Recovering From Divorce: Practical Suggestions In a family sense there is no greater stressor than divorce, and as such there is no greater test of one’s patience, perseverance, resiliency or faith. When divorce disrupts a family it impacts three basic elements of the family system – the adults, the children and the family unit. All three experience disorganization and turmoil, and must figure out how to adjust, recover and move on with life. The adults must learn how to differentiate from their marriage to each other, recover from the loss and develop a sense of autonomy that will enable them to make decisions that reflect what they have learned from their past and propel them into a more fulfilling and satisfying future. The children must not only accept the loss of the marital and parental coalition they naturally depend on, but must also figure out how to develop a separate relationship with each parent and how to transition from one household to another depending on the nature of the custodial contract. The family unit must reorganize into two units by both contracting (one less adult in each household) and expanding (two different households) at the same time. Let’s discuss the impact of divorce on these three elements along with practical guidelines for coping and recovering.
Impact On The Adults Recovering From Divorce
Recovery from divorce for adults depends more on attitude and perception than anything else. The coping mechanisms and guidelines can be boiled down into four basic principles that relate not only to the recovery process but also in many ways reflect the essence of faith. These principles are:
- It is not what happens to you, but how you respond that makes the difference in the recovery process.
- Give yourself enough time to recover.
- Refrain from the process of berating self, ex-spouse or circumstances.
- Work through unfinished business before starting a new relationship.
The greatest gifts divorced persons can give themselves, their children or a new spouse are no negative patterns, like blaming, and no unfinished business.
Minimizing The Impact Of Divorce On Children
Children experience and process divorce in different ways depending on their age; but the general rule – that is often forgotten by the divorcing adults in the midst of their own pain and turmoil – is that children need to be attended to in order to minimize the impact of divorce. The following guidelines are designed to help parents help children adapt to, cope with and recover from the divorce.
• Both parents need to talk to their children about the divorce. There is a natural tendency to avoid talking to children about the divorce, either out of a false sense of protecting them or due to the discomfort, embarrassment or because one or both parents do not know how. In many cases, the burden of discussing the divorce is left to one parent, usually the mother. This tendency may produce a further complication because one (the mother) talks to the children too much and the other (the father) talks to the children too little, producing a distorted version of the divorce in the children’s minds. No matter how awkward, both parents need to talk with their children about the divorce and its ramifications.
Children need to be allowed to express their feelings without repercussions from parents. This may be the greatest challenge for parents because when children express anger, hurt, pain and other strong feelings, parents tend to become defensive and project blame on the other parent. Parents need to allow their children to express feelings without becoming defensive or judgmental. They need to develop the skill of active listening where they reflect, restate and summarize their child’s thoughts and feelings without adding or introducing their own perspective.
• Both parents need to avoid involving children in a divorce triangle. Children get caught between parents when there is a conflict or disagreement. This occurs because the children are naturally loyal to both parents, and when the parents disagree they experience a loyalty conflict that they try to resolve by either mediating the conflict or choosing a side to solve the conflict. Divorce is one of the most severe loyalty conflicts a child can experience. Therefore, it is the parents’ responsibility to make every effort to prevent the child from becoming a pawn in the conflict between them. This task is the responsibility of the parents not the child, and if they cannot do it, they should seek the resources of an outside party such as a pastor or counselor to assist them.
• Both parents need to encourage visitation by the non-custodial parent. Both parents should make an effort to be involved in the life of the child. This is particularly important for the non-custodial parent. Once the separation has occurred, extra effort must be made by both parents to make provision for relational contact with the children. Every effort should be made by the divorcing adults to keep the children’s lives as much the same as possible. Adding extra adjustments, like moving to a new home, school, neighborhood or church, further complicates an already difficult adjustment process.
• Both parents should seek additional counseling. Divorced parents should seek professional or pastoral help especially from those with an understanding of the multiple difficulties in recovering from, coping with and adjusting to a meaningful life after divorce. As noted in Proverbs 15:22, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” This wisdom certainly applies to the postdivorce family. Some important messages that children must hear in the aftermath of divorce are:
- That the divorce is not the child’s fault. Many times children place the blame for their parents’ problems on themselves, often believing that if they had been better, mom and dad would not be divorcing.
- That the children remain loved by their parents. Often in the turmoil of divorce parents get so caught up in their own pain and anger that they neglect to show their love and affirmation to their children.
- That both parents will continue to be involved in their children’s lives. This commitment, more than any other, is critical to the child’s sense of self esteem and of being loved and valued.
- That the children’s lives will change. Children often hold on to the hope that things will get back to the way they were even after the divorce is finalized. They have to be helped to understand that there will be changes and that these changes will affect their day-to-day lives in the long term.
- That there is nothing the children can do to change the divorce situation. Long after divorce is final children retain the hope that their parents will reconcile. This delays grieving and serves as an obstacle to coping with life after divorce. Children need to be affirmed, but they also need to hear clear messages about the reality of the divorce.
Conveying these messages to children during and after divorce presents one of the greatest challenges to Paul’s admonition about “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
The experience of divorce is second only to the death of a spouse on the list of stressors that accompany contemporary life. Its impact permeates the lives and personalities not only of the divorcing partners, but all those in the generation that precedes and succeeds the marriage (parents, grandparents and children of divorcing partners). Research, clinical practice and personal experience affirm that not only divorced partners but their children carry the imprint of the experience and pay a significant price in their continuing lives as they struggle with intimacy in relationships, and often develop cynical, skeptical and disparaging perspectives of marriage.
Consequently, the importance of recovery cannot be overestimated, and the necessity of the Lord’s guidance, wisdom, strength and resources in that process is crucial. In fact, without the Lord, the likelihood of a healthy recovery is very slim. There is no greater circumstance humanly speaking in which the directive of Proverbs 3:5-6 pertains: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
These comments are based on data reported in two secular texts on the family: M.A. Mason, A. Skolnick & S.D. Sugarman (2003), “All Our Families: New Policies For A New Century” (2nd edition). New York, Oxford University Press: and P. C. McKenry & S.J. Price (2005), “Families And Change: Coping With Stressful Events And Transitions” (3rd edition), Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications.
By James P. Trotzer
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org