My ex and I had decided when we first separated that we would make this as easy as possible on our daughter. We figured doing things together beyond just the school events and her birthday would be helpful to her. Why would spending time together hurt her? We wanted to be the divorced couple that did it differently. No fights in the school parking lot. No heated custody battles. Just a smooth transition for our girl and why not go together to pumpkin pick or see the tree at Rockefeller Center at Christmastime? It seemed harmless and actually helpful. What child of divorce wouldn't want his or her parents to get along and spend time together when they could?
Well, if the child of divorce that finds his or her parents spending time together . . . as confusing.
We meant well. And for the most part, spending time at her birthday, school events, and major family functions is a good thing for our daughter. She is fortunate in that we can do these things as adults and for her and our own benefit but . . . spending too much time together during the divorce process confused our child.
She was 3 at the time so the idea that the three of us could spend time together for a day but then depart to different homes at the end of the night was confusing.
If we could pull it together for a day, why couldn't we always be together? That's how her little mind felt. Perhaps if she were older, she would know better and understand that just because Mommy and Daddy are together for an hour or two without a fight, doesn't mean they can live together without a fight.
Worse still, there were times we would disagree during our time together. It was never bad or awful, and the disagreements were so brief and not out of the normal for any couple per se, but for our child who had seen us disagree and for us who remembered the pain of such disagreements, those few minutes were painful. Why the need to relive something we had decided wasn't working?
We both didn't want to part from her. We didn't want to hear how the other parent had taken her to do X activity when we really wanted the opportunity to do the same thing with her as well! We didn't want her to miss out on being a family all the time.
We didn't want to totally let go.
I am not saying that you shouldn't do things together as a divorced couple. You should do whatever makes life easier for the kids and every kid responds differently. For our daughter, the time together was like revisiting the grave. It made her start to grieve again after we had enjoyed time as a family even if we weren't the same kind of family as we were before. And since she's so little, it was hard for her to understand the idea of divorce, period.
For us as a divorcing couple, the time was also hard because we would walk away saying much like our daughter probably was: "Why can't we get it together all the time instead of just for today? Why can't we always be happy like we were today?"
It helped alleviate some of the grieving of our failed marriage, but it also delayed grieving our failed marriage, which ultimately is worse for us who needed to move on and start fresh.
How do you know how much time to spend together after separating if the two of you desire to do things together as a new and different family? Here's how:
If you're spending any of this time fighting at all, back away! Try to spend time together again once things cool down. Especially don't try to get it together if you've recently had a big fight unless it's a mandatory event or your child's birthday.
The Child's Age
Consider your child's age and development before spending too much time as a separated but amicable family. If your child is old enough, talk to them about it and ask how they feel. My daughter was old enough to say she wanted us to go to see the tree together or something else, but not old enough to speak up for how she might feel afterward. A teenager or older elementary student could share how time together would positively or negatively impact them.
Remember also the level of understanding your child has about the divorce. If your child doesn't quite understand why you're splitting up or what divorce is, you need to be strategic about the signals you send about the family and ending marriage, as well as find a developmentally appropriate way to explain divorce. Otherwise, it can be extremely confusing to your child. Children need stability and clear-cut boundaries.
Your and Your Ex's States
How badly are you grieving? Does being around your ex bring your into a depression or anger you? If you answered yes or if your ex feels saddened or angered by your presence, steer clear of your ex as much as you can. It's not good for your kids to see either of you in such a state. They are better off dealing with two parents who can't coexist so they must be happily separated than two parents whose bad emotions burden them with guilt.
Strategic Time Together
In order to grieve, you and your ex need space. Pick strategic "must hang together" events for the sake of your children and decide others that should be done separately. Getting used to being a single parent today rather than months down the line isn't a bad idea.
As things start to wrap up with the divorce process and your children have started to heal, then you can do more things together at everyone's comfort level.
What's Best For the Kids
What's truly best for the kids are two relatively happy and sane parents to coexist together when they both feel they are ready to come together for the sake of the children or hey, just because they would like to have a friendship after divorce. What's best for the kids is for adults to act like adults when they need both their parents together (recital, birthdays, etc.) and for the adults to act like adults and keep the distance in order to bring the family back to a happy and nonargumentative state.
Divorce isn't easy and neither is coparenting, but making smart choices to help the family grieve will allow everyone to move on with his and her lives, both adults and children alike! Each family is different so perhaps spending time together even after you have decided to divorce is easy-breezy, so simply consider your own unique situation and how your children are handling the situation when making the call of whether to spend time together . . . or not.