There's no easy way to tell your kids you're getting a divorce. You can consult friends, read self-help books, seek professional advice -- it won't make any difference. Even if you do everything right, it'll still feel like you did everything wrong.
Which is why I decided to do everything wrong. Not that I made a conscious decision. One day I just came out with it.
Caryn and I have been married for more than 25 years, and for the last few we've been sitting in limbo, waiting for the kids to leave for college before we go on our merry ways. I live in our bedroom, she's holed up in the den, and this separate togetherness tortures both of us.
We had been talking about talking to the kids for months, and the reason we didn't pull the trigger was that we didn't have a plan. But there was another reason, too. We both knew that once we told the kids, there'd be no turning back. It would be real. We'd be done. And as much as we both needed to be done, this terrified us.
So it was easier to say we had no plan. I've been unemployed for more than a year, and we couldn't afford to float two households -- we were barely keeping our heads above water with one. Staying put was pragmatic. And as long as nothing changed, why cause the kids pain?
I knew there'd be pain. Whenever I thought about moving out, I pictured my sons crying inconsolably. With good reason: A few summers ago, at a particularly bad point in our marriage, I told our kids that Caryn and I might split. It was the most gutless thing I've ever done, a last desperate attempt to show my wife exactly what we'd be doing by blowing up our family.
The memory of Zach, then 14, tucked into the corner where his bed meets the wall, wailing like a wounded animal, still haunts me. But how could I have told him that I was as scared as he was? Wasn't I supposed to be the dad? And how could I ever leave Rob, our oldest, who we adopted fifteen years ago? I'd sooner die than break that trust.
When I finally told Rob, now 19, a few months ago, it felt like dying. Part of me thought it wouldn't be that much of a surprise. Both kids knew Caryn and I were having a difficult time. They saw we were living in separate rooms. Yet another part of me understood that kids see what they want to see.
My therapist's advice was textbook, and if you've reached the point where you need to talk to your kids about divorce, I suggest following her wisdom. Do it together, she said, and tell them both at the same time. Remain calm. Don't assign blame. Explain why without getting into all the gory details. Tell them how none of it is their fault, that you love them and you will always be a family. Put aside hurt and anger and don't say anything negative about each other. Present a plan. Try not to cry.
So when Rob came into my bedroom one morning and asked me what's up, I blurted out, "Me and Mom are going to separate." It was right out of the textbook ... from hell. I told him it had been a long time coming, that his mom and I have grown apart and want different things out of life and can no longer give each other what the other needs. I told him we still love each other but can no longer live with each other, and I assured him we would always love him. As the words rushed out of my mouth, I saw that Rob wasn't really listening. He looked the way he looked when he was a sad little boy.
"You guys had no idea that this was going happen?" I asked him.
"No," he said softly.
I wrapped my arms around him and told him everything would be okay, and I started to cry, but he held it together. Rob's always had a hard time expressing his most intense emotions, but I could tell what was churning inside. I said that Mom was going to talk to him when she got home, and he said "whatever" and went into his room. I felt sad but relieved. My heart was pounding, which at least meant it wasn't totally broken.
I texted Caryn, who was out shopping, and told her what I'd done, and as I was laying it all out, I realized how pathetic it was that I was conveying this via text. She came home an hour or so later and went into Rob's room. After a few minutes, she came downstairs to the kitchen.
"How'd it go?" I asked.
"Not good," she said.
"He didn't want to talk to me," she said. "I asked him if I could hug him and he said no."
Like me, Caryn felt relief as well as sadness. We both felt the worst part was over, that telling Zach would be easier, mainly because Zach was always easier. He came home from his girlfriend's house later in the afternoon and I knocked on his bedroom door.
"Yo," he said in his always-cheerful voice, "What's up?"
"I have some news," I said. "Mom and I are going to separate."
"What?" he said.
"Mom and I are going to separate," I said again, and when he saw that I was serious, we both burst into tears at the same moment. I hugged him tight. I explained that it was a long time coming and asked, as I had with Rob, if he had any clue.
"None," he said. We talked about how so many of his friend's parents were either divorced or in the process of getting divorced, how this stuff happens all of the time.
"First time for me," he said, wiping his face with a tissue.
Then Caryn came home and walked into Zach's room and they hugged and we all started to cry again. And for a moment it was easier: We told him that the way we were living wasn't normal, that we both loved him and both loved each other. We told him nothing really was going to change, although we all knew that everything was going to change.
Maybe even for the best.
This piece first appeared on Divorcecandy.com