If you were lucky enough to have been raised by a happy and healthy married couple, you probably take a lot of what you learned from them for granted. We as children, take in everything from our surroundings, often not realizing that our brain is working behind the scenes making new associations and forming new ideas or behaviors. If you are even luckier and have a stable, healthy marriage, your kids will learn the same way you did, and hopefully, repeat the cycle. But generally we don’t credit good parents for creating this positive cycle as much as we blame those from bad relationships for teaching poor relationship skills and choices.
Whether being abused and then marrying an abuser or having an alcoholic parent and then marrying an alcoholic, it is so commonplace to blame this on a cycle, yet we never really talk about the cause or how to end it. Not everyone who watches a parent get beat later becomes abusive or the abused. Can we safely assume the bad ones learned from actively watching a bad marriage rather than from the simple absence of solid role models or guiding ideals and principals? I do not think we can say for sure which direction this works, but where does this leave everyone in the middle? My kids aren’t watching me get beat, but as a divorced mom, I am also not the role model they may need.
I may not have found my Prince Charming, but I haven’t found my Ike Turner either. Is my absence of abuse going to make up for my lack of a model relationship in the home for my children to learn from? I hope so, but this hope isn’t enough to prevent me from taking further measures. Here are a few of the things I hope will help my children find a better relationship than their father and I did.
- First and foremost, do not stay in an unhappy marriage for the kids. Kids may have this ideal image of their parents and want to see them together, but when you constantly destroy that image with a reality full of yelling, throwing things and otherwise making the home a place full of turmoil, you need to realize, the gig is up. They know you hate each other and get to watch you hate each other every day, and even in the unlikely event you manage to keep them out from the middle of it, they get to experience the drained, tired, far from ideal you. You can’t live in a war zone, keep your kids from suffering and still manage to have the energy and focus you owe to your kids each day. If it is broke and it can not be fixed, walk away. Better to fail your marriage than your children.
- Try to get along with your ex and treat each other like friends. Not only will this just leave them better off because they don’t have to deal with turmoil, but it will teach them that they should never tolerate certain behavior regardless of the terms of their relationship. Often times, people romanticize bad relationships. If you model it for them, they will assume that you and your ex tolerated the same relationship during marrage and it will normalize it. Teach your kids, love does not hurt. Teach your kids that a break up doesn’t mean they get to let go of all self control and principals. They must still present themselves in a respectable manner. Teach your kids that those who love them will respect not only them, but their loved ones as well. You would not want them to date someone who would openly disrespect you or their other parent, so you do not get to disrespect each other either.
- Keep up with the Kardashians. I am not telling you to learn relationship skills from this group, but if that is what your children are watching, with out a strong relationship at home to counteract these influences, this just may be where your children are learning theirs. Watch their shows. Experience what they are seeing. Without actively challenging ideals, they may just become ours with repeated exposure, so you need to start this dialogue either with you, or just within themselves. Whether you are sitting with them in real time or catching up with them at dinner, question them about what they see. Don’t let them passively watch and learn behaviors but rather actively and thoughtfully discuss or ponder what they witness and compare what they learned against their own values.
- Let them make mistakes. By the time your kid is up and out of the house, who knows what they will or will not share with you. A lot of parents try to shield their kids from bad decisions by not allowing them to experience certain things. If your middle schooler is forbidden from dating, guess what, it does not mean they are not, it just means they will not be telling you about it, and even worse, any advice they may need, they’ll be going far away from you to get it. In the off chance that they are not dating because you said no, they probably still will not be coming to you later for advice, as arbitrarily forbidding them from certain things teaches them you do not value their autonomy or trust their choices, neither or which leads to open dialogue. Dating is hard. Why not let them learn to interact with people now while the stakes are lower and they still lean on you for comfort and guidance.
- Do not give up on your own happiness. Let your children know that failed relationships do not mean you are hopeless. Whatever you need to do to cope with divorce, do it away from your kids. It is okay for your kids to see that you have feelings, and that you are working through them, but remember, you are there for them, find someone else to lean on. They don’t want to know the horrors of your divorce. They don’t want to know if you think your life is falling apart. They want to know that you are still there for them while their life is falling apart as divorce hurts them too.