October 31, 2004 12:17 PM   Subscribe

My spouse and I are ending our marriage, and I would appreciate advice on how and when I should tell people.

We pretty much decided to do this a couple months ago, but I hadn't talked about it with anyone out of hope that we would reconcile. Recent events have made it clear that this isn't going to happen. Now I want to know how long I should wait before I explain what's happening to my child, family, friends, and acquaintances.

Tips on how I should raise the issue are also appreciated. Obviously telling my parents will require a different approach than telling, e.g., my boss. My spouse and I are both fairly introverted, and few of my friends are acquainted, so I can't count on this information spreading itself through any circle of friends. Without forcing anyone to chose sides or evoking pity, I am simply looking to minimize the inevitable awkwardness facing me.

I will definitely seek the help of a therapist, especially for guidance on how best to guide my first-grader (whose emotional well-being is most important to me) through this very difficult thing. However, I'm also interested in the input of anyone who has either been through this situation or know someone who has.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Having been through this twice myself, condolences. OTOH, as a very extroverted individual, I didn't have the same problem conveying the message. Bottom line, since (a) you're already planning on therapy and (b) circumstances are critical, I suggest you work it out with the therapist and not rely on MeFi.
posted by billsaysthis at 12:22 PM on October 31, 2004

My parents separated when I was two, and divorced when I was three. I grew up thinking it was no big deal that my parents lived 100 miles apart from each other, and that I would shuttle back and forth between them for weekends and holidays.

But then, when I was nine or so, it really hit me hard, and it was incredibly painful for me to try to figure out what happened, why it happened, and how to cope with it.

It was tough to figure out how to identify the times when my parents were sniping at each other through me, and to refuse to pass on those messages. Feeling "caught in the middle" was very tough.

A quick Google found this page, which seems like a good start. And counseling is definitely helpful, too, especially if your child is already acting out or having other behavioral issues. Good luck.
posted by Vidiot at 1:48 PM on October 31, 2004

seems like you should coordinate things with the ex.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:51 PM on October 31, 2004

Definitely coordinate things with the ex, and I wouldn't worry too much -- it's one of those things that are worse in contemplation than in actuality (apart from the kid; my divorce, fortunately, didn't involve children, so I have no advice on that score). People will say "sorry to hear that," with or without actual concern, and you'll move on; it's amazing how little our personal traumas affect others. The real pain lies elsewhere, and pretty much the only consolation is that it only lasts so long and then you come out of it. Best of luck.
posted by languagehat at 2:04 PM on October 31, 2004

I've done this myself and for me the only issue was the children. I felt that they were the only people I owed an explanation to and by sticking to the truth -- in an age appropriate way, too much information can be just as bad as too little, no child needs to hear the sordid details of an adult relationship -- it wasn't half as painful as I anticipated. Children are smart and a first grader often picks up more than one would think and it's entirely possible that this isn't going to come as a surprise to him/her.

I had been concerned about them blaming themselves, as it turns out that wasn't an issue. If your on good terms you might want to get your approch to this in synch to avoid confusion and it goes without saying that reassurances that both parents still love and care for them is crucial. When we separated the household we made sure to allow the children to take what they wanted to their new second home. My children were 5,7 and 9 and it's amazing the comfort provided by the familiar. We also made sure to keep the school informed to avoid those awkward, "Bring this home to Mommy and Daddy," moments.

Friends and family were cake. As extroverts with a wide circle of shared friends and two closely knit families our ending an unhealthy relationship was met mostly with sighs of relief. It seems we were the last people in the world to realize how poorly suited to one another we were. It was important for me to remember that my history with her was not a reflection of their expierence -- sure, it drives me nuts when she and my sister talk, but they are adults and entitled to choose their own friends.

Acquaintances and co-workers were left with the bare minimum, "M. and I are no longer together. So, what about those Jets?" It's none of their business and remarkably few people care. Think about how you react when a co-worker launches into a long personal saga. Don't be that guy.
posted by cedar at 2:10 PM on October 31, 2004

At the risk of being Dr. Laura, do everything - everything - with your child in mind. Everything. I don't have any specific advice for you, but it appears that you are going through with this in a friendly way, so good on you.

You might want to try talking to the psychologist or guidance counselor at your kid's school, as I bet they see this all the time and could offer suggestions on how to best see the little one through the turmoil.
posted by PrinceValium at 7:36 PM on October 31, 2004

My parents divorced when I was about 4, leaving me with no memories of them together. (To this day, I can't really relate to the conflation of co-parenting with romantic involvement; it seems like an overly complicated and fragile arrangement to me. I offer this merely as an observation.) The two-Christmases/two-birthdays thing was pretty cool, I have to admit.

