Recent statistics show that 40 – 50% of married couples divorce; in subsequent marriages, the statistics are even higher. It’s hard to maintain a romantic relationship across decades, and let’s face it – some relationships aren’t healthy and likely never will be. Separating and moving on can be the safest and sanest choice for many of us, but how do we tell the kids? Sharing difficult news can be a scary thought.
In our family, such a rift opened in a most unexpected way. My children’s father came to terms with his transgenderism and shifted to living full time in the gender she felt herself to be. Pronouns were only the first change to be made under our roof.
While navigating such uncertainty, I discovered two key strategies to help kids best navigate a transition of parental roles and relationships: We need to strengthen our communication skills and come to peace with the change before we involve our children.
How does one come to peace with the news that their marriage might be falling apart?
- Finding peace in that news depends on building good communication skills. I looked to Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication to help me listen and express myself more effectively. While trying to get clear about what I wanted to say, I came to a better understanding of myself – bingo! Personal growth before I even opened my mouth to speak.
- Get empathy from someone naturally gifted or trained in a practice of non-judgmental listening. Being a student and teacher of Compassionate Communication (a.k.a. Nonviolent Communication or NVC), I quickly saw that my husband and I both needed empathy from people outside our marriage. Then we gave each other empathy, which was critical for mutual understanding and connection.
- Practice non-judgment daily. Notice when you judge and ask yourself which of your needs that judgment connects to. Before I understood transgenderism, I caught myself thinking, “My husband is being ridiculous! He can’t be a woman!” then translated that to “Wow, I really want to understand what’s going on inside him! I’d also like to know how much we matter to him!” It is empowering to translate judgment into feelings and needs. I use the same principle when I notice I am judging myself.
- Express yourself using “I” language. When I said to my husband, “I’m really afraid and confused. I don’t understand you or what’s going to happen next!” he responded to me earnestly from his heart. If I’d said, “You are ruining everything! What is wrong with you?!” my husband would have bristled, all hopes of a meaningful conversation lost.
- Trust in the inherent goodness of one another. Remember that when you support each other in living your truths, then the best is yet to come for you and our children. When we love unconditionally without attachment to our roles, we can see one another clearly and engage our creativity to solve problems together.
How does one share with the kids that change is coming?
- Don’t tell them about a shift until you have worked through your anger and resentment and/or can speak from a place of non-judgment. This is very important, because we naturally mirror each others’ emotions, and one parent’s rage can be terribly confusing to children who depend on both parents for their physical and emotional well-being.
- Whenever possible, make space to experience big emotions, especially anger, when your children are not nearby. I was a stay-at-home mom at the time our family transitioned, so I took my rage on early morning walks and grieved when doing the dishes or laundry later in the day. I had to be creative about making space and finding time for my emotions, or I would have stuffed them, likely backfiring in all of my family relationships.
- Forgive yourself for times when you must experience your challenging emotions in the moment. “I’m going through a tough time right now,” I would tell my kids if they saw me crying. “That happens to all of us, and my tears help me get un-sad.” I reassured them my grief had nothing to do with them, and my crying would pass.
- Remember that you are demonstrating important life skills of how to cope with big emotions! Labeling your emotions and needs helps others build a vocabulary of compassion around you. Your kids will learn from watching you manage your emotions how to better accept and cope with their own effectively. Tell them the strategies you are using and commit to making space for joy and play with them as well.
Here is how we told the kids:
We were terrified to tell our kids about their father’s gender transition. When we finally shared the news, we had accepted the uncertainty about what would happen to us as a family and committed ourselves to loving one another unconditionally.
My husband told our then 4 and 6 year-old sons that he had always experienced confusion about his gender. He told them that he understood it now, and he planned to live the rest of his life as a woman. He said it wouldn’t change his love for them in any way.
Of course, there were questions….
The boys worried that he wouldn’t play rough anymore, and that they wouldn’t recognize him in the morning. He told them the transition would take months, even years, and he still planned to play rough. They were completely comfortable with that answer and changed pronouns to “she/her/hers” immediately and effortlessly, reminding me when I forgot.
Our children’s ease in receiving the news of this transformation stemmed from our trust in each others’ goodness and the solid communication skills we had honed as we came to terms with my partner’s truth.
After the telling comes the rebuilding ….
I now live with our children (both teens) and my romantic partner, Richard, in one part of our house and the boys’ “Maddy” (mother-daddy), Seda, lives in her own wing with a separate entrance. We share meals, watch movies, and play football together. The boys have three parents to attend their soccer games. This is not the solution I expected, but it deeply meets all of our needs.
In order to support our families effectively, we must learn to listen deeply to ourselves and each other first. Such peace-making is always a gift to our children, regardless of shifting roles. In the moment of telling and as we begin to rebuild, we all just want to know that our needs matter.