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Kids & Divorce: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
Thousands of divorce cases are filed in South Jersey every year. When it comes to getting through this inherently painful process without causing collateral damage to your kids, there are a few things every parent should know.

by Jennifer Kelley
Thousands of divorce cases are filed in South Jersey every year. When it comes to getting through this inherently painful process without causing collateral damage to your kids, there are a few things every parent should know.

If hindsight is 20/20, then the divorced often have perfect vision when looking back at their failed marriages.

For Beth Zinman, indicators that her “long-as-we-both-shall-live” vow was a bit overstated are apparent even in her wedding album. The Marlton-based mother-of-two laughs as she describes the look of sheer terror she now sees behind her posed smiles in shot after glossy shot. “See? I knew it in my gut even then,” Zinman says ruefully. “Those butterflies in my stomach were trying to tell me something; it just took me a while to realize what it was.”

Her divorce was finalized two years ago, after 14 years of marriage (10 good ones, Zinman notes). She initiated the split, expressing her desire to end the union amicably. But as is often the case, that feeling of goodwill was not mutual. Zinman’s soon-to-be ex-husband rejected her attempt to settle the separation through a professional mediator, opting instead for traditional legal representation—meaning a possible trial and a definitive end to civil communication.

She’s quick, however, to credit him with eventually joining her in an effort to shield their two daughters—today aged 10 and 16—from the marriage’s collapse. With the dust now settled and the emotional debris cleared aside, the girls have adapted to splitting each week between their parents’ respective homes through a finely tuned system of drop-offs and pickups. Her ex-hubby, Joe (who declined to be interviewed for this article), has a live-in girlfriend, whom the girls—Zinman included—adore, and the newly single mom-slash-entrepreneur is embracing a fresh start and a burgeoning new career as a Web designer.

“Some of the adjustments have been stressful, but overall, I wouldn’t change too much,” she says. “It was truly a learning experience.”

But not all families who go through a divorce ultimately fare so well—and it’s causing parents to rethink their approach to the legal and every other side of divorce proceedings. In the wake of a break-up, here are some steps you can take to raise healthy well-adjusted kids who still believe in happily ever after.

Losing the Litigation
South Jersey families in particular are increasingly turning to alternative conflict resolutions (ACR), just one of the many ways they can try to bring some positivity into a negative situation.

“About 10 years ago, people began to realize that paying lawyers to bang their heads against one another in divorce court was just not cost-effective or practical,” says attorney Robert Gleaner, whose family-law practice is based in Audubon. While dueling attorneys may parlay sour emotions into months of high-priced squabbling, 99.9 percent of cases settle before trial anyway.

The most notable trend in avoiding court is through third-party mediation, which brings each side to the table—often with attorneys in tow—to work through a certified mediator toward a settlement.

Other increasingly popular ACRs include arbitration, which takes the judge out of the process entirely, and “collaborative divorce,” wherein a legal document is signed, allowing each side’s legal team to assist its clients in resolving conflicts through cooperative techniques rather than adversarial strategies.

And a good child therapist will tell you that parents who work in tandem to peacefully reach a settlement—as opposed to dragging an acrimonious divorce through court—will spare their children a lot of needless pain, worry and guilt.

“If it goes to a full trial, a court-neutral evaluation of the children is required—and as intimidating as going to court can be for adults, it’s even more scary for a kid,” says Marlton-based attorney Devan Theiler of the family-law firm Theiler & Mourtos, noting that a typical line of questioning involves asking a child which parent he or she prefers to spend time with. “Children should not feel like they have to choose,” she adds, “and going to trial often puts them in that unfortunate, potentially damaging position.”

Allison Granite, a Voorhees-based clinical social worker who specializes in mitigating the impact of divorce, says it helps to think of the family unit as a company that’s in the business of successfully raising kids. “Parents should consider themselves CEOs of their company—and there is no room for emotion in business,” she says. “You have to put feelings aside in order to make the decisions that allow your enterprise to grow and flourish.” That said, being divorced with two children herself, Granite knowingly adds that maintaining such a level-headed approach can be “easier said than done.”

