Straight Talk Advice

Feb 25, 2014

How much should parent divulge about reasons for divorce?

Dear Straight Talk: I have recently separated from my husband. Our 15-year-old son keeps pushing me for why I want the divorce, but when I try to explain, he accuses me of bashing his dad and shuts me off. This keeps happening and is causing frustration between us. His father was emotionally abusive to me and had multiple affairs that I'm pretty sure my son doesn't know about. How much do kids really want to hear? And what is best? Please help. —Divorced Mom

Moriah 17, Rutland, Vt. Ask me a question

Almost all of my friends' parents have separated and each friend wanted different amounts of information. Some preferred to be completely in the dark while others needed all the information to feel settled. ALL knew more than their parents realized and were frustrated that their parents were hiding stuff — or worse, lying. Since your son keeps grilling you, he's the type who needs more of the story to make sense of things. Make sure the truth is told in an unbiased way, allowing for his own interpretation. Or let him know there are things you don't want to share. This is much better than omitting something without saying you're omitting it.

Omari 20, Washington, D.C. Ask me a question

I honestly feel for you. I also respect you for leaving because some people stick it out at too large a cost. Your ex should be the one to admit his infidelity to his son. However, for the sake of your relationship, you may have to tell him if your ex will not. If one of my parents was unfaithful, I would definitely want to know.

Brandon 21, Mapleton, Maine Ask me a question

Kids should only be told what they can comprehend at their age. You don't explain infidelity to a middle-school kid, but it's neither slanderous or wrong to tell older teens the TRUE reason for a divorce. However, if they don't ask, don't volunteer it. You may not be comfortable answering questions immediately, but don't wait too long. My dad finally opened up to me 12 years after their divorce! It felt awkward and unnecessary, since I was long over it. While it was comforting to know that I wasn't a primary cause, hearing that when the divorce happened would have been better. Divorce bias, especially early on, is common for kids to fall into. As long as the “out” parent stays involved in the child's life (don't give up on them!) they'll grow out of it and realize that playing favorites or holding grudges doesn't get them anywhere.

Justin 26, Redding, Calif. Ask me a question

“Why” can be the most pointless question in the English language. Knowing why doesn't change anything — but it can provide fodder for blame. Divorce happens for a plethora of reasons, all potentially “someone's fault.” It's important that you put your child's welfare first. Having him resent one of his parents isn't productive.

Dear Divorced: I hope the panel was helpful. Your son is old enough and clearly needs to balance his topsy-turvy world with a logical explanation — one that doesn't blame. How to do that? Keep all your communication about YOU. Leave his dad out of it. No child wants to hear their parent dissed. Try something like this: “I'm divorcing because I need a monogamous partner. I also need someone who treats me kindly. I'm so sorry.” Then stop there! If he wants details about the infidelity, refuse, and say, “What's more important is that we all create a new happiness.” (He can decide on his own to ask his dad.) You may think it's a no-brainer, but please add, “Not a speck of this is your fault — we both treasure you.”

Editor's Note: For more on how to win back an estranged child following divorce, click here to read our column from OCT 15, 2013.

My heart goes out to step-parents. The job has many challenges. Click here to read what the panel says makes the ideal stepmother, and the ideal stepfather. Their advice is spot on, and I believe that the way they say things can bring these points home.

For more columns on coping with divorce, see our Search by Topic list under Family Life, and click subtopics "Divorce" and "Stepfamily".  —Lauren

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  1. By Colin, age , from Sacramento, Calif. on 02/25/2014

    I think the worst thing a parent in this situation can do is try to manipulate the children into picking their “side.”  Lying, as always, is also undesirable.  You should do your best to be honest with your son.  If he really does want to know the details, tell him, but remember that words once spoken cannot be unspoken.  Don’t be evasive when discussing this with him.  He probably already knows that there are things you’re not telling him.  In this sort of situation, honest and direct communication is best.  You will likely want to discuss this very question with your ex-husband before revealing anything to your son, to avoid the appearance of hostility as much as possible.

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  2. By B.C., age , from Anaheim, CA on 02/25/2014

    My parents are getting divorced due to my dad’s infidelity.  I’m old enough to understand this.  However, my little sister is only 8 and our mom doesn’t want to try to explain something like this to her at her age and also doesn’t want to bash our dad.  Since my sister knows that our mom is the one who is ending the marriage, she blames her and is making things terrible for her, especially since our mom can’t give her what she believes is a satisfactory explanation.  My sister also keeps asking me “why” they are divorcing when we’re alone in our room, and I don’t know what to say either.  I try to tell her that our mom and dad just weren’t happy to together anymore, but that doesn’t satisfy her.  Since we share a room, I hear her crying herself to sleep over this, and it breaks my heart.  Sometimes she wants to climb in bed with me when she’s upset over this.  I’ve been letting her do it, but it makes it difficult for me to sleep since I just have a twin bed.  I don’t see anything in the Panel’s answers that really helps me in how to deal with this.


