Leading Your Children Through the End of Your Relationship

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  • September 2, 2014

So many people look back on the time of the ending of their relationship with a feeling of regret over how it all unfolded. You may be embarrassed by the way you behaved with your former partner or your children, or by the things you revealed to your family and friends. You may still feel a burning anger towards your partner, and blame him or her for what happened during the ending of the relationship.

The ending of a significant relationship is one of the most difficult and painful times of your life. Regardless of who initiated the termination of the relationship, both parties usually end up dealing with intense emotional hurt, grief, anger, fear, and disillusionment. There is no way to end an important relationship without experiencing some degree of these feelings and your feelings impact everyone around you. The adults in your life may be able to deal with the fiery emotional storm of the ending of your relationship but your children will have a much harder time of it.

You and your former partner are the two most important people in the lives of your children and matter what you do, you cannot shield them from the conflict. If you are in conflict with your former partner you can be sure that your children will pay a price and the cost will be directly related to the degree of conflict. You may believe that if you and your former partner simply don’t talk to or see each other then your children will be spared the emotional damage. Wrong. Your children are not stupid nor are they insensitive to what is going on as your relationship ends. You may be able to prevent your children from seeing and hearing the fighting, but they will still feel it.

Children are most vulnerable because they are impressionable and wholly dependent on the adults around them. Childhood experiences shape self-esteem, relationship patterns, values, and approach to life. Your children don’t have your adult knowledge or the resilience that you have developed over years of experience. Your emotions, words, and behaviour during and after the ending of your relationship will land hard on your children. It will change them. Because you are a parent, everything you do contributes to the development of your children and will impact the course of their lives.

When all is said and done after the ending of the relationship is finalized, you will proceed with your life and may even go on to create a new significant relationship or marriage. Two or three or five years of conflict may not seem like much to you in the course of your life and time passes quickly when you are an adult. For a child or a teen, these years are critical to development. Your children will carry the experience of the ending of your relationship with them for the rest of their lives. They will also live with your ongoing behaviour towards your ex-partner on a day-to-day basis, even after they have left home.

As a parent, you are one of the two most powerful people in your children’s lives. You can use this power for good or for evil. When a relationship ends, too many people unintentionally use their power to destroy their children. You may blame your partner for “forcing” you to do some things. You may blame your lawyer, the courts, or the legal system in general for “making” you follow a certain course of action. You may blame society for putting you at an “unfair” advantage. You might even argue that what you are doing is in the “best interests of your child” and forget that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are a million and one excuses for being out of control emotionally or behaviourally during this time. There are excuses to fight with your ex-partner, excuses to try to prove that you are right and the other person is wrong, excuses to prove that you are a better person or parent and you are indeed the wounded party, excuses to get revenge on your partner for hurting you, or excuses to simply win because you can’t bear to lose.

If you are experiencing a high degree of conflict, you aren’t even thinking about your children. You have not only lost touch with what your children need at this time, you have probably lost touch with yourself. The overwhelming emotions have clouded everything and the fear, pain, and anger have taken over.

You have a choice as to how the experience of the ending of your relationship and the lingering after effects will impact your children. Basically, your children will go through the experience either as successfully or as miserably as you do. They will bear the brunt of your behaviour – good, bad or otherwise. If you want to go through this transition successfully, here are some decisions you need to make.

Decide that you will take advantage of this time of change to learn about yourself, your relationship, and about life. Go into therapy to seek insight, support and guidance. Say what you need to say to your therapist and keep your children out of it. See the ending of your relationship as an opportunity to grow, and you will be teaching your children the skills of resilience.

Decide that you will find your inner strength and resources and then proceed with grace and dignity through this time of transition. Remind yourself that you had a life before this relationship and that you are more than capable of living on your own. Believe in yourself and behave yourself, and you will be teaching your children that there are always options and that there is no excuse for bad behaviour.

Decide that you will accept responsibility for your contribution to the ending of your relationship and use this information to become a better person. A relationship is a shared responsibility and there has been good and bad during your years together. Just because your relationship has ended does not mean you are a failure or that it was a mistake. Look at your children and you will see the some of the gifts from your relationship. Learn from your years in the relationship and you will be teaching your children to be accountable for their behaviour and to learn from their experiences.

