Russell Rooms gets emotional remembering the hardship of he and ex-wife Laura explaining to their sons they were getting divorced. Six years later, thanks to strategies learned during therapy and a commitment to each other as co-parents, Russell and Laura support each other, value their relationship and make their boys the priority.
“People talk about how I have something I should cherish because most divorces aren’t like this,” said Rooms. “And they aren’t going to be unless the two people decide it’s going to be different.”
As Audrey Williams* navigates a divorce from her husband of 17 years, she, too, remains focused on the idea that while divorce ends a marriage, it doesn’t end a family.
“Don’t let other people’s bad experiences or definitions of divorce dictate what that means for your family,” said Williams. “You can choose based on your behavior and decisions what the experience is like for your family.”
Both the Rooms and Williams families made use of counseling and therapy services prior to their decisions to divorce and after. For Williams’ family, Calm Waters Center for Children and Families has provided them with individual opportunities to process emotions tied to the separation, whole-family support and learning healthy co-parenting strategies.
While society often projects the idea that children are “better off” with parents who opt to stay married, these families, and many like them, have found contentment and peace on the other side of divorce. Heather Warfield, licensed marriage and family therapist and programs director for Calm Waters, says when separated adults co-parent well, children learn invaluable life and coping skills, like healthy communication, emotion management, the value of long-lasting relationships and kindness.
“It shows them that even when hard things happen, we can move forward,” said Warfield. “Ultimately, healthy co-parenting allows them to feel like they don’t have to choose and can experience love and affection from each parent without guilt.”
Announcing a separation to kids
Rooms, Williams and Warfield agree that after determining separation or divorce is the right option for a couple, parents should announce it to their children together and create a safe space for sharing feelings and asking questions.
Children often think they caused the separation. Small children may assume behaviors like making their beds or eating their vegetables could have prevented divorce, while older kids may believe their difficult behavior contributed to parents’ stress and divorce.
“The biggest thing for kids to know is that it’s not their fault,” said Warfield. “In their ego-centricism, children can take on the blame.”
Kids need to hear what the arrangement will look like in their everyday lives and be reassured they will have a place at both parents’ homes. Providing kids structure, routine and consistency are paramount through the changes a divorce brings. A visual calendar in each home can help kids see which days they will be in which household. Though it may seem counterintuitive, keeping typical expectations for discipline and consequences reassures kids of safety and predictability.
“A lot of times when children are going through hard times, adults have guilt and want to be more easy-going on rules or consequences, but kids need those more than ever,” said Warfield.
Don’t wait for kids to ask questions about the separation or divorce but rather initiate ongoing conversations to give children opportunities to discuss their feelings. Ask kids if they’re feeling like the divorce is their fault, as that may open discussion about those hard-to-process emotions.
“Sometimes they may want to protect the parent and present that everything is OK when beneath the surface there are things that need to be addressed,” said Warfield. “Be willing to approach the child at a developmentally-appropriate level in an open and honest environment.”
Modeling emotional expression
When it comes to expressing those feelings, Rooms says it’s equally essential for parents to be open in how they’re feeling about the divorce. A parent sharing their sadness normalizes and validates the child’s experience and creates an environment for them to feel comfortable sharing.
“I think it’s important for kids to know this is tough on parents,” said Rooms. “They learn that having emotions is OK. You are training them up to be adults who can cope and express themselves.”
Early on, Williams concentrated on being strong, not wanting her kids to see her as weak or sad. Eventually, her son asked how she could be happy when their family was no longer together. She realized by keeping her feelings to herself she was minimizing her children’s experiences.
“I realized that in marching through this, even though my words validated his sadness, that he thought this wasn’t sad for me, too,” said Williams. “That also opened the conversation about what it means to be sad about something and still know it’s the right thing to do.”
Bottling those feelings also led to misplacing anger at her ex-spouse onto her children, speaking sharply to them when unwarranted. Building mindfulness strategies and pinpointing triggers for conflict or emotions helps to separate feelings about the divorce from the child.
“We do a lot of deep breathing and grounding, or bringing yourself to the present and managing internal emotional experiences without being flooded by those feelings,” said Warfield of strategies taught through Calm Waters.
Finding support for parents and kids
Not all emotions brought on by a divorce or separation are appropriate to share with kids, so it’s imperative parents have opportunities to care for their mental well-being with other trusted adults. Both Williams and Rooms advocate for counseling, therapy or support groups, as well as utilizing trusted family members or friends as sounding boards.
“Divorce is like a physical injury,” said Rooms. “You can choose whether to treat it and allow it to heal.”
When Williams was struggling to acknowledge her feelings, her support group at Calm Waters became a powerful opportunity to share in her grief and realize she wasn’t alone. The connections Williams made provided hope during dismal times and have continued outside the group.
Williams also found gratitude in the relationship she has with her ex-husband, understanding in how his processing the divorce has been different from hers and resolve to move forward in co-parenting together.
