David Coleman: How do we get our son to accept that his parents have separated?
Published 13/06/2011 | 05:00
Last year my husband and myself separated after 15 years together. We have one child who at the time was five-and-a-half years of age. My son is with me for four days/nights per week and with his dad for three.
When my husband and myself are in the same company as our son, we do not let him witness any animosity or tension between us. So far everything seems to have gone well.
At the time when we split we both explained to him, in simple terms, that daddy and mammy were not getting on with each other and that we needed some time apart and that it was nothing to do with him.
We told him that we both love him with all our hearts and that will never change, but it did mean that he was going to have two houses and two bedrooms and so on.
The big issue is, however, that my little boy still thinks that my husband and myself are married. Any time over the last year that it has come up, and I have tried to explain that mammy and daddy are no longer married, he goes into a complete meltdown.
His meltdowns are so bad that I have stopped trying to explain it, as I don't want to upset him. I find this very difficult as it was my husband's choice to end our marriage and I have spent the last year trying to come to terms with the break-up myself. I don't want my son remembering that it was his mammy who told him the bad news that we were not married any more.
The worry I have now is that my son is going to go on believing or thinking that myself and my ex are still together and that some time in the future it's going to hit him hard. I don't know what to do. Should we just continue as we have been doing or should we try, together, to explain further that we are no longer married?
The first thing that strikes me is how important it is that you continue your own job of "trying to come to terms with" the fact that your marriage had ended.
I think it's fair that you don't want to be the one to be solely responsible for telling your son that the relationship is irretrievably over. This is especially the case where you, yourself, may not yet believe that it is so definitively ended.
You don't describe the situations in which the issue of your marriage has come up in conversation with your son. It's possible that some of the times that you chose to underline the fact that you're no longer married may actually have been an attempt by you to get your own head around this distressing fact.
It sounds like you and your husband have done a great deal to help your son make sense of the fact that you no longer live together. However, it is quite likely that he does experience, but not understand, the emotional trauma that underlies your ex's decision to split.
Indeed, think how difficult you have found it over the last year. I'm sure you've had your own experience of feeling shocked, disbelieving, angry, distraught, hopeless and possibly feeling resistant to fully accepting that your relationship with your ex is now over.
If you have found it difficult, then it is equally to be expected that your son will also have found it difficult. It may be that he has more easily adjusted to the physical changes brought about by your separation and actually doesn't want to accept the emotional changes and loss that your separation means.
His reaction, of a "complete meltdown", suggests that he really just doesn't want to accept that you and his dad will not ever be a couple again. Given the pain of this loss, and how hard you have also found it to accept, it is easy to see why.
In due course, however, it will be important that he does realise, and may come to accept later, that you are irreconcilably separated, however painful that will be.
While none of us likes to see our children upset, I believe it is better that they are allowed, and helped, to express their feelings about what are distressing events in their lives.
As you have witnessed when telling him that you are no longer married, he is being "hit hard" by the reality of your separation anyway.
Whether he hears it now or later is less of an issue. What is more of an issue is how emotionally supported he is to help him make sense of what this really means for your family.
Perhaps in your original, shared, explanation to him of how you were not getting on and "needed some time apart" you were not definitive enough about the fact that the relationship was over. He may have seen this as a temporary split until you started 'getting on' together again.
Ironically, because you and your ex now try to hide the tension and conflict from him, he may believe that the time is right for a reconciliation. If so, then the dissolution of your marriage may be even more unacceptable to him.
I do think that you and your ex must take shared responsibility for helping your son to the next step -- that is, accommodating the fact that your marriage and your relationship is definitively over.
You are right, it shouldn't be just you who has to share this bad news with him -- it needs to be you and your ex.
As I was saying at the start of my response, this could be very hard for you, especially in light of your own feelings about your ex. You might find it really helpful to talk to someone professionally about your relationship with him and how you and he can continue to give joint messages to your son.
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