Anyone who has been through divorce, or a painful separation understands how difficult it can be, and yet separating can be a natural progression when two people grow apart, realize they are no longer compatible, or are no longer happy together. It is estimated that around 40%-50% of marriages end in divorce and 49% of co-habiting couples separate within five years. However, the end of a romantic relationship, especially one involving kids, can be fraught with feelings of guilt, shame, and blame. Couples may feel like their relationship has failed or they have been wronged by their partner. How do couples manage to divide their lives, their homes, their property, and their finances while remaining civil? Although dividing possessions can be challenging, it is a lot easier than dividing time with a child or figuring out who is going to buy new school clothes. How can couples work through their differences to create a plan that puts their children first? Is there a way to accomplish this without the stress and expense of going to court? To find answers to these questions, I sat down with my friend, Ariella Shuster, lead attorney and author of Divorce with Dignity, to get some answers.
SKY: Ariella, I think the work you do, helping couples separate civilly and act in the best interest of the child, is so important. What inspired you to do this kind of work?
ARIELLA: I have my own experience with separation and working with a parent coach when my family transitioned from one household to two. Together, we created a plan to co-parent our young child. It was important to have a neutral party we could go to whenever we needed support moving through this process. During each step, we needed to focus on what would be best for our child. Together, my son’s dad and I sat down with his preschool teachers to discuss our separation. We wanted them to be able to speak openly with our son about moving into two households. We didn’t want there to be a mantel of secrecy but rather strived to normalize the experience and have open communication. We wanted his teachers to be able to ask, “Who is picking you up tonight?” or “Do you think you left your blanket at Dad’s?” instead of avoiding asking him about his homelife. My son’s dad and I also initiated nightly phone calls so our son could say goodnight to the parent he wasn’t staying with at the moment. It can be difficult but, when you are transitioning through a break-up, you have to ask yourself what you can do to keep the peace. Can you be more flexible, even if it isn’t fair, and be adaptable for the benefit of your relationship and your child?
SY: Having gone through the experience of working with a parent coach during your divorce, what do you share with clients about your own personal experience?
AS: As a coach, you only share personal experiences when it is appropriate, if it’s something that would be useful for your client. A parent coach becomes a guardrail, someone who works with both parents to create stability and decrease conflict. To make this extremely difficult process work, you have to separate yourself as a parent from who you are as a romantic partner. You may no longer be in a romantic relationship with this person, but the parenting relationship continues. If you have resentment toward your partner that stems from the romantic relationship, you have to put that aside and ask yourself what your child needs.
SY: What do you wish you could share with families who are going through a divorce or separation?
AS: My book! My book, which is coming out on Kindle, isn’t anything magical. It’s about how to stay grounded and how to maintain self-respect and integrity. You have to maintain objectivity to do what is best for your child. You have to view things through your child’s eyes. You also have to take your own wellbeing into account in your decisions and interactions with your child. Being a martyr is not helpful or useful.
SY: Separations can be acrimonious; how can parents maintain equilibrium and good communication?
AS: Find a neutral party who can help see you this through, practice well-being for yourself, and don’t make the other parent the enemy. You might really not like your ex right now, but you have to remember that they are one half of your child, if you criticize them, you are also criticizing your child. Avoid making your child your friend or trying to get him to take sides and avoid sharing criticisms of your partner with your child. Children identify with both parents, if you criticize your ex, your child will also feel criticized. Instead, narrate the other parent’s love for your child.
SY: Growing up, I had a “weekend Dad,” which meant that my mom shouldered the discipline while my dad got to do the fun stuff like going to a park or the movies. Do you have a recommendation for how much time children should spend with each parent?
AS: Yes, our name for “weekend Dads” is “Disney Dads.” I think it’s something to consider that each child gets value/benefits from having two parents in their life-including doing the nuts-and-bolts parenting-not just the fun stuff. As long as both parents can provide a safe and healthy home, I am a proponent of sharing residential time. This can look different for different families, depending on work obligations, geography, and other factors. If possible, both parents should be involved in caregiving for their child, each sharing their unique characteristics with their child.
SY: We are both family coaches specializing in different areas. I have found that a lot of people have never heard of a parenting coach. What do you wish people knew about coaching?
AS: Coaching doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with you or your child, it is a useful tool to provide support during a difficult time. America has this ideal of rugged individualism where we aren’t supposed to need other people. However, that’s not how humans are made. Humans are meant to live in a community and share their lives with other people. We tend to experience shame and isolation when a part of our life isn’t working, but that’s not what life should be like in a society. Utilizing resources and support, doesn’t undermine your ability or mean that you have done something wrong.
SY: What do you wish people knew about divorce and separation?
AS: We need to normalize divorce and separation and accept them as a normal part of life and the natural progression of some relationships. We have choice. We are allowed to pursue growth away from our partner. Fortunately, we have the privilege of self-determination. We don’t have to stay with each other when our path diverges, we can make intelligent and heartfelt choices for ourselves and our family. Being a martyr is not impressive, you have to prioritize your own well-being and accept responsibility for yourself. For our children, we should model self-care, having healthy boundaries, and getting support when we need it.
I want to thank Ariella for her wisdom and taking the time to sit down with me over a delightful vegetarian meal at Café Flora. I have first-hand experience with divorce, and I know how painful and soul-crushing it can be. During that time, I was glad we didn’t have children, because I knew what a layer of complexity that would add. I admire what Ariella accomplishes as a parent coach, a collaborative lawyer, and author of Divorce with Dignity. If you could use some support going through a separation or divorce, I encourage you to contact her at https://www.divorcewithdignitylaw.com/contact.html.
One final note, collaborative co-parenting as discussed above is for families where both parents can provide a safe, healthy, loving environment. If you are worried about the health and safety of you or your child, you should seek help. You can find support by contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or text START to 88788. Visit their website at https://www.thehotline.org/