Lately I’ve been meeting a lot of women who are on the verge of leaving their marriages, have left their marriages or have been left behind, or are in the throes of an annulment or legal separation. It’s an arduous journey, not one for the faint of heart.
It’s familiar terrain to me, having walked that road at one point in my life.
In family court a few years ago, one of the very first things that caught my eye as I sat waiting for the judge to appear, was a poster that hung on the wall of her sala: The 10 Commandments for Divorce, written by a child of divorce.
The poster was strategically positioned, such that if you sat in the witness box, the commandments stared you in the face. And in the Philippines, where the waiting period for an annulment can run from two to four years, you would have known these rules by heart.
Those commandments were very helpful in the years that followed. I tweaked several of them to adopt to Philippine society and adjusted the rules based on experiences, mine and others’.
Let peace reign
1. Do not fight or bicker where the children can hear you. Do not add to your child’s grief by letting him or her see you fight. You’ve already decided to go your separate ways, so try to let peace reign.
2. Never engage in trash talk about the other parent in front of your child. It results in animosity, resentment and anger; it also divides loyalties. No matter how lousy you think your ex was as a partner or parent, your child does not need to hear about it.
3. Remind your in-laws or close family friends not to trash talk, either. There is a simple but powerful statement that every couple going through an annulment needs to remember: “If it’s not your story to tell, then don’t tell it.”
Couples will often move in the same social circles, so word will get around. That it comes from a “trusted” or “reliable” source, such as an in-law or a family friend, will lend “credence” to it, even if the story is entirely untrue. Bear in mind that every story has two sides.
4. Tell your friends not to take sides. Just because a couple separates doesn’t mean they also need to divvy up their friends. I will always appreciate and remember those friends who keep me in their circle, and who made an effort to reach out long after the marital bonds had been dissolved.
5. Be very mindful of your child’s needs when you begin dating again. Dating is inevitable for most men and women. However, to minimize the grief, make sure to take time by yourself for a few years before diving into the dating scene again. Do not force your child to like or accept the person you are seeing. Let them adjust at their own pace. Among widows and widowers, studies have suggested a two-year waiting period at the minimum, lest they make decisions while they are vulnerable and not quite thinking straight.
6. Do not break down in front of your children or share your burdens with them. Breaking up is hard, but it is always harder on the children. This was a decision you or your partner had to make. Keep the children out of it, and hold yourself together because your children watch you.
Your job is to make sure that your children know that you love them, that you will both be there for them. If you need comfort, seek trusted friends or older family members when you feel overwhelmed.
7. Do not change the children’s routine too much. Custody issues can be tricky but no matter what transpired (unless we’re talking about any form of abuse), the children must be allowed access to the parent who does not have custody. The terms of engagement must be made clear and followed to the letter. The children need to feel “at home” regardless of which parent they are with or which home they are staying in.
8. Talk about it with the children in age appropriate language. Children must know and feel that the separation is not their fault. Talk to them about what will change, what will stay the same. And always assure them of your love.
9. Hold the children’s birthdays, major school events and other holidays sacred. Family is still family, no matter what form it takes. Even though both our children are now above the age of 18, we continue to be present for birthday dinners. Christmas dinners are celebrated by the four of us. During milestones such as graduations, we are both present. Rituals give the children a sense of safety and familiarity.
10. Behave like an adult as much as possible. There are reasons for every separation, divorce or annulment that will be no one else’s business but yours and your ex’s. One party may remain stuck in harmful patterns forever for lack of insight. The key is to keep healthy boundaries and to respond to the other in a respectful way.
Work hard to ensure that the negative issues or patterns of one generation aren’t passed on to the next. In the wake of a separation or annulment, that, and unconditional love, are the best gifts you can give your children.
I’m opening a new five-week workshop for women who are grieving the loss of a marriage through separation or annulment. “Happy Even After” will help you navigate the journey of solo parenthood, help you grieve your losses and empower you to find a new beginning. Please e-mail [email protected] for information on classes and to reserve a slot.
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