No matter how hard parents may try to resolve the problems that occur between them, and no matter what lengths they go to make things work, separation or divorce is often the only option.
With 36% of all marriages ending in with that outcome, the United States has the third-highest divorce rate in the world. Perhaps a more heartbreaking statistic is that 50% of all American children will witness the end of their parents’ marriage. The impact can be life-changing.
As a father, the way you manage the process of divorce, to get the best from a bad situation while ensuring your actions have little if any harmful impact upon your children, is vital. But what should you keep in mind? To offer some divorce advice and hard-fought wisdom on the subject, we spoke to a variety of fathers-who’ve-been-there as well as experts who regularly deal with divorce. Their advice has been boiled down to the seven pieces of advice below.
1. Don’t Go It Alone
“Do not attempt to manage a divorce without professional legal help,” insists Roy Smith, not his real name, a divorced father of two from Pennsylvania. “Although you might be tempted to ‘work things out’ you can soon find that co-parenting issues emerge, or something else like money gets in the way. It is best to consult with professionals and to use a mediator if possible.”
Even if the initial separation runs relatively smoothly, be prepared for complications further down the line. “People tend to come to us when things have gone wrong – and our data shows that’s around three years after separation,” explains Adam Colthorpe, Chair of Trustees for Dadsunlimited.org, a UK-based advice and support service for parents, grandparents, and guardians.
What tends to happen, per Colthorpe, is this: Things go fine for a while. But sooner or later one of the parents gets a new partner, or something else emerges that renews conflict. “These can be geographic changes – one parent moving home – or the children progressing from one age group to another, or a health issue occurring in a child,’ he says.
2. Avoid Dishing Dirt
It’s crucial for both parties to either not discuss their ex or only mention them to the kids in a positive light, suggests Mediator Dori sSwirtz of DivorceHarmony. “It can only hurt the children if you speak negatively to them about their other parent,” she says. “ It’s best for Dads to focus on their own relationship with the kids and really tune in to their wants and needs.”
In Shwirtz’s experience many dads actually grow closer to their kids with divorce. “Since they may have limited time together, they use that time to connect and appreciate their special relationship.”
Roy Smith concurs. He advises dads to keep a level head and remember that your children need both parents. It’s important, he adds, to not disparage the other parent in front of the children and not be passive-aggressive either — your kids can pick up on it.
“One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about children is that on some level they understand that they are a split of their parents and when you disparage one, you are disparaging your child,” says Smith.
3. Consider Mediation
“Mediation is a crucial piece of the puzzle for the majority of divorcing couples,” insists Shwirtz. Mediation empowers both parties to make the decisions for themselves. “When it comes to their mutual priority — the children — nobody knows what to do better than the parents.”
In most cases, Shwirtz adds, it’s in the best interest of the children if mom and dad are making the decisions via mediation and not a judge who knows nothing about them. “They are also more likely to carry out their agreement since it was made by them,” she says.
Addressing and agreeing on issues via mediation at the earliest stage is vital, according to Roy Smith, who insists that it’s important to avoid seeing divorce as a ‘closure’.
“Certainly, there was a part of me that believed once we were divorced that parenting would be easier but this is not usually the case,” he says, “I found that whatever issues are causing you to get divorced in the first place will most likely be present during the remainder of your co-parenting.”
4. Please Don’t Use Your Kids As Pawns
Children can easily become weapons in a battle between parents, witnessing raw emotions, and often being manipulated by one or both parents if things turn toxic.
“I always tell both parties you can only control your own behavior when it comes to interactions with your children,” warns Shwirtz. “It can be frustrating sometimes if you don’t like what your ex is doing with the kids but as long as they’re not putting them in danger, you really don’t have a say anymore.”
Abide by any agreements, disentangle your children from arguments where possible, and don’t attempt to distort the reality of what they’re witnessing.
“I was the victim of that in my situation,” explains Jonathan, not his real name, a separated father of two from New Jersey. “My ex would say things about me to our children whenever they were staying with her during our separation. Just lies in order to make me sound like it was all my fault. I tried to just stay the course, to make everything as stable as I could for them. I’d say things like ‘Mom’s just saying stuff because she’s not dealing with this very well. But inside I was angry and upset.”
Instead, have faith in their resilience and ability to see reality, Jonathan suggests. “Over time the kids just realized what she was doing. They’d repeat back to me what she’d told them and then say ‘We know mom’s lying.’ It hurt because I didn’t want them to not have a good relationship with their mother, but they could tell what the truth was. As my daughter especially gets older, she sees right through the lies.”
5. Don’t Take A Step Back
“I see some dads disengage at the outset and not speak up with what they really want,” warns Shwirtz. “Sometimes this is out of guilt or they think it will be best for the kids if mom makes most of the decisions.”
Shwirtz cites the example of a couple she mediated for. “They had a child with possible special needs. The dad conceded everything having to do with the child’s care to the mother and now about a year after the divorce he wishes he could go back and have shared parental responsibility.”
It’s a view echoed by Smith. “I think we often let our society norms dictate the separation/divorce process and so many dads end up with a shorter time of custody,” he insists.
“So often fathers will default to less than 50 percent custody or to some arrangement that isn’t equal. If you are planning on splitting the co-parenting responsibilities than you should make sure the divorce process sets the stage for a true 50-50 split.”
6. Get Advice From Supporters, Not Cheerleaders
“Be aware of the impact separation and divorce may have on your new partner and try not to use them as a sound board,” suggests Colthorpe. “The damage from your previous relationship can impact upon your new one if you’re constantly airing your grievances around your new partner.” Instead find a third-party confidant.
If not a close friend, then talk to a therapist or a counsellor, he adds. At the very least make sure you have a good balance of people around you; not just yes-men who provide you with an echo chamber for your own thoughts which can just amplify problems. “You also need friends who stand up to you and challenge your train of thought,” he says.
7. Listen to the Children
It seems obvious, but in the crossfire of adult conflict it’s often the kids voices that aren’t being heard. “I always recommend both parents engage the services of a family therapist at least in the short term,” advises Shwirtz.
“Kids may say they’re fine but it’s important to give them attention and make sure any thoughts or feelings they are having don’t get lost in the shuffle,” says Shwirtz. Age-appropriate talks with dad are also important. “The kids are stakeholders in the divorce as part of the family and are entitled to know certain things,” adds Shwirtz. “They will feel important and valued if both parents share some details and sharing with them can encourage them to share what they are feeling as well.”
Colthorpe agrees and poignantly cites some of the statements taken from children who have witnessed the breakdown of their parents’ relationship. “These are the best evidence for the need to give your children the time and space to speak.”
Collated by the UK Family Justice Young People’s Board these are requests, voiced and written by children, during their parents’ divorce.
They include; ‘Remember I have the right to see both of my parents, as long as it is safe for me.’ Also; ‘Don’t make permanent decisions about my life based on how you feel at the moment,’ And ‘Please keep my other parent updated about my needs and what is happening for me. I might need their help, too.’
As is so often the case, the wisest words do come out of the mouths of babes.
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