The Truth About Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive
By Robert Emery, Ph.D.
When it comes to driving and shaping a divorce, for better or worse, nothing is as powerful as human emotion. No agreement, no lawyer, no judge, not even your levelheaded best friend is any match for your unrecognized, unmanaged, and unprocessed emotions.
The feelings stirred up by divorce can be so intense that even rational parents find themselves saying and doing things they never did before, or saying and doing things they promised themselves and others they would never do again. You might bad-mouth your ex to your kids (something you never did when you were together) or find yourself "forgetting" what time your ex was picking them up for the weekend. In the eleventh hour of the divorce negotiations, you might feel compelled to ask for half of that musty old lake cabin you always hated to visit or that painting in the attic you hadn't thought about in the twenty years since his parents gave it to you. You might catch yourself laughing wickedly to yourself over your son's description of how dirty your ex's new girlfriend's house is. Or you might feel inexplicably jealous of how nicely your ex-wife's husband-to-be treats your children. You may ask yourself, how did I get here? Emotions.
Even couples who manage to keep their emotions in check and work cooperatively discover that the psychological uncoupling of divorce can open a Pandora's box of emotional surprises. On top of whatever complaints, transgressions, and failings led up to the divorce, there is the sometimes shocking realization that you and your ex-and how you two saw your marriage-are now worlds apart. You may look at the person you lived with for so long and wonder, "Who is he?" Understanding the dynamics behind what seems like a sudden disconnect between your ex and the life you led together is essential to recognizing your own crazy and confusing feelings and taking the first steps toward building a new relationship with your ex.
By all appearances, at age thirty-seven Scott had it made. A civil engineer in a large, successful contracting company, he had the friendly confidence of the college soccer star he had been. Outgoing and congenial, Scott had a wide circle of friends who enjoyed his Boston Irish warmth and sly sense of humor.
Everyone loved Scott, yet few people really knew him. The eldest of three brothers in a family fractured by divorce, Scott had been "the man of the house" since his early teens. His father, who drank excessively after the separation, practically disappeared from the boys' lives, so his mother turned to her sons to fill the emotional vacuum left behind. Scott did more than take care of his younger brothers for her; he became his mother's protector and confidant. It was tough, but Scott never complained. Family friends and neighbors marveled at how such an exceptional young man-a straight-A student and star athlete through high school and college-did all that. Bound by a strong sense of duty, Scott never allowed himself to even consider what he might be missing.
Not surprising for a self-described traditionalist like Scott, he met his first serious girlfriend-and future wife-in college. Like Scott, she was different beneath what she seemed to be on the surface. Attractive, energetic, and volatile, Scott's girlfriend soon became emotionally dependent on him, despite her outward independence. From the beginning, she knew that she could count on Scott for almost anything. And Scott, who found her romantically unpredictable and exciting, loved being needed-at first. They married right after graduation, and several years later, after they felt secure in their careers (she had become a lawyer), they relocated to the South and started their family.
"Somewhere along the line-years ago really," Scott said, "something changed. The things about her that I thought I fell in love with-her sharp wit, her honesty, the way she always told you exactly what she thought-started to bother me. Frankly, that's when I started falling out of love."
Despite his new revelation, Scott took pride in "not being a com plainer." He believed that he should suck it up and keep going. As a result, he rarely argued with his wife, no matter how relentless her demands or pointed her criticism. "I just couldn't win," Scott recalled. "And I also believed, as we'd said at our wedding, 'for better, for worse.' " Scott said that he "gutted it out for a long time," but he confessed that for years he had been thinking about a separation. About a year ago, he decided that divorce was inevitable, but, typically, Scott kept his feelings to himself and kept plugging away. A little more than a month ago-in the middle of a minor argument, Scott finally told his wife that he wanted out.
Scott's wife didn't believe him at first, and she was stunned when Scott told her that he was "one hundred ten percent serious." A few days later, Scott agreed to try some marriage counseling, but when he attended the first session with me, he politely reminded us that making the marriage work was not on his agenda. His wile desperately wanted to save their marriage, and she worried openly about Scott's mental health. In her words, he seemed like a man "transformed." A few months earlier they had been happily married with three lovely children. Now he was talking about divorce. This just didn't make any sense to her. "Scott," she insisted, "you need some psychological help. Something has changed in you. I think you're depressed-or something. . . ." Her voice trailed off.
Scott agreed that he had "snapped," but denied that he was depressed about anything other than the prospect of putting his children through a separation. What had changed was that he no longer was willing to tolerate "a castrating, loveless marriage." At the same time, he wasn't bolting for the door, he agreed to give couples therapy a try but, as I would later see, only out of a sense of obligation, only because it was "the right thing to do."
As he spoke, Scott's polite manner barely masked his seething rage. In an outburst during our fourth session, he shouted that the marriage was "one-sided" and that he was sick of being "a yes-man." In tears, Scott's wife confessed that much of his anger was legitimate. But when I tried to explore his wife's admission more calmly with Scott, he said that he wasn't in therapy to complain or "waste time" talking about the past. What he really wanted was to "do business"-to get on with sorting the finances and planning for the kids so they could, as he said, "end it." As his wife watched in stunned silence, Scott announced, "This is it. I'm not going to suck it up anymore. I'm moving out at the end of the month, so we better get down to work." I could see that she wanted to say something, but the words died on her lips. As far as Scott was concerned, their marriage was over.