When marriages turn toxic, divorce can actually help kids.
When I was a kid, divorced parents were given the evil eye. Heads shook, tongues clicked; divorcees were home-wreckers, selfish and unloving, they destroyed children's lives. Some churches banned them from services—apparently, even God wasn't a fan. The message to married couples: Keep your family intact by any means necessary.
Times have changed; today, nearly half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Whether divorce hurts or helps children depends on how it is handled by their parents, but one thing is certain: Staying in a toxic marriage is certain to cause children more damage than good.
Kids forced to endure loveless marriages and to tolerate emotional tension day after day bear the full brunt of their parents' dysfunctional relationship. They intuitively feel their parents’ unhappiness, and sense their coldness and lack of intimacy. In many cases, children blame themselves, feeling their parents' combative relationship is somehow their fault. In such cases, staying together “for the kids” is a cruel joke.
Here are four ways kids suffer through gloomy and despondent marriages:
1. Chronic Tension
Our parents’ relationship leaves an emotional imprint on us that never fades. A natural part of children’s development is internalizing both their parents. When parents are consistently at odds, their kids internalize those conflicts. Rather than feeling soothed or comforted when they are with both parents, they feel tense. Such ongoing tension can produce serious emotional, social, and physical ailments in children, such as depression, hopelessness, or chronic fatigue.
2. An Unstable Sense of Self
James Dean cried out to his bickering parents in Rebel Without a Cause, “Stop it! You’re tearing me apart!” because the war between parents does take root inside children’s minds. The strain eats away at their security and leaves them with little internal peace, putting them at odds with their own impulses. For example, they long to be loved, but reject closeness; they yearn for friends, but choose isolation; they will have great intellectual or creative abilities, yet sabotage their own efforts. The external conflict between their parents eventually becomes an internal battle with themselves that complicates their life and hinders their emotional development.
3. Fear of Intimacy
Children raised by battling parents have great difficulty getting close to others. Intimacy triggers the traumas they suffered when witnessing their parents’ dysfunction, so they avoid closeness to steer clear of getting hurt. If they manage to establish an intimate relationship, they remain cautious or guarded. When conflict arises, they’re most likely to flee or to reenact their parents’ conflicts with their own partner.
4. Mood Problems
Warring parents produce children who struggle with serious mood problems, such as dysthymia. These problems, if left untreated, may fuel personality disorders or substance abuse. At the root of these problems is a profound lack of hope. They learn at an early age to abandon optimism and expect the worst. Sadly, bad marriages cause kids to mature too quickly and lose out on their childhood.
Before You Consider Divorce
Ending a marriage is a brutal undertaking that should only be an option after all other efforts have been exhausted. Before you call your lawyer, here are a few suggestions:
Couples counseling works best when it teaches parents how to work through their conflicts without resorting to emotional warfare (see "Hate Me in a More Loving Way: A Couples Guide to Better Arguing"). It also gives ill-tempered parents a place to work through their differences rather than exposing their kids to them. The goal of couple’s therapy is to enrich communication and enhance intimacy. But be warned: Couples therapy can be treacherous, and the wrong therapist can spell doom for your marriage. Gather trustworthy recommendations, take your time, and interview several professionals. Make sure you both agree on the therapist you choose; otherwise, the therapy will become just another bone of contention.
Nothing stirs up unresolved childhood issues like marriage. Too often, couples have unrealistic expectations of marriage, and become disillusioned when they discover that good marriages take work. Before you blame all the problems in your marriage on your partner, get some help for yourself. A skilled therapist can help you identify problems from your past that are resurfacing in your relationship.
The best outcome of group work comes from sharing your feelings and discovering that you’re not alone. Hearing about other couples’ struggles, the difficulties they face, and how they work through them can bring much-needed inspiration and relief. It also provides you with a community of people who can inspire you with new choices in your marriage.
Zoe, a shaggy-haired thirteen-year-old with sad eyes, glares at me, arms folded and jaw set; a therapy hostage if I ever saw one. Parents exert their executive power when it comes to therapy, so I don’t expect Zoe to cooperate, especially during our first tumultuous session. To kids like Zoe, therapy is an insult.
