Non-awful stories from kids of divorce
December 21, 2019 2:46 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I are divorcing. We are amicable, kind, and doing the best we can. We have two young children (5 and 8), and I am wracked with guilt and anxiety about doing this to them. I badly need reassurance. Can you help?

I have been reading books about how to talk to them about it, and how to coparent after, and how to help them through. We are both in solo therapy and still in couples therapy, and I am looking for a therapist for my oldest kid. I understand that it's going to be traumatic to them, and there's not much we can do to make it not traumatic, but that there's a lot we can do to help them heal and be okay. I get all of that, and I am doing what I can to prepare.

However, I just did not have any big trauma as a kid, so this is unknown to me and I am really struggling with how this is going to hurt them.

I'd be really, really grateful if you, a child of divorce, could tell me how it was ultimately okay to live in a split custody situation (50/50), that you adjusted, and that in the end everything was alright. Anything that particularly helped is welcome, as well.

posted by hought20 to Human Relations (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My brother and I were those same ages when my parents amicably divorced, and we had 50-50 custody until we moved out at 18. I'm now 36, and as far as I am aware, I carry no trauma from it. I'm in a stable long-term partnership, and I'm close with both my parents and both their new spouses, who I think are clearly better-matched to my parents than my parents were to each other.

I think it helped that my parents always were civil with each other in my presence, always told me it wasn't my fault and I was loved, and had homes that were very close together so the logistics of going back and forth weren't too daunting. They've also stayed friendly enough that we all still get together for holidays etc.

Today, I am grateful to my parents for modeling for me that it's OK to leave relationships that aren't meeting my emotional needs, and that it can be possible to rebuild healthy friendships with your exes (I'm also now friends with most of my exes). I respect their decision to divorce and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
posted by introcosm at 3:19 PM on December 21, 2019 [29 favorites]

Best answer: I'm 36. My parents split when I was about 5. My parents had 70/30 custody, later 80/20.

I'm so, so grateful. There's no possible way that they could have been happy together, so instead of growing up surrounded by strife and discord, I grew up with two parents who loved me dearly, in two homes that were happy and pleasant places to be.

Honestly, I have no idea what it is that I'm supposed to have missed out on. Outside of some kind of entirely unrealistic fairytale, my upbringing was so much better than most coupled ones? It's really not a trauma.
posted by wattle at 3:29 PM on December 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: My parents divorced when I was a toddler, so I didn't know any different. My older siblings might tell different stories about the split itself, because they remembered it (they were around the ages of your children). But all of us agree that it was the best thing for our parents to have done. They each remarried; I grew up with four loving parents who I am very close to as an adult. My father and step-mother's marriage is one of the happiest I have ever encountered and when I got married myself a few years ago, theirs was the model I consciously chose to emulate. I grew up knowing what a loving and respectful marriage looked like, and feeling surrounded by love myself, because my parents divorced.

In contrast, I have a lot of friends in their 30s and 40s who are still bitter and scarred by the fact their parents "stayed together for the children". Several of them say their parents split up the same month, week, or even - shockingly - the actual day they left for college, just to underline the point that the parents were a) miserable, and b) only together because the kid was in the house. These friends do not have good models for how happy relationships work from the inside. They carry the guilt of knowing that they were the reason these two miserable adults stayed together. They all say they spent their childhood wishing their unhappy parents would separate.

So honestly, if the choice is bringing up your children in an unhappy marriage, and bringing them up with two single (or re-married) happy parents: getting divorced is the best thing you can do for your kids.

That said, here are my tips from the child's side:

1. Never, ever bad mouth your ex to your children. My dad used to do this, and it hurt and confused me no end. My mom never did, even though she could have. It must have been hard for her, but it made my life 100% easier.

2. Be super strict with other relatives, make it clear that they are also never, ever, to bad mouth your ex in front of your children. My aunt would bitch about my dad all the time, putting me in a horrible position where I felt I had to defend him but that would mean I'd lose her approval and it was... horrible. I wish my mom would have stood up to her and told her to cut it out.

3. Keep the reasons why you are getting divorced child friendly. They don't need to know the real details. For years I thought that my parents divorced because they didn't like the same things (that they had different favorite colors was one of the examples my mom used) and I was totally fine with that. As an adult, we have been able to talk about the real reasons (affairs, coercive control, general misery and unhappiness).

