When to talk to teens about divorce when moving apart may take months?
November 12, 2018 1:36 AM   Subscribe

When to tell our teenage kids about an impending divorce? As soon as possible, even though the practical arrangements for moving apart might still take several months? Or should we wait until we have a concrete plan and a clear timeline?

My spouse has definitely made up their mind, and we are headed towards a divorce. Our children are 15. There's no abuse of any kind in the picture, not even arguing. The atmosphere at home is outwardly calm and normal(ish), but oftentimes there's tension right under the surface, and it seems to be affecting one of the kids, who's been quite moody. Both kids know we're not exactly happy.

The plan is for me to find a new permanent place to live, preferably in the same area, buy it and move there directly from our shared home (together with the kids), so no couch surfing at friends or renting a temporary place to stay in between. I can afford an apartment of my own, but it'll possibly take several months to find a suitable one*. We're planning to share the custody, but the kids are at an age where the local custody law allows them to have a lot of input on their living arrangements. (My prediction is that they'll want to try a 50-50 arrangement at first but end up spending much more time with me, as I've been the one doing most of the emotional labor, household chores and active parenting in recent years and I'd be surprised to see that change.)

The kids don't know about the divorce plans. They do know that things have not been stellar between us for a long time, and I'm 100% sure they won't be surprised to hear we're splitting up. But they will be sad.

My spouse wants to tell them right away, right this very moment. Their argument is that the secrecy is not good for the kids. I do understand their point, but wouldn't that be rough for them if it still takes another 6 months before anything actually happens?

My own instinct would be to avoid dragging the kids through a stressful limbo of uncertainty for possibly several months, not knowing when things will move ahead and what that will entail. I do want to tell them as soon as I can give them an exact time frame and some facts about where we'll be moving to, but not before that. That is, I'd tell them a few weeks to a month before the actual moving date.

But maybe I'm wrong. I do have a tendency to doubt my own instincts about important things. OTOH, I can't help feeling that my spouse's urgent desire to tell the kids stems from a need to share their own psychological burden of stress rather than to enhance the kids' wellbeing (which to me is absolutely paramount). But maybe it's just my bitterness talking?

I desperately want an outside opinion. What would you do?

As you can imagine, I'm feeling very vulnerable about everything right now, so if you think I'm dead wrong please be gentle about it.

*My budget is not limitless, and in recent months I've seen a suitable apartment in a realistic price range appear for sale in this area (close to our current home, the kids' school and hobbies) on average once every couple of months. There's a good likelihood the new home will require a few weeks of fixing up before we can move in, as most buildings are quite old around here. The kids don't like our current home and have wanted to move for a long time, although obviously not like this. And I do worry tremendously about the effect this divorce will have on them and will do anything to make it less painful.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You sound like a wonderful parent. Thinking about it as a former 15 year old whose parents separated (and sure as hell didn't put near that much thought into us kids), I like your plan, maybe just with a bit more notice, like 2-3 months. Uncertainty is tough and I agree with you that telling them now could be hard, but I'd be resentful if my parent didn't involve me in the home searching. I'd also want enough notice so I could feel ready to move without it being a sudden upheaval. A few weeks seems a bit short.

Can't help from a parent point of view but I think you've really considered their well-being. Just want to throw in the suggestion of offering them therapy if they want to talk about it to a non-involved adult.
posted by kitten magic at 2:45 AM on November 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

My family situation was similar, although I don't think we really knew or parents were unhappy. I would first make it *clear* that you are unhappy, working through options, and one of those options is divorce. We were blindsided and it was low. I'd then reassure then that it's not immediate and nothing is going to happen before Christmas - let them enjoy it. The next one will be Different.

My dad sprung it on me, duffel bag in hand, one night in January while I was up late studying for the SAT. Don't do this either. Please tell them in broad daylight, together, let them ask lots of questions, etc. If they're studious, wait until after finals. No big announcements the day before the big game or opening night or anything. Set them up a few appointments with their own counsellors if you can.

