No one walks down the aisle with divorce on his or her mind. Dreams of custody battles and financial frustrations don't typically accompany that uniquely romantic moment. Yet divorce comes, sometimes when you least expect it. And the heartbreak doesn't only impact the bride and groom — it's the children who end up scared and uncertain as their family falls apart.
So what can you do? When divorce comes unexpectedly to your doorstep, how can you give your children the best chance to heal? How do you allow them the chance to be kids, answer their tough questions and ultimately help them move on to a future defined by hope and security?
It is no easy task, but you can help your children one step at a time.
Shortly after becoming a single parent, I noticed that my daily life had changed, and peace was far from my home. There were days that I struggled just to make it through; I was exhausted and spent.
So I cried out to God for help, and the answer was clear. I needed to seek peace until I found it. On the surface, it didn't seem possible. But, step-by-step the turbulent atmosphere in my home began to change. Peace transformed our single-parent home as I took control of key areas of my life.
First, I connected to a healthy church. Two years ago, I made a commitment to attend every Sunday and midweek service.
Second, I connected with other single parents. In my geographic area, 50 percent of all families are single-parent families. With so many others in the same situation, it was easy to find others dealing with similar issues.
If you don't know how to find other single-parent families in your town, contact your church and the churches in your community to find out if they offer a single-parent group. You may be surprised to find one already exists. If there isn't one, contact your pastor and start one yourself — even an informal group that meets a few times a month. By starting a group, I found several other single parents — right in my own church. We understand each other's struggles, and we support each other.
If you have traveled by airplane, you have no doubt heard the airplane's safety messages: If there is a change in cabin pressure and you are traveling with children, put on your oxygen mask first. After securing yours, you should then put a mask on the children you are traveling with.
This concept applies to single parenting. When I wasn't rested or healthy, taking care of my children was far more difficult. I had to resist the urges to tackle the world in a day and pace myself. I needed to get enough sleep, eat healthy and exercise.
Though it seemed like too much to add to our schedule, I found several ways to incorporate exercise into my routine and include my children. Taking walks together, roller-skating with them, popping in a kid's workout video. When I took care of myself, taking care of my children was less stressful, bringing greater peace.
In a world that seems to be spinning faster, we are pulled in many directions, and so are our children. When too many demands tug on our families, stress increases and peace is harder to find. I learned I had to carefully control the number of commitments that came between my children and me.
I know many families that rush to soccer, baseball and piano lessons, and then return home exhausted. They are on the go nearly every day of the week. While none of these activities is bad, too many commitments exhaust the entire family. As I evaluated what really matters and let go of things that were less important, my family had down time to recharge.
In order to gain financial peace, I put myself on a budget. Statistics show that nearly all single parents struggle with finances. My budget has enabled me to accelerate my debt payments, and in just two years I have gone from nearly 50 percent of my budget being debt to nearly no debt at all.
I also found that by giving my children a small allowance and allowing them to save for a candy bar or toy, I spend much less on small items. Additionally, I have ended check out "Mommy, please, please, please" stand-offs that used to occur regularly. From their allowance my children save 10 percent for their church tithe, 40 percent for short-term items such as candy and 50 percent for longer-term savings. They are not allowed to touch the long-term savings unless they have saved for something over an extended period.
No doubt, single parents spend time with their children. But if you are like me, much of that time is spent getting done only what needs to get done. Your children spend most of their time on chores, housework, shopping, etc.
One way that we have scheduled special family time is by implementing family game night. Each Thursday we spend the evening after dinner playing games. In warmer weather we opt to go to the park for family time. Make time just for fun — together. Making time for fun together has strengthened my relationship with my children.
I have saved the hardest item for last. I realized, if I truly wanted peace to abound in my home, I had to forgive my children's father. Anger and unforgiveness was eating away the peace I needed to be a successful single parent. I read the book I Should Forgive, But . . . by Dr. Chuck Lynch, and it helped me understand forgiveness. As I asked God for help, and as I forgave my ex, I realized that forgiveness brings the purest form of peace I can ever find here on earth.
Are you struggling with daily life as a single parent and feeling robbed of peace? Evaluate your priorities, routines and practices to find where you can make changes. Start small. Make adjustments as needed. And never forget that with God, all things are possible.
At a minimum, biological parents who have divorced should contain their anger and conflict in order to cooperate and compromise on issues of the children's welfare.
At a maximum, the co-parents can strive to enforce similar rules and standards of conduct in each of the children's homes.
Most co-parents find it difficult to accomplish the former; only a few are able to achieve the latter. Nevertheless, co-parents should do everything they can to build cooperation between the two homes.
I'll let the children explain what a functional co-parental relationship means in practical, everyday terms.
In both these examples, children carried undue emotional anxiety and burden because their parents could not set aside their differences and act like adults.
An effective co-parent arrangement for Julie's parents would mean she could invite both parents to her recitals and not worry whether they were fighting or anxious. An effective arrangement for Terrance's parents would include their finding a way to talk rationally about their schedules instead of triangulating Terrance.
The bottom line is a system that allows children to be children and adults to be their parents.
1. Keep the goal in mind. Working with an uncooperative ex spouse is difficult, especially when you find it tough to give them any credit for change. On some level many ex spouses need to view the other as incapable of change. This leads you to look for evidence that the ex is the same and can't be trusted; you might also discount evidence to the contrary.
Keeping the goal in mind means doing everything you can to be a Cooperative Colleague and remaining open to the possibility that your ex spouse might change along life's way. When treating children who are members of a post divorce family or stepfamily, a standard part of my clinical work is to call ex-spouses for a consultation. I generally find them to be much less disagreeable than the other parent assumes they will be. In fact, they are often eager to improve the living conditions for their children. Remember, if you can grow up and change, so can they.
2. Be businesslike if necessary. Many co parents have learned how to handle difficult ex spouse relationships. Some use note cards while speaking on the phone to help keep them on task. Others avoid personal contact altogether, relying on answering machines, letters and e-mail. No matter what your avenue of communication, treat the contact as you would a business deal. Don't get personal, seek the win/win solution, and stick to discussing the kids.
Having a business mentality may help you to avoid being sidetracked when your buttons get pushed. For example, one good business principle that applies in many circumstances is trying to find the common ground. Whenever possible, agree with some aspect of what your ex is saying even if you disagree with the main point. "You're right, every teenager wants the independence a car provides; I'm just wondering if he should be rewarded with one right now given his poor grades." If you can't "close the deal" because of personal pain or attacks, politely take a time out from negotiations. Return to the table later when you have gathered yourself.
Visit www.SmartStepfamilies.com* for stepfamily resources, conference information and training events.
The following guidelines will help you help your children move back and forth between their two homes. All co-parents should seek to live according to these guidelines.* Consider how you might make each a reality in your situation. Remember that you are responsible for your contribution to how you and your ex interact. Change your part of the interaction even if you believe your ex spouse is to blame for the negative exchanges that have occurred in the past.
Visit www.SmartStepfamilies.com for stepfamily resources, conference information and training events.
*Adapted from Everett & Volgy (1994). Healthy Divorce. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Inc. and Visher & Visher (1996). How to Win as a Stepfamily. New York: Brunner/Mazel. Posted by permission.