Managing adult emotions during separation and divorce

Man on street

Sometimes, life just doesn’t seem fair. You didn’t ask for this any more than your kids did. You didn’t even see it coming. Years of working together at creating a family and in an instant, everything is different. Even though you’d heard stories from co-workers and friends, you never guessed that your marriage would end like theirs. Now you feel betrayed and angry. Intensely angry. In fact, you never knew you could feel this way and you don’t like it. The whole situation feels surreal and yet, as a parent, you try to keep your emotions in check and maintain normalcy in the household for the sake of the children. Yet, everything seems far from normal and you find that you’re yelling at them for petty mistakes. You feel guilty about having so little patience but find it difficult to keep up the façade of having no problem at holding it all together. When the children are asleep or at school, you crumble into a heap, wondering how this could have happened. You’re not alone.

When needing to take care of one’s personal needs is at its peak, it is often difficult to attend to children’s needs too. Feeling guilty is a normal part of parenting, but an especially strong emotion at a time such as this when all a parent often wants to do is spend time alone to heal. Finding the right balance between taking care of one’s own pain and attending to our children’s emotional and physical needs can be challenging. So, go easy on yourself and remember that each day is a new day for learning.

Sadness is one of the strongest emotions felt at this time. Even if the decision to separate was mutual, you will still likely feel the loss of what once was. The loss of family as it once was, possibly the loss of companionship or the loss of seeing your children with their other parent. If you hide your tears completely and pretend that you have not been affected, your children may get the impression that they need to do the same. Tears and sadness are completely normal and need to be expressed at a time of loss and change. Of course, falling into a heap or crying all day and night would not be a good idea. Part of our responsibility as parents is to ensure that our children see us as being able to stand strong enough to take care of them. This does not mean, however, that you need to stand strong and stoic all the time or that you need to mask your feelings all the time. Express sadness through tears and talk to them about your sadness if you’d like. Use age appropriate language and don’t get into the details that need to be reserved for adults only.

Be easy on yourself. Of course you are going to be less patient, less tolerant and more angry, especially if you didn’t want your relationship to end. As a single parent, you will also likely be more tired, may have less time to sleep or not sleep as well as you once did. All of this will contribute to your mood. Apologize to your children if you feel that you have been too harsh. Share with them that you too are experiencing different emotions as a result of the changes and that you may be less patient. Ask them to tell you when they feel that you are not being your old self. Let them know that the changes in you will not be permanent. Ask them to be patient with you too.

As I mentioned before, anger is another very strong emotion felt by many parents following a separation. The reasons for the heightened anger are many. Some of what parents have shared with me include feeling abandoned or betrayed by a spouse, anger at being forced into selling the matrimonial home, anger at dealing with ongoing financial matters, and anger at conflict about how much time each will spend with the children. As angry as you are at one another, try not to undermine or speak badly about each other in front of the children. Even though some parents have told me that they feel that their children should know “the truth,” the truth is that children don’t benefit from hearing bad things about either parent. In fact, they often suffer more as a result. Anger at one’s spouse is best reserved for when you are in the company of another adult and the children are not around.

One of the most difficult things a parent has to adjust to following a separation is not having his or her children close by all the time. High on the list of items that separated parents fight about is time alone with the children. The idea of not being able to tuck one’s children into bed every night or to wake up to eat breakfast with them every morning can be overwhelmingly difficult to bear. However, many parents find that over time, and if the situation is settled quite amicably, that they quite enjoy having some down time. Parents have told me that over time they have appreciated being able to take care of their own needs without worrying about the children or have taken advantage of being able to plan activities on their own. Taking care of oneself – emotionally and physically, is always important but especially after working through such a difficult time in one’s life.

My clients tell me that talking to a therapist or a good friend (especially one who has been through a similar experience) is extremely helpful. Remember that you are not weak if you cry (that goes for men too!) and that experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions is to be expected.