Involve them - let them go apartment hunting with you, pick their bedroom furniture etc

Lastly, so not talk shit about your spouse. Start now in cultivating a habit of civility. The announcement was clumsy and divorce sucks but what has really had lasting damage was my mother's vitriol after. The divorce was twenty years ago and is still an issue. She still won't be in the same room and it is causing issues at weddings, with grandchildren, etc.

Lastly, my dad ended up putting off moving out until summer vacation (I had just finished high school and was working at summer camp; my siblings were almost 15 and 12). I think doing the actual moving when they can participate and don't have anything else making demands of them is helpful (spring break, whatever).
posted by jrobin276 at 2:53 AM on November 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

Perhaps a compromise would be waiting until you have somewhere you want to view. They then have something concrete to consider, and even if things don't go ahead they then know that it's something that will definitely happen.
posted by sianifach at 3:27 AM on November 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

No doubt this will be disturbing development for the children, but being upfront is important in confirming that you both still love them, it is not their fault, and that you both want to minimise the impact on them. To minimise confusion, I suggest that as soon as you tell them, one of you moves to another bedroom, as a sign of the coming split (if you don't move out immediately).

Are you going to let the children choose where they want to live (ie 'with mum', or 'with dad')? Are you prepared if one wants to stay and the other go?

I can't emphasise enough the importance of civility, now and into the future, and no blaming/criticising of the other. (we managed it, but I have seen the results from some who didn't manage it, and it is terrible).

If you can manage the above, I don't think the timing is a big deal.
posted by GeeEmm at 4:02 AM on November 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Tell the kids when it’s better for them. Blurting with no forethought can be damaging. Right before a week of school with dicey parental availability? Sub-optimal. Plan for a time when both of you are around to answer questions. Bring them in so you both can assure them about minimizing impact. Don’t promise more than you can deliver, but make sure they are heard.
posted by childofTethys at 4:25 AM on November 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Definitely wait until you’ve got a concrete plan + firm timeline. What I remember being scary about divorce wasn’t so much that my parents split up (which I’d actually been gunning for) - it was that life as we knew it was going to change, and that things would be uncertain. If you guys can hold off until you can offer them clear guidance in terms of what’s next, that will provide them with a necessary sense of structure. (Personally, I wouldn’t involve them in house hunting etc., it might be fun for them but it might also be a burden in terms of decision-making (and it’s more uncertainty. Also, they might favour a less-than-ideal or safe or sound place because it’s got cute features, and you might be tempted to give in because emotions, etc). Give them as smooth an exit as you can with expectations as clear as you can make them. TLDR your instincts are solid.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:05 AM on November 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

My parents divorced when I was in my teens and the last child at home. It was my father's decision to leave and after announcing the decision he remained in the house for at least another four months while he prepared his new apartment. I knew then the situation was hard for my mother who was just too devastated to be assertive at the time. I believe he should have moved out when he made the announcement, however inconvenient that may have been for him. I was okay with the divorce but still feel that my mom was done wrong by having to live with him for several months knowing he was leaving. If your partner wants out I would let them find temporary housing while you find a place and get yourself settled. I think that kids do the worst with uncertainty.
posted by InkaLomax at 5:07 AM on November 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Tell them after you close on an apartment with about a month before moving in.

Don’t make them hold the tension and anxiety of WHEN their living and family arrangement will chenge, tell them when plans are firm. It is cruel to involve two teenagers in the break-up process any sooner because there is nothing within that process they can effect or requires their input. They don’t need the stress of wondering when their lives will change. Tell them when the plan is solid, after the successful closing on the new home.
posted by jbenben at 5:51 AM on November 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

My budget is not limitless, and in recent months I've seen a suitable apartment in a realistic price range appear for sale in this area (close to our current home, the kids' school and hobbies) on average once every couple of months.