“Even if you can’t find common ground to continue in marriage you absolutely can spend conscious emotional energy in remembering the common ground shared in the past and ultimately parenting good human beings together,” said Williams.
The Williamses attended their Calm Waters support groups at the same time, reinforcing to their kids that they could still do things as a family.
Calm Waters hosts divorce support groups for the whole family, with two adult groups meeting simultaneously so ex-spouses can attend separately. Kid groups engage participants through play and high-energy experiences, which helps them process emotions. Both the adult and child groups discuss the same topics, in an age-appropriate manner, providing fodder for family conversation.
“We talk about anger, sadness, worry and guilt, all of the emotions people feel when going through a divorce,” said Warfield. “Afterward, families can talk about what they learned and how they are doing with things like anger or guilt.”
Strategies for co-parenting
Rooms laughingly says he and Laura have communicated much more after their divorce than before, both about small things like kids’ activities and bigger things like consequences for behavior and introducing their new spouses. Rooms and his husband and Laura and her husband, plus both of their boys, all share a Google calendar of important events and appointments.
Rooms’ and Laura’s boys learned quickly not to play one parent against the other. The parents are also committed to not sending messages to each other through the kids. Decisions about discipline and consequences are made together. If Rooms’ son receives consequences at his mom’s home, those
same consequences apply when he comes
to his dad’s.
But outside of discipline, Rooms says they also give each other grace in knowing their households don’t have to run the same way.
“At mom’s they may not have to pick up their rooms but at our house they do; at our house they don’t have to do yard work, but at their mom’s they do,” said Rooms. “There can be different rules within the households because the parents are coming from different perspectives and have different personalities.”
Rooms and Williams agree it’s most critical to never badmouth the other parent to the children, and the same goes for stepparents. They both create regular opportunities to express the strengths of the other parent to their kids.
“Each child is half of that other parent, so when one parent talks badly about the other, sometimes the child will [internalize] that,” said Warfield.
Allowing access to the child is another key piece of healthy co-parenting, whether through a phone call, video chat or open invitation to attend a child’s activity during the other parent’s scheduled time.
“When they are with the other parent, they miss and worry about them,” said Warfield. “Allow an open flow of access instead of [a stance of] ‘this is my night and you can’t
Introducing a new partner
Warfield advises co-parents in a healthy relationship to first discuss and come to an agreement about when and how to introduce kids to a new partner.
Rooms set realistic expectations for his boys on their relationships with then-boyfriend, now husband Chad, giving them the power to decide how they felt about him for themselves.
“As opposed to me telling them how to treat Chad, I told them this is someone I care about, and I hope you will, too, but I know he has to earn that trust,” explains Rooms. “You can’t force a relationship on them.”
Warfield says research shows a stepparent or partner should not be the primary enforcer of discipline, with primary parents making those decisions. But stepparents should still be an ally and supporter in enforcing the decisions of the primary parents.
Rooms’ and Laura’s spouses take active roles in caring for their stepsons, and now that Chad has long-since earned the boys’ trust and love, Rooms expects them to treat him with respect and consideration.
“They know if they want him to do their laundry, they need to pick up their rooms,” said Rooms.
Rooms has struggled with feeling like a failure because his first marriage ended.
“I felt I had failed because I couldn’t keep my marriage together,” said Rooms. “At the end of the day, though, we both did our best and didn’t want to live the lie of a happy marriage. We didn’t want that for either of us or our kids.”
Williams acknowledges she’s made mistakes along the way, and giving herself and others involved in the divorce process grace has been a challenge.
“People who have difficult-to-reach expectations for themselves often have those for other people in their lives, too, so I’m practicing grace and forgiveness very intentionally,” said Williams.
In the initial stages of their separation, Williams’ ex-husband was unable to be around her, including at their children’s activities. Williams first chalked it up to selfishness and demanded different behavior, but she soon realized he needed time and space to process his emotions and acclimate to the new version of his family. When her kids asked where their dad was, she always provided a positive answer about his love for them.
Looking back, Williams sees their proximity could have caused greater emotional harm to their kids if they witnessed hostility and anger, and she has since verbalized that she was wrong for being critical of how her ex-husband moved toward healing. While the time apart was a struggle, it made their current situation of attending kids’ activities and co-parenting together worth it.
“We had to determine what was the ‘least bad’ thing for this situation, and that was us not being in the same place together,” said Williams. “Now I can appreciate that there wasn’t smoldering turbulence the kids didn’t need to experience. I learned not to make assumptions unless it was that the other person had the best intentions.”
Each parent giving children permission to be part of the other parent’s life creates the opportunity for holding on to a sense of family, even though it looks different moving forward.
“You put your own fears and insecurities aside for your kids and the sake of doing anything and everything to preserve a sense of family despite the marriage ending,” said Williams.
*names changed for privacy