My sister celebrated her 40th wedding anniversary this week. Since 1974, they have raised children to adulthood, through college and graduate schools, bought and sold several homes, welcomed two grandchildren, and lived in Nebraska, Texas, and Idaho. They have had great joy and suffered painful loss. Becky has endured Kendall’s curmudgeon exterior and Kendall has endured Becky’s life-of-the-party spirit. They like each other’s company and they’re kind and considerate to one another.
I’m so happy for her BUT…what if instead of wishing her a happy anniversary, I found myself responding to questions from her about divorce? People often ask me early on, while still in the contemplating stage, “What should I do? What should I not do?” If instead of celebrating 40 years of joyful marriage, my sister was contemplating a different direction, here’s what I would say to her.
1. Adopt a “No surprises” Policy. People get themselves in trouble when they take steps designed solely to protect themselves without regard to the inevitable fallout. When bank accounts are liquidated and assets sold or given away, the only possible response is counter-action of a similar nature. Both behaviors are typically motivated by fear rather than a desire to inflict injury but that’s the result. Instead of taking such fear-based action, talk to Kendall and tell him that you will commit to not taking any action without first discussing it and ask the same from him. You both will take a deep breath and act more thoughtfully.
2. Commit to a shared story. Becky, you have your perspective on your marriage and the reasons you are contemplating divorce. Kendall does, too. Your children, even though they are adults, do not want to know the details. Too often I see parents who want their kids to know that, “It wasn’t my decision. I wouldn’t have left your father/mother.” While you may believe you are preserving your child’s perception of you and your character and motivations, ask yourself, at what cost? The only logical next conclusion is that their father is a bad guy, uncaring and selfish. Is that responsible? No child, not even an adult child, wants to think negatively about either of their parents. Instead they simply want to know that their parents will continue to be parents, they will have permission to love both their parents without retribution from the other, and that the divorce is not their fault. Period. Rather than each of you burdening the kids with your own story, shape a third story: the message that you each commit to communicating to the children. It could sound something like this: “We are going to divorce. It’s very painful for both of us and this was a long and hard decision. We want you to know that we plan to work out the details of a fair settlement. We each want to other to be okay. But what we want you to know most of all is that nothing changes in terms of our love for you and our commitment to you as your parents to love you and work for your happiness.”
3. Consider a trial period. If your children were young and you were uncertain whether the marriage could be saved, I’d be suggesting that you consider a trial period of separation where the kids remain in the home and each of you rotate periods of parenting time in the home. This takes some level of cooperation and is typically referred to as a “nesting arrangement”. But it can allow for a break for the parents with as minimal interruptions to the children as possible. If the marriage gets back on track and divorce is averted, the impact on children is far less troubling than a parent and/or children moving out. But since your kids are in their 30s, we’ll skip this one!
4. Carefully choose your process. People often feel that if a divorce is in their future, that they should “lawyer up” because a battle is about to commence. Of course that is one approach. But there are others. There is no one right way because your family’s needs differ from another’s. The litigation system should be reserved for truly intractable conflicts so first investigate what it means to mediate your divorce settlement. Also look into collaborative process. As aunt to your children, please think carefully about which process preserves your ability to continue to be “family” post-divorce. There are numerous events, important events, in their future such as weddings and graduations and births of children. You both will be there. If you do this well those occasions can still be happy ones for my dear niece and nephew, and not fraught with tension for all of us.
5. Choose your counselors well. There will be many friends and even family who fan the flames of resentment and anger. Look for those people who will call you to function at your highest and best self. In the short run, having an ally can feel good and it helps you justify all of your intense emotions. But this divorce will be behind you some day and you will be left with the fallout. Find those wise people who will ask the thoughtful questions and call you to consider the long-term ramifications of actions you are considering. I promise to support you in taking the high road.
I am so happy that rather than sending my sister the above list, I can simply say Happy 40th Anniversary Becky and Kendall. But this advice is exactly what I would convey to someone I care about as much as I do my sister.
Wishing you wisdom,