Ask a Therapist: How Can I Keep a Divorce From Impacting My Children?

by Roy Fisher

Question: I’m going through a divorce and my soon-to-be ex-wife does anything she can do to get under my skin. Every chance she gets she tries to take me back to court for something. She seems to enjoy making my life miserable. We have 3 children and I am worried what impact this will have on them. If I try for sole custody, that makes me look like I’m trying to keep the children away from her. I want them to have a relationship with their mother, but I am concerned about what she says or does around them. Any suggestions on how not to lose my mind? I’m really worried about how this will affect the children.

Dear Reader,

I do not know you, your wife, or the nuances of your relationship. I am not an attorney and am not qualified to give legal advice. I have spent a significant amount of time with couples navigating divorces, custody arrangements, and visitations though. The process is often set up to be adversarial, with each side focused on “winning.” If the focus is on winning, I wonder what we lose of ourselves. 

Going through a divorce, even an amicable one, can be tough. People don’t get married to end up getting a divorce. In a perfect world, the divorce process signifies the termination of the relationship. Couples realize, for whatever reason, that they no longer want to be together. Each of them will need to go through the emotional journey of saying goodbye to the life they imagined when they walked down the aisle. Lastly, they divide up the marital assets and go about their way. When children are involved, the process looks different. The divorce does not signify the end of a relationship, instead, it is a redefining of a relationship. Regardless of what happened to the marital relationship you both remain parents. When children are involved, the system provides a process to determine custody, visitation, etc. This process is set up to give both parents time with the children. 

I’m curious about what you are fearful of? What is your motivation for sole custody? Is it about what’s best for the children? Or is it about winning? If it is about the children’s safety, does it matter what others think? I say this repeatedly … at the top of the list of being a parent is protecting their children. Unless you are prepared to provide evidence of your concerns, the children will be spending time with their mother. 

Whether or not you ultimately choose to pursue sole custody, here are some things to keep in mind. 

  1. First and foremost, keep your focus on your children. It will be challenging, but your children can give you an anchor during the storm.

  2. Do not, under any circumstances, bad mouth your ex-wife in front of the children. This is a sure-fire way to pit children against parents. The last thing you want is your children picking sides.

  3. No need to be a “Disneyland” parent … do not think your job is to be the “fun” parent.

  4. Children thrive with structure. Have a routine and stick with it. Having an idea of what is coming next is incredibly soothing for children of all ages.

  5. Maintain the expectations you have for your children. Kids ultimately learn what behavior is accepted at each household. If mom’s household is drastically different than yours, then it is that much more important for your expectations not to change. Ohhhh, and they will be mad at you for this, sorry.

  6. Check in on your children, often — ask them how they are doing. You are not fishing for information about their time with their mother but how they are managing their new normal. You want to keep the line of communication open.

  7. Take care of yourself … the suggestions made above will be difficult. If you don’t take care of yourself it will be harder to manage the difficult times.

I don’t like being the bearer of bad news, but there’s no avoiding your children being affected by this. During a divorce, it is not unusual for children to express feelings of anger, sadness, hurt, etc. and direct these feelings at their parents. Don’t be surprised if/when you are blamed. This is the time to focus on the 7 items above and remember that being a parent is about playing the long game. 

Rather than focusing your energy on trying to figure out your ex-wife, try and imagine the relationship you want to have with your children in 2 years. By doing this, you can start acting in ways that will get you on the path to that relationship. 

The divorce is a moment in time, you will be their father forever. 

I hope this has been helpful.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

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Featured Image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama is licensed under CC BY 2.0. View a copy of this license here.

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