Yeah, this isn't an "it will take several months" area, this is "it will take several months and my being incredibly prepared and lucky". One potential option showing up every two months is actually a recipe for it taking 6-12 months to find a place, especially if you're looking in a fixer-upper range. I do think you need to hammer this stuff out before you make the announcement, or things will wind up feeling like they're even more in upheaval than they are. But I'd definitely try to find a solution, even if it involves some compromises from your ideal plan, that can be worked out faster and communicated faster.
posted by Sequence at 6:03 AM on November 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

I assume you've discussed with your spouse why it is better for you to leave the family home rather than them, but if the kids are going with you, it seems to me to be a bigger upheaval for them (parents are splitting and now you have to move all your stuff too). For the folks I've known who've divorced with children in the mix, a lot of the post-divorce living arrangements have centered on making sure the kids stay in the space that is most familiar to them.
posted by basalganglia at 6:13 AM on November 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

On living arrangements: I had the pleasure of working with a really good divorce expert (on articles) for a while and the number one mistake that people, especially women, make is to try to create a living arrangement that is in the same area/doesn't disrupt the kids...that is financially unmanageable, for example, trying to keep the family home or buying a house in the same area with half the income. So your plan sounds good in terms of waiting for something you can afford, but it also sounds concerning in terms of the options being so limited. I don't know about the tax consequences of selling your current home and not buying right away but it might not be a bad idea to rent during the transition, as long as it's clear to your kids what is going on.

How this relates to your question...I don't think waiting for months while you wait for the perfect apartment (which doesn't give anyone a clear deadline) may foil all your plans because your spouse may just freak out and drop the news. So I would ask your spouse to hold off for a very clear, set amount of time - say 3-4 weeks - while you firm up the plans a bit more like "we'll look for a place to buy until February but if that doesn't happen then in March we will do Plan B instead." Then you can share this with your kids and it will lay out a road map for everyone that is not so up in the air.

Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:27 AM on November 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

I get the feeling your spouse has put a lot of thought in this, has processed their decision (over months or years), and now they have “moved on” in their mind they expect everyone to just skip the processing and catch up (which also convienently absolves them of having to consider other people’s feelings or the consequences of their choices on other people. That is pretty common, by the way, to the point it is a cliche.

You should engage in a co-parenting counselling together to work through parenting as “not a team” because your spouse needs to hear from someone else that the children’s needs have to come first (anything you say along these lines will most likely be dismissed as masking your agenda). You should also have ALl the legal and financial details nailed down, in writing, with independent legal advice to avoid a situation of making plans/having expectations that are not in alignment.

When those two things are complete, THEN you can tell the children. (In the manner you had agreed to in co-parenting counselling) shortly before the actual move happens. Stability, especially at that age, is important. Don’t disrupt too many things at once. Good luck, it is better on the other side.
posted by saucysault at 6:28 AM on November 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

Can you rent a place without signing a long lease? That would give you more time to find a good place to buy. If, as you say, they rarely come up for sale, renting will give you the flexibility you need to hold out for a really good place to buy. Are your kids planning on going away to college in two or three years? Do you have other reasons for wanting to stay in the area, like other family, work, whatever? You might decide to buy somewhere close, but not too close, in a couple of years when the kids are old enough to get themselves around.

Right now is the time to get the hell out of there. You're in limbo until you do and it's not good for you or the kids. I can totally understand wanting to own a place, but this is not the time.
posted by mareli at 7:19 AM on November 12, 2018

Nthing the already great replies. Reaching back to when my parents divorced in high school, I knew my parents were unhappy and in retrospect there were clear signs of an impending divorce (one parent leaving to stay at a friend's place for a couple weeks, etc.) but I was still caught completely off-guard. Expect them to be surprised, even if they know something is up.

In my case, one parent slept elsewhere starting the night they told us, but spent the next 5-10 days moving their stuff out, so they were still around. InkaLomax's advice matches my own. I would have resented knowing that a divorce was coming and someone was moving out, but that my parents were still living together for several months.

