01/31/2012 07:38 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Kids And Divorce: When "Mutual" Really Isn't...Yet

I did not want to tell my young sons that it was "mutual" because it wasn't. When my husband of ten years decided to move out of the family home with only a suitcase, to rent a room in a married male colleague's house, he was certain that it would be best to tell our young sons, then only ages 4 and 7, that the decision to separate was "mutual."

"He told us it would be best for them if we were in agreement about it, and saying it's 'mutual' would be in agreement," he insisted, referring to our couples therapist. "But it's a bold-faced lie!" I reminded him, hanging by two fingernails from a life-threatening cliff inside my stunned psyche.

Despite my strong negative reaction to this "mutual" nonsense, I could see -- or should I say, feel, in the pit of my sick stomach -- the validity of the couples therapist's advice. We were about to detonate an emotional bomb on our young children, so we should make every effort to be calm and stable, showing no conflict between us, so as not to make it even worse for them. "But -- even if I could force the word 'mutual' out of my mouth," I reasoned, "what do we say if they ask why you are doing this?" He looked blank. Feeling a little like Oliver Twist, I pressed on anyway. "Please," I pleaded, "Why are you doing this?" "I'm not sure yet," he said, irritated by the question.

Mine was anything but an easy-to-understand, child-friendly separation. (I'm not really sure there are such separations, but if so, mine was a different animal.) What would eventually come out was my husband's involvement with a woman who had been a "friend," another mother at my kids' school, whose kids knew my kids. It would be a holy mess, a full-fledged nightmare that went on for years before I was no longer hanging by any fingernails.

I couldn't lie to my sons and say it was "mutual" that day, so I didn't. But I just sat there, nearly tongue-tied (a condition from which I usually do not suffer) as their father flailed away on his own. He said he would be staying at a friend's house for awhile, to "work some things out," but that he loved them just the same. I mostly clenched my jaw so that I would not cry, and affirmed that their father loved them, and that this had to be. But my younger son's jaw hung open in such shock that I can still see it in my mind, and my older son's ears burned bright red with humiliation, as if he'd just flunked a math test.

When my now ex-husband literally ran out the door, my two stunned boys asked, "Will Daddy come back, Mom?" and I suddenly felt tremendous pressure to dance as fast as I could, to at least distract them. Could I transform myself into a Ginger Rogers, and miraculously follow all of Fred Astaire's dance steps, doing them all backwards, only without her training or ability? I proceeded to trip over my gown, twist my ankle, and fall flat on my face. I think I even said that he'd probably be back within a few months, so we just had to be patient. I could not have been more wrong.

I went from there to flailing around myself for months, constantly apologizing to my kids for my helplessness. But later, when my husband had moved in with the woman and her kids, it got harder and harder to distract them. My older son talked about suicide; my younger son would hit and kick me until I had to hold him down to help him stop. His little body would finally collapse in, and he would say that he was just so sad about Daddy. Then he would sob his heart out.

I had the good sense to consult a child therapist, and nearly begged him to just tell me what to say. When the therapist sighed deeply and said to me, "All the good choices are impossible, and the bad choices are inflammatory," I was thrilled by the validation, at least for five seconds. Then I remembered that "impossible" isn't good. I wasn't in an Astaire/Rogers movie; I was in a "Mission Impossible" scenario, botching every stunt.

When the boys had to then start going back and forth between houses, conflicts arose between my kids and the other woman's. But somewhere in the middle of the agonizing mess, a light started to appear on the horizon. My boys, by then 6 and 9, would privately rant and rave to me, cry and scream, have wild revenge fantasies, but just to get the hurt out. I could get away with saying practically nothing.

Just as I was learning this new, silent language, I saw the therapist Gary Neuman on "The Oprah Show," with two very touching children, who reminded me of my own. The show was about the pain that children suffer in a divorce. Neuman said -- and I am paraphrasing -- that what people don't know is that divorce is like a death, because kids who started out with two parents together naturally see them as one unit, and not as the separate individuals who they once were. So when you tear apart a marriage, you take away the kids' value. The only way you can give kids back their value is by hearing them. They must be heard.

In our fast-paced, stressful world of constant doing and overdoing, listening and hearing can be very time-consuming. Sometimes even finding the time to listen for 10 minutes seems impossible, and takes on a hellish quality at eleven at night, when you know you have to be up at six. But any time spent trying to give my children back their value has been the most valuable time I have spent.

My separation and divorce eventually became extremely mutual, and mutually beneficial. As my children and I continue to struggle through it together, their resilience reminds me how wondrous the human spirit can be. When I still can't think of what the heck to say, I say to myself, just try to listen.