Ask the expert: how to have a “happy” break-up

When their parents divorce, it can be very hard on children. Mum Rachel D’Cruz shares what she has learned about how to set a positive example.

Awhile ago now, my husband and I broke up. I’d like to say that leading up to the breakup it was a mature, well balanced, mutual decision, but it wasn’t. It was full of hurt, blame, and anger, and had been for over a year. Sadly, when you share children, they have to go through the whole awful process with you. Before we broke up, my husband and I went to see our relationship counsellor, who asked, “How do you want your children to feel and learn as you go through this breakup?” We replied, “We want them to feel good about themselves and learn good communication.” She asked, “How will you achieve that?”

My husband and I looked at each other, lost. I said, “I guess they will be upset; they already are. That’s not my fault!” and then I glanced reproachfully at my husband. Our counsellor then said something profound. “Proving that the other is to blame and a bad person will only hurt your children. You can make this breakup a good experience for you and them or an awful one. To make it as good as possible, remember this rule. Your children at this young age are made up of the two people who are the most important in their lives – their mum and dad. Every time you say something positive about the other parent, the child feels good and secure. Every time you say something negative about the other parent, a little bit of them hurts and withers.”

Wow. She went on, “Do you want your children to grow up to be secure, happy, and confident children?” Yes, we both agreed. “In that case, when you speak about the other partner, it will only be in a positive way. No sarcasm, no blame, just neutral or positive references when talking about the other. And compliments – they went on a picnic with their dad? They loved it? Don’t seize that as an opportunity to diminish your ex because you want to be the best parent in your children’s eyes. Think of the bigger picture – not you, but them. Instead, say, ‘Your dad is really good at making picnics.’ “If your child complains about the other parent, there’s not one good excuse to drag them down to prove you’re right or the best parent. Don’t ever do that. Back up their parenting decisions at every turn, and your children will flourish.”

Never has anyone said anything to us more important for the health and emotional wellbeing of our children. We swore then that we’d always remember this and carry it out. And we have. “Your dad will be so proud of you!” I’d exclaim when my daughter did something good at her centre. “I think your dad makes very sensible decisions – I’m sure he took away your screen time for a good reason,” I’d say when my son complained. My ex and I started meeting every Saturday so the children could see we got on together even though we'd separated, and we discussed how our weeks had gone and made co-parenting decisions about the children – who had what on, who would pick them up, who would be away when, and what cover was needed. Over a delicious coffee at our favourite cafe, we smoothed over a lot of the communication that could go wrong during the week, and I started to look forward to it – and so did the children. We kept being nice about each other, and we started feeling better about ourselves. I started liking my ex again. Our friendship went from strength to strength. Our children were happy. We even went on a family holiday together. When people ask me how things are going, I say, “Our breakup is the best breakup you could ever have.” And it is. If you could choose to have a good or an awful breakup, for the sake of your children, what would you choose? Do you want to be happy? Do you want your children to be happy? Because I learned that often, the way separation plays out is a choice you as parents can make.

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