Being Together as a Family Post-Divorce
Divorces have been in the news recently
With couples navigating those procedures successfully, and Collaborative divorce, or opting for mediation, I predict as the children grow up our civilization will have more and more families living in two homes, but keeping up a friendly and close connection. I've come across couples who sit at their son's wedding, or do not just share the cost of the bat mitzvah. More and more often I meet and hear about couples who rebuild a comfortable friendship after the dust up of their divorce is over, once every parent finds a new normal that feels not only sane, but joyous. One has and one hasn't, although these divorced parents have remarried. While the children enjoy being with everyone at once, they still have been able to discover a way to laugh at the same table during Thanksgiving dinner.
So -- what's the"problem"?
When I'm meeting with parents around the terrifying side of this ravine, facing separation and feeling like their lives are falling away beneath their feet, those who have a core of closeness, who are not overcome with rancor and wishes for revenge, often refer to their assumption that it would be best for the children if they keep having family dinners once a week, and if they plan to do most of their vacations as they always have -- collectively. These parents, ravaged by their painful fights of the past, and their recent tearful discussions of who will move out, getting caught by home security systems, hold dear to a desire about spending time for the sake of the kids, and a fear.
One difficulty here is that while one spouse has decided to end the marriage, the other is often a person slogging through divorce despite their preference to be meeting with a marriage therapist instead. Because parents are so frequently in two very different psychological landscapes, the notion of spending some time together for the sake of the kids can feel tolerable to one (the leaver) and torturous to another (the leavee). Disappointments and the wounding are repeated, while bleeding on the inside can be exhausting and the stress of keeping a smile on one's face. (Incidentally, children have an uncanny ability to feel the bleeding behind the smiles.
And what about the kids? Spending time together as the family of old is a bittersweet crazy-making at experience for children they understand that divorce is coming -- or has arrived and once one parent moves out. Kids hold on to the dream that their minds will change, and return. So having family dinners a week, or even lighting the Hannukah candles as a family after there is a separation a business for kids. On the one hand they want the same old traditions over anything because they are reassuring, since they might signal a thaw in the deep freeze, because they allow the children to have both parents at the same time. But on the flip side, when Dad or Mom puts on a jacket and heads for the door to leave kids feel the sadness up all over again.
When a huge change, debilitating, or even traumatic shift -- happens in our life, we need time to incorporate the different pieces of the new reality we didn't pick and prepare for. We need time to consider it, discuss it, find out how to adjust, adapt and cope with it. We need to learn how to find great things in daily when Life seems gloomy and destroyed -- and we need help finding those things. If divorcing families move too quickly into time together, and into efforts aimed at being"like we were", this process of adjustment and recovery could be interrupted and delayed.
So, no family Sunday? No Christmas mornings as we were, opening the presents? That is not exactly my message.
There is not a formula we can compute to figure out this. There are circumstances that make a decision to get the family again happy and a safe one -- whether or not there are new partners and even measure siblings added in. The main point is to be thoughtful about this, as they exist in the current and also to think about each family member's feelings. Who is ready for togetherness? How will we talk about our plan to go back for dinner, or a celebration? What will we say to make it clear to the kids that this is a joyful chance to be together, but it does not signal a sea change in the present or future organization of their family in two homes? How can we navigate between the lands of separateness and unity, can we handle that as a family, in a way that supports each member?
Here are some guidelines to consider as you contemplate separation, as you live through the first weeks of a separated family life, and as you adjust to the long- term changes that divorce will bring:
Avoid doing things together as a family if one parent finds the experience quite painful and needs to"pretend". Pretending or hiding feelings from children makes them anxious. They can sense something is not right, but everybody looks fine. Test out the waters of togetherness in relatively simple and brief ways at first: by watching the football game on the same side of the area, by sitting together to see a school performance and sharing congrats and hugs afterwards, but skipping the family lunch as a bunch. Family gatherings that feel cold or tense will bring distress to the children, rather than comfort. They are likely to prefer two joyful and relaxed birthday dinners in separate houses, rather than one miserable dinner all together -- even if the reduction of this older tradition is a painful one. Keep the lines of communication with kids open to see how they're feeling about time and time. If kids voice the wish to do things together, explore the wish to see if you can locate the fantasy of reconciliation and remarriage. Speak about the reality that parents will stay apart, if the dream is expressed, and accept the sadness as something normal. You can reassure kids, and yourself, that the sorrow that is sharp will ease with time. Do not assume your co-parent is fine with joining you for hamburgers, or breakfast . Definitely don't tell the children about any plan to do something together without checking first with the other parent. Avoid inviting the parent to join in front of the kids. Talk with your co-parent once the kids are not around about whether you both are prepared to spend some time together as a family, and about how it may feel to say good -bye at the end of the event. If you and your co-parent agree that celebrating an occasion together might feel fine, speak together ahead of time about how to make the experience genuinely enjoyable for the children. If, when you contemplate the event you realize you are dreading it, consider making an alternate plan, and waiting a bit longer to try Whole-Family time If at any time one parent begins to feel nostalgic for the union, and begins misinterpreting fun family time for a hint that their Ex may want to reconsider, press pause on the family time. Nothing like regressing to the wounds of dividing to wreak havoc on the retrieval of a divorcing couple, and their children. If at last family time works for everyone, and parents feel like their friendship has survived while they have evolved into comfortable separateness, pat yourselves on the back for getting there. Keep checking in with kids about their perceptions, their fantasies, and their tastes. If everyone looks happy to have the minutes while thriving in homes, proceed with gratitude. You're one of the divorce, but can find moments of reunion a reward.