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!

  2. We haven’t even signed the divorce papers, but my soon-to-be-ex-wife is already wanting to plan regular family time together, come over and clean the house when I’m away and remain in our lives as a “family”. My two sons will be primarily living with me. Our reason for divorce was due to her infidelity, something we have yet to explain to the kids.

    I am wondering if such gatherings may only bring confusion and false hope for the kids. And even for me, the leavee, as you say. Especially so soon after a divorce.

    • Lisa Herrick, Ph.D. says:

      Hello Jed – I am responding to your question on my blog about family togetherness.

      It will be important for you to talk with your co-parent – with civility and gentleness – about the kinds of boundaries you feel are important to allow you to recover and heal, and for the children to adjust to the divorce and recover and thrive. Boundaries that are helpful include – parents do not pop over to each other’s homes without advance discussion and an invitation. This is actually helpful for kids too, because they can be startled to see the other parent without notice, and feel sad to have to say goodbye when they didn’t expect to see them in the first place.

      Parents do not come over to do chores for the other parent unless that is something mutually agreed on and necessary — so cleaning your house might not be a good idea, because it is confusing for the kids, makes you uncomfortable and might give your ex false hopes that you are softening and may forgive her and reconcile.

      Speaking of forgiveness – it will be helpful for the kids if you DO forgive her, and never paint her as the bad guy to the children – but that does not mean you should have fuzzy boundaries, or feel guilty about asking your ex to be more separate.

      Spending birthdays or big important celebrations together with both parents and others is fine — as long as everyone enjoys that and the togetherness causes no pain or awkwardness. You may need to speak up for what you need, until you feel stronger and recovered- then it may feel fine to be together with your ex.

      Good luck — I hope this helps.

      Lisa Herrick PhD

  3. How do you handle the idea that while the parents may be good with being apart, everything has been amicable and the adult relationship feels improved by being apart, and we can enjoy family time together while going our separate ways at the end of the day, but the kids aren’t coming to terms with the permanence of the situation? Kids are 11 and 7. Is there any guidance on how to sink that in with them in a delicate way?

    • Lisa Herrick, Ph.D. says:

      Hi Russ, I am replying to your question on my blog about family togetherness.

      Children of all ages tend to harbor fantasies about parents reconciling – and they can be stubborn about letting the fantasy go, even in the face of clear reality. This is because children tend to believe they have more control over things in the world than they really do and that the world revolves around them more than it really does, AND because if the original family worked fairly well, the children are looking back at a time when everything was “normal” and they can be nostalgic and forget (or be unaware of ) the tougher moments.

      Parents can do a few things to help children understand the situation is permanent.

      1) They can talk directly to the children before and after events when everyone will be together. Some version of : “I am guessing we are all going to have a great time at the soccer party tomorrow, and of course, Mom is going to be there too. But I am also wondering if you are hoping that because we will be celebrating together, that Mom and I might be considering getting back together…or hoping we will get along SO well that I will break up with _____.”
      Whether or not children nod and confess, or say, “What????? are you nuts?” you can continue with something like, ‘I think that’s pretty common for kids – to hope parents will get back together. But I want to let you know that while we both love you to the end of the earth, and wish we could give you everything you want – that is not going to happen. We divorced for complicated grown up reasons, and we are going to stay living in two houses. And I am going to continue to spend time with _____. I am always happy to talk with you about this, because I know sometimes it’s really hard. But I’m afraid this is permanent – there isn’t anything you can do, or anyone can do, to change the situation.”

      2) Parents can also assess how life is going for the children in the big picture, in terms of time in separate homes, and times when the family gets together. Are parents sending any confusing messages by accident to the kids (Hugging a lot, staying late at each other’s home so the kids are hoping you will sleep over and then move back in?) How much time apart and together is happening? Do you need clearer boundaries? Are parents in and out of each other’s homes all the time? If any of the above is happening, it’s time for parents to talk about what that all means, and what messages you both WANT to send to the kids. Maybe clear up some fuzzy boundaries, so it is less confusing for the children.

      Good luck — I hope this helps.