I don't remember being told about the divorce, but knowing my parents now, I assume the line was something like, "Mommy and daddy won't be living together any more, but we will both see you all the time, and we both love you very much." The key here of course is that they expressed that in deeds. The second-greatest gift they gave me was to never - ever - have an argument in front of me, use me to carry messages to each other, or snipe about each other. (This changed a bit after I turned 30 - I kinda liked the old way better!)

One thing my parents were careful to do is make sure I had my own space at each living place, and my own stuff that would definitely be there and not be moved around. There were always inconveniences to living in more than one place, but I at least knew I had a permanent spot with both of them - I was never "just staying over." Also, we had a regular schedule that was so consistent that it lasted right through high school. (My mother was limited in her mobility by her academic career; my dad stayed within 5 miles of her throughout my childhood.)

The only thing I wish my parents had done differently is that I wish they had ended up marrying people that sincerely respected the fact that they had a child from a previous marriage. My step-parents are pretty disrespectful, and while they have some fine qualities, they caused me a lot of pain over the years. I was disappointed my parents valued them so highly that they exposed me to that.

I am very tightly bonded to both my parents and consider myself "just like" both of them, even though I can't even imagine them together (now - I can sure imagine how they became high-school sweethearts). I am also close to my half-siblings - they are true treasures. Life is complicated even without changes like this, and in retrospect I am inspired by my parents' abilities to put their respective relationships with me almost totally front and center while they had issues of their own to work through. Because they laid such good groundwork, even the problems later were quite manageable all around. I wish you the best in navigating this unexpected route.
posted by caitlinb at 8:54 PM on October 31, 2004

Some things are just going to suck. But there are some things that don't have to suck as much as they could.

There are some really great children's books about divorce. My daughter was a bit younger then yours when I got divorced, but the books were great. I don't mean psychology books about children and divorce, but story books, like At Daddy's on Saturdays. I seriously choked up every time I read them for a while, but they were my daugther's favorites for a long time.

As far as telling you boss, my advice is to be totally matter-of-fact about it. Walk into the office, say "Not that this really affects you, but I thought I should tell you that my wife and I are getting divorced." That will make late arrivals and your general bad mood more forgivable in his eyes, I'd think. He'll give you a little "I'm sorry to hear that," then you should walk away without saying much more.

Telling friends will be more awkward. Wait until you see them, then, again, be matter-of-fact. It'll be tough--they'll want to talk about it when you might not want to. They will likely take sides, and you'll lose some friends. But telling them sooner is better than telling them later.

I was "spared" from telling my family due to the fact that my ex and my brother's wife were friends long before either was married. I was worried about how I'd tell them, very nervous about what to say, but then they found out before I had a chance to talk to them. So I can't really give any advice there.

Therapy is good. I did that for 2 1/2 years afterwards. Email me if you want. I won't reveal your identity, promise.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:53 AM on November 1, 2004

If you're child is in first grade I wouldn't be so blunt about it. I would probably say, Daddy is living in another house for a while.

But I really don't know what I am talking about, so I would ask a therapist about that. I do think your child's age is an important factor though.
posted by xammerboy at 10:13 AM on November 1, 2004

I separated one year ago, and the divorce went through in July. I have two children.

I think what has been said prior is probably true, most people, outside of your immediate family, probably won't care too much, so just tell them whenever, tell your employer fairly early on, since it will cause some lost time at work while at court and the lawyers.

Love your child, but try not to cry in front of them, because it makes them feel bad. You must start to think of your ex as a business partner, where your business is raising your child. You have to interact if you both want lots of time with the children. Learn to be cordial with your ex and not emotional.

I don't regret my divorce, but losing constant time with my children breaks my heart. Try and be the best parent possible.
posted by patrickje at 10:43 AM on November 1, 2004

I can pretty much second what caitlinb said, although my parents divorced when I was six. My parents had joint custody of me after the divorce, and I switched houses every Monday until I left for college. I also essentially had two fully independent living situations--my own room and clothes at each parent's house, which I guess made the whole thing easier to deal with. My parents still live within two miles of each other.

As to the original question, I think my parents handled the whole thing well enough that I hardly even consider their divorce to be any kind of stain on my childhood, and I also have a hard time remembering my parents actually being together. I can remember times when they were still married, but not of them being in the same place at the same time--it's always one or the other. I did have some issues at school for a bit, but nothing long-lasting.

