How To Get Past Your Breakup (Practical Advice For Parents)
Getting over a broken heart is a painful process for anyone, but it’s especially difficult and complicated if you have children.
In previous articles, I suggested that you should avoid all contact with your past lover. You may be wondering how, as a parent, this is remotely possible.
Well, it may not be for you – especially in the early stages of your split. So, although I believe that it would be better for your recovery if you didn’t have to see your ex, the fact is that as a parent you have to sort out all sorts of practical and emotional issues concerning your children. And unless one of you is going to give up all idea of being a mum or dad to your offspring – not something that I could ever recommend – then you’re going to need to find some method of joint parenting.
This is of course going to involve contact between you. And you might think that it would be better for your kids if that contact could be friendly; and indeed if the two of you could remain friends, now and forever.
Well, in an ideal world that would be marvellous. But just because you’re a parent, it doesn’t follow that you’ll be able to handle being with your ex any more than any other adult can.
One of you, at least, is likely to be feeling hugely angry, or depressed, or abandoned and may well want to cling on to any possible friendship between you in the hope that it will rekindle the relationship. For all the reasons set out in the previous articles, this is a bad idea.
So, how can you proceed in order to give yourself the best chance of recovery from the split, but in such a way that you can provide as much continuity of care and security for your family?
Basically, you need to sort out plausible and practical ways in which you can both continue to parent your kids lovingly and effectively, while also taking care of your own best interests.
To do that, I’d like to encourage you to tap into all the resources that are now at your disposal.
Books, support groups, lawyers and mediation
There are, for example, a number of excellent books on divorce and separation. The quickest way to find some suitable ones is to go onto the Relate website (www.relate.org.uk) and scroll down on the home page till you come to their site directory, where you will find the heading Book Shop. There are several books listed in that section that could help.
There are websites, such as: On Divorce (www.ondivorce.co.uk) and the National Association for the Divorced and Separated (www.ncds.org.uk).
There are legal organisations like Resolution (www.resolution.org.uk). They used to be known as the Solicitors’ Family Law Association, and their aim is to get their clients through the whole process of separation or divorce without increasing hostility on both sides. This is no mean feat, but they are good at it.
There are associations to help you in your new role as a single or part-time parent such as Gingerbread (www.gingerbread.org.uk).
And, perhaps most importantly of all, there are mediation agencies such as National Family Mediation (www.nfm.org.uk).
Mediation is a process by which you can jointly agree a fair set of arrangements for your future lives. This is an excellent process for any separating or divorcing couple to go through, but in my view is it especially desirable to do it if you have children. And in fact, there is now a legal requirement in the UK to have mediation before a divorce can be granted.
Frequently, people who go through mediation actually save money in legal costs. More vitally, by being able to talk together in the presence of an impartial mediator, they can sort out the future of their children in a civilised and appropriate way.
You will of course need to attend meetings together, which may be difficult for both of you, but the mediators are experienced in handling vulnerable, angry, intransigent, depressed individuals who are traumatised by the emotional maelstrom of a broken relationship.
And by putting your future in the care of these professionals you’ll be able to sort out how your children are going to be brought up from now on, and by whom. Once that is finalised, you can get on with going through your stages of grief and rebuilding your life.
The mistakes parents often make
One reason for having mediation – or even family or relationship therapy – is that these processes help you to understand your feelings and your motives.
But even with this kind of help, there are common mistakes that parents often make when they are heartbroken and under enormous strain.
It is, for example, quite usual for parents who are hurting because of the demise of a relationship to ‘use’ their children as friends, counsellors, or simply a shoulder to cry on. Also, though this may
be at a subconscious level, they often try to get the children on their side.
Although this is entirely understandable, it is awfully unwise. You may think it’s perfectly reasonable that when you’re feeling very sad you should enlist your children’s sympathy, but in fact they should not be used in this way.
If you need to cry on someone’s shoulder find a grown-up. Don’t depend on your offspring.
If you want to explain why you’re getting out of the relationship, or why your ex-partner is so hateful, explain to your vicar, your doctor, your siblings, your parents, or your friends. Don’t unload all this stuff on your children.
Never forget that half of the genes in your child’s body come from your ex.
Parents who assume that the child is totally on their side, or who believe that a son or daughter is happy to never see the other parent, tend to store up real trouble for themselves for later on.
I know it’s difficult, but if your children are going to have the best chance of getting over this upheaval, you and the other parent should present a loving, joint front for your family whenever and wherever possible.
This means telling them that though you both love them very much, the two of you no longer love each other.
You also need to impress upon them that the split is not their fault. Frequently, kids think if they’d been better behaved – and hadn’t added to the stress in the home – that Mum and Dad would have been able to stay together. You need to disabuse them of this notion. Very often parents are in such turmoil and pain that they forget to ask their children what they’re feeling, and so these anxieties can go unchallenged and can lead to all sorts of strains and misery.