      Lisa Herrick PhD

  4. Excluded says:

    Is it important for the child to spend time alone with both parents? My husband has a young son (3 years old, divorced when child was 1) and has a somewhat civil relationship with son’s mother. The spend time together at soccer practice and school events where they sit together and interact with son together. I was recently “uninvited” to soccer practice with my husband and step-son’s mother because son wanted to spend time with just mommy and daddy alone. This came from my husband who said that son told mommy he didn’t want her boyfriend there so consequently it was deduced that he wanted to just have them two come. To be honest, I felt quite hurt about being subtracted from the family event but I’m trying to be open minded and do whats best for my 3 year old step son. Is it important for children to spend time alone with the separated parents? Or is it best that we’re all together so they see we are all a part of the family?

    • Lisa Herrick, Ph.D. says:

      Hi – I am responding to your comment on my blog about family togetherness.
      It is not ok to exclude a family member from a family event, so telling you you could not come was rude and unkind. There are certainly times when a child might want to be alone with bio-parents and not have step-parents, but I’d those instances would be when a serious discussion was needed perhaps – budgeting for college, setting rules for driving – times when both parents need to have a discussion and it will be easier just with them, without step-parents weighing in too.

      For celebratory events, it is important that children know step-parents and serious, long-term romantic partners will be included because they are part of the family. If a child dictates the guest list, and the parents obey, it can set up an expectation in the child that they might be able to dictate a reconciliation of parents and a return to the marriage – that is not a helpful fantasy to support for children, and they carry that fantasy commonly.
      For more regular, but fun events, like watching a soccer game, I might suggest to the parents that they talk with the child about WHY he does not want a step=parent included – it is an important questions. Is it because the child yearns to bring parents back together? Is it because step-parent hogs attention and child gets less? Is it because child has a difficult relationship with step-parent and feels tense in his/her presence? Once parents really understand the issue, perhaps your husband can talk with you about it and together, the adults can navigate the situation successfully for the child. I would say, though, that it is not a good model to allow a child to exclude people from events when that would be hurtful – unless there is a compelling reason to do so in a particular instance. Rather, adults should help the child feel attended to, comfortable, included, and reassured that while parents are not going to get back together, they can still be a loving family – and fold in new people who can also love the child.
      Good luck!
      Lisa Herrick, PhD

  5. I talk pleasant with my ex at baseball games and events, we communicate about the kids (we don’t always see eye to eye 100%) and I have agreed to have our son’s high school graduation party at his house. But when I told him I wanted to take my son and his girlfriend out to dinner to he week before (after the actual graduation ceremony) he says we should both go, that what I’m doing is shitty and I need to ask my son’s permission if it’s ok. I had asked my son if I could take the two of them, he said yes. Now my ex is going to weasel his way in using my son. I just want a non stressful celebration to myself. He is very manipulative and makes me out to be the bad guy with the kids when I don’t want to sit with him at functions, etc. (I am remarried too, he is not). Am I being selfish or hurting the kids? Not sure how to handle. He left me in the divorce and refused to try counseling.

    • Lisa Herrick, Ph.D. says:

      Hello Nancy – I am responding to your comment on my web blog about family time after a divorce.

      Nope, I don’t think you are being unreasonable. Sounds like it’s hard to talk productively with your ex when you don’t agree, but you could try it. Something like, ‘I think we are doing pretty well in general since our divorce and one reason is we try to balance together time with time separately with our son. When important events come up, like graduation, it feels best to me to have freedom to celebrate with him separately – as well as at your house together – without resentment or guilt for either of us. We are divorced – so he is used to separate time. And we do pretty well being together. I plan to take him out for dinner with his girlfriend on my own — and I support your doing something nice for him too, on your own. I think it’s a good map for our future – weddings, grandkids etc – some celebration together, some separate.”

      And stand firm, and try not to feel guilty. If he complains to your son, you will need to have confidence that it won’t sour your son against you – it will sour your son against his dad. Children – even adult children – really hate it when a parent complains to them about the other parent, or tries to use them as a middle man. So if your ex behaves in that way, I am guessing it will backlask on your ex – not on you. You can continue to behave like a gracious adult, and support your son, and just not sympathetically if your son says, “Dad is unhappy about this.” and mumble, “Yes, some things are hard for Dad but it’s ok. He will be ok. I’m sorry you have to deal with this stuff.” Then you are the safe shore for your son to come to.

      Good luck and congrats on your son’s graduation!

      Lisa Herrick PhD

Speak Your Mind

*