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How About Divorce? Get It Right From the Start

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If you're thinking of divorce because she's a bore or you're smitten with your sexy gorgeous neighbor and his pectorals or because one more lonely, joyless night is more than you can stand and surely you deserve more from life, Lady or Gent stand still and think.

Divorce is not only about you. It is not about how to negotiate the legal stuff and come out intact or unbowed. Divorce is about you and your children and what lies ahead, for all of you. It's about what no one talks about, like rebuilding your life from the ground up, including your love life, and protecting yourself and your children from the unhappy fallout from divorce.

What fallout? Having talked to more young children and adolescents from divorced families than anyone in this country and having followed them for 25 years into their young adulthood, I can answer. Begin by counting your children. If you have four or more, pour yourself a glass of good sherry or whatever you are drinking. I will get back to you. But if you have one or two or even three continue reading. This is for you.

I quote a gaggle of young adults from divorced families. A 22-year-old man tells me, "I've never seen a man and a woman on the same beam." A 21-year-old woman says, "It's not sex I'm afraid of. It's getting close that scares me." Or a 23-year-old: "You can hope for love, but you can't expect it." And a 24-year-old: " My mom never taught me about men. She didn't know anything."

It may be shocking but you need to think about this. When your children grow up, do you want them to feel cheated or betrayed and unable to trust a man or a woman? Check the national stats. They will confirm. Children of divorce marry less and divorce more.

So what's to do? Begin by telling your children about your decision to divorce in this way. Call them together. Don't meet when their favorite TV show is on or they're immersed in Warcraft II. Stay home all evening. Otherwise your efforts are down the tube. It's a two parent job so do your best to have both of you present. Keep in mind that you are having the most important conversation of their lives. Tell them slowly and gently that when you two met you loved each other and wanted to spend the rest of your lives together. And so you got married. Tell them that when they were born it was a most wonderful time. Why? Because you want them to feel that they were conceived and born in love and joy, not in heartbreak or anger. Tell them that when you discovered that you were unhappy together (or that one of you was unhappy) you tried very, very hard to fix things and that you are sorry that you failed. You have come to a sad and difficult decision. Then and only then tell them about your decision to divorce and explain in detail what that means. Do not speak in platitudes. Do not simply assure them that you love them but do assure them that they are not the cause of what is happening. They may not believe you, so you may need to repeat this message many times. Remember that all children figure that if you loved them, you would stay together.

Tell them that you will both take care of them and explain how that will work. Do not dilute the moment by the joys of having two swimming pools. Do not trivialize and do not lie. Only the truth will hold up over time. Keep in mind that your children will remember every word you say and they will believe what you say only if they trust you. Talk simply, without embellishments. Ask for questions and answer simply, directly. Address their fears. Do not deny them the truth. If you are having an affair and the children know that, say that you love someone else. Say you are truly sorry about the divorce and mean it. Announce that that everyone will have to be brave and help one other because things won't be the way they were, life will be mixed up for a while but it will settle with everyone's help very soon. Schedule another meeting without fail.

That's for starters. With this you have a fighting chance to begin rebuilding the trust that is threatened by the disrupted marriage and to protect your children in the years ahead. Nothing is more important for their future or your sleep. Good luck!

Judith Wallerstein is the author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce and What About the Kids?