By Danette Vernon
I was 38, and in my third year in college. It was 1998. I was studying art therapy, and as I searched through a bank of micro-fish one afternoon, I found a few lines that took my life and measured it in black and white.
An anonymous student, in quoting liberally from various sources, unknowingly told my whole life story with her words. I printed and stored these pages, and their unattractive secrets about me. Fourteen years later, I pulled the pages from exile in the attic. I was willing to at last to face all of my well documented and well conditioned flaws, the majority of which stemmed from the parting of my family through divorce. It was at this juncture that I began to write. I was hoping to “write myself well” from this seeming calamity of divorce.
Psychologist and researcher, Judith Wallerstein, in her work with divorced families over a 25-year period discovered, just as I did as a woman long past the bloom of youth, the long lasting impact of divorce.
Judith interviewed nearly a 100 children starting in 1971. She continued to see these same children throughout their lives. The Amazon description of the latest version of her findings, “The Legacy of Divorce, The 25 Year Landmark Study,” opens with these words, “In this compelling, thought-provoking book, Judith Wallerstein explains that, while children do learn to cope with divorce, it in fact takes its greatest toll in adulthood, when the sons and daughters of divorced parents embark on romantic relationships of their own. Wallerstein sensitively illustrates how children of divorce often feel that their relationships are doomed, seek to avoid conflict, and fear commitment.”
Judith advises parents in her original work on the topic, “Second Chances, Men Women and Children, a Decade after Divorce,” on how best to approach a divorce in order to save your child from as much damage as possible.
First, she beautifully shapes her ideas on ending the divorce with civility. Judith encourages parents to be cognizant of the fact that what they say or do may be how their children will forever remember the rending of their family.
Many parents wonder how to tell the children that they are getting a divorce. Judith, having heard a hundred versions of how these words were delivered and then received, offers a plethora of insightful and empathetic guidelines. One, if there are disparate ages amongst your children, tell them all together, and then separately, with an explanation at the second go round that is age appropriate for each child. At the initial telling, Judith encourages framing the idea of divorce as a conclusion reached with reluctance, rationality, and sadness.
This family history changing moment, according to Judith, should be charged with so much clarity that the children are as convinced as possible that they neither caused the divorce nor can they mend it. In addition, while concrete information should be provided about what lies ahead, there is no need to divulge lurid details of what now lies in the past. Explain that while courage will be needed as the family separates, a part of being brave is to reveal your feelings. Judith notes the importance of crying for the parents and the children, “as only crying reduces anger to human size.”
Most importantly, divorce is a matter between adults. Do not burden or attempt to divide your children’s loyalty with your own feelings of jealousy, anger, or loneliness. Go forward with your life, avoiding the inadvertent placement of emotional responsibility for yourself on your children.
Be ever mindful of what words and deeds of yours are being “stored in the attic” of your child’s heart and mind that may displace, or support, their own efforts at happiness years later.