It is a question I get often, especially from clients who have children in their adolescent and teen years, ” I want out of my marriage but I am afraid my children will be angry at me for ‘breaking up the family’.  I know that leaving is ultimately the best thing for me and probably for my kids as well, but am I being selfish?”

Often parents who ask this question are worried that the other parent, who doesn’t want the divorce, will make a lot of noise-sometimes inappropriately trying to punish the leaving spouse by turning the children away from her/him.

Deciding to divorce and ending a marriage are two very different things; Marriages usually end  long before divorce is even considered. Most people do not file for divorce impulsively-especially when there are children to consider. Many have struggled in an unhappy relationship for years- trying to ignore the ongoing affair, the drinking, the verbal (sometimes physical) abuse, the distance, the anxiety and the emotional wear and tear it takes to maintain the sense of normalcy when nothing is normal. We all know of those couples who stay together for the “sake of the children”. They are often cold and distant relationships no closer than two unhappy roommates. This home life doesn’t create or sustain a happy family; it merely prolongs the agony for all involved.

While your children may be surprised you opted for divorce, chances are they will have seen for themselves just how unhappy you and your spouse have become. They may even say,”Yeah, I know it was bad between the two of you, but I never thought you would do this”. Even if you tried to “hide it”, kids have radar and can pick on the most subtle things-eye rolling, tight lipped expressions, occasional slamming of keys /doors/dishes, the lack of tenderness and the arguing that you think you  so successfully hidden.

When you worry about your children “leaving you”, consider your spouse’s actions during the marriage; if your spouse has been unreasonable/distant/explosive with you, then he/she has probably acted similarly with the child(ren). And while every child is sad their parents could not have a good loving marriage, many are relieved or at least not surprised when you announce your divorce. Sometimes they are upset more because they fear the unknown (Where will we live? Will I continue to see you both? Can I stay in my same school?) than the actual reality that a divorce is imminent.

The more the “spurned spouse” works to intimidate or buy the teenager, the less likely the teenager is to sign on. Sure, they may at first like the “perks”-no rules, endless gifts, no nagging about homework. But after a while, it wears thin, they long for stability and continuity and parenting. They don’t need a new buddy. They may even feel sorry for the “left” parent and feel the need to ‘take care of” him/her, but they usually have a good solid idea of the truth.

Trust your relationship with your kids prior to divorce- if it was a good, open one, then chances are very strong that it will continue to grow and thrive. While they may at first be angry that you took action, stay steady, don’t feel the need to defend your choice and in time your children will gravitate toward your steadiness and lack of drama. Be the parent you always were: not insecure or self- doubting. Don’t seek your child’s opinion, advice, or permission. Don’t baby them, bribe them or change the rules. Now more than ever they need your steadiness to guide the way and little by little they will settle into the knowledge, just as you will, that there is life and family and joy after divorce.


© 2013 Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986. She is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback. Many thanks to “T” who suggested I write this blog.

One Comment

  1. Michelle on the 21. Jan, 2015 remarked #

    This is the most validating, stabilizing, cut through the crap advice I’ve seen. Thank you, I needed it!
    There is so many resources for dealing with younger kids and limited amounts of information for those of us with older kids that are not yell quite adults yet.

Leave a Comment