Decide that you will maturely process and express your emotions, to think before you speak, and to respond rather than to react. You will be teaching your children that feelings are manageable and that there are healthy and respectful ways of expressing their emotions.

Decide that you will find your faith in yourself, in others, and in process of life itself. You will be teaching your children to trust themselves and you, and to have an optimistic view of life.

Most importantly, decide that you will rise to the occasion and always take the high road, no matter what your partner chooses to do during this time. Your relationship may end but your responsibility as a parent continues and becomes even more important at this time. Demonstrate self-control and you will be teaching your children that being a good parent is more important than your self-indulgent need to win, or get even, or to prove that you are right.

Here are some ways you can translate these decisions into your behaviour. As you read these suggestions, remember that your words only have meaning to your children if you put your behaviour behind them.

First, take responsibility for your behaviour. You choose what comes out of your mouth and what you do in your behaviour. No one can make you do anything and no one else is to blame for what you do. You determine the course of the ending of your relationship – not the courts, not your lawyer, not your family, not the legal system, and not society.

You chose to be with your partner, you chose your partner to be the other parent of your children, and you chose to participate in the relationship for the years that you were together. If you harbour ill will toward the other parent, it means you hate half of who your children are. Your children will know this and this knowing will hurt them deeply.

You must reconcile your feelings toward your partner. You must find the good in your partner – remember, you chose them as a partner and as a parent. You must find the good in your relationship – you stayed in the relationship for all of the years prior to the ending of it and you stayed long enough to create your children.

Second, make co-parenting a priority. The emotional roller coaster of the ending of your relationship may feel overwhelming but your children need to be parented on a daily basis. Don’t abandon them while you try to deal with the emotional and physical aspects of the ending of your marriage. This is no different than caring for your children when you have the flu. A responsible parent does not abdicate responsibility for any reason. You also don’t abandon your child when they are with the other parent – you are not absolved of responsibility when they go to school or when they visit their grandparents.

Third, set healthy boundaries. Never mind what the other parent does or does not do. When your children are with the other parent, do not interfere and do not comment. While you are still responsible for your children, this does not give you the right to try to dictate or control how the other person is parenting your children. Focus on what you are doing or not doing. You only have control over your behaviour. Make sure you do your part well; that is the best you can do and if you do it well, that will be enough keep you busy.

Fourth, be keenly aware of the power that you have as a parent and utilize this power to ease your children through the transition of the ending of your relationship. Children can handle the ending of their parents’ relationship. What hurts children is the belief that they have lost the stability of their parents taking care of them. If you truly want to demonstrate your love for your children, then foster their relationship with the other parent. You and your partner can end your relationship but your children need to have a relationship with the other parent – regardless of your opinion or experience of your partner.

Fifth, remember these basic rules. Don’t keep score; life isn’t fair. Don’t try to get even or to win; you will only succeed in defining yourself as being petty, immature and mean-spirited. Don’t expect your partner to do everything the way you would do it; you have no right to impose your expectations on another adult. Don’t try to change your partner; you couldn’t do it while you were together and you won’t be able to do it now.

Finally, be flexible. A clear and detailed parenting plan is important in providing predictability and security for your children. At the same time, life isn’t always predictable. Children’s schedules vary with school, activities and friends and parents’ schedules vary with work, activities, and friends. Ironically, you and your former partner will likely need to communicate more frequently and more effectively than when you were in relationship together. The best thing about learning to do this is that you are both teaching your children the valuable skills of effective communication, flexibility, co-operation, and problem solving. Now that’s good parenting!

When your relationship ends, challenge yourself to go through this process of change with honour and respect and with a clear vision of what is important. Promise yourself that when you look back on this time in the years down the road, you will be proud of how you conducted yourself. Promise yourself that you will do everything you can to ensure that when you look into your children’s eyes and answer their questions now and in all the years to come, you will like what you see reflected back to you.

Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., C. Psych.
Consulting Psychologist