Divorcing spouses often believe that their children deserve to know “the truth”. Many of my clients over the years have asserted this proposition. This widely held belief can in fact be helpful to children in some cases. As a general rule however, within the context of a divorce, truth is relative, often complicated, can be terribly damaging and arguably abusive if delivered with anger, malice or even tears. What children need to know varies from case to case and age group to age group. What they do not need to know in almost any circumstance are the nasty details of alleged or real infidelity, other inappropriate behavior, financial concerns, irrelevant information about family members or anything else that undercuts their sense of security and stability.
Children need to know that they are loved and will be taken care of. Older children need to know where they will live and how much time they will be spending with each parent. Virtually every child has friends who come from divorced families. Children are often better versed than their parents about schedules, how to reach friends with two homes etc. While the mere mention of the word divorce is upsetting to most children, it is how the message is delivered and how the adults in their lives conduct themselves that will determine just how frightening and unsettling the process will be in the long run. Too often parents and extended families are so wrapped up in their anger at the other spouse that they unintentionally cause serious distress to the children and involve them in subtle and not so subtle ways that are harmful.
If a parent has been unfaithful, the children do not need to be told. If a parent has spent too much money or gambled it away, the children do not need to be told. If a grandparent, aunt or uncle has a brush with the law the children do not need to be told. The only reason a child might need to know the details of any family problems is if there is a safety issue. It is almost impossible to conceive of a benefit to telling a child that while daddy or mommy was away on a business trip he or she engaged in an extra marital affair. Whether a marriage deteriorates over time or in one loud explosion, the children should not be either parents’ confidant, shoulder to cry on, sounding board or co-conspirator.
The demise of a marriage can be caused by both parties equally, unequally or by one party almost entirely. The emotions are intense and it is hard to imagine that as adults we have to have the strength to handle our own issues and also reserve patience, strength and optimism for the children. It is unfair. It is overwhelming. How can anyone who has been so wronged be expected to hold it in, put on a brave face and continue to be supportive of a relationship with the other person for whom one no longer has any respect? For the kids, that’s how. Join a gym, get a counselor, join a support group, religious group or whatever it takes to control the overwhelming feelings of anger, betrayal, disappointment or hate and to the best of your ability, keep the children out of it.
It might be satisfying in the short term to have the children on your side but in the long term this may not be what is good for them. What is good for them is the opportunity to grow up with parents who can at least get along. What is good for them is to allow them to make their own assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of their parents and to develop those relationships as best suits them. Ultimately, what is good for them is good for you even if, in the heat of a divorce, this is impossible to imagine.