After a number of meetings with Jeff Shushan, a seasoned advisor on relationships in stress, Molly, myself and Jeff had agreed to prepare for a profoundly important milestone: we were going to undergo a trial separation. It was November of 2013.
The suggestion of a trial had been mine, based on how companies undertake a big bet.
- Why put all your efforts into one place, when you can undergo a pilot, learn from it and course correct?
- If Apple or P&G does this for ad campaigns, why not pursue the same for something as potentially cataclysmic as proceeding towards a divorce?
- Perhaps, just perhaps, this would help us get to a better place together. If not, it would help us know how to live apart.
Yes, there’s all the important logistics of where, when to start, what to start with, what comes from the current home into the “new place.”
But to me, and confirmed by Jeff, the most important detail was sharing this decision and set of actions with Paul and Sidd. To paraphrase Sidney Poitier’s character in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” we as parents owe them everything. The life at our house was strewn with many small conflicts and the occasional big one. Yet, stepping across the deep chasm from both parents living under one roof, to a separated arrangement – – that struck me as one filled with as much risk as when climbers cross a physical one. Nobody was going to fall in this crossing – – that was my personal promise.
If there is one datapoint vividly held in my mind, it was the words from a very smart, attractive lady by the name of Andrea I briefly dated decades ago. In one of our long meandering moments shooting the breeze, she recalled an unforgettable moment from her youth: standing on the living room couch as a little girl with tears streaming down her face, looking out the window, as her father “moved out” and drove away. I was struck by how every nuance of that moment was still clear in her memory, so many years later. I didn’t say this to her but as someone whose parents got along, I realized yet again my ignorance of so many things in the world. And, it made me sad to realize how kids are probably more affected by a divorce than the divorcing parents. Years later, here I was, acting out that same story, in the role of the dad. But nobody was going to fall into this chasm we were crossing. Particularly my sons.
Jeff’s guidance about how to unveil this new reality made me smile as it was in some respects so obvious and yet I have to believe it is rarely undertaken. Here’s the core elements of it:
- Practice, together, from a talk track: The parents should write down what they want to say, keep it centered on the interests of the children. Then practice it, together, out loud. More than once, definitely.
- Tell supporting players: Prior to talking to your children, contact the counselors at the schools your children attend, so they can be explicitly on the lookout for any signs that this event is being received poorly by your kids.
- Get food in advance: Be ready to have something to eat as a full dinner for the event itself.
- Set up what you can, in advance: My boys have simple tastes & modest needs. I knew an Xbox and a TV would go very far in an empty space.
- Dial down the perceived risk: In the actual discussion, right from the beginning, share that “We are always one family, you always have mom, you always have dad. We are not going away, ever.”
- Share what’s going to happen: Admit that yes, life has been tough at home as you certainly know. They will agree and may chime in with examples. Our children document home life with remarkable detail. So we are going to try something new, we will be “one family, in two places, where [in this case, dad] will be moving out” and indicate the place and location. OF NOTE: the “new place” needs to be chosen based on your kids’ needs, not your own. Meaning, one that’s in the same school district, has some of their friends nearby, perhaps is also easy to get between homes. It’s not chosen because it has a dramatic view, is near other adults you hang out with, or restaurants, nightlife, etc. etc.
- Show, don’t tell anymore: When they ask something like, “where exactly is this?” you will say, “let’s all go there and see it.” The whole family will jump in the car and pay a visit to the new place. Here it’s vital that both parents go along to bring the “One family, Two homes” mantra to life. When there, tour all its nooks and crannies, where each child will sleep, etc. You will have removed a vast amount of the speculation that can spiral in counter-productive ways.
- Bring along a keepsake. Before you leave the 1st house, have the children bring along something of importance from the “first home” to have at the “second home.” In the next few months, have them do the converse. That way if they have a moment that is difficult, they will have a memento to help them along. (Ideally, the parents participate in this but that is less vital.)
- Break bread. Tell them, “Hey, since we are one family, in two places, let’s eat as a family.” And then do so. As always, actions speak louder than words. Bring out the food you had with you, and sit and eat.
It is still a hard, tricky chapter, fraught with potentially brittle moments. It may be akin to pulling a band-aid off a wound, in terms of the immediate pain this moment may create, in and of itself. Yet, it’s vital to firmly and deftly guide our fellow humans through the passageways of life, particularly those inflection points that can otherwise create unwanted barnacles that seem to forever stick to our memories.
A few observations from our experience.
- Paul was without words when we shared the news, his eyes glassy and just staring at me, as he listened intently. That very nearly derailed my entire train of thought. Gosh, this was really happening, eh?
- Sidd carefully asked a few questions, unclear how these would be received.
- When we pulled into the apartment complex, surprise was in Sidd’s voice when he said, “Wait, do you realize my 2 best friends live here?”
- After undertaking a very close inspection of the whole place, Paul’s sense of design & pragmatism framed his observations as he commented, “The rooms are nice in this place, and we have an Xbox.”
- The schools’ counselors shared surprise when we notified them. One said, “No one in my 15 years has told me in advance. It is so helpful. And what I hear usually after the fact is the family went to a very fancy restaurant to share the news at the end of the meal. I think that makes matters worse by adding confusion and dissonance.”
It’s by no means an exercise I would wish upon anyone. A fruitful relationship is better. But when this hard moment needs to be traversed, I will always be grateful for Jeff Shushan’s thoughtful advice.