The Divorced Dad
Dear Dr. V,
I’m finding myself in a tough situation. My wife of 19 years and I are getting divorced, after four solid years of being just awful to each other. We’ve got two kids, and I feel terrible for putting them through this, but I would have felt just as bad if we stayed together, as I don’t think anyone could have been happy in our house while we were married. I feel like this sums up my life right now, I’m doing the wrong thing no matter what I do. We’re trying to handle this with the least amount of lawyer-involvement as possible, but it’s rough. We can’t communicate. I feel completely overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to damage my kids any more than the divorce has hurt them already. I feel trapped and alone. I really feel like I’m in Hell.
Please accept my condolences and sincerest empathy on the loss of your marriage. I can only begin to imagine how great the emotional load you’re carrying right now is. Despite the bleakness of your situation, please know that I, as an outsider, find it heartening that you seem more concerned with the welfare of your children than with settling any kind of vindictive scores with your ex-wife.
However, from how you describe things, it is perhaps for the best that you and your wife have separated. I won’t mince words though, as rough as things may be for you right now, the trauma your children are going through is quite possibly the worst emotional hurt and loss they’ve yet to experience in their lives.
I don’t say this to put salt in the wound, but to emphasize how important it is that you remain vigilant in minimizing the pain your children endure through this process. Notice I did not say eliminate, but minimize. I’m reminded of the cartoon image of a doctor about to give a patient an injection, saying, “This is going to hurt.” Like the injection, the divorce may be an ultimate good, but it is simultaneously a destructive, negative element. There’s a quote I’ve heard bandied about but can’t find the source for, it applies here: “The right thing to do isn’t always the right thing to do”.
You and your ex-wife will have to navigate your own way through your differences and I hope, one day, find closure and resolution. This parting sounds like it was a long time coming, and I’m sure there are many factors and issues that contributed to it, without one of you being solely at fault. A friend of mine divorced not too long ago, and she and her spouse were actually able to get through it with a minimum of acrimony and hurtfulness. Their philosophy was that they entered the marriage together, and they would leave it together. This may sound a bit oxy-moronic at first, but it makes sense if you think about it.
Many people view divorce as a battle or war, but if you really consider it, it’s the end of the war. The divorce could be seen as two warring factions brokering a peace deal, the deal being not to disengage from each other to prevent further hostilities. If you look at it this way, then would it not make the most sense to try and work together to make the process happen as quickly and smoothly as possible, so that the two of you can move ahead in your respective lives? It might not be a bad idea to pursue professional mediation, which could help facilitate the process without the rancor associated with going to court.
To be honest, my concern is less for you and your wife and more for your kids, and from your letter, I think that’s something we have in common. Your children probably feel powerless, afraid, angry, hurt and host of other emotions. I cannot stress how important it is that you continuously engage with them and inquire about how they’re feeling, and be prepared to honor and respect those emotions. You are going to have to act as an emotional container for them. By this I mean you’ll need to allow them to express whatever it is they’re feeling without correcting what might appear as misconceptions on their part regarding the actual how and why of the divorce; there will be time enough for that as they get older.
If this is something you don’t think you can handle right now, then perhaps a trusted relative could do the job for you. What’s important is that your children are given a venue to express their feelings and know that they are heard and respected, lest they start to feel like, and actually become “collateral damage.”
Let them know you are aware of the ordeal they are going through, and, of course, that they are in no way to blame for the divorce. It’s important for them to know that both you and your wife are concerned for their well-being (though, of course, this may be something you and your wife need to tend to separately). If it’s feasible I would also urge you to consider bringing in some kind of professional help, if not for you, then at least for your kids.
It also goes without saying that bad-mouthing your wife to your kids is completely unacceptable, as I hope you already know. Also, it would be inappropriate and cruel to use them as messengers or go-betweens for you two. It’s often said that divorcing parents should try to avoid “putting their kids in the middle.” This is folly, as by definition the kids are in the middle — they are the one thing you two will always share in this life. However, as with minimizing the pain for your children, this is another aspect of the divorce you must strive to diminish as much as possible.
What the whole rotten situation boils down to is this: though you are no longer your wife’s husband, you still are and always will be your children’s father. I realize the road that lies ahead of you is far from an easy one. However, if you can make that your mantra, really engrave in your heart and mind that you are their father before you are an “ex-husband,” and make every effort to let your thoughts and actions reflect that, then I do believe you can conduct yourself through this time of hardship in a way that honors both your children and yourself.
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