My son was having a play date with a little girl in a pink dress. They sat in the dirt under the trees, making “traps” out of leaves to catch the fat, wet snails lumbering about the lawn. I stood watching them with the little girl’s mom. “They have so many friends with divorced parents,” she said. “My older daughter asked, ‘Are you and dad ever getting divorced?’ I don’t know what to say. Of course I don’t think we’ll ever break up. But they see it all around them.”
She also didn't know how to characterize the divorced parents of their friends. If she was too upbeat, if she normalized divorce too much, wouldn’t that make them worry more that she and her husband might split?
I can’t really make a black-and-white statement about us never divorcing when it’s so obviously a fact of life.
Divorce does create a ripple effect in the lives of those around us. Our friends not only have to explain divorce to their children but also figure out which night we have our children when trying to make a play date, or ask at which house to drop off a child. If we’re fighting, that toxicity can spread to the play date, the classroom, the soccer field.
A bad divorce can even impact the bottom line—ours, and that of our employer. Check out this eye-opening paper about how the bad divorce can hurt productivity by Rebecca Love Kourlis, the Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. This is another reason to work on a cooperative uncoupling, and for policies that channel more resources to help parents un-marry in peace.
Like my friend, many married parents struggle to honestly reassure their children about traditional lifelong marriage when family life has changed so dramatically, and continues to do so. The divorce rate in general remains high—just under 50 percent—and it has tripled in the past 20 years among the grandparent set. There are more single parents by choice, more same-gender families, even more older parents than ever before; I'm closer in age to the grandparents of some of my son's friends than the parents. Then there’s this stat we constantly hear: more than 40 percent of babies born in the U.S. today have unwed parents.
Today's evolving "typical" family makes it easier for our children to see their own divorced family as “normal,” but this same diversity can make it harder for kids with married parents to feel secure about that state.
Those of us with decent divorces can help spread a sense of stability and calm in our communities by treating our ex with respect, upholding our intention to minimize conflict, and demonstrating a healthy, happy, unmarried family life. Seeing families continue, even outside of marriage, shows that parents can love their children and even each other in a variety of family structures.
Here’s what I think my married friend might say to her children.
Your father and I will always be your parents. We love you and always will. Nothing will ever change that. We see divorce around us, and I know it’s scary to imagine that your parents could break up. But we will never leave you or your sister, fight over you, or ask you to choose one of us over the other. We will always be be your parents. Family is for life.
Sesamestreet.org’s toolkit “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce” is a great resource for talking about divorce with young children. It also can give married parents more ideas for talking about divorce and the emotions that accompany it.
* This post originally appeared on wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.