Children’s reunification fantasies

If your marriage has been rocky for some time, it can be the most obvious thing in the world that divorce is inevitable, and that nothing can keep you and your spouse together. Perhaps divorce proceedings have begun, and in your eyes, there is no going back. But your children may have a totally different perspective — unrealistic as it may be.

Is the current separation a rerun? Have your children seen one of you leave, and later return? Maybe you or your spouse left briefly after a particularly bad argument, and then were back in a day or two. Perhaps you tried a trial separation, and then gave the relationship another go after that. Maybe you’ve been talking about ending the marriage for awhile, but you’re still together. If so, the children have observed that the family has stayed together, despite the arguments or separations, so why should this time be different?

When you consider that most children want the family to stay together, it’s easier to understand why many of them can make themselves believe that this wish will come true. Even if there has been a great deal of yelling and discord, the family being together is at least familiar, and that means a lot, including at least a certain amount of security, in most instances.

A parent leaving is difficult and painful for children to think about; to them, it means that Mom or Dad won’t be around much anymore. And so, the idea of the family remaining united, even if far from ideal, can be one they cling to tenaciously.

Have your children helped to shape the marital relationship? For instance, have they repeatedly interfered with your plans for a parents’ night out together? If so, children who have learned that they can create distance between their parents may believe, understandably, that they have the power to reunite them as well.

If you and your spouse have come together in the past, let’s say when a child was having trouble at school, or was sick, that experience may suggest to your child that having or causing some difficulty may bring you together again. Of course, you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that any new problem is by design. Health issues in particular should be taken seriously. But, even if a child creates a problem to unite parents, you really shouldn’t blame him. In such instances, not only are children doing what makes sense to them, but also, in a sense, are doing what you taught them to do, even if unintentionally.

Have one of you made your own fantasy your child’s fantasy as well? Have you or your spouse been holding onto the hope that the marriage can be saved? If one parent hasn’t accepted that the divorce will happen, perhaps that parent has been vague in talking with the children about it, giving them hope when there isn’t any.

Worse yet, maybe that parent has been telling the children that the family can stay as it is or return to what it was, even telling them that they can help in making that happen. To avoid (or reverse) emotional problems, children must be helped to move forward and accept the new reality.

What to do:

In an age-appropriate manner (and when the time comes), the children need to be told:

• Mom and Dad will be living apart, and this will be permanent (assuming this isn’t a trial separation).

• This was an adult decision. Children don’t make these decisions, and can’t change them.

Further, to address issues of self-blame and insecurity, let them know:

• You (the children) didn’t cause Mom and Dad to start living apart.

• We (the parents) both love you and will continue to both take care of you (assuming that this is true).

Repeating these messages on occasion should comfort children, and help them to accept the difficult changes that are coming.

Lee Chabin, Esq., a divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer, helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabin@lc-mediate.com or (718) 229-6149, or go to lc-mediate.com/home.

Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only.