Romper; Stocksy

Is There A Way To Divorce My Husband Without Messing Up Our Kid?

The transition will likely be sh*tty, but the end result will be a better situation for all.

Good Enough Parent

My husband and I are divorcing. We will have 50-50 custody, and I will have to move out of the house in about two months. My soon-to-be ex-husband is no longer being civil, and there’s an outburst within every interaction in front of our son. I’m a big advocate of gentle/conscious/good enough parenting. I speak honestly about, and validate the hell out of, feelings every day for my son. My husband… does not. My question is how can I help my son with all of this change? I see his personality changing already because of the stress and uncertainty. It feels inevitable that he’s going to be traumatized by all of this.

Dear Reader,

I vividly remember the day in kindergarten when I proclaimed my love for the school-lunch chocolate pudding, and Steve Laissant said, “If you love chocolate pudding so much, why don’t you marry it???” I’ve been crafting a comeback to that for 35 years, and it goes something like “because marriage is really f*cking complicated, and if I ever had to divorce chocolate pudding, it would be really ugly, Steve!”

I am a “child of divorce” as they say. It’s a funny wording. It implies that I came out of divorce, or was etched in it, like being a child “of the ’90s” or “of the pre-Internet generation.” And like lots of language we use to describe complex things, it doesn’t really get at the crux of it. Sure, I was shaped by my parent’s divorce, just as I was shaped by their marriage, but I don’t think of divorce as a place I hail from and never give it the airtime I give other childhood grievances, such as my regret at not taking singing lessons, the inability of the adults in my life to teach me how to properly swim, or — and now we’re getting to it — the constant tension and drama of the nine years I spent living with two married parents who should probably have called it quits long before.

It’s not divorce that traumatizes children. As Patricia Papernow, Ed.D., explains, it’s adult conflict. Papernow is a leading expert on divorce and stepfamilies and the co-author of The Stepfamily Handbook. She has spent her career collecting anecdotes and keeping up with research that all supports the idea that children do better in separate homes where there is relative peace than they do under one roof with parents who fight, ask their children to take sides, or simply let off constant tense vibes. “If all we’re doing all the time is fighting, staying together for the kids actually doesn’t work,” Papernow told me.

Studies show that in these instances, kids can have more trouble sleeping, higher cortisol levels, and decreased academic success. Young adult kids of parents who are divorced but collaborative are doing much better than young adult kids of parents who never divorced but have even moderate conflict. She references the work of John Gottman, whose research indicates that couples need a ratio of 5 to 1 positive to negative interactions. When parents do have negative interactions (which are inevitable), repairing in front of kids helps.

Your kid knows things are bad. So good for you for getting out.

This is all to say that there are likely better days ahead for you and your child. The transition will likely be sh*tty, but the end result is a better situation for all. While you’re still living together, you can try and implement separate shifts, table difficult conversations to have with a mediator, or just remind yourself it will not be like this for long. Kids are sensitive, which means that change can be hard for them. But it also means their bullsh*t meters are sharp. As you’ve already picked up on, your kid knows things are bad. So good for you for getting out.

Now, the work begins. The best approach to this work, when doable, is called “cooperative collaborative parenting,” where co-parents can talk to one another away from kids and hash it out. Papernow explains that this requires an agreement that if you both want the best for the kids, you don’t fight in front of the kids. There might still be differences, she notes, but they’re aired in private. But she also knows that that doesn’t always work. Who knows, your ex might chill out once you’re living separately, or he might become more difficult.

The next best thing, according to Papernow, is “parallel parenting,” where the two houses might be different but the adults respect each other. She finds it helpful to explain to kids that different teachers at school have different expectations and guidelines, and it’s the same with their parents.

For example, a kid might say “Daddy lets me drink Coke with dinner; why can I only have milk?” In moments like this, you have to acknowledge the differences, respect them, hold on to your own boundary, and remind your child that they can make their own decisions when they’re older. Of course, these situations can get much trickier than dinner drinks. Papernow told me a story about a woman whose stepdaughter came home from her mother’s house with negative messages about queer people. This made her furious, of course, and scared for her stepdaughter’s sense of self and future. But what could she do? Papernow said the woman told her stepdaughter something along the lines of “That’s what they believe in your mom’s house. We believe differently. We believe all humans are worthy of respect and care. And we want you to have your own opinions and beliefs. Meanwhile, you do have to treat other people as you would want to be treated in both houses.”

For me, these “bonus parents” helped raise me, showed me a side of my mother and father that was truly happy and in love, and gave me new models for positive adult relationships.

It can be very, very hard to deal with a hostile ex. These “high conflict” co-parenting relationships absolutely exist. If you can’t keep your cool around each other, Papernow advises to figure out a way to co-parent where you don’t have contact. You can swap kids by having one parent drop them off at school and the other pick them up after school, and you may have to set rigid schedules with help from a mediator. She recommends a book called Custody, Chaos, Personal Peace: Sharing Custody With an Ex Who Drives You Crazy.

The good news is, according to Papernow, that as long as you keep your parenting solid, your child will likely fare well even if your ex is incredibly challenging. “If you stay loving, connected, and moderately firm,” she told me, “your kid will come out OK, and that’s comforting.”

The other good news is, according to me, a child of divorce, there is time for your child to adjust, grow, and discover newer, happier versions of his parents. My own son once pointed out that if my parents had never gotten divorced, we wouldn’t have his Nana and Zadie, my stepmother and father. He was probably thinking about all of the cakes Nana bakes and the delightful, dangerous power tools his Zadie lets him use, which of course are important assets. But for me, these “bonus parents” helped raise me, showed me a side of my mother and father that was truly happy and in love, and gave me new models for positive adult relationships. Even before she re-coupled, the healthier, stronger, more-herself version of my mother that she became postdivorce was not lost on me.

So help him through the transition, of course. Make sure to have some age-appropriate books about divorce around, as reading with kids is one of the best ways to get at a tricky issue. Ask his school if there are any counseling groups for kids experiencing a divorce. (I have led these at schools, and they can be sweet spots for commiseration.) Try to keep other things in his life consistent and extra cozy. And remind yourself that this too shall pass, though what it evolves into may not be easy. But it will be a better version of hard. And treat yourself to something nice. May I suggest a cup of chocolate pudding?

The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Let Sarah answer your questions about the messy realities of parenting! Send her your questions via this anonymous form or by emailing her at