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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.

Separation
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.

Annulment
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 something else.

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 a divorce.



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