My eight year-old and I were snuggled on his top bunk when he started to talk about classmates whose parents were divorced. Someone has two moms and one dad. Someone else lives in a different house on the weekends. Another says Dad lives in a different state.
I listened as he talked. I could tell a question was coming, but I didn’t want to presume that I knew which question it was.
“What does it mean to get divorced?”
“Why do people get divorced?”
“What happens after a divorce?”
His meandering seemed to start at the top of the list, but when he finally stopped fidgeting with his pillows and covers and looked at me with those baby blues I could tell where we were actually headed.
“But…like…could you and Dad ever get divorced?”
I’ve spent much of my career explaining a lot of issues as they pertain to kids and families. I’ve learned to give answers that are true to my own sense of integrity, but that also leave open enough variability for people to fit them to their own situations. I don’t know that I’m necessarily politically correct, but I’ve certainly learned to be aware enough not to rile PC people up too much.
But this time the answer wasn’t for the masses. This answer was for my boy. And for his younger brothers, who quickly became aware of the gravity of the conversation and tuned their ears toward his bed.
My answer was very personal to me and to our family as well as to the experiences we’ve had individually and collectively. I know it’s not an answer everyone will be happy with. And I know it goes against a lot of the ways we commonly talk about divorce. But I realized in that moment, as I took a deep breath and raced through talking points in my mind, that this wasn’t about making judgments or placing blame or pointing fingers. And it wasn’t about soothing consciences or avoiding offense. It was about addressing my son’s real concern: our family. And in that answer, I realized, was an opportunity to teach him about love and marriage and what it means to us in our home.
I wanted to share our conversation here because I think others might find it useful when answering their own child’s questions about marriage and divorce in general. But it won’t be for everyone. And I do want to be clear: This isn’t about talking to your child about your own divorce. It may give some insight, but the specific question I answered, the question he asked, was “Will you get divorced?” And this was my honest answer.
I explained to him that when his dad and I got married we made covenants, promises, to each other and to God, and we promised to keep those covenants forever and ever. Sometimes people make choices that break those promises, and it’s very sad. People do the best they can to fix those choices, but sometimes part of the fixing means they get divorced. I reassured him that his dad and I make choices every single day that help us keep our promises, and that we work to make our covenant a forever covenant for our whole family. As long as we both keep our covenants, we will never get divorced.
My husband came in about that time, and I was happy, not only to pass the parental baton, but to make the discussion part of a united front. We talked more about covenants and marriage and I realized how much this conversation meant to me.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had a front row seat to a few divorces in the lives of people I love very much. And as sad as they were, I believe those divorces all needed to happen. But they taught me some things about marriage, and I wanted to make sure those lessons were woven into my short answer, so that those lessons could possibly find their way into longer discussions as my boys get older. Here’s what I’m hoping my answer — and my marriage — are teaching my boys:
1. Love is more than a feeling, it’s a choice. I don’t want my kids to buy the line that people just “fall out of love” or that people divorce because they don’t make each other happy anymore. Not only does this feed into childhood anxieties about parents separating, because love appears so fleeting and fickle, but it also shades their own future relationships.
I want my boys to understand that while the feeling of love is exhilarating, the act of lasting love and marriage are based on choices made every day and every moment. Choices about the way we speak to each other and about each other, the way we treat each other, and the way we honor and serve each other. It’s about choosing daily to build and rebuild a solid foundation as this post so beautifully illustrates.
2. A marriage is a covenant. Whether the word covenant carries religious significance to you or not, I still believe it’s the correct word to describe marriage. By definition, a covenant is a formal and serious agreement or promise. In a world of ignored honor codes and forgotten campaign promises (not to mention 55 hour marriages), giving your word doesn’t seem to mean what it used to. What it needs to. I use the word covenant very intentionally with my boys. Marriage is a covenant, a sacred promise. I want my boys to know the importance of carefully making and mindfully keeping their promises.
3. A covenant marriage includes the whole family. Too often, the approach to discussing divorce keeps kids separate from the marriage. I understand and agree with the need to keep kids from feeling any guilt or responsibility in the choices their parents make in getting divorced, but I also want my boys to understand that when they choose to marry, their relationships with their wives are not just about them and their personal interests, but about a family. And that that family unit is not simply an institution for child-rearing, no longer necessary after children are grown, but it is a lasting unit, for which, their marriage is the base.
I want my boys to understand that marriage is not about two individuals and their independent and parallel pursuits, but about individuals becoming a family, unified both in trial and triumph. Particularly given what we know about fatherlessness (read here and here), I want my boys to understand that when they become husbands and fathers, their role is vital and sacred and one they should take on soberly, attend to selflessly, and protect nobly. It’s not just about them.
I can’t explain to my boys why other people get divorced. I can only say that they’ve made a very difficult, personal choice. I can tell them that we don’t need to know all the reasons why to know that they need our love and kindness.
And I can tell them about what marriage means in our home.
Many of my friends are also writing today about their experiences talking with kids about divorce. Find more perspectives and resources at Let’s Lasso the Moon.