Parenting Challenges during Marital Separations

It is one of the most painful moments in the history of a family. The parents sit down with their children and try to explain why one of them is moving out. Divorce may be about the end of a marriage, but when there are children involved it is much more about the breakup of a family. While one spouse often feels like a victim, children are always victims in this process. They expect their parents to stay together and take care of them. Only older children in high-conflict marriages will sometimes express relief about a separation.

It is important to understand a few basic principles in trying to make decisions about how to best carry out the process of separating. Children feel an acute loss of power; adults are making decisions that are having a major effect on their lives and the children have no control over what is happening. They nearly always want their parents to get back together again. (It is very common for children to either get in trouble to force parents to get together or to generate misinformation to get the parents fighting but at least be interacting.) Children are primarily concerned with their needs for protection and love which includes reassurance that they are not the cause for the separation.

Keeping these principles in mind, I will offer some guidelines with regard to the most common questions parents raise during this process. It starts with how and what to tell the children. The standard rule is that both parents should meet with all the children in a family meeting so that everyone hears the same thing and there is an opportunity to get help in processing reactions. The main challenges here are for parents to contain their anger at each other and to find a simple, acceptable way to explain something that most children cannot truly understand, i.e., not loving someone anymore. It’s a little easier if there has been a lot of open conflict or if it is fairly obvious that the parents have little in common. It is much harder if the children are unaware of the quiet death of a marriage or if there is an affair driving the separation.

Keep it simple. The children will be so upset that they will not be open to a lot of information. The greater the variance in age, the more difficult it is and very young children (generally under three) will struggle to understand what is really happening. After a general statement, parents may need to talk individually with each child, even during the meeting, to help each understand it at their own level of development. Do not use this as a time lay blame at the feet of one parent. Children need to hear that the parent who is moving out will still be there for them. They need to hear that they will still have their home (assuming that is true) and school and friends, at least for now. Children need some stability and familiarity in the midst of this major change. They need to be told by each parent that you love them and will continue to love them, trying to convey that parent-child love is different from marital love and is more permanent.

This will be only the first of many conversations about what happened to the marriage. As each child gets older, all the way into their own adult years, the issue may be revisited many times and each time another level of insight can be shared and understood. Parents need to encourage their children to ask questions over the coming weeks and months. If you don’t bring it up, children may think they’re not supposed to say anything and they may struggle in silence.

Telling the children is just the beginning of a series of steps to be taken. The parent who is moving out should try to involve the children in the search for a new residence, but don’t force it for any who resist. It is important to establish a sense that the family will now have two homes. There are many books about divorce and having two homes that can be read to or with children that will help with the processing of their feelings. Allowing children to have a say in where the departing parent lives reduces some of that sense of not having any say in what is happening to them. Similarly, involve the children in the moving process. Don’t just have them come home one day and you’re gone.

The parent who has moved out, typically the father, needs to accept that the original family home is no longer his residence. He must respect these new boundaries and not just come by unannounced to pick up some things. Sometimes, where there is either strong ambivalence about this decision or overwhelming guilt about hurting the children, fathers may get invited in for dinner when dropping off the children and may even end up helping to put the children to bed. This type of amicable process, while admirable, can be very confusing to the children. It intensifies their hopes for reconciliation and creates a constant repetition of the original separation. It is painful for everyone to reconnect briefly and then have to say goodbye again.

The father sometimes moves in with a friend or relative, at least temporarily. This may be financially necessary but often it is has the subtle rationale of avoiding taking on the role of the sole parent with the children. This is something most men have not been trained for and it is frequently scary. But fathers typically have a lot of untapped parenting skill that emerges in these situations and should believe in their ability to be the central parenting figure of this new family unit. They may choose to get some guidance from a parent educator if needed.

One of the primary post-separation tasks is to create two new family units, the mother and the children, the father and the children. Each unit will emerge with its own traditions and style reflective of each parent now able to “be themselves.” It is important to create physical space at the new residence that belongs to each child and to have some toys, clothes, or other essentials that remain there. It is also important to find a balance between different houses, different rules and a core set of values still shared and supported by both parents. Here, too, professional help may be useful, to work out these issues, especially in high-conflict divorces, which unfortunately includes most divorces, at least for part of the time.

Separation and divorce will have long-term effects on the lives of children. This is a fact. But what those effects will be for each child cannot be predicted and will not necessarily be significantly harmful. The research clearly shows that two factors are most critical in minimizing the negative effects: avoiding post-divorce, high-conflict between the parents (which typically puts the children in the middle) and for the parent who has moved out to remain actively engaged in the lives of their children. This remains the biggest challenge for most spouses who are in the process of divorcing: How to parent cooperatively with someone you are disconnecting from with all the hurt and anger that comes with that process.