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A Note to Parents Considering Separation/Divorce

Conflict typically brings both pain and change in its wake. And no one gets through a divorce untouched. Yet, I wonder what might be possible if we allowed divorce to be viewed from a perspective other than loss? Is divorce such a catastrophic loss, in part, because we as individuals and as a society focus so often upon the loss?

Families are always in transition. Certainly, it is most apparent when a family changes its physical form and begins living in more than one residence. Yet, relationships have a material, everyday part and also an eternal aspect. From this perspective, relationships never end. They simply change form. Why do we so often assume that such a change will have tragic results? At least for some, might divorce not be an opportunity for growth?

As a family mediator, I have experienced an aspect of numerous divorces. Even as client's relationships are being reframed in ways that seem frightening and painful, many have found ways to mutually attend to the needs of one another and of their children.

Parents naturally worry about how their children will be affected by their separation/divorce. As reported in the research and by many of my clients and colleagues, children show amazingly diverse responses to the separation/divorce ranging from devastation about the changes to relief or neutrality about the situation. In many families, the diversity is present in each child at a different moment. Sometimes each child in a family will have different reactions.

While children initially respond to a divorce in fairly typical ways according to their developmental stages, several factors contribute to how children will react to their parents' divorce. For example, children are likely to respond more favorably when the divorce decision is mutual, developed more rationally and over a longer period of time. Additionally, more parental cooperation generally results in easier acceptance by the children.

One of the most interesting and optimistic observations I have made out of my own separation/divorce, is that my children seem free to experience whatever "is," while I still sometimes struggle with mainstream ideas about relationship. For them, living in two houses often means more, not less-- more "stuff" and more people who love them. They are not confined by ideas of how loving relationships "should" look. They seem to simply know the experience of being loved.

What if divorce were understood as both an ending and a beginning? What if this kind of family transition were expected to result in a healthy restructuring of relationships? Might we then be free to discover gifts in both the marriage and the divorce? None of us has perfected the art of loving. Yet, might it be possible to create, in at least some cases, a loving divorce, that results in growth rather than loss?

Divorce can be forged into a creative or a destructive act. It can be a revelation when we look backward, and discern the hidden forces that have influenced our lives, and look forward to the possibility of beginning again. If we can remain attentive and vulnerable, divorce allows us to stand on a threshold from which we may observe the dissolution of our old patterns and the birth of a new way of being. This, I believe, can be an invaluable gift to our children.

In an effort to find relief from pain and uncertainty, we may flee immediately to professional advocates to settle property, custody and financial matters. While this may produce a settlement, without the opportunity for insight, we deny ourselves a potential treasure. A premature delivery from our anxiety, may be at the expense of the epiphany we need to begin again. As in the story of the larvae in the cocoon that when released prematurely by outside intervention, becomes a butterfly whose wings are crippled, the struggle is painful to endure and painful to observe, but it is necessary if we want to someday fly.

If the couple has the courage to explore the swirling chaos, look honestly at the dynamics of the relationship and at themselves, they can create a transition that models for their children compassion and forgiveness. At best, this requires a lot of work, and an enormous amount of courage.

After the economic and psychological properties have been justly separated, there is a new relationship to be made. How will the children be cared for? What kind of story will they, and the other members of the community be told about the marriage? Must the story be a tragedy? Might it not be a story of love, growth, and compassion?

A new relationship can be created between former spouses that reveals to their children and their community a transformation. While the parents are no longer married, some can continue to mutually care for their children. Eventually, an ease can develop that results from a deep understanding of self and other, and demonstrates an attitude and experience of mutuality and love. While admittedly unusual, I know it is possible.

Beth D. Danehy, MA
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