September 2009 - Marital Status
and Your Kids
You’ve probably read or heard a lot about how divorce can be bad for
kids. In general, I don’t agree with that idea because it’s been
my experience that a home filled with anger, turmoil, or violence is a bad environment
for children. And often, divorce is the only choice, so everyone simply has
to make the best of it. I’ve talked a lot in the past in this column about
how to talk to your child about divorce. Divorce isn’t the only choice
though, so let’s talk about other situations you might find yourself in
and how to explain them to your children.
Many couples today find themselves getting separated (legally or not) because
the current financial climate makes divorce an expense that is difficult to
afford. If you and your spouse do separate, you need to find a way to explain
what is happening to your kids. When you are separated, you remain legally married.
Some people get separated, then later divorce. Others just separate and never
take the final step. If your intention is to divorce, you should explain that
to your kids. Let them know you won’t be getting back together and that
the legal process may take a while, but that as far as the two of you are concerned,
your marriage is truly over.
If you are separating on a trial basis (and many people do this to test the
waters), be honest about it with your children. They have friends whose parents
have separated and divorced, so it is something they understand. If you haven’t
made a final decision, be clear about that. Separation can be difficult for
kids (as it is for you!) because everything is up in the air and unsettled.
Try to provide as much stability as you can during this time and put a clear
parenting plan together.
If you are permanently separating, but do not intend to reunite or divorce,
it may be hard to explain this to your child. Most kids see separation as a
step towards divorce. If you are choosing to remain legally married for religious,
financial, or other reasons, talk about these with your child. Be clear about
what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and how it impacts your child.
A marriage in name only can be a difficult concept for a child to grasp, so
you will likely need to do a lot of talking about this.
A lot of people ask me about annulments. An annulment is a legal proceeding,
similar to a divorce, in which the marriage is dissolved (note that a religious
annulment is an entirely different process). The difference, however, is that
an annulment legally erases the marriage because it was invalid from the start.
There are several situations in which annulment is possible – one of you
wasn’t legally able to marry (under age, already married or not mentally
fit to consent) or situations in which fraud or mistake happened, such as when
one person lied about his ability to have children or about having some kind
of disease. Many people are interested in annulments because they feel like
they are a way to wipe the slate clean.
If you have children and get an annulment, does that mean your children are
illegitimate? Absolutely not. Every state has laws that say that children of
an annulled marriages are legitimate. But then how do you explain this to your
kids? Annulment is a complicated idea, so the best way to explain it is to say
that it’s almost like a divorce, but means that your marriage is going
to be ended because some kind of mistake was made. You no longer want to be
married and the court is going to undo your marriage. It’s better not
to tell younger kids that it’s as if you were never married. The fact
that their parents were once married is something that is very important to
them. Answer your child’s questions as best you can and always come back
to the fact that this situation is just like a divorce, but it’s called
Unmarried Break Ups
If you and the other parent never married, the end of your relationship is going
to be less formal than if you are married. You will probably find yourselves
engaged with the legal system to get custody and child support formalized (even
if you agree on it), so this can provide a kind of official ending to the relationship
and give everyone closure. If you’re breaking up, be clear about your
plan with your child. If it is not definitely permanent, explain that. If you
know it is the absolute end, you need to talk about it in the same way you would