Best of luck to you.
posted by EllaEm at 3:37 PM on December 21, 2019 [20 favorites]

Best answer: I was eleven when my parents divorced, in 1979, and my sister was nine. I can't speak for her, but for me, it was an enormous relief when they separated and stopped fighting all the time. I'm now a reasonably well adjusted professional in my early 50s with a satisfying career and a marriage that has now lasted twice as long as my parents'.

Whether because of advice or instinct, my parents did a lot of things right. They never spoke ill of one another in front of us kids, and they were civil, if not warm, to one another at parent-teacher conferences, school events, etc. My dad had primary custody and kept the family house, but my mom always lived nearby (within a few miles) and we had a regular visitation routine. My parents were flexible about making exceptions, e.g. for camping trips, summer vacation, etc. but they always worked it out in advance and checked with us. That sense of security was important: knowing where we would be at any given time.

They both started dating after a while, but were careful about introducing us to their partners until things were reasonably serious. And they put up with some acting out we did against the new partners. My dad stopped dating after a while, and my mom remarried when I was 18 to someone who was a much better fit for her. They're still together 33 years later.

FWIW, around the time my wife and I were planning our wedding, in 1995 (16 years after the divorce), my parents started spending more time together, mostly around wedding planning but also because my wife and I were in grad school and we didn't have much time for family visits, so it was often easiest to get everyone together. Enough time had passed that my parents had changed a lot and had some perspective on what hadn't worked in their relationship, and on each other's good qualities. They certainly didn't become close friends, but my dad occasionally went on vacations with them and my sister, and my mom was at his side, along with me and my sister, when he died.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:38 PM on December 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I had the ultimate in split custody. I was a city kid, so every day after school I would go to Dad's apartment (his hours meant that he was home earlier), I'd stay there 3 nights out of the week and on the other 4 go to Mom's just before dinner and stay there.

Honestly it was for the best - one of them was a super over-involved parent, and the other was very hands off. So I got pushed tiger-parent-style at the first house and had a chance to breathe at the second house.

Aside from the general "don't badmouth each other" advice (which can be hard, I know now there were child support issues, differences about religion, etc - but I never heard them at the time), the only thing I can offer is that as I got older they were very open to having me involved in the schedule decisions as much as they could, even though it had to sting a bit. As I got into high school it organically shifted into a few different schedules based on their jobs and my preferences, and I was never made to feel guilty about it.
posted by true at 3:39 PM on December 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My parents got divorced when I was very young and each of them went through at least one additional subsequent divorce. My parents dated actively throughout my childhood and I also lived with a few "live-ins" who were not stepparents. So I've done the whole divorce thing several times at different ages. My parents shared 50/50 custody and absolutely despised each other my whole childhood.

I'm fine and have not experienced any particular interpersonal/relationship issues as an adult. I actually think that I have a better understanding of compromise, communication, and general relationship skills than a lot of folks in part because I've observed these dynamics in the various permutations of my own family.

I think that as a culture we put an immense emphasis on the importance of a nuclear family for kids and I guess my experience has taught me that "family" is a lot bigger and richer than that; kids don't actually need a nuclear family to be happy and ok, despite what our culture hammers. I would never consider the divorce experiences a "trauma" for myself, and I think my parents' shortcomings with general interpersonal skills (listening, managing a temper, respecting other people's boundaries) were far more harmful and traumatic for me growing up than any of the divorces or breakups.

I guess any advice I have is that it's important to think about your kids, but it's also super important to take care of your own needs as well. I think it's really hard to be the best parent you can be when you are miserable or unhappy or struggling. Try to maintain a relationship with your ex that does not put pressure on your kids to pick sides or that makes them feel responsible for your happiness, which can be incredibly difficult.
posted by forkisbetter at 3:39 PM on December 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: My parents created an amicable co-parenting situation for me and my sibling, 6 and 3 at the time of their divorce, to grow up in.

Every weekend we would have a meal together, as a family, and we would also celebrate together in our culture's equivalent of Christmas and Thanksgiving. Although I didn't live in the same house as my father I got as much access to him, if not more, than my friends whose parents lived together. I lived with my mother and grandparents, but saw my father every single day. He got along well with my grandparents and they continued to treat him as their much-loved son-in-law. Written like this it sounds kind of extreme, and it wouldn't necessarily work for every family, but it worked for ours. My parents' and grandparents' key aim during our childhood was ensuring that we had complete consistency of routine.