Melissa Jones* can attest to that. The Moorestown mom entered into her second marriage with two children in 1991, and was soon pregnant with twins. Following a difficult birth and post-Cesarean recovery, she found herself at home raising four children for 12 hours a day while her husband went back to work in their shared real-estate business. The resulting stress led to migraines, which soon led to a dependency on a prescribed pain medication. Jones can pinpoint the breakdown of her marriage to the week she entered rehab, just two years after bearing her twin boys. “Even though [my husband] was the one who urged me to get help, and I immediately did, it was still hard for him to accept ‘my wife is an addict,’” she says.

Jones has been clean for more than four years now—but her marriage has since become an unmitigated mess. When she spoke with Suburban Family, she was a week away from a last-ditch effort at settlement, following a failed attempt at court-guided mediation more than a year ago. Since filing for divorce in May 2008, the contentious process has wreaked emotional havoc on Jones, her soon-to-be ex-husband (who was not available for comment) and their kids, who have borne witness to dozens of arguments while shuffling between their estranged parents, who are still living under the same roof. Barely on speaking terms, Jones and her husband have managed to eek out a custody arrangement that requires one parent to leave every other weekend, allowing for private time in the family home with their 7-year-old boys. (Jones’ children from a previous marriage have moved on to college).

“If our divorce does not get finalized through this last attempt at a settlement, we’re going to have to go to trial,” Jones says with a heavy sigh. “At this point, things are so unhealthy in our home, and I fear it’s really beginning to have an impact on the twins… I just want to move on with my life.”

Taking the Division Out of Divorce
While they’re moving on with their own personal lives, divorcing parents can take steps to prevent disruption and instability in their children’s lives as well. One of the best ways, experts say, is to ensure that the house the children consider home remains the property of the parent to whom primary custody is granted. That way, kids don’t have to add the stresses of adapting to a new home and school on top of the stresses of dealing with newly divorced parents. Making the decision not to shuttle the kids between two parents on holidays and to keep traditions as intact as you are able is also helpful in making children feel secure.

Theiler always advises her clients to remember to put the kids first when trying to agree on the terms of a divorce arrangement. “When negotiating a settlement, put what’s best for the child above what you want or what you consider to be the most fair or convenient decision,” she says.

If that proves difficult, she notes that ACRs, like mediation, can be used to settle portions of divorce cases, and not necessarily the whole kit-and-caboodle. If, say, the parties can agree on custody but can’t come to terms about alimony, the case can be brought to court with the former settled to get a judge’s order on the latter. According to Theiler, “There’s nothing a judge likes hearing more than ‘We’re settled on this particular issue.’”

Judges, says Burlington County-based attorney Chris Musulin, also like dealing with lawyers who keep emotion separate from the legal process. Although some lawyers purposely foment anger between the divorcing parties in order to stretch out the litigation and its per-hour price, drama doesn’t change the outcome. “All the theatrics between attorneys have no impact on [judges’] final decision, just like screaming at a watch won’t change the time.”

The Long and Winding Road
In New Jersey, the shelf life of divorce proceedings is theoretically one year. Although the 2007 addition of Irreconcilable Differences to the no-fault grounds of divorce in New Jersey has shrunk the required separation period from 18 months to just six, the process through the legal system is by no means a fast ride.

Jones and Zinman say the protracted time between separation and divorce needlessly prolonged a period of disruptive change, taking a toll on their offspring. “That whole time was terrible—worse than the years of arguments we heard growing up,” says Zinman’s older daughter, 16-year-old Jasmine, describing the lengthy separation leading up to her parents’ official divorce. “For a while, one of them was on the couch every night. Then my dad was living with my grandmother. Then he was back and my mom moved out…”

Jasmine and her 10-year-old sister, Gabriella, are now two years removed from the divorce finalization and have settled into the aforementioned (relatively) peaceful routine ping-ponging between their parents each week. But this healthy adjustment, preceded by a long and bitter legal battle, was difficult for both of them.

Gabriella struggled to understand why her mom and dad no longer lived together, temporarily losing weight and sleep. Jasmine bottled up her emotions to get through the day-to-day, which occasionally erupted into hostility toward her father. “I’m normally very outgoing, but when it came to the divorce, I couldn’t talk about my feelings,” she says.

Traditional gender roles indicate that boys internalize their pain and girls express themselves emotionally. But according to Granite, these stereotypes don’t necessarily apply when it comes to divorce. “I don’t think it’s a male-female thing; I think it’s an individual personality thing. I’ve got two boys, and when my ex-husband and I were divorcing, one was a talker and one acted-out. It can depend on how verbal a kid is, as well as on the way he or she processes such a jarring change in life,” she notes. “It’s not surprising when kids don’t want to talk about divorce—it’s painful. That’s why parents need to show that they’re not crumbling, too—that they’re strong, not angry at the other parent or sad or afraid. Children should see their parents as a source of strength.”