Things they did well:
- Waited until after finals to tell us
- Presented a unified front to the kids
- No limbo/awkward/uncertain time -- they told us what was going to happen and then it happened.
- Made it clear we kids were the priority, and made themselves very available

Things that could have been better:
- Given us more input in how things involving the kids were executed, i.e., not prescribed "you'll eat dinner with X on X day".
- Despite emotions running high, never imply it was the kids fault, OR that there's something the kids could have done to prevent it.
posted by matrixclown at 7:51 AM on November 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

However, if your co-parent is insistent on telling the children, an option would be to tell the children and spouse moves out while you search for a place. They can rent nearby while you settle things permanently. (Their line about not telling the children feels like “secrecy” worries me as parents *of course* have to keep secrets from their children - it shows appropriate boundaries and a willingness to put the children first.)
posted by saucysault at 8:34 AM on November 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

My parents divorced when I was in my teens and the last child at home. It was my father's decision to leave and after announcing the decision he remained in the house for at least another four months while he prepared his new apartment. I knew then the situation was hard for my mother who was just too devastated to be assertive at the time. I believe he should have moved out when he made the announcement, however inconvenient that may have been for him.

This was my situation as an eleven year old. Father told us Thanksgiving weekend and moved out on New Years. My mother, who stayed in the house, was furious the entire time. My father, whose decision this was, sort of took his own time and was largely absent both physically and emotionally. Your situation is different since the parent remaining is the one who made the decision but my feeling is that if things have been difficult around the house, it's possible you are underestimating how much your children do not like the current situation and would like to move on to a different, potentially better, situation.

And I should mention, I don't think my situation was the norm but I was delighted when my dad said he was moving because my parents were clearly no longer a family and living with one grumpy adult was significantly better than living with two, who argued.

I can't help feeling that my spouse's urgent desire to tell the kids stems from a need to share their own psychological burden of stress rather than to enhance the kids' wellbeing

In the situation you have now, your spouse may feel that they can't be honest with their own children because they have to keep this secret. This could include completely normal things like future plans, how you're doing the holiday season, who she can talk to about this (because other people might talk, tell their kids, whatever) and how you do long term plans. That said, agree with saucysault, you should watch for a little bit of "My problems, let me tell you them, children" but don't presume it's totally bad news.

That said, the kids are 15 which means whatever the plan is, it's probably going to be a big deal for a few years and then they can start making their own plans personally and interact with whoever of the two of you they plan to. If this were my plan I'd be getting out of the house NOWish and working on a longer term rental from there. I know you say that's not the plan. If it were me, I'd consider making it the plan.
posted by jessamyn at 9:45 AM on November 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

My immediate question in all this is - how was it decided that you and the kids would move? Why is the plan not to have your spouse move out and you and the kids stay put??

Spouse moving would cause less disruption for the kids, would be easier to accomplish (1 person vs 3 people) and could likely happen faster, which could achieve spouse’s goal of telling them sooner.
posted by anastasiav at 10:32 AM on November 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would tell them up-front. Yesterday. You don't need to know all or any of the answers - they're your team-mates helping you think of the questions and think about the answers. I'd be very disappointed to be cut out of the loop like that and presented a completed plan that I was no part of developing even if it was a good plan. Even if it answered all the questions I could think of. I'd be insulted to be kept on the outside. But I think I would tell them for the first time separately so they didn't have to keep up any appearances in front of the other.

My prediction is that they'll want to try a 50-50 arrangement at first but end up spending much more time with me, ... and I'd be surprised to see that change.

Prepare to be surprised. They won't know what they want, might want to try something different, might even want to live apart from each other to try that out. It's not a popularity contest (except when it is - remember, teenagers are not known for resisting superficial emotional impulses in the short term). Relationships between them and the two parents may change from before. In my case, I picked one and stuck with it (no hard feelings to the other); my brother alternated at irregular intervals. All that to say, you might be right, just be ok with that not being the case.
posted by ctmf at 11:09 AM on November 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

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