I'm so grateful to my family for always keeping our emotional wellbeing front and centre while navigating their divorce and relationship post-divorce. I have my share of 'stuff' from childhood but 0.01% of it is related to my parents' divorce.
posted by unicorn chaser at 3:43 PM on December 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Hi there! My parents divorced when I was three. There was never a 50/50 custody situation, so maybe none of this applies. But I'd still like to tell you that everything did, in fact, turn out allright.

Here's some anecdata...
I clearly remember my dad, sitting on the couch and crying. This was odd: parents don't cry. So I asked him, with all the empathy a 3-year old can muster: is this about mama? He nodded. I wanted to comfort him, as I knew he'd do for me when I was crying, but I didn't know how. I think (or hope) that I put my hand on his, or something like that. I can't be certain. I'm 51 now, it's been a while.

I also remember him being unexpectedly angry at the dinner table, when my sister and me visited him (we weren't living with him anymore) and one of us spilt a glass of water. He responded badly, saying 'I'll give you a bottle to drink from, like a baby, if you're going to be a baby and spill your cup of water'. That was not like him, he was usually reasonable and not abusive. Then he teared up. Later I understood why.

We visited him often. I seem to remember it was every two weeks. We enjoyed that. We would often do something fun: fly a kite, or build a paper house from a kit, and put little sponge trees next to it.

None of this traumatized me. I'm happy. I have a loving relationship. I'm generally OK.
I have a very good relationship with my mother; I have a decent relationship with my father. My parents are both over 80 now. They both attended my 50th birthday, and brought their partners; this was unusual, but it went well.

In other words, don't worry too much. Don't badmouth your ex. Be open to your kids, at an age-appropriate level. Let them know you love them and you'll always be there for them. They will most likely be fine.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:06 PM on December 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My parents divorced when I was five, and I am so, so glad they did. They did get me a therapist, but all I remember about the therapist is that she had some cool toys in her office, and a soft rug. I'm sure it felt like a big deal to me at the time, but honestly I cannot imagine calling it traumatic. The worst part is figuring out logistics when I'm visiting family, and explaining the complexities of it to people who can't keep all my step- and half- relatives straight. You may want to revisit your assumption that this will be traumatic at all, since going into it with that mindset may make you present it to them as a bigger, scarier thing than it needs to be.

As others have said, keep it amicable, don't bad-mouth anyone, etc. As far as shared custody, one thing to keep in mind is that as they get older and you give them more freedom about organizing their own lives, you shouldn't make them feel as if they have an obligation to do the emotional labor of figuring out what's "fair" (or even being "fair" if that doesn't feel right to them) in terms of time spent with each parent. It's not their responsibility to coddle their parents.

Also, your kids probably have friends with divorced parents. Maybe talk to those parents about how they did it?
posted by dizziest at 4:50 PM on December 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

Best answer: My parents split when I was around 8 and split custody roughly 50/50 (until my father moved away for work reasons, but that's a different story). I also went through a divorce and remarriage myself, and have a child that was in the early years of elementary school at the time my ex and I split up.

The stuff about not bad-mouthing your ex is extremely important. My father used to sometimes talk bad about my mom, but my mother, bless her, never did -- and man alive did she have reason to -- he threatened to have the state take us away from her, he made her sweat every penny of the child support, etc. etc. etc. I don't know how she did it, but she kept her grief and anger to herself. I'm deeply grateful to her for this. The shared custody thing became normal life quite quickly -- you learn as a kid how to keep track of your stuff (don't leave your homework at Dad's, for example), how to remember a complicated schedule, stuff like that. Honestly, it wasn't particularly traumatic. What was traumatic was the fighting that preceded the split -- hearing my parents shouting at each other in the other room, seeing my mother try yet again to make my father happy, seeing my father with tears in his eyes. The split was a huge relief.

My mother was better than my father at helping us understand what had happened -- among the ways that she explained it was that when people disagree about little things, they can often find ways to work it out. But when they come to disagree about big things, fundamental things, then it can be better for them to part. My parents, she said, had come to disagree about big things. That explanation worked for me for many years (and still kind of does, even though now I know more than I wish I did about what happened to their marriage).

