Getting Divorced & Telling the Kids - Relationship Advice
After 11 years of marriage my wife and I are getting divorced. She fell in love with someone else and wanted out. We were having what I thought was a great marriage. I was very happy and I thought she was too. But then she began seeing one of our friends behind my back. I discovered the affair a year ago and she apologized and we went to counceling together but the damage was done. She couldn't let go of him. The hardest part about this for me is that we have 2 daughters, 6 and 8 years old. I really don't understand how someone throws away their family. I have no idea how to talk to my girls about this. I'm hoping you can help me. My parents have passed and the family I have lives far away so they aren't in the immediate picture. My wife's mother and step father are a big part of our daughters' lives. They live ten minutes away and they see the girls all the time. My wife is very close to her mother, I would say they are best friends. She tells her everything. Obviously I have some hostility over what my wife did to me and my daughters. My wife's career is very important to her and she works very long hours. I do consulting work out of a home office so it's more logical for me to have my girls during the week. My wife has put up no fight about that. But this is all brand new. She moved out this weekend, moved in with her new boyfriend. It's especially hard because my daughters know him. They know him and his wife - yes he left his wife and family too - and they know his daughters and go to school with them. We haven't told my daughters what's going on yet. They know their mom moved out and they were fearful but my wife kept saying not yet, we can't tell them yet. Tonight they asked me when mommy was coming home. I didn't know what to tell them. I called my wife but she just keeps saying don't tell them anything. This is ridiculous. We are getting divorced. I am at a loss here. The girls are not stupid. They know something is going on. They aren't freaking out or anything. Right now they are good but they are beginning to ask questions. My wife says I can't say anything until her and I get a chance to sit down and discuss exactly what to say. But she won't make time for me. She's always very busy with her job, and all her free time she spends with her new boyfriend. I suggested tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day, and she just keeps saying no she's busy and she'll have to get back to me. I feel like I need to take matters into my own hands now. What should I do? And how do I say this to them?
I have to admit I was quite unnerved to get your email, Peter. In so many ways your situation parallels that of a friend of mine.
If you've read any of my Hubs you know that I don't do the kid thing at all. I don't have them, I don't like to be around them, but I was one once, and I went through a great deal of shit with my parents having a bad marriage. I lived it. I know what your daughters are feeling, I really do. When my friend went through her situation her and her husband asked me for help with how to explain it to their child, so all things considered, I feel like I do actually have some insights to share with you.
If your wife is resistant to do the right thing then it's up to you to do it, and to tell her what you expect her to uphold after you tell them. I realize there are 2 or 3 sides to every story and I'm only getting yours. But it seems you're the one with your head on straight about the welfare of the girls. There are alot of tells in your email, like how you're referring to the kids as "yours" and how even though your explanations are all over the place you always land at the same spot. It's clear your focus is sincere and you want to do what's best for your daughters even if you are carrying some anger. So here we go.
You have some very big external factors here. The girls go to school with your wife's boyfriend's daughters. So right there you have many possibilities of exposure to whatever it is the boyfriend and his ex wife are letting their kids know. That's a major variable. There's a good chance there's anger and lashing out and all kinds of flying shit in the air that their kids could be hearing, and thus relaying to yours.
Additionally you have the in-laws. Of course they're programmed to want to validate anything your wife does. Your wife and her mother being best friends makes that even stronger. And then top it all off with their presence in your kids' lives. Your daughters are close to these grandparents and get to see them often.
It shouldn't be about sides. It shouldn't be about justifying the actions of a cheater, or blame, anything else. It should just be about keeping them safe and sound and protected and loved. But you know as well as I do it's not always that clear to everyone.
So it's up to you, Peter, to keep it that way in your daughter's heads. One day they will be 16, then 21, then 30. One day they will know what happened and they may have questions, and even decisions to make. But that time is not now. Right now, no matter what, they get to be 6 and 8 years old, and they get to be raised thinking everyone around them loves them.
When you became a father, you gave up the right to think about yourself first. You don't get to be petty or hurt or manipulative with them. You have a greater responsibility than that. You have to make them feel safe. You will tell them how to feel by demonstrating that everything is fine. You can't speak to them with anger and bitterness and tell them their mother left you, or as you put it above, "how does someone throw away their family." You have to be better than that. You have to smile, and be relaxed, and calmly tell them everything is fine, and mom and dad have made some decisions about who's going to live where, and it's all good.
This is most important during the transition period. You can't be expected to put on a fake smile and lie about being in pain. But you're going to have to for a while at least, until some time has passed and the girls have adjusted to the changes.
- Kid's minds don't work the way a logical adult's mind does. When a child thinks one parent doesn't love them as much as the other, they don't automatically intelligently decide to gravitate toward the parent that demonstrates more love. Sometimes the information twists inside of them. They may instead gravitate toward the parent that they perceive doesn't want them. They may feel they have something to prove to that parent. They may substitute the lack of love from a parent for the attention they can get from boys. They may pull stunts like getting in trouble or hurting themselves to get the attention of the parent they think pays the least attention to them. They may think there is something wrong with them and that's why one parent doesn't demonstrate great love. This could result in their not caring about themselves, withdrawing, acting out, or punishing themselves,
If you try to get your daughters to think that their mother threw away the family, or that you love them more than she does, it could backfire in a way you've not even considered.
It would be a very good idea if you could also get with your wife and her family, and ask your wife to explain this to her boyfriend and maybe he could work with his ex on this. Agree not to place blame when talking to the kids, if you can. And if possible you should all agree on your terms. If you are calling your wife's new partner her boyfriend, but she's not admitting that to her daughters, that's a problem. If she's saying he's just a friend and you're saying he's the boyfriend, the kids are going to realize something is up, something is wrong, somebody's lying. Agree to use the word divorce, or not. Agree to use first names instead of titles. Whatever it is you decide, just try to keep everybody on the same page.
Inevitably, there will be questions. A daughter will ask why something is the way it is, or what happened. Just like with Santa, once you tell, you can't untell. At some point your kids are old enough and ready to know who is really leaving presents under the tree. This is going to be similar. You'll know how much you can say, and when. Just remember: casting your wife in an unfavorable light doesn't make you the favorite parent. It may really backfire, so be careful.
Good luck, Peter. Thanks for writing.