Zoe, however, offers me a deal: “I’ll be in therapy with you only if you promise one thing. I want you to convince my parents to get divorced.” I was flabbergasted by her request, but it opened my eyes to something I had never considered—the positive side of divorce
Zoe suffered ongoing humiliation in public, in school, and in front of her friends due to her parents' combative relationship. The verbal abuse she witnessed her mother suffer at the hands of her father never let up. As a result, Zoe struggled with ongoing headaches, depression, and weight problems.
After meeting with her parents and witnessing their sneering contempt for each other, I understood Zoe’s request. If I could barely stand them for 30 minutes, what must it be like to live with them?
Within a year after her parent’s divorce, Zoe's depression lifted: She went from failing school to placing on the honor role. She also had her first boyfriend and became socially outgoing. In fact, I was amazed at how much better life became for everyone.
Submitted By: Samantha Willey, LMHP, NCC, Divorce Coach
When spouses agree to utilize the collaborative process to dissolve their marriage, the parties and their attorneys will sign a Participation Agreement. The Participation Agreement is a contract that sets forth the terms and expectations of the parties throughout the collaborative divorce process.
By signing the Participation Agreement, the parties are committed to the collaborative divorce process. This ensures that the spouses and their attorneys are devoted to a negotiated settlement.
While the specific language of a Participation Agreement may vary, there are essential components that you can expect to be included the document.
1. No Court Intervention
The Participation Agreement sets forth that the parties and attorneys agree that they will resolve all matters in dispute by settlement agreement only. Neither party nor counsel will seek Court intervention to resolve disputed matters.
2. Attorney Disqualification by Court Intervention
The Participation Agreement will clarify that the scope of the attorneys’ representation is to participate in the collaborative process. If at any point either spouse seeks Court intervention to resolve a disputed matter, both attorneys will withdraw from the case. At that point, the parties would need to seek new legal counsel. This requirement ensures that not only are both parties committed to the process, both attorneys are as well.
3. Release of Information
As part of the collaborative divorce process, the parties agree to release relevant and necessary information to all parties, including the lawyers and other team members, if appropriate. This is an important provision in the Participation Agreement because it allows for open, frank, and direct communication to resolves all issues from a solutions-based approach. Due to the collaborative nature of the process, the attorneys may learn of information that they might not have otherwise if the parties were engaged in traditional litigation.
4. Agreement of Full Disclosure
Parties participating in the collaborative process agree to open, honest, and transparent communication regarding all relevant issues. As such, the Participation Agreement will require the complete and full disclosure of any necessary information or documents.
5. Integrity, Professionalism, and Transparency
Parties to the collaborative divorce process commit themselves to resolving all matters without litigation. For the process to be effective, the Participation Agreement requires that the parties commit themselves to being open, honest, professional, and transparent in the process.
The Participation Agreement provides an important foundation for the success of the collaborative divorce process. If you’re interested in collaborative divorce, make sure you discuss with your lawyer the details of the Participation Agreement to make sure you fully understand the what is expected of each party and how the process will unfold.
By: Angela Lennon, collaborative attorney at Koenig│Dunne, PC, LLO. Contact Angela at www.koenigdunne.com or (402) 346-1132.
When a couple decides to divorce, they have many decisions to make. But it starts with how they will divorce. One of the ways to do divorce in Nebraska is through the collaborative process. In the collaborative process, the spouses literally choose not to declare war; they make the choice to be civil and professional with each other despite how they feel about each other. During the process, they will agree to take off their gloves and not fight. This doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean that the spouses will remain in control of their outcome. When spouses can maintain control over their case (with the assistant of advocates), they are better able to manage their finances, their parenting time and their living arrangements.
If you’ve decided to divorce, learn about the collaborative process in Nebraska. Join us for a Divorce Options Workshop every Second Saturday of the month. At this workshop, you’ll learn about how to take the war out of divorce and move on in a civil manner.
