In the summer of 2009, my friend Anya’s* husband suddenly announced he was moving out. After ten years of marriage and two children together, he quit after a few short months of couples counseling and moved into his own house. When Anya’s husband departed, it was left to her to sit her two children down, ages 7 and 10, and tell them that daddy would no longer be living with them. She chose to tell the truth, as she knew it, to buffer her children against future family changes and ensure that they would continue to approach her with any difficult questions and not harbor their grief. Anya mustered the kind of emotional and spiritual courage required to protect her children from the impending fallout. She kept the information she shared with her children to the facts, reassuring their spoken fears, with this simple statement: “This is what’s true: daddy has moved out and we are still a family.”
Initially, Anya avoided telling people what was happening in her family. Her children, too, struggled with whether or not
it was okay to tell. It was just too sudden, the path forward too unclear, the truth of it all too painful to put into words. The fact is despite our own or another’s desire to summarize our life’s circumstances into nice tidy boxes, our personal stories are much richer, rarely can be summarized in bite-size bits to appease another’s curiosity, and you want the listener to actually care before you share.
However, not talking about what was happening in her life, as messy, complicated, and unknown as it was, proved far more isolating and difficult than risking sharing. After a month or two, she decided that she would rely on the strength she found in open, honest, truthful discussions with her children and the friends and family that surround them. She developed the social courage to tell extended family and school community members, risking their judgment and/or difficult questions, keeping her story simple and telling the truth as she understood it at the time.
During the five years previous, both Anya’s father and younger sister had died. Anya admittedly isolated herself somewhat from her husband and children to better support her mother, younger sister, and herself in the wake of family grief. Dealing with her grief through writing, exercise, and staying busy, she struggled with depression and realizes now the toll on her marriage. Her sister’s suicide, in particular, was devastating and taught her that you just never really know what is going on in another person. “Sometimes you need to force the doors of communication open,” she emphasized throughout our interview. She admits that when people say “I can’t imagine that ever happening,” she wants to shake them by the shoulders and say “Wake up…anything can happen, and it does.”
Over time, the children have asked for reassurance that they are still a family. As young as they are, they worry they won’t be a family anymore as a result of the changes. They all look around for models of families that look like them, who are okay and even thriving as a result of separation and divorce. Part of what complicates this process for her is how few models she has for what other kind of family she can create out of this devastation. She had longed to create the same kind of “intact” family her parents created for her.
Grieving the loss of her own ideal family and making room for other possibilities to take root is all part of her healing process. Patience with this process can be excruciating in moments, but in other moments she is hopeful and continues to draw plans for a “new normal,” a new future for her family. Anya finds more of those families every day, whether it is friends at the kids’ school or celebrities like Demi Moore and Bruce Willis who chose the more amicable “spiritual divorce” model (see Debbie Ford’s book, Spiritual Divorce: Divorce as a catalyst for an extraordinary life, 2001).
Ironically, Anya states, “Our family spends more time together and has more fun than we did before because we want to support the kids through our separation.” Her husband’s decision, it turns out, has been a wake up call for Anya. She is no longer depressed, as she’s made a daily commitment to physical exercise, getting the support she needs, and by making connecting with her children her top priority again. She has enrolled in a new program to advance her career, has had to “grow up financially” by getting a full-time job to support herself and her children, and is making more efforts to connect with her extended family—a necessary step to not only get the support she needs, but also necessary childcare.
Even though, she says, “It is uncomfortable still, and the pain is not gone. We have chosen to focus on the children as we figure out our next steps as a couple.” They’ve also started counseling again to see if their marriage can be salvaged. Her husband has now received some of his own counseling and is fully aware of the devastating impact of his impulsive decision to quit their marriage. Making sure that the kids routines are nurturing, the changes carefully paced, and that open communication continues is essential in the transition process with children. She has good days and bad, but mostly focuses on the fact that though she can’t control her husband’s thinking or feeling, she is responsible for her own. With that insight has come a new sense of empowerment: “It’s no longer up to just him to decide what happens in our marriage, but for us to figure this out together and decide what is best for us both.”
Anya believes she has become a more resilient parent and hopes to model for her children how to have hope even in the toughest times in family life. If you met Anya today you’d notice her smile, her love for her children, her enthusiasm for her new career, and her hope for the future. She reminds us all, that even when life seems bleak, “Remarkably, you still wake up every morning. And then you know, you are meant to live another day, to move on, to learn.” It turns out, “You don’t die from a broken heart,” Anya says. Trusting that “this too shall pass” has strengthened her spiritual courage: her resolve, her faith, her willingness to tell the tough truths about her life, and her ability to move on with hope.
Her advice to other families is to have the emotional courage to address the difficult stuff in family relationships early on. Do the best you can during difficult times together. Look honestly at your role in the crisis, and don’t ignore what is true in your relationship—even if it is tough to face. Get counseling early on, if needed. Don’t think the problems will just go away, or that the problems will solve themselves. She cautions other couples, “If it was a problem on your second date and you didn’t solve it; it will likely be a problem after you have a child, too. But by then the stakes will be much higher!”
*I`ve changed my friend’s name to “Anya” to protect her privacy