A family is like all living things; it grows, develops and constantly evolves over time as the family structure changes. Sometimes changes to the family structure occur as a result of new members joining the family, through marriage and the birth of children; other times, it’s the result of losing family members as our loved ones pass away.
It can be particularly difficult to cope with the breakdown of a family, through separation or divorce. How people deal with a separation or divorce is different for each person, and there is no right or wrong way of dealing with it. However, it can be helpful to understand how separation and divorce can impact the people within a family.
What does ‘divorce’ really mean?
Divorce is the ending of a marriage – but what about the additional relationships that were tied to this marriage? These peripheral relationships include extended families, such as in-laws, whilst core relationships include children. The dissolution of a marriage through divorce, however, does not address the impact of divorce upon all of the additional relationships that were created through the marriage.
Children are often the most affected by a separation or divorce. The breakup of the parental unit brings with it many changes. Changes may be physical – the literal separation of each parent to different places of residences – as well as emotional: primarily the confusion and frustration of not understanding what is happening, or why.
This is why children sometimes protest against the situation in unusual or unexpected ways, such as unusually poor academic performance, withdrawal from friends and family, and other problematic behaviours. Typically, a child’s first reaction to divorce or separation is confusion, denial, and fear. Children may subsequently experience anger, depression, or even panic attacks, unless their feelings are assuaged early on in the separation by each parent.
The effect of divorce on the extended family
A separation or divorce can also affect the extended family of a marriage. In some cases, the family members of each spouse may feel like they have to take sides. This may be difficult, confusing and may also adversely affect the children too.
Children are good at sensing when something is wrong, and they’re especially deft at picking up on hostility – particularly if it’s being directed toward one of their parents. Post-separation, children typically struggle with knowing how to balance divided loyalties; feeling disloyal if they still love dad when mum is visibly upset, and vice versa.
When grandparents and other members of an extended family are also conflicted over whether they should take sides, kids pick up on this. If the extended family does express prejudice toward one parent, this can reinforce those feelings of confusion in children, and damage the relationship the child has with each parent.
Moving forward after a separation
Though it may be difficult to manage whilst you’re in the throes of a separation, it’s important that you communicate regularly with your loved ones – especially your children, extended family, and your in-laws. It’s important that you explain to them how you would like your family to move forward, despite the separation or divorce.
Talk about your feelings openly with your children and family, even if they are feelings of hurt or frustration. Let them see that although you’re upset, it’s okay to talk about how they are feeling, too. Doing this eliminates the sense that certain topics may be off limits, which can exacerbate each person’s feelings of confusion and frustration.
A separation is not a competition
It’s also important that you reinforce that even though you are separating from your partner, no one is to take sides, least of all the children. Even if, deep down, you don’t feel this way – which is common for people going through a separation or divorce – it’s vital for the children that you don’t make them feel compelled to take sides. This just creates inner feelings of conflict and torment, which can negatively impact their emotional and physical wellbeing.
It’s also helpful if you have these discussions with your children while your partner is present, so they can see that despite everything, you’re both remaining amicable toward each other. Try not to argue or fight in front of the children, and if you do need to have discussions with your partner that may become heated, try to have them while the children are not around.
Even though this particular chapter of your family life is ending, the family you’ve built never really breaks up or goes away – it merely evolves and moves forward, and it’s important to remember that as you negotiate this difficult time.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.