By: Tracy Hightower-Henne
Collaborative Practice Attorney
Divorce or the ending of a long-term relationship is a sensitive and personal matter. No single approach is right for everyone. Many couples find Collaborative Divorce to be a welcome alternative to the often destructive, and sometimes very expensive aspects of court proceedings.
If the following values are important to you, Collaborative Practice is likely to be a workable option for you:
- I want us to communicate with a tone of respect.
- I want to prioritize the needs of our children.
- My needs and those of my spouse/partner require equal consideration, and I will listen objectively.
- I believe that working creatively and cooperatively resolves issues.
- It is important to reach beyond today's frustration and pain to plan for the future.
- I can behave ethically toward my spouse/partner.
- I choose to maintain control of the divorce/separation process with my spouse/partner, and not relegate it to the courts.
If this path reflects your own thinking, we suggest that you talk to a Collaborative lawyer, Collaborative coach, child specialist or financial professional about your own situation. A Collaborative professional can help you decide if Collaborative Practice is the right alternative for you and your family.
Source: International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, www.collaborativepractice.com
By: Jaimee Johanning
Collaborative Practice Attorney
As a collaborative attorney, I truly believe that the best people to make decisions for a family is that family. When decisions are left up to a judge, both parties walk away feeling like they’ve lost. Beyond the parties feeling a sense of loss, the parties’ extended family members; friends; and, most importantly, their children are losers when a couple goes through a trial.
Years ago, I tried a case to a Judge confident that the court would make the right decision for my client and her family. My client, I’ll call her Alice, had the facts and the law on her side. She was well-educated, hardworking and a devoted parent. She also benefited from having good insight and a remarkable ability to articulate her position. How could Alice not get the relief that she was asking?
Alice’s story started when she moved from her hometown of Des Moines, Iowa to Omaha, Nebraska to complete her residency training. Although Omaha was not her first choice of locations for her residency program, she was happy about the prospects that Omaha held for her and her family. At the time of her move, four years prior to our trial, she had two children under the age of four and one on the way. Her husband, a computer software engineer, quickly found work in Omaha at a technology company. The family made an easy, quick transition to life in Omaha.
Alice intended to participate in a Hematology/Oncology fellowship for three years following the completion of her residency program. During her final year of residency, Alice started looking more closely at the fellowship programs. She began interviewing all around the country in hopes of finding a program that would be the perfect fit for her and her young family. During the months of interviewing for a fellowship position, her husband abruptly filed for divorce. This came as a complete shock to Alice. Sure, Alice and her husband had been having problems. But Alice assumed that their problems were caused by the stress of having three young children and both working demanding jobs. She didn’t realize that her husband was ready to call it quits and get a divorce. To make matters worse, Alice was served with the Complaint while at work.
Alice found me shortly after she was served with the Complaint for Dissolution. When she realized that her husband intended to prevent Alice from moving out of state with their children to complete her fellowship, she stopped applying to fellowship programs. Alice was crushed that the man that she married; the father to her children would be so cruel and heartless. Alice had worked her whole life toward her intended career and suddenly to Alice, it felt as though everything was crashing down around her. Alice couldn’t attempt to match with a fellowship program as there were no guarantees that her choice of location would be where she landed. There was no way that Alice was willing to live in a different state than her children.
Alice quickly attempted to get her husband to agree to use collaborative for their dissolution. Alice understood that they would maintain power over their case; it would cost them less; and they’d be able to formulate a plan for their family’s future together. Alice was a self proclaimed planner and the idea of not knowing anything about her future was beyond stressful. Alice knew that she and her husband were the best people to decide where their children would live; what parenting time each would enjoy; and how their marital estate should be divided. In addition, Alice was a private person and was less than thrilled about having a public record about her divorce and understood that collaborative offered more discretion than litigation.
Unfortunately, Alice’s husband refused to even consider the option of collaborative law. He was certain that litigation was the best way forward. He had already retained an attorney and that attorney was not trained in the collaborative model. Because collaborative is voluntary, Alice couldn’t use collaborative for her divorce. She’d have to go through the litigation route.
