Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Deciding to end a long-term relationship is never easy — especially when children are involved. It is a decision that will impact many people for years to come.
You ask how you can ensure your child’s happiness during this emotional time. I’m afraid I must tell you, you can not ensure your child’s happiness — now, or ever. There are, however, several things you can do, or avoid doing, that will help your son navigate his way through your, and his, current emotional storm.
First, set your mind and your will to the task of building up your son’s father in your son’s eyes. This will undoubtedly be very difficult, but it is the number one thing that will help you stay close to your son and help him remain positive about life. When parents don’t follow this advice, children are put in the difficult position of having to choose to whom to be loyal. No child should ever have to choose between his or her parents! When children feel that they must, they will undoubtedly feel conflict and inner tension. This will result in stress and anxiety. Even if your son were to choose you over his father, he would feel sad and angry because he wants to have a great relationship with both of his parents.
[There is an exception to the advice in the paragraph above. If your child’s father is seriously abusive — i.e., he regularly beats your son — then you need to take a modified approach to building him up in your son’s eyes. You should avoid appearing to support his father in any abusive behaviors he might have toward his son. If he beats your child, you don’t need to seem supportive of that — indeed, you may need to express disapproval and protectiveness. If your son’s father is an alcoholic who drinks heavily on the weekends he has your son, perhaps you should help your son to understand that you are working to make that situation safer for him, i.e., you may be working with the legal system, or else trying to get someone else, such as a grandparent, to be in his father’s home with them on those weekends, etc.]
One specific way to help your son is worked out through visitation. He needs to have lots of rich time in both his parents’ homes. Whatever visitation schedule you and your son’s father agree upon, keep it! When it is your son’s father’s turn to have your son, don’t do or say anything that would make your son feel guilty for leaving you. When it is your turn to get your son back, welcome him with hugs and kisses and tell him how glad you are that he is at his home with you (as opposed to his home with his father) now.
This can be especially difficult around special times such as holidays and birthdays. You and your son’s father must agree in advance upon an equitable holiday visitation schedule and stick to it! This won’t be easy for anyone, but your son desperately needs to know in advance where and how he will be spending special days. This doesn’t mean that either you or your son’s father have to give up having special days with your son. Kids love having two birthdays as long as they know in advance that a special time is being planned for them.
It is also important not to put your son “in the middle.” At his age, he is too young to make decisions about things like visitation. If you ask him whom he wants to spend time with, he will most likely be unable to make a decision. If he does make one, he will probably regret it and try to change his mind. Your son desperately wants to please both mommy and daddy — it’s your job to make sure he can.
During this difficult transition period, it is often tempting to change lifestyle habits. For instance, you may be tempted to have your son sleep with you. Unless this is something that you and your son’s father have already been doing, don’t change now! Your son needs life to be as normal as possible, and if you make changes now, you will probably have a great deal of difficulty changing back when you want things the way they were. This goes for eating habits, sleeping habits, TV watching patterns, etc.
Another pitfall for many single moms is allowing their relationship with their children to become all-encompassing. Your son needs to be a kid! He cannot and should not be your emotional support. You need adult friends and family to support you during this time, and your son needs you and his father to support him.
You also need to be as positively honest with your son as possible — “I love your daddy very much. He is a good daddy. But we don’t love each other like a wife and husband anymore. We love each other like friends.” Or “Your daddy and I don’t live together anymore. You can still see your daddy every week, but he isn’t going to sleep here anymore.” Kids want their parents to be together so much that they will try to hang on to the chance that mommy and daddy might get back together. If your decision is final, you need to relate that to your son so that he can adjust and move on.
Finally, don’t get caught up in the court trap. There is really very little worth fighting over, and the fights get very expensive, financially and emotionally, very quickly. Not only that, but once things have heated up, it becomes very difficult to get back to an amiable relationship.
Even though you and your husband may have decided that you cannot remain married, you can choose to remain parenting partners. Your son needs this more than anything else right now. Fortunately, it will not only help him to be happier, but it will also help to maintain the close relationship the two of you already have.