If You Must Divorce, Keep It Civil
Wednesday - April 04, 2007
My parents have what I would call a “good divorce” - that is, if such a thing exists, which I think it does.
Though it may not be the situation any couple would hope to find themselves in, the reality is that 45 percent of all marriages end in divorce. (And the numbers get higher for second and third marriages).
Whether you’ve been married for three years or 30, divorce means there will be a whole slew of tough financial and emotional issues that will need to be addressed: the house, the bank accounts, the children and your own personal heartache.
This is not an easy time for anyone involved. And to tell you the truth, I’m not even sure how my parents managed to keep our family unit intact through the end of their almost 30-year union - but they did. And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.
I have a lot of friends whose parents have bad divorces. They are still at each other’s throats and can’t stand to be in the same room together. They put the kids in the middle of the mess and hold onto emotional hurts that carry over decades later.
“People don’t realize that you actually have a choice if you’re going to have a nice divorce or a bad one,” explains June Ching, Ph.D, ABPP, a past president of the Hawaii Psychological Association and current public education coordinator. “It’s hard because divorce is so stressful - it’s ranked second in the most stressful life events that a person encounters - because it involves so many adjustments and changes.”
Everything gets turned upside down, says Ching, a board certified clinical psychologist who is also in private practice. You have to redefine your family from the way that you knew it and deal with changes in finances, living arrangements, parenting and social networks.
“It takes people a good three to five years emotionally to get through it all,” says Ching. “In Hawaii we have about 5,000 divorces a year, and 50 to 60 percent of these involve children.”
Either way, it takes a lot to have a cooperative divorce. And let me just say that no matter how old you are when your parents separate, it still has a deep effect on your sense of stability. So if your divorce involves children, it’s extra important to keep things amicable.
My parents knew this and agreed to put me first, even though I was already 21.
So how can parents end up on the same page? Ching says going to seek psychological help before the divorce is a big plus. Seeking counseling can help you figure out how to find solutions to issues you might struggle to figure out as a couple and a family.
“If kids are involved, to have a good divorce there are two things we emphasize: to shelter the kids from ongoing conflicts occurring in front of them and to work toward some kind of successful co-parenting so that the parents can both be there for their children,” says Ching.
Sounds like a good plan, but sometimes this is easier said than done. It doesn’t happen overnight, Ching says, but learning to communicate effectively is important.
“When there’s a divorce, because the couple might have had a lot of differences, or they drifted apart, they don’t problem solve very well and they don’t have the necessary communication skills,” explains Ching.
If you have been emotionally injured in your divorce, it can take heroic efforts to communicate with your ex, she says. Some begin building a bridge of communication by keeping a parenting journal or e-mailing. They set rules such as responses have to be sent within 24 hours and you can talk only about parenting rules, not old issues.
Diminished conflict and cooperative parenting will give your children the best chance at a successful future. Put whatever differences you have aside and talk to each other.
“You divorce as husband and wife, but not as parents,” says Ching. “What it takes for a good divorce is for the parents to separate their old roles as husband and wife and work really hard toward having a relationship with each other that involves being cooperative parents to their children.”
You have to find new norms, new rules, new ways of relating to each other, says Ching. You have to start to trust each other again. Even if you don’t have children, working through your anger and hurt is still in your best interest.
“If people hold onto their anger or resentment, it takes a toll on them emotionally and physically,” says Ching. “Most people think they just married the wrong person. They don’t look at themselves and their role in the failed marriage. Part of a good divorce is saying, ‘What did I contribute in this marriage that it didn’t work out?’ instead of just blaming the other person.
“If you’re going to get a divorce, you might as well get some wisdom out of it. Learn about yourself and relationships and what it takes to maintain a good one.”
In a good divorce, says Ching, there is no revolving door, no unresolved rage. It may take a lot of work and many years to reach that point, but it’s possible.
Put your kids first. Give them a chance to grow up only knowing the love of their parents and not the hate between them. Emotional tension and conflict have detrimental effects on children, no matter what their age, and can damage individuals as well.
Yes, there is such a thing as a good divorce. It’s a daily choice you have to make.
Contact HPA at 521-8995 or visit www.hawaiipsych.org
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