You also need to emphasise that you are going to care for them jointly, as far as that is possible, and that you’re going to make any big decisions about their future together. Also explain that you’re going to try to make things as normal as they can be, as soon as they can be.
Another mistake, which is a great temptation for the live-in parent, is to make it very difficult for the ex to see the children.
It’s understandable that this parent – usually the mother – may be feeling very hurt and rejected, but keeping kids from their other parent is not the way to deal with those feelings.
I’ve heard endless tales from dads that they drove a hundred miles on a Sunday to see their children and their ex refused to let the children come out, or claimed they didn’t want to see their father, or that they had colds.
I can only urge you to try not to resort to such behaviour yourself, no matter how heartbroken or angry you might feel. Your children will almost certainly come to resent your tactics, and you may end up being seen as a moral-blackmailer or manipulator.
I knew a very intelligent woman who took her rejection by her husband really badly, and who made it as difficult as possible for her daughter Milly to see her dad.
‘He was never around for Milly anyhow,’ she told me. ‘Not even when he lived with us, so Milly doesn’t miss him at all. And she’s so good. When I’m miserable at night she mops up my tears and tells me that she never wants to see her daddy again as long as she lives. She’s such a comfort to me.’
This woman, despite her intelligence, was making every mistake in the book. And now that Milly is in her late teens, what has happened? She blames her mum for making her lose contact with her dad. She has no time for her maternal relatives, and she has gone out of her way to seek male company and approval from a variety of unsuitable men. Milly is now pregnant, unqualified and into drugs.
Of course if you’ve emerged from a relationship that was violent, or if your ex-partner always treated you with contempt, or had a string of affairs before finally leaving, then you could certainly be forgiven for not portraying him as a saint!
But even so, do try to keep your criticism to a minimum in front of your kids. They need to make up their own minds about your ex, and they also need to accommodate the fact that they are that parent’s flesh and blood, just as they are also yours.
Teaching a child to dislike a parent can have serious consequences for that youngster, well into adult life. Many of the men and women I see in my practice have very poor self-esteem. And often this lack of esteem seems to have arisen because these people were taught to ignore – or even to hate – a missing parent. By association, they began to hate themselves, or at least to feel uneasy with any similarities they could see between themselves and their ‘bad’ parent.
The other day I had a letter from a guy called Martin, who wanted to tell me how he had grown up in a very female-dominated household: a household where men were derided, and where he was taught that men were not to be trusted. In fact, it was so antimale that he felt quite ashamed of his gender.
Martin’s father had escaped from Czechoslovakia during their troubled times in the late sixties. He had come to Scotland and married Martin’s mother. Martin arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. But a few years after that, his parents’ marriage failed.
Martin told me that he could remember his mother and maternal grandmother laughing at his father’s poor command of English and mocking him because he could only get a menial job.
Eventually, Dad disappeared with a much kinder woman. Privately, Martin could not find it in his heart to blame him. But his mum made it plain to him that she would consider it very disloyal if he ever saw his dad again.
During the next few years as he grew up, Martin’s mother and grandmother continued to reinforce his early ideas that being male was a second-rate category and that people from Eastern Europe were pretty hopeless – and certainly different and odd. He is convinced now that his poor self-esteem stems from that time.
His early adult life was very miserable. He found it difficult to carve out a career and to make relationships. Luckily, Martin could see for himself that he needed help and he got some therapy.
Some years later, he has come to understand that he was given a very one-sided view of half of his genes. He has now reestablished contact with his father, and he has been to Prague several times to meet relatives and to explore his European side.
He has felt welcomed by his father’s family and he can see how like them he is. Now he feels as if he has come to terms with himself and he is a much happier person. He feels complete and valid. But it has taken him years of hard work to get to this point.
You may think that Martin’s case is extreme. But I can tell you that stories like his are not that unusual. So, even in the midst of your own horror and misery, think hard before you overly criticise your ex in front of your children, or keep them from seeing him or her. You never know what trouble this may cause later on.
Another mistake is when parents get cross with each other in front of the children. This usually happens when the parent who has the kids at weekends turns up to collect them.
To avoid this happening, and to keep your contact with your ex down to the minimum, it can be beneficial to get your ex to pick up the children from a neutral environment, rather than the family home. Maybe your parents would agree that your former spouse can collect the kids from their house, if they live near enough to you. Or perhaps a friend can drop them off to ex and pick them up after the visit.
This kind of arrangement may not be all that easy to manage but I cannot emphasise enough how awful it is for children to witness hostility between their parents. And I stress, yet again, how difficult it is for the adults to get over the loss of the relationship if they continue to see each other all the time. It’s pretty much like ripping a plaster off a wound before it’s properly healed, and starting the bleeding all over again.