Granite also firmly believes that no matter how amicable the separation process may be, therapy should be considered for children of divorce from Day One. “It’s a huge adjustment,” she explains. “When everything else is topsy-turvy in their lives, a therapist can offer a safe environment in which children or siblings can talk about how they feel and express their fears.”

Indeed, therapy can quickly stabilize out-of-control or dangerously suppressed emotions, and serves to mitigate bad behavior, anger, depression, guilt and other buried feelings often triggered by divorce, notes Pitman-based clinical psychologist Katherine Perez-Rivera, who specializes in helping young patients navigate through the mental minefield a parental separation can present. “It’s important that children have the tools they need to express their emotions in a healthy way, and these resources may not be provided to him or her when parents get absorbed by the stress of a divorce,” she says.

But Perez-Rivera contends that ushering children through divorce relatively unscathed relies on more than just weekly visits to a therapist. Squabbles between parents should be kept behind closed doors, she advises, while the logistics of the changing marital and/or living situation should be out in the open. “It is imperative that parents accurately explain the divorce, tailoring it to a child’s emotional maturity level. No matter how many times you tell a child, ‘It’s not your fault,’ if you aren’t telling them what’s really happening, children tend to make up their own scenarios—and most of the time they assume they are the centerpiece,” she explains.

“Fight the urge to lie, omit or sugarcoat the information,” she continues. “Be consistent and be realistic—it’s okay to tell your children that things could be a little rough for a while; they can take it. Above all, parents need to keep things civil, and they need to realize that even though they’re not a couple anymore, they will always be connected through their child.”

“Always”—consider that word, Granite says. “It’s so important to maintain a partnership with the ex-spouse when children are involved,” she says. “Parents are bonded through children for their entire lives, regardless of their personal circumstances post-divorce.” It comes back to nurturing a successful company, she adds. “In order for it to be successful, emotions must be checked at the door.”

But divorcing parents are only human and it’s okay to have a bad day. In these instances, Granite advises, tapping her own experience, “You can tell your child, ‘Hey, I know it’s rough, and we’re going to get through it together.’ Validate their feelings and don’t be afraid to show yours once in a while—though not those against the other spouse,” she adds. “It’s not a bad thing to admit to your kid, ‘Yeah, this sucks.’ Because divorce does suck—it’s unfortunate for everyone involved. That said, children are innocent by-standers of this very adult process, and we should spare them the pain associated with it as much as humanly possible.”

The DOs and DON’Ts of Divorce Attorney Devan Theiler, Esq. offers Suburban Family parents some legal pointers on navigating through divorce:

Don’t ever speak poorly about the other parent in front of your children—or allow friends or family members to do so. This tactic may successfully turn a young child against the other parent, but it’s a sure-fire reason for a grown child to resent you in years to come.

Don’t promise your children anything in return for their cooperation in any portion of the divorce-settlement process, especially when it comes to custody—this can backfire big-time in court.

Don’t report the other parent to the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) unless you have a very serious, legitimate concern. It may sound strange, but experts say it happens more than you’d think.

DO try to be flexible and open-minded with your parenting plans, focusing on what really works for you and your family rather than on keeping a more rigid, “traditional” schedule of custody, such as switching parents every other weekend. Perhaps allowing the non-custodial parent to have one or two more “dinner visits” instead of the one extra “overnight” visit he or she is asking for can be the concession needed to prevent a battle date in court.

DO try to remember to always put your children first—well before any bitterness you may feel toward the other parent. For example, athletic or team-sport fees are technically included in child-support guidelines, so the non-custodial parent doesn't “have to” split or otherwise contribute to those costs. But even with child support in place, it can still be difficult for the custodial parent to afford “extras” like sports. Consider whether you really don’t want your child to be able to participate in the ballet, football or music lessons they enjoy just because you don’t want to give the other parent any more money.

DO go above and beyond the technical “requirements” of joint legal custody. Actively involve the other parent in as many aspects of the children’s lives as possible.

DO seek counseling (together or separately or both) to help you, your ex-spouse and your children deal with the difficulties that arise in even the best co-parenting arrangements.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family, April 2010.
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