WE know a slew of friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives who have gone through divorce, nothing can prepare us for what it’s like to go through our own divorce, as a mother or father, to our own children. When divorce becomes part of our future it feels wholly different and painfully unique. What is your divorce story and what does that story contribute to your children’s future?
Kerry Lusignan writes, “Rituals, rhythm, and rules. Your family is a microculture. The unique fingerprint of you and your spouse. The weaving of bones. Divorce, in turn, is the dissolution of such. The severing of a limb to save the tree. A metamorphosis that is characterized more by coming undone than by becoming. For the first time, you and your partner will have to venture into something together that is, by definition, designed to be done alone. You will go through divorce alone, together.”
When a couple with children decides to divorce, thoughtfulness in communicating and parenting is essential. Giving thought to your divorce story is a good beginning.
Divorce influences our physical and emotional experience of life and events. If we see our spouse as our enemy, our body will respond accordingly.
If we begin to see our spouse as our enemy, we should be alert to the fact that our bodies will respond to the presence of the other as a threat and, in turn, our heart rates can increase to over 100 beats per minute at the sight or sound from that threat. Presence in the same room may not be necessary. Our physiology may respond at the momentary thought of the other with a rise in heartbeat, flushing, and sweat.
Diffuse physiological arousal (DPA) is the term that refers to a combination of bodily stress responses. In addition to an accelerated heart rate, DPA includes an increase in the release of stress hormones. This arousal and release makes thinking, hearing, and communicating clearly very difficult. Our brain is designed to detect threat and the perception of threat is influenced by our divorce story.
Divorce is challenging physically, psychologically, and emotionally. It is also a time when you must make critical decisions.
Divorce often involves becoming a single-parent for 50% of the time and living alone for the other 50% of the time, planning for financial reorganization and change, sometimes we need to relocate our home, and always there is the need to navigate the grief and loss of the dream for the life of your family.
It can feel as if life is unraveling faster than you can even redesign, let alone reconstruct, it. Your resilience is within but you may have yet to feel it’s slightest wave.
John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, writes that children exposed to “great marital hostility” have markedly higher levels of stress hormones than children of parents with stable marriages. The research has intimated that a similar distinction may appear between children of parents who divorce amicably versus those whose parents divorce with great animosity.
Hostility fosters anxiety in children. Getting divorced does not automatically disconnect a child’s attunement to their parent’s relationship. To the contrary, some children become more attuned than ever to the slightest interactions between parents, noticing looks and glances or breathing patterns that we believe are invisible.
A child’s nervous system remains impacted by family patterns. Lusignan writes, “You are all still interconnected on a subterranean level, and their (the child’s) body is screaming “stop,” even if they never utter a word to you.”
Responding thoughtfully to your child’s subtle or dramatic manner of communicating is critical. Children may, for example, experience stomachaches at bedtime or not want to go to school. They may have a headache right before softball practice. Older children may want to know details and claim that they will feel better if they can understand what happened between mom and dad.
Seeing our children hurting feels painful and wrong. We want and believe it is our job to make things better instantly. Amidst wanting to take away our children’s pain and fears, we must remember that children will need to mourn as well. Mourning is not a process that can be rushed. Try to avoid responding to your child’s pain and anxiety by offering a distraction or attempting to cheer them up. The pain from divorce is not immediately repairable.
Gottman advocates Emotion Coaching. He offers that we must first attune our awareness to our child’s feelings. “Notice their body language, their tone of voice, and their eyes. What do you imagine they might be saying (or not saying) in their actions and gestures?”
Approach your child’s emotional terrain with curiosity. It is easy to believe that children will respond as we do because we feel viscerally that they are a part of us. Remember, our children do not feel and think the same way we think and feel, even if they use similar words or actions to convey their experience.
Let your child know that you see their struggles and challenges and offer to help them to name their emotions using their words. With Emotion Coaching you comfort your child by showing them that they are seen and understood. They too will have a divorce story.
Lusignan explains, “The heartache of divorce is essential as air. Cultivating the ability to breathe through it and mourn is both the last and first stage of ending one story (your life as the family you were) and starting the next (your life as the family you are becoming)… There is .. compelling evidence to suggest that the narrative you write, speak, and live from will have a profound impact on the adult your child has yet to become.”
The narrative surrounding your marriage and divorce, your divorce story, will evolve as you gain new perspectives and insights. You will feel your wisdom expanding.
Allow for flexibility in your narrative because within it can be found compassion for ourselves and for our former partner.
Lusignan shares the light we may see shine, “Here is where divorce presents its most significant opportunity—a window of time where the stars align in such a way that you have a chance to shift the future. Create a constellation that serves as a map of where you have been, how you have gotten here, and where you wish to go in the days and years to come. It’s an atlas that will serve not only as a touchstone for you, but as a beacon for your children.”
If you are divorcing and parenting simultaneously know you are not alone.