Nothing will make it painless for them. Just help them to understand.
Breaking the news of a divorce to the children is one of the most common questions I get from clients. I respond, not just as a professional marriage coach; I speak from my own experience, from what I went through and the suffering it caused my children when I made that decision. I made the mistake of choosing divorce as a solution to my marriage problems, so I know what I’m talking about.
Thankfully, God was compassionate with me, and gave me the ability to change my mind, save my marriage, and salvage my family, so today — with absolute certainty — I know that there are other solutions, and that divorce, besides dividing the family, opens the door to much bigger problems. (This is not to say, of course, that separation may not be prudent in situations involving emotional abuse and/or physical violence.)
I suppose that my clients ask me how to tell their children that they are going to get a divorce because they want to make the “big news” hurt them as little as possible. The question is: which would be the most appropriate and least painful way to say to your children, “Kids, we’re going to destroy your emotional life. Your self-esteem will hit rock bottom. The safety you felt up to a short time ago will turn into fear. We are going to rip your heart out. There will be days when you will really want to die. But don’t worry too much, because we still love you and we will always be here for you…”
Think that sounds over-exaggerated? There’s no way to sugar-coat it; this is the tacit message within this horrid piece of news. How can we tell them that we love them, and then act to the contrary, destroying and ceasing to fight for the most precious thing that exists for them, which is the love between their parents and the rest of their extended family?
How is it possible to tell our children that we loved each other until yesterday, and we had the “perfect and ideal marriage,” but starting today, that no longer exists — it simply ended because we got tired of fighting and let our love die?
I know I might sound melodramatic to some people, but the sorrow and suffering we cause our children by getting a divorce cannot be described in words.
Without a doubt, when a couple is in crisis, the whole family is in crisis. The children are very susceptible to that emotional atmosphere, as much as we may try to give them the opposite impression. Nonetheless, you need to confront the problem, and end the crisis — not the marriage.
There are couples who pay thousands of dollars to therapists, psychologists, and counselors, and they even go to priests for help talking about this subject with their children, to prep them for delivering the big news: “Your parents are going to get divorced” — the words no child wants to hear.
In my opinion, the only thing they are doing is fattening the bank accounts of a few professional counselors. There is no way, no matter how sweet, affectionate, harmonious, and miraculous our words may be, to mitigate the avalanche of sorrow and suffering that we are raining down on the hearts of those children.
Besides, why should we try to smooth over something that naturally goes against the children’s rights, such as the right to have a family and parents who love each other? For me, planning to have a third party announce that news is, in the end, a lack of courage on the part of the parents, who refuse to take responsibility for their children. They are denying their part of the responsibility in the rupture of the marriage and the family.
And so, when divorce is already imminent, what do you think might be good to say to them? Maybe something like, “I stopped fighting for your mom/dad because I feel like I can’t do it anymore. I made a promise before God that I no longer want to keep.” I don’t know… I really don’t know…
What I do know, and what I ask of you, is that you never tell your children private details of your relationship, nor put down your spouse in front of your children. Of course, you have to talk with them as honestly as possible, according to the age and emotional maturity of each of them, but at the same time, you must always keep them from knowing information that could damage their esteem, respect, and admiration for both parents.
When you decide to talk to them about the subject of the divorce, be sure that they understand very clearly that it pains you terribly not to have had the ability to offer them a stable home as they deserved, and ask them for forgiveness. Tell them that the divorce isn’t their fault. Tell them that their mom and dad will always be their parents. Tell them that this is a change that will bring sorrow, but that, as parents, you will do your best to ensure that everything takes place with the greatest peace and cordiality. And, most importantly, tell them that your love for them is eternal and unconditional.
When children suffer through the experience of their parents getting a divorce, they may lose sight of the idea of love, of compassion, and of God. This is why you should never tire of repeating to them how much you love them, and of showing them you will protect them. The more you are at peace as a mother or father, the easier it will be to achieve the stability with which they have a right to live.
Always remember that divorce is not the last word — especially when it is a sacramental marriage, because at that human limit that made you say, “I can’t do it anymore,” you will find — if you seek Him and let Him act — God, who has no limits.
This article was originally published in the Spanish Edition of Aleteia. It has been translated and adapted here.