It seems as if you're worried about the social stigma of divorce, anonymous, and I would venture that the phenomenon is so commonplace these days as to be largely inconsequential, but it'll depend on the attitudes of the people you're talking to. If someone told me they were getting divorced, I wouldn't bat an eyelash; but then, I went through two more of my parent's divorces from later step-parents, so it's really old hat to me. Some fuddy-duddys might be a little more prudish.

I guess I should also mention that as far as my current attitude towards marriage: it holds no real special romance for me, but it isn't a decision I would take lightly. Your kid's mileage may vary.
posted by LionIndex at 11:12 AM on November 1, 2004

Just my quick 2 cents to agree with the above suggestions to tell mutual friends sooner rather than later when possible. I went through a generally amicable divorce about 4 years ago (no kids, so my advice doesn't apply there), but one of the sticking points was that my ex pretty much refused to tell his own family (as well as his close friends and a number of his colleagues I'd become friendly with) until a couple of weeks before we actually separated and I moved halfway across the country. It gave them less time to digest the news, and it gave us all less time to say goodbye -- which I have to say I really resented (and I think some of his family/friends also may have resented) for awhile.
posted by scody at 12:23 PM on November 1, 2004

Some wisdom born from the experience of being in first grade when my parents divorced:

The break up of a marriage, even one that is obviously necessary, even to a seven year old, sucks when you're a little kid, because it's scary.

Be up front with the child, and tell him or her exactly what's going on, and what the kid can expect to happen to him next.

You and your ex might be very good about not talking trash about each other in front of the kid, or using the kid as a weapon but other family members might not be so well equipped.

Caitlinb is waaaay on to something about giving the kid his or her own permanent space at each home.

I started to go into more detail about some of these things, but it made me sound like a total whiner. I'm sorry you and your partner are getting divorced. Good luck with everything.
posted by jennyb at 6:59 PM on November 1, 2004

If you and your ex have been having troubles for a while this is one possible outcome that your friends/family may have been considering. While I would tell your kid first, and call your parents at some point to tell them, it can trickle out with friends. An easy way to bring it up is the next time your ex's name comes up in conversation, say something like "you know we haven't been getting along for a while now... we/I/she/he decided to get a divorce." Give them an opportunity to ask some questions, have a few answers ready [are you guys still friends? would it be painful for the two of you to be together at a social event? who is staying in the family house? what do custody arrangements look like? how can your friend help, if they want to?] and then drop it for a while and let it sink in. Some friends will be embarassed or have a hard time figuring out what to do, especially if they are friends of you and your ex. You can either give them space or give them concrete suggestions along the lines of "I've got the kid this weekend, would you guys like to come to the skating rink with us?" Try to be honest about how you are feeling, it's a confusing time for friends but people have been through it before in most cases so as long as you let them know if anything drastically changes and give a few loose outlines [good breakup/bad breakup/ I got dumped/I dumped him/her] they should be able to handle it and maybe even surprise you with sympathy or suggestions.

I've gone through this personally with my ex and also dealt with it when I was twelve with my parents. My advice is to tell the kid first thing and have the parent who is moving tell the kid unless you and your ex have worked something else out. It will always feel like the leaving parent is leaving everyone, so taking some special time to assure your child that is not the case is time well spent. Since you and your ex will develop individual relationships with your child this may be a good opportunity to start spending separate time with him/her. In my family, my Dad told us he was moving and, now that I think about it, my Mom never said anything, just got mad and stayed mad for the next four years. If I were you I'd get it over with before the holidays. My Dad told us they were getting separated on Thanksgiving and moved out New Year's Day... that last Xmas together was really pretty horrible. I agree with what others have said in terms of not airing grievances with your ex in front of the kid, trying to deal with your grief more or less privately, and trying to maintain consistent contact with your child, and especially having them have a place that is theirs with each of you, regardless of who they live with.

Divorce is a lot like a concussion in that you think you're coping with everything okay but you're going to need a lot more sleep and destressifying and won't be mentally at peak performance for a while. Me and my ex-husband planned regular one hour coffee dates once a week to catch up, swap paperwork and news and make plans for our various continuing entanglements. It helped us stay civil to each other without it seeming like we were dating again or without turning into weird open-ended mope fests. Everyone's relationship breaks up in a unique way but that worked pretty welll for me.
posted by jessamyn at 7:17 PM on November 1, 2004

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