Recently, I saw a Ted x talk online by Ash Beckham. She was talking about her coming out story, and the fact that even though she lived as a closeted lesbian for many years, her closet was no different from anyone else's closet. She said, quite poignantly, that we all have closets, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or culture, at some point in our lives we all feel trapped in one. Whether we are faced with telling someone we love we have cancer, or telling them we love them for the first time, we all have experienced those hard conversations.“Because all a closet is, is a hard conversation.” I agree with her, and even though I didn't have children to tell when my ex and I made the decision to divorce, I can empathize. I remember my own parents struggle to come out of their divorce closets and tell me at nine years old that they were going to be living apart. I had already known, of course, as most kids do. Still, it was a hard conversation for all of us. Hearing Ash Beckham speak about the difficulty of carrying around a secret made me realize how my parents must have felt when they finally decided to let me know. They must have felt the pressure weighing on them for months, not wanting to hurt me and fearing my plummet into depression or childhood criminality. And I'm sure they felt the guilt of creating a child who would now be the product of a broken home. But inevitably, no matter my reaction or the consequences to come, we had that very hard conversation. It was scary, and it was sad, but it was finally out in the open. They were getting a divorce.
Throwing the Divorce Grenade Before it Kills You
Looking back, I wish my parents could have heard Ash Beckham's lecture before they told me about their divorce. I think they would have told me sooner had they heeded her advice, and I think they would have been more direct. She talks about the negative effects of stress hormones on the body, and the fact that the human body is not capable of undergoing years of stress, which is exactly what is happening when we avoid having those hard conversations. Cortisol and adrenaline, the major stress hormones, wreak havoc when they go unchecked for long periods of time. This can lead to heart disease, stroke, and even cancer. By keeping the truth to ourselves because we are so afraid of the consequences, Beckham points out that we are essentially holding a grenade. And if we don't throw it, it will kill us. As a kid, of course I didn't want to hear that my parents were going to divorce. But it was a lot better than the anxiety of knowing I would one day hear it. It was better than having it hang over my head like a black cloud, and it was certainly better than having one of my parents have a stress-induced heart attack in their forties. I still remember that night they told me over twenty-three years ago. I remember being worried for them, because I saw how upset they were. My mother must have wanted to take the gentler approach, because I can still hear her yelling at my dad for saying the word divorce. By contrast, I appreciated his frankness. And that is another reason why I feel so strongly that Beckham's advice is universal. When having a hard conversation, in this case telling your nine year old you're getting a divorce, she offers three basic principles to help guide you.
Find a quiet space to talk to your child
Three Guiding Principles for Having That Hard Conversation
1. Be authentic
Don't go to a child with a speech ready. Even at nine, I saw right through it, and it didn't make it any easier. Just say what you need to say as yourself, as you would say anything else.
2. Be direct
Don't say, “we might be living apart for a while,” or “we may be separating.” Just say “we are no longer going to be living together,” or “we are getting a divorce.” Be honest, because its worse to give a child a false sense of hope that you will one day reconcile, especially if you know for sure that you will not. So just say exactly what needs to be said.
3. Be unapologetic
This advice may sound strange when dealing with a child hearing bad news, but what I wanted more than anything when I was a kid was to feel safe. I wanted to know that they knew what they were doing, and that this would be okay. Showing confidence, even in hard times, creates a feeling of security. Also, I wanted my parents to be happy. If that meant divorce, I was better able to deal with that than to know they were miserable, living inside their dark divorce closet, clutching their grenade, and waiting for the horrible day when everything would fall apart. Nobody wants that. And as Ash Beckham points out, “a closet is no place for a person to live.”
What are some tips you have about breaking the news of divorce to your kids? Join First Wive's World today to share your story.