I often talk about how important it is that you learn about and work on having healthy relationship skills after a divorce. Like many other relationship writers, I say you should do this so you can avoid another divorce and have better relationships.
But there’s an even bigger reason to learn about and work on those relationship skills and it has nothing to do with you and your own relationships.
No, the bigger and arguably more important reason is simple: your kids need a shot at healthy relationships.
That means it’s our responsibility to take real action to unstack those odds and give our kids a fair chance at a healthy, happy relationship of their own.
And you do that by learning to have healthy, happy relationships yourself.
Kids learn from what they see and what they hear. So what have they already seen?
They’ve already seen their parents split up. They might have seen their parents argue, disrespect and degrade each other, and do other things to hurt each other. Whether you or they realize it, this has given them an impression of what marriage looks like.
But you can’t just leap into another relationship and give them a better example. It takes time to get to know someone and build the kind of relationship that would be a healthy example for them.
And the last thing you want to do as a parent is sit down with your kids and tell them all the horrible things you and/or your spouse did that contributed to the divorce. And even if the divorce was amicable and not about horrible things that either of you did to each other, the mere fact that you’re divorced increases your kids odds of divorce, so you still need to do something.
So what else is there?
There’s learning how to have healthy, happy relationships and actively teaching your kids the knowledge and skills you’re learning.
Most of us were never truly taught how to have relationships. We looked at those around us and took in what we could from what we saw. We learned from our parents, grandparents, friends’ parents, and others whose marriages we could see glimpses of.
But the problem is those were always just glimpses. We never saw what went on behind closed doors. You might have had parents who fought constantly and so you learned that this was normal — or maybe they never fought in front of you so you learned that fighting at all was a sign of trouble. Either of these would have skewed your idea of a healthy relationship.
People rarely parade the ugly side of their marriage for the world to see. Why would they? No one wants to show the world the bad side of anything in their life. But this is how we end up with such messed up views of relationships.
We only get glimpses, and our primary examples — the people who raised us — aren’t always healthy. In fairness, these people don’t always recognize that their relationships aren’t healthy because, like us, they were never taught either.
As a divorced parent, you have a responsibility to do better for your kids. You have a duty to learn to have healthy relationships so you can teach your kids to have them.
This might feel unnatural to you, at least at first. But so do sex talks, and you have those, right?
In fact, think of this as being an addition to the sex talk. You teach your kids to have safe, healthy sex, which is a component of a safe, healthy relationship (we’ll leave safe, healthy sex outside of a relationship for a different discussion). You’re just expanding the sex talk.
By learning how to have healthy, happy relationships and talking to your kids about them, you show them that you’ve learned your own marriage was not healthy or happy. You show them that you’ve learned from what happened. And you show them that there’s always room for improvement and growth.
You’ll also be equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need for healthy relationships from the beginning. You equip them to recognize a toxic teenage romance before it becomes a marriage that they have to legally end instead of being able to just walk away. You teach them to avoid many of the games and manipulation that so many of us engaged in at one time or another because we didn’t know better. By doing so, you help them avoid the heartbreak and hurt, whether to themselves or to others, that comes with that kind of behavior.
Even if you’re not ready to date again, or even if you feel like you don’t have any interest in getting into a relationship again, you owe it to your children to learn healthy relationship skills so you can help them learn those same skills.
A few tips to make this a little smoother:
1. Think of this as being like the sex talk. Just as you don’t have just one big talk and call it done, teaching kids about healthy relationship skills should be an ongoing discussion that takes place multiple times and in age-appropriate terms.
2. Don’t use your own relationships or those of people you and your children personally know as examples of what not to do — this is risky because if your kids slip up and say something to someone you know, it could create a very uncomfortable situation for everyone involved.
3. When you see examples, good or bad, on TV or in movies or books, point them out. For example, Carrier Heffernan on The King of Queens is both verbally and physically abusive to her husband, Doug in many episodes. If you and your children watch the show, you could point that out as an example of an unhealthy relationship. This gives you an opening to bring it up that seems natural and also allows you to use an example that isn’t part of your regular life like a friend or relative.
4. For older kids, consider sending them articles, blog posts and other content you find online to read on their own, then discuss it together. This can help it feel more like a conversation than a lecture. It also allows them to form their own opinions, which means you might not need to do as much talking once you realize they’re on the right track on their own.
Remember that no one is perfect. Even relationship writers, therapists, and other educated experts can make mistakes, ignore red flags, and misread situations to end up in unhealthy relationships.
Don’t expect perfection from yourself before you start talking to your kids. And don’t expect perfection from them, either. The point isn’t about being perfect and having that fairy tale romance that never faces a problem or has a bad moment.
The point is to give your kids a boost. With the odds of their own marriage ending in divorce being higher, the point is to teach them about healthy relationships so they don’t just float along from one relationship to another with fingers crossed, hoping for the best. Instead, they can actively make choices that will hopefully lead to them having a happy, lasting relationship.
If all your knowledge gets put to good use, then you and your children can all enjoy years of happy, healthy relationships. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful family?
Wendy Miller is a freelance relationship writer & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she got fed up. Using meditation and other tools, she got to work on healing herself, setting boundaries, and only engaging in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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