During my separation, I read a book about how to help kids through divorce. The general wisdom in this book regarding what to tell the kids was: 1) Don’t blame the other parent (good advice) and 2) Tell the kids that the reason for the divorce is because mommy and daddy are having “big people problems” (bad advice). I tried this with my kids and it didn’t work. Well, okay, the first part did work. I worked hard to present their mother in a good light even though that was far from reality. That helped the kids not have to pick sides, and it respected the image they had of their mother.
The second bit of advice was lousy. All it did was leave the kids confused and scratching their heads. Telling them their mother and I were having “big people problems” didn’t conform with the reality that they lived. Their day-to-day life was one where they saw mommy and daddy getting along. We were cooperative with each other, rarely fought, and seemed happy. To them, life was good. So, the day that they I told them that their mother and I were getting a divorce came as a complete and total surprise to them. When I tried the “big people problem” line on them, they weren’t buying it. They wanted to know exactly why mommy and daddy were getting a divorce. In their mind, there had to be some significant reason their utopia was ending.
They were right, there were serious reasons why mommy and daddy were getting a divorce. And while these reasons certainly were due to “big people problems,” disclosing them to the kids would shatter the image they had of their mother and create further pain. They kept asking “Why, Daddy, why?” and I kept giving them variations of the “big people problems” line. Nothing I said seemed to satisfy their desire to erase this question mark from their lives.
One day I was expressing this problem to a single-parent friend. She told me that she had experienced the same problem with her kids. With some trial and error, she came up with a solution that worked. She told her kids that when two people get married, they make a promise to love each other for life. She went on to tell them that for some reason, that she didn’t totally understand, their father decided he could no longer keep that promise. That did the trick. The endless questioning ceased. The question of “Why?” was answered with a very reasonable answer that makes sense to every kid: bad things happen when someone breaks a promise.
I asked the next obvious question which was: “Didn’t they ask you what promise Daddy had broken?”. She said, “Of course! I told them that they would have to ask their father since he would better be able to answer that question.” While this may seem like passing-the-buck over to the other parent, it does at least put the situation into perspective. The other parent will typically be grateful that you didn’t drag them through the mud, or give details of their offenses. For the kids, a big hole in the puzzle of their life has gotten somewhat smaller as some of the pieces have dropped into place.
When I gave this “broken promise” explanation to my kids, the questioning stopped. They almost seemed to relax. They finally had an answer that aligned with the reality they were experiencing: mommy made some kind of major decision because she moved out. This satisfied their need to understand why the divorce happened and helped them to accept it and start to move forward. The “broken promise” became the reason for the divorce shifting the focus away from the details that caused the promise to be broken. While the “broken promise” explanation may not the perfect solution in every circumstance (there isn’t one), it does give the kids something to hold onto that jives with their reality and sense of justice.