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    1. By Lauren Forcella, age , from Sebastopol, CA, USA on 02/25/2014

      Your mom is noble to take the heat in order to protect your sister’s relationship with her father. And you’re a terrific big sister to comfort her. Often, even at the young age of 8, kids are savvy enough to know they’re not getting the whole story and will act out just for that reason. Or they will hate the person whose fault they think it is. It’s a real tough situation. That said, underneath most infidelities there usually is an unhappy situation, so saying they are divorcing because they were unhappy together IS the truth. Too bad your father doesn’t own some responsibility and at least say the divorce was his idea, too. (If he’s being unfaithful, that’s the basic outcome and he knew it.) I suggest telling both your mother and father about your sister’s angst and asking your dad to step up and take some responsibility. Let us know if this helps. I hope things get better.—Love, Lauren

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    2. By Linda, age Carmichael, CA, from Carmichael, CA on 02/26/2014

      We have a situation similar to B.C.‘s, but it’s even more complicated. Our dad left our mom for another man!  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that as they say on Seinfeld! LOL!)  As shocking as it was to me, I’m old enough to understand what’s going on, and I’m coming to accept it.  However, my mom and I don’t know how to explain to my 9 year old brother that “Daddy is in love with another man,”  as at his age he doesn’t understand about something like homosexuality.  So far, we’ve been able to talk around the issue, but it can’t go on for ever.  This is especially true since our dad has indicated that he wants my brother and me to start coming for vists at the apartment he shares with his new partner, “Brent.”  My brother has met Brent, but only knows him as “Daddy’s friend” which he has accepted so far.  I have been to their apartment although I haven’t spent the night yet.  It’s just a small 2 bedroom 1 bath apartment and my brother and I would have to stay in the room right next to their room.  At my age I’m not totally comfortable sharing a room with my brother since he’s a boy even though he’s only 9 and hasn’t reached puberty, but I can handle that.  However, My brother is certain to notice that Dad and Brent sleep in a double bed and start asking questions, and since I’m the one who will be there, I’m the one he’s going to be asking and I really don’t know how to explain something like this to him.


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      1. By Cindy, age 15, from Toledo, OH on 02/28/2014

        Our situation was the exact opposite of Linda’s.  Our dad left because our mom was having an affair with another woman.  I was 10 and didn’t understand what was happening at the time.  I blamed him because he was the one who left and our mom encouraged my sister and me to blame him.  It seemed strange when Mom’s “friend” “Jenny” started spending the night frequently and they slept together in oum mom and dad’s double bed, and one time I went in there when they were in bed and could see that they were both nude. Our mom tried to tell us that it was like when we had friends over for sleepovers in our room, but even at that age something told me that it was more than that.  My sister was 13 and had a better understanding of what was going on and told me to “be careful of Jenny” and to always close and lock the door to our room when I got undressed when Jenny was there.  However, I will say that Jenny never did anything wrong toward me and was actually always very nice to me. 

        Now that I’m older, I understand what was going on, but I really wish I had known the truth at the time and hadn’t blamed and resented my dad.


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      2. By Lauren Forcella, age 39, from Sebastopol, CA, USA on 03/01/2014

        Linda—I feel for your situation! As Cindy describes (thank you for sharing, Cindy), it’s not good to be left figuring these things out on your own, especially when the parent’s partner is living there. I do feel that kids understand homosexuality by age 9 and that in situations like this kids should be told honestly what is going on. It really is a parent’s opportunity to explain the situation positively rather than leaving the child to possibly interpret it negatively or throw blame around unnecessarily.

        I hope your parents step up soon! You might be verbal and insist (to both of them—and especially your dad) that they do. Tell them that if they don’t, when he asks you, you’re going to tell him the truth—and that that shouldn’t be put on you. Good luck. Let us know how it goes.—Love, Lauren

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  3. By Marsha, age , from Redding, CA on 02/27/2014

    Based on my experience, I think kids should be told the truth.  The whole truth.  My parents separated and divorced 4 years ago when I was 14 and my sister was 12.  Our mom didn’t want to turn us against our dad, so she just used the “we’re not happy together anymore” line.  We knew that she had initiated the separation and divorce, so we blamed her.  They had to sell our nice home, and my sister and I and our mom had to move into an apartment and my sister and I had to share a room after always having our own rooms. Before this we had always gotten along, but sharing a room caused us to start fighting all the time.  We were very unhappy about the situation and took it out on our mom and made things hell for her.  When we visited our dad, he went out of his way to spoil us in order to win our favor and we treated him much better.  I now know that this all came about because he was having affairs with more than one other woman.  I feel terrible about the way we made our mom suffer for what was really our dad’s fault.  I wish that we had been told the truth and believe that I could have handled it at that age. 


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    1. By Lauren Forcella, age 39, from Sebastopol, CA, USA on 03/01/2014

      Marsha—I’m leaning your way, especially when the kids are making life miserable for the one who filed without understanding why. As I said in the original advice blog, if the communication is all about oneself and doesn’t bash the other (“I divorced because I need a monogamous partner.”) it explains things without blaming or revealing unnecessary details. In fact, it still takes responsibility for making the divorce happen, but puts some logic behind the personal need for it.

      Shame on the other parent who doesn’t take part in the responsibility for the break up and “enjoys” the favoritism. It’s an insecurity on their part. And really, your mom was secure in the fact that eventually you would figure it out on your own and love her anyway. It’s also very good that you weren’t made to hate him.

      For many couples, monogamy is super elusive and there isn’t a simple “one-stop” reason for it. The unfaithful aren’t necessarily “bad” people. And neither are those who divorce over it. It’s all very sad for the children though. I hope things are better now and I appreciate you sharing your experience.—Love, Lauren

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  4. By Jim, age 60, from Redding, CA on 03/08/2014

    You nailed it, the best worded advice for divorcing parents I have ever seen. Too bad this is not required reading for all parents.  Should be featured in parent’s magazine.

    Keep up the inspiring work!

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