A Good Problem to Have: Family Togetherness Post-Divorce

Good divorces have been in the news lately. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling” hit the papers last year, and in September the New York Times featured an article about an already divorced couple taking their kids on a rafting trip – and enjoying the time together. (9/25/15 – From a Divorce a Fractured Beauty).

With more couples opting for mediation, or Collaborative divorce, and navigating those processes successfully, I predict our culture will have more and more families living in two homes, but maintaining a close and friendly connection as the children grow up. I have come across many divorced couples who don’t just share the cost of the bat mitzvah, or sit together at their son’s wedding. More and more frequently I meet and hear about couples who rebuild a comfortable friendship after the dust up of their divorce is over, once each parent finds a new normal that feels not only sane, but joyful. Sometimes these divorced parents have remarried, but sometimes one has and one has not. They still have been able to find a way to laugh during Thanksgiving dinner at the same table while the kids enjoy being with everyone at once.

So – what’s the “problem”?

When I am meeting with parents on the terrifying side of the 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 own assumption that it would be best for the kids if they keep having family dinners once a week, and if they plan to do most of their holidays as they always have – together. These parents, ravaged by their painful fights of the past, and their more recent tearful discussions of who will move out, hold dear both a wish and a fear about spending ongoing time together for the sake of the kids.

One problem here is that while one spouse has decided to end the marriage, the other is often a person slogging through divorce despite their ardent preference to be meeting with a marriage therapist instead. Because parents are so often in two very different emotional landscapes, the idea of spending time together for the sake of the kids can feel tolerable to one (the leaver) and torturous to the other (the leavee). While the bereft spouse yearns for their mate, and in part wants nothing more than a few hours of feeling things “the way they used to be”, the experience of having pizza and laughing “normally” at the kids’ jokes and then saying good bye in the parking lot while their spouse drives off to their new life makes adjustment and recovery much more difficult. The wounding and disappointments are repeated, and the stress of keeping a smile on one’s face while bleeding on the inside can be exhausting. (By the way, children have an uncanny ability to sense the bleeding behind the smiles. That stresses them out.)

And what about the kids? Spending time together as the family of old is a bittersweet at best, crazy-making at worst experience for children once one parent moves out and they know that divorce is coming – or has arrived. Children hold on to the fantasy that parents will change their minds, and reunite. So having family dinners once a week, or even lighting the Hannukah candles as a family soon after a separation is a tricky business for children. On the one hand, they want the same old traditions more than anything else – because they are reassuring, because they allow the children to have both parents at once, because they might signal a thaw in the deep freeze. But on the other, when Mom or Dad puts on a coat and heads for the door to leave, alone, children feel the sadness well up all over again.

When a huge change – a painful, or even traumatic change – occurs in our life, we need time to integrate the different pieces of the new reality we did not choose and prepare for. We need time to think about it, talk about it, learn how to adjust, adapt and cope with it. We need to learn how to find good things in a day when Life seems bleak and ruined – and we often need help finding those good 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 can be repeatedly interrupted and delayed.

So – no family Sunday dinners post-separation? No Christmas mornings opening the gifts as we were? That is not exactly my message.

There isn’t a formula we can calculate to figure this out. There are circumstances that make a decision to get the original family together again a safe and happy one – whether or not there are new partners and even new stepsiblings added in. The bottom line is to be thoughtful about this, and to think about each family member’s feelings as they exist in the present. Who is ready for togetherness? Who is not? How will we talk about our plan to reunite for a dinner, or a celebration? What will we say to make it clear to the kids that this is a happy opportunity to be together, but it does not signal a sea change in the current or future organization of the family in two homes? How do we navigate between the territories of separateness and unity – can we manage 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 months of a separated family life, and as you adjust to the long- term changes that divorce will bring:

  1. Avoid doing things together as a family if one parent finds the experience very painful and needs to “pretend”. Pretending or hiding feelings from children makes them anxious. They can sense something is not right, but everyone looks fine. It’s unnerving.
  2. Test out the waters of togetherness in relatively easy and brief ways at first: by watching the soccer game on the same side of the field, by sitting together to watch a school performance and sharing congrats and hugs afterwards – but skipping the family lunch as a bunch.
  3. If the testing reveals tension between you and your co-parent, a snarky comment thrown in (even if an apology follows) or a chilly cold shoulder on the sidelines of the game, wait a bit before marching forward into meals together. Family gatherings that feel tense or cold will bring distress to the children, rather than comfort. They are likely to prefer two happy and relaxed birthday dinners in separate homes, rather than one miserable dinner all together – even if the loss of the old tradition is a painful one.
  4. Keep the lines of communication with children open to see how they are feeling about time apart, and time together. If children voice the wish to do things together, explore the wish to see if you can locate the fantasy of reconciliation and remarriage. If the fantasy is expressed, talk about the reality that parents will remain apart, and accept the sadness as something normal. You can reassure children – and yourself – that the sharp sorrow will ease with time.
  5. Don’t assume your co-parent is fine with joining you all for burgers, or breakfast after church. Definitely don’t tell the kids about any plan to do something together without checking first with the other parent. Avoid inviting the other parent to join in front of the kids. Talk with your co-parent when the kids are not around about whether you both are ready to spend time together as a family, and about how it might feel to say good -bye at the end of the event.
  6. If you and your co-parent agree that celebrating an event together might feel fine, talk together ahead of time about how to make the experience genuinely enjoyable for the children. If, when married, you had a history of certain squabbles that could resurface when the family gets together (she always ran late; he never helped with the dishes) talk about how to avoid those old pot- holes, and try to either do things differently or prepare to be “Zen” about things that still bug you after all this time. If, when you contemplate the event you realize you are dreading it, consider making an alternate plan, and waiting a little longer to try out Whole-Family time.
  7. If at any time one parent begins to feel nostalgic for the marriage, and starts misinterpreting fun family time as a clue that their Ex may want to reconsider, press pause on the family time. Nothing like regressing to the old wounds of breaking up to wreak havoc on the recovery of a divorcing couple, and their children.
  8. 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 children about their perceptions, their preferences – and their fantasies. If everyone seems happy to have the togetherness moments while thriving in separate homes, proceed with gratitude. You are among the fortunate who have navigated divorce, but can find moments of reunion a genuine reward.

Comments

  1. I don’t mind getting together as a family…but should you invite other family members or friends too? We have started spending time together with our child.

    • Lisa Herrick, Ph.D. says:

      Hello Rachel,

      If both parents are comfortable with family time with children post-divorce, that is great! It is important for the extended family to be ready to relax, enjoy both parents, and behave in a kind and comfortable manner – this is all so the time is enjoyable for everyone, especially the children. If anyone in the extended family still feels angry or blaming toward an “ex”, that person would need some discussion before adding them to a family gathering. Children pick up all interpersonal cues, and feeling that aunt or uncle or grandma is mad at mom/dad will be confusing and upsetting. Also important that the “ex” be ready to be gracious and forgiving of extended family who may have been angry in the past – so that the family can recover, heal, and enjoy time all together going forward.

      Good luck!

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