5 Ways to Make Divorce Beneficial to Your Children
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When I asked my older daughter what she thought of my divorce from her father (she is 32), she said, "Do you really think I wish we had remained in that suffocating little four-person family?" But my daughter is a pro-divorce radical. Even as a teenager, when she dated boys from nuclear families, she was open about how dull their lives were compared to ours -- always the same few people sitting around after dinner, no step-brothers and sisters, half-brothers and sisters, foster brothers and sisters. Here we were with an extended family and none of the parents had had to defy the prescriptions of Zero Population Growth (she is strict about over-population). It was divorce that gave her the tribe of peers that she wanted, and she has never seen a downside.
I will say, though, that when I've defended divorce in the past -- notably in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, the response has been outrage. In America, you are never supposed to treat divorce with anything but appalled lamentations. No type of family is better than an intact nuclear family, ever. That millions of Americans have voted with their feet for other types of families is just a sign of cultural failure, or personal failure (the personal failure of the divorced ones, of course--the married ones have at least kept it together, even if...well, I won't go into the cost of keeping it together. I come to bury divorce, not to praise it. Amen.)
So, let me not praise divorce. Let me just offer a few suggestions about how to make it good for the children.
1. No United Front. People are quite frequently eccentric. Grown-ups quite frequently do not agree on basic issues like discipline of the children, the balance of power within the marriage, budgeting, running the household, sex, how the world works, etc. When they attempt to present a united front for the children, this can come to be, basically, a lie, as in "Daddy and I love each other very much, and we agree on everything, especially what is good for you." If the reality is that Daddy and I don't know what in the world we agree on or whether we actually love each other, then the dissonance between the presentation of the united front and what the child sees for him or herself can undermine the child's sense of reality. Once the parents are divorced, Mom and Dad are able to discuss with the children those things that they differ on. That doesn't mean either one can say, "Gee, your ___ is a full-fledged mindless jerk." A better approach: when the child says, "Why does ___ do that?", the parent says. "Well, here is how ___ sees it. Here are some reasons for that. It's possible to agree or disagree with that point of view, but I see it differently, and here's why." A steady diet of this, I think, allows the children not only to differentiate between the parents, but also to differentiate between lots of points of view, and to develop a point of view of his or her own. Most importantly, his or her sense of reality is not undermined by a determined effort on the part of the parents to deny reality.
2. More Siblings. I was an only child. I've known only children. From this experience, I do believe that the children should outnumber the parents. Parents are powerful. Children need friends and allies as well as playmates and antagonists. They need a cohort of peers to liven the place up and counterbalance the parents' ideas. Combined families often get bad reviews, but the family my children got when they traded away "the suffocating four-person" nuclear one is one that has benefited all of them. My daughters got step-siblings with whom they have lifelong relationships and a half-brother they love, and my son got an older step-brother who has been an excellent example for him, and a good friend. The only siblings I have are half-siblings. My nuclear family would have been an extra-suffocating threesome. Instead, I have an interesting brother and sister, in-laws, and darling nephews.