I've put everything I already knew about being a kid with divorced parents into action with my own child, and I think my kid's doing fine. It helped that my ex was also the product of an (ugly) divorce, so we both instinctively knew what not to do. We mostly managed to keep our anger to ourselves, we made things as amicable as possible (mediator, not lawyer, to work out the agreement), we never talked bad about each other (in front of the kid), and all the rest of it. My child now spends every other night with his father (a schedule that we adopted at my child's request), my ex and I cooperate closely, we have full family gatherings (so much so that we're currently discussing going camping, all of four us!). Every time I see my ex or text/phone him on some kid-related business (which is, honestly, about every other day), I'm so grateful that he and I put our feelings aside on behalf of our kid -- and also I'm so grateful that I'm not married to him any more.

Like everyone else, I have my own issues from childhood. But they're not from the divorce.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 5:10 PM on December 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Reverse to your question but potentially helpful. I separated from the ex when the children were preschool age and it was a comfortable time (though I was low-income, I built a community of friends and family and they were happy). Regrettably, we reconciled and stuck it out until the last child finished high school, and I have seen my daughter in her relationships diminishing herself to keep the peace, and the relationship going, long after she should have left, and that behaviour looks suspiciously like my own. Another loss to my children was closeness with their extended family because my ex-husband and I couldn't be comfortable and relaxed together at social events, so we stopped going to any. My career stalled in support of his, I had all the responsibilities and the children grew up thinking this was normal. I was also very unhappy for 20 years, and that was hard on the kids too. So please, don't make my mistakes.
posted by b33j at 7:42 PM on December 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

Best answer: i was five and my sister three when my dad left. My parents never had 50/50 custody and in fact I didn't see my dad much at all for a couple of years, then we had sporadic holiday visitation. I have complicated feelings about my parents for a lot of reasons, many of them related to the divorce, especially now that I have kids of my own. (Who leaves their kids for TWO YEARS?! And skips out on scheduled visitations? And then expects to be asked permission when I get engaged?!) My mom did NOT follow the advice above to not badmouth my dad; in fact she still does it and they've been divorced more than twice as long as they were married. I would say that their divorce and my childhood and their continued refusal to even be in the same room have been traumatic to me, influenced my romantic relationships, and still cause me grief today.


I am SO SO SO glad they got divorced. It turned out okay for me. Their relationship was so bad it would have been far more damaging to live with them in the same house growing up. I've gone to therapy (I probably would have needed therapy anyway; pretty much anyone could benefit from it) and worked out my childhood feelings and now my feelings as a parent. My own kids will immensely benefit from what I learned from my own parents; namely, what not to do.

I would 1000% second not to badmouth your ex in any way in front of your kids, ever. Otherwise, it sounds like you guys are doing the right thing, putting the kids first - they WILL be okay.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:04 PM on December 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all SO MUCH. I can't even express how much this has helped. It sounds like it's possible to do this and not have it be a huge, awful trauma to them, and that knowledge has lightened my heart so much. I know it's going to be a shock, but maybe it'll be just fine after a little bit.

We are absolutely committed to putting past hurts away and not badmouthing and presenting a united front. It's interesting that everyone I know whose parents had a divorce says, first thing, "don't ever badmouth your ex." It clearly causes a ton of anxiety in kids, and everything I read tells me that the best way for the kids to be okay is to keep it all no-conflict as much as possible.

Anyway! Thank you, thank you. This isn't going to be easy (...and we are definitely divorcing, for all the reasons you mention, I know it's the best thing in the long term), but maybe we can get through it as well as possible and telling the kids won't be a horror show.

Oh, and the most useful thing about this is the understanding that I shouldn't treat it as the world ending when I tell the kids. If I go into it assuming it is doom, they will take it that way. I think this will help my attitude with them.
posted by hought20 at 4:04 AM on December 22, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I got divorced when my kids were exactly that age. It's been wonderful in the aftermath, no joke. Both their dad and I are so much happier, less stressed. We are both committed to raising the kids well and we share custody. The kids are THRIVING. I think what helped us most was too not act as if it was a traumatic experience for them unless they gave cues that they were upset or traumatized. We kept the adult stuff entirely in adult hands, handled our heartbreak entirely privately, and even though we hated each other's guts the kids NEVER got a hint of it because both he and I took up for each other in the kids' presence when necessary. The way we explained the divorce to our kids was, "Mom and Dad used to be best friends but now we aren't anymore, we're just medium friends. So we won't live together. You just will have to homes! You'll go back and forth. Let's figure out how to work it."