Alice’s case lagged on for nearly a year. During that time, Alice had to build a potential future for herself and her children back in Des Moines and also keep the options in Omaha open in case the court denied her request to return with her children to Des Moines. She attempted on multiple occasions to offer her husband a settlement that she thought was fair. At the very least, Alice hoped to keep the dissolution amicable for their children.
Alice’s husband and his attorney had other ideas. Alice and her husband appeared incapable of agreeing on anything. The couple had three separate temporary hearings. They were unable to agree on who should remain in the marital home, whether or not Alice should be able to spend Christmas with the children, and their temporary parenting schedule. Alice and her husband attempted mediation, as required, and reached a resolution as to custody and parenting time. However, Alice’s husband’s attorney objected to nearly whole plan. Certainly, I’m biased as I represented Alice but the whole time, it appeared as though Alice’s husband was incapable of making even the slightest compromise without his attorney’s blessing. This back and forth resulted in hours of litigation; thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees; and an immeasurable amount of damage to their co-parenting relationship.
Alice’s husband refused to even consider any possibility that would allow his children to return to live in Des Moines. Alice couldn’t fathom a future in Omaha where she had no family and few remaining friends.
In the end, trial to a Judge was necessary. The trial was full of baseless accusations and inflammatory statements aimed at painting a picture to the Judge that Alice had been absent from her children during her time in residency. Alice’s husband called his extended family members; neighbors; and mutual friends to testify that he was a better father than she was a mother. During trial, Alice’s husband’s real motive came to light. Alice’s husband mistakenly believed that Alice had an affair during their marriage. Alice was fuming. Not only was this belief false, her husband’s misconception had led to Alice’s emotional torture.
In collaborative, such accusations would likely have been vented and dealt with during the process. Regardless of whether Alice had an affair, the collaborative team would have worked with the couple to assist them in communicating with each other about their feelings and thoughts about this perceived act of mistrust.
At the conclusion of the trial, Alice and I felt good about her prospects. She had a great job opportunity, house and her extended family waiting for her in Des Moines. We both felt confident that the Judge would agree that Alice and her children should be allowed to relocate to Des Moines.
I knew the ramifications for Alice and her family was going to be life long. I was shocked when I got the court’s ruling months later. To my disbelief, the court ruled against Alice and granted the relief that her former husband had requested. Not only did the court’s ruling determined Alice’s parenting time with her three children; it also dictated in what city she would raise her children and what job she would take. The amount of impact that this Judge was afforded to make for Alice’s future is remarkable.
Although Alice felt like she had lost, so did her former husband and most importantly, her children. Alice and her former husband started the divorce process still speaking to each other and on relatively good terms. Remember, Alice didn’t even know that her husband wanted a divorce. After thousands of dollars; months of emotional turmoil; and the involvement of family members, neighbors and colleagues; Alice and her former husband were no longer able to have a meaningful conversation about anything. They both felt like they’d been wronged by the other. Their neighbors, friends and extended family members were also brought into the divorce. They took sides and interjected their opinions to the parties throughout. The biggest losers to this trial were Alice’s three young children. The effects of this protracted litigation on this couple’s children are mostly unknown. However, it is safe to say that the animosity that their parents feel toward one another will have ramifications for the rest of these kids’ lives.
Hopefully, in time Alice and her former spouse will learn to work together to co-parent their children. Had Alice and her former spouse been able to go through the collaborative process, the work toward co-parenting would have started from the beginning. The collaborative process would have also affording Alice and her former husband the opportunity to gain valuable insight about their relationship, their children and their future. The collaborative process is all about providing divorcing or separating couples with the tools necessary to co-parent.
If you know someone contemplating divorce, tell them about collaborative. You never know the impact it could have on someone’s life.
By Jodie Haferbier McGill Contact Jodie: Jodie@McGillLawOmaha.com
This radio interview from Florida explains how "the difficult process of ending an marriage is increasingly being helped through the collaborative approach":