Up until now, I’ve mostly talked about the parent who has the children living with him or her. So let’s turn to other situations where mistakes are made.
These days there are some couples who decide to live so close to each other after their split that they can genuinely share the children between them. They tell me that they each have the child for half the week and that this works well.
Well, these couples are in a tiny minority. And I’m not sure myself, especially as the children get older, that this scenario does work that well. Because what happens is that the children seem to be constantly on the move.
However, in most cases, one parent has the family all through the week while the other gets to see them at weekends and in the school holidays.
Many of the weekend-only parents are people who have chosen to leave because they’ve found a new partner. They may indeed be fabulously in love with that partner – but even so it’s likely that such individuals feel enormous guilt and can feel truly heartbroken about what they’ve done to their kids and how little they are now able to see them.
It’s easy in these circumstances to try to assuage that guilt by making the weekends one long round of fun and extravagance. This is a common mistake.
Frankly, not only does such behaviour seriously upset your ex partner, but it also distorts your relationship with your offspring. If you turn every day into an experience to rival Christmas, you’ll never do anything normal.
And it’s normal things that your kid will crave. Of course, if you’re stupid enough to shower your offspring with luxury toys and games, they’re hardly going to turn them down! But what they want most – and what they’ll be missing most – is ordinary contact with you. They’ll want to be able to talk to you, and that’s not easy if you’re always in a cinema, or amusement arcade, or on a fairground ride.
You may have had very good reason for splitting up from your children’s other parent. You may, in fact, not be at all heartbroken about that split – perhaps because it was long overdue. But you may find yourself really cut up because you don’t see enough of your kids. That’s understandable. But it won’t help you or them if you spoil them.
Children often like doing very basic things, such as coming to your new home – even if it’s only a temporary bedsit – and having you cook sausages and beans for them which you can eat while watching television.
Trying to create expensive surprises every week will wear you and your children out, and make a major dent in your pocket just when it’s likely that your finances are far from rosy.
And what if you have a new partner?
Well, if you have, you’ll probably long for this special person to meet your family. And you’ll probably secretly believe that they will immediately adore each other.
How wrong you might be!
Your children will have endured enormous upheaval as a result of your original relationship breaking up: upheaval that has been forced on them and is definitely not of their choosing. It’s unlikely therefore that they’ll feel well-disposed to the person they think has caused all the trouble.
So making them meet your new love before they’re ready, is a bad mistake. In my view you need at least six months of taking your kids out on your own and being there for them before you even suggest introducing them to your new partner.
And even when your kids and your partner have met, please don’t assume that you can all spend the weekends altogether in future. Your children have no history with this new person of yours. They need to see you alone so that they can discuss things that matter, and have some private time with you.
All this is very difficult to arrange during a period which is stressful and often financially worrying and emotionally chaotic. But unless you want to put up insurmountable barriers between you and your children, you really need to find good, quality time for them right now. If you don’t, then you may suffer a very lengthy heartbreak that may never heal.
Some parents – and these are almost invariably dads – find themselves living apart from their children even if they were the parent who was dumped.
They really do have a very tough emotional mountain to climb. Not only are they often heartbroken by the loss of the partner they loved, but they are usually distraught at having to leave the family home and, as a result, to have only limited contact with their kids. It can seem monumentally unfair; and it’s easy to see why such people often feel very bitter indeed.
But whatever you think of your ex-partner, the law, and the injustices of life, please remember – as I’ve already said – that your children are composed of her genes as well as yours. So try not to make the mistake of showing your offspring how angry you feel. If you do, you will almost certainly come to regret it.
Nowadays there are plenty of other men in the same boat and you’ll almost certainly know some. Lean on them. There are also organisations where you can meet fathers in a similar situation, such as Families Need Fathers (www.fnf.org.uk).
Very sadly, about 50% of men who split from their children’s mother drift away out of their offspring’s lives within two years.
As we’ve already seen, this may well be because the mother makes life so very problematic for the father to see the children that he finally decides it will be less trauma all round if he bows out of the picture.
But this can be heartbreaking, and it’s one of the worst mistakes you can make.
If you disappear from your child’s life, it’s unlikely that your ex will speak kindly of you. She may even hide presents or letters that you send, so that your poor youngsters are forced to conclude that you simply couldn’t be bothered to stay in touch and that you never really loved them.
There’s a great deal of distress and trauma when a family splits up, but don’t make it worse by giving up on your kids, no matter how difficult things get. They need you.
Tough though it very definitely is, you have to be very adult in this situation, and no matter how heartbroken you are you must put your kids first. Once they’re OK, then you can focus on yourself.