And then afterwards, after the move, I focused on the excitement of setting up our new apartment, the logistics, etc. When they showed stress, we talked about all the changes and I acknowledged that it must be hard. We got though.

It's taken a lot of work on my end to make this happen. Co-parenting doesn't happen automatically or easily even with a partner who is committed to doing right by the kids. But I've learned to be both relentless and relentlessly kind when trying to make the co-parenting happen. It can work.

Please message me, I'm happy to talk.
posted by MiraK at 6:52 AM on December 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I experienced just the opposite - my parents had a shitty marriage and finally split up when I was in college. It was really tough on me when they divorced, and going home for holidays was super stressful. I wish they had gotten divorced when I was a kid.
posted by radioamy at 6:11 PM on December 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't have any resources to recommend. But, I'm someone whose parents divorced when I was around 6 and it was a great choice. It was financially and logistically awful for my mom, but absolutely better than any possible alternative. Living with unhappy parents and pretending everything is fine is soul-crushing for a kid. Not having to pretend anymore was liberating.

My anecdotal advice is not to assume it will be a trauma until your kids tell you that it is. Half my friends in elementary school had divorced parents. It was entirely normal. It was a lot better than the unhappy marriages the rest of our friends went home to. I've no doubt it's traumatic for many people and you should absolutely support your kids if they find it so. (It sounds like that won't be a problem.) But, to me it was a great relief. When my mom took me to a childhood therapist soon afterward, I struggled not to laugh at the strange leading questions and assumptions. Life was hard and sometimes traumatic, but it had nothing to do with the divorce except financially.

Best of luck to all of you. Remember that having one great parent is worth a hell of a lot. It's better than most people ever get. Having two, even if they're happier not spending time together, is the childhood jackpot.
posted by eotvos at 9:04 AM on December 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I did have a traumatic time but it was NOT because of the separation/divorce itself (I was 9). Even as a kid I knew that my parents shouldn’t stay together.
The things that made it bad: my mother’s abusive partner; being sent to a very different school; and the incredibly complicated day to day logistics of switching between 2 houses.
If you can swing it, try to live very close to each other. I’ve always thought it was a common feature of divorces that work out well for the kids - but of course it could be correlation not causation. Of course these days in many places housing is so expensive you might not have that option. At least you can offset the logistics by having 2 sets of most things.
posted by 8k at 3:18 AM on December 24, 2019

Best answer: My experiences were similar to a lot of people here in having parents living close to each other, 50/50 split, both very involved. (They tried not to badmouth each other and did a number of family events together, but I found the tension too high on those events as I got older. That said, I appreciate the effort they made.)

One huge advantage was when I was a teenager. Whenever I got too stressed and cranky with a parent, it was time to switch houses. I also remember a time when I was annoyed at how overbearing my dad was with my homework and then a few days later, getting annoyed with how lax my mom was with it. I realized the problem was not exactly them at that point. My friends with only one house rarely got that perspective and just stayed annoyed.

I will also agree that the divorce/having divorced parents was not a trauma for me. (Even the abusive partner who was briefly around ended up not being very traumatic, because they split up after the violent incident, which seems pretty good for modeling relationships and when to leave them.)

Your kids are young enough that doing a lot of holiday things twice may be super fun (if you both celebrate the same holidays) but you may need to taper off around teenage years. Which I mention in part because one of the bonuses for me was getting two (or three if grandparents were involved) Christmas stockings and two Easter baskets. I didn't have candy on a regular basis so extra holiday candy was hugely thrilling.
posted by Margalo Epps at 11:45 AM on December 24, 2019

Response by poster: Y'all, it went surprisingly well! I mean, telling them sucked, but they are doing well, and this weekend is their first time at my new place and we're all pretty chill and happy. For so long, I imagined this first weekend as being this sad, drawn-in time, but it's just pretty normal. Their other mom and I continue to get along well (she's actually visiting today to take them out), and everything seems fine.

Thank you again! I revisited this thread a few times for reassurance.
posted by hought20 at 4:53 AM on February 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

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