents often try to be peacekeepers. They’re forced to parent the adults, while their needs are being neglected.
Years on, children will remember how difficult, how unhealthy, how toxic the relationship was between their parents. Don’t make your children the collateral damage of your mistakes.
Help your children to manage their feelings
Your children’s world has turned upside-down. Show them compassion, understanding. Never make them feel that what they’re feeling is bad or selfish, or they may internalise their distress, or act out.
The one emotion you must proactively disabuse them of is guilt, or any sense that the split was anything to do with them. Listen to them — don’t dismiss or minimise their feelings. Tell them, “It’s OK to feel worried, or scared — this is a new situation that none of us wanted.
But Mum and Dad love you, care about you and want the best for you and that won’t change. I promise that we will make the best of it.”
Do what you can as a family — but give it time
Even if your split is amicable, doing too much as a family at first may introduce false hope in your children of your getting back together. If you feel raw and volatile, celebrating a child’s birthday together, for instance, isn’t the best idea either.
Lavish attention separately in the early days. However, both attending events that your child is participating in — such as a sports match or concert — can help foster a sense of stability, while requiring minimum interaction between you. Though also be sensitive to how your children will feel in this situation.
If both of you are present, what might your child be fretting about? Who to approach first? How can you both mitigate that worry?
In the early days do what you are capable of, because looking furious or tearful won’t help the situation.
Separation hurts, but it can be ultimately healing
Parents often feel guilt at “breaking up” the family, but deciding to end the marriage and to co-parent as happier, mutually respectful individuals rather than being locked in misery as a couple is the solution to a problem, even if it is challenging in the short term.
Understanding that to be the best parents possible to your children it’s better that you live apart is very mature, caring and compassionate.
Think where you want to be in three months’ time
Make a detailed plan separately, if you can’t face doing it together, which is understandable, of where you’d like to be as a family in three months, six months, a year, three years and five years. This can help guide your behaviour and decisions and how you co-parent.
Then there is something to work towards.
In the future you want your children to say “Even though we would have preferred that they stayed together, it was all OK.”