It’s tragic whenever a marriage comes to a point where two people are struggling to coexist. When a relationship becomes toxic, dangerous, emotionally exhausting or so contentious that two people can’t have a civil conversation, separation can function like a time-out. It gives a couple time to think, pray and sort out what needs to change for things to get better.
It can also be used to work on serious martial problems like addiction, abuse, and high conflict if a couple is committed to the process of doing what is necessary to correct problems. Other times it is used to begin the process of divorce.
Telling the children that you have decided to separate is never easy, but a few guidelines can help the process:
1) Timing is important. If you tell them too far out of the separation, they become anxious. Time to a very young child can seem like forever. If you wait until right before it happens, they won’t have enough time to adjust to all the changes and process what is happening. So think through the timing of the conversation–not too far out to make it feel like an eternity, but enough time to deal with the changes that will come.
2) Both spouses should tell the children together. It is important for your children to see that you will work together when it comes to them. Offer comfort and be unified in your approach and message. It helps to rehearse what you will say ahead of time.
3) Focus on telling the news and control the way you behave. This is not the time to re-engage in blame and upsetting behavior. Stay civil.
4) Don’t give too much detail. The younger, the less detail is needed. Older children will ask questions that you will need to answer, but answer with the fact that you have not been getting along and have tried to work things out, but more has to change. If you have been in high conflict, this will not surprise your children even though they will be upset.
5) Don’t lie but don’t throw each other under the bus. They don’t need to be involved in the sordid details of your problems. Again, avoid blame and intimate details of your problems.
6) Reassure them that you married for love and they were born in love. Add that you are sad about the break up because marriage is supposed to be a life commitment.
7) Reinforce as many times as possible that this is not their fault. Tell them the adults are having problems that the kids didn’t create or can fix. Even with assurance, children still feel they may be at fault so this will be a repeated message.
8) Let them know that loving children doesn’t stop or end. While adults may split up, parents and children love each other for life.
9) Give some details of immediate plans. Who is moving out? When they will see that person? What does this mean for the near future?
10) Be age-specific in your approach. Preschoolers need assurance of love, seeing both parents, and as much consistency as possible; School age children have better cognitive understanding and may be more afraid of what happens when people don’t get along. You will see more emotion–sadness, anger, upset that needs lots of support and comfort; Teens will feel the unsettling of this and feel a lack of security during a changing time in their development; Older teens may have opinions and express their anger more directly and wonder how it will impact their lives with peers, money, etc. Let the child direct questions and answer honestly without disparaging the other, giving reassurance that you will try your best to work out issues that are troublesome to them. No matter your marital status, you will work hard at co-parenting.