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The Divorce Impact

by Christine McLaughlin

Couples may be separating, but there are ways of navigating the new normal to lessen the burdensome effects on the family.

It’s never easy. Divorce can be particularly hard on families—but it doesn’t have to be devastating. In fact, knowing your options as divorcing parents, staying level-headed and focusing on the children’s well-being can best help everyone cope with the new family arrangement.

For Jennifer Bongiovanni, of Woolwich, divorce wasn’t the end for her family but the beginning of a new, healthier start. She was married for 10 years to her high school sweetheart, who was her best friend for the entire 17 years they were together. It was hard to imagine life without him. But about nine years into the marriage, Bongiovanni realized they were growing apart. She was getting a better handle on who she was as a person and what she wanted out of life.

“It was the hardest thing for me to lose him but it was my choice,” says Bongiovanni, who works as a business development officer.

In the meantime, her husband took the news hard, but was eventually able to get over his anger toward her and knew that what was best for their daughter was to be a united force in splitting up. “It’s huge that he was able to do that. It just says the kind of man he is. And he’s a great father,” she adds.

They both agreed to take their egos out of the equation and focus on their daughter—and to remain consistent with discipline in both homes. They communicate often and Bongiovanni believes that has been the key to their successful divorce.

Of course, not everyone going through divorce can have such an amicable arrangement, and when that’s the case, lawyers and mediators will often be involved. “Divorce is about a lot more than just numbers—it is about families and the future,” says Andrew L. Rochester, Esq., of Morgenstern & Rochester in Cherry Hill.

By law in New Jersey, before a couple starts a divorce complaint with a lawyer, they need to be told of the alternative dispute resolution options so they are aware they have the option of mediation. Many lawyers do mediation, which is the process of two parties coming together to an agreement with help from a neutral third party. Separate mediation professionals also perform divorce agreements.

“Mediation is giving the parties involved the power to make the decisions [rather than someone dispensing legal advice],” says Roseann Vanella, president of Advance Mediation Solutions in Cherry Hill. “My goal is to walk [couples] through the process of divorce to help them learn how to communicate and negotiate with each other … to keep emotions in check.”

In other words, experts stress that divorce has come a long way, and it is possible—as in Bongiovanni’s case—to go through the process in as healthy a way as possible.

Mediation vs. litigation
Mediation is typically less expensive than litigation because there isn’t the amount of paperwork and back and forth phone calls between attorneys and clients. Also, a divorce can be handled in a matter of a few months through mediation versus several months to years with attorneys.

Mediation works well for couples who know the financial situation of the family or who are on equal financial footing. But sometimes, when there is mistrust with the finances, it’s hard to mediate. Another example where litigation works better is if there is an imbalance of power (or abuse) in the relationship.

When couples want a divorce with an attorney, a consultation is done to let them know how the process will be handled. The attorney will need to know the couple’s income, expenses, budget, assets and lifestyle they’re accustomed to before proceeding, says Judith S. Charny, Esq., partner at Charny, Charny & Karpousis in Mount Laurel, who also does mediation. “A divorce attorney will help you find out what it means for you, specifically, and what all of your options are.”

Lawyers help figure out sometimes complicated custody matters, too. “A good lawyer will help you to determine what’s in the best interests of your child because that’s the standard the court is going to go by in a custody dispute,” adds Lynda L. Hinkle, Esq., of the Law Offices of Lynda L. Hinkle. “But a great lawyer will help you determine that and help you to be what is in the best interest of your child by working for long-term outcomes that protect the both of you.”

Whether going through mediation or litigation, the absolute final step of both is to have an attorney review the official document stating the dissolution of the marriage.

The impact on the kids
No matter the avenue, divorce is stressful. But it’s important not to let that stress of the conflict carry over to the children.

“A divorce can have the same emotional impact on a family as a death or serious illness,” says Christopher Rade Musulin, Esq., of Musulin Law Firm in Mount Holly.

“Anyone considering a divorce needs to be aware of the emotional and psychological impact on all members of the family.”

How parents handle the divorce discord is key to its impact on children. “We know that conflict between parents is toxic for children,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, clinical psychologist in Princeton and co-author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. “It’s really important to be civil to each other and not put kids in the middle. This is difficult for parents because the temptation is to lay it out there and list why [the divorce is] the other person’s fault. But don’t go there.”

Children tend to be black-and-white thinkers, so it can be easy for them to decide it’s one parent’s fault versus the other. In order to combat that, communicate that a divorce is no one’s fault and that it just happens sometimes. Then, turn the conversation to acknowledge the child’s feelings.

Kids also tend to blame themselves for the divorce, especially if they’re young, which to some extent is defensive because they think if they caused it, they might have some control over it, says Kennedy-Moore. So parents need to do a lot of reassurance that it’s not the child’s fault, and this needs to be a continuous conversation throughout the process.

Parents need to understand that children are likely to be scared at the prospect of the divorce because it’s like shaking their world apart; so before talking to them about the divorce, think about all of the scenarios they might consider. “Parents need to be very clear that each parent is not divorcing the child and be very specific and concrete on what is going to happen to them,” says Kennedy-Moore.

They will be curious about where are they going to live; who is going to take them to sports and activities; whether or not they still able to have friends over; where will they sleep; and what’s going to happen to all of their stuff, etc.

Teenagers especially can harbor a lot of shame and worry about what other people are going to think of them. So another big question to address with children is how to tell their friends the news. Kennedy-Moore advises parents to ask children, “Have you told your friends yet? What do you think you might tell them when you do?” Or if it’s a family friend, offer to call one of the parents to tell them the news.

Depending on the child and if they exhibit signs of anxiety or even depression, therapy could be the next step. School counselors will often have resources available to help find a qualified therapist who can be a regular support or a sounding board for a child going through divorce. Additionally, a therapist can be an advocate for the child who feels torn about a decision the parents have made, as well as helpful in dealing with the day-to-day problems that kids face with school and friends.

Kennedy-Moore concludes that whether or not children need extra support or they seem to be resilient with the transition, parents going through a divorce need to be mindful along the way that what truly matters is the children’s well-being—and it takes both parents on board to make sure that happens.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 2 (April, 2013).
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