I remember my dad prancing around the house shortly after he made the declaration that he was leaving my mother. He was on cloud nine, singing, dancing, and laughing as he gathered up his things on his way to a new life.
I watched with my brother and sister, unable to comprehend what was happening. I wasn’t unhappy to see him go and had been surprised when the declaration of divorce left me with a feeling of relief. But I remember thinking it didn’t seem right that my little brother should have to witness this overt show of euphoria at the thought of getting away from us.
As my dad discussed our new reality, he kept using positive terms. He assured us how this was for the best, and that everyone would benefit from the change.
He kept saying that he loved us and that nobody was to blame, and that’s where I interrupted him.
“Well, you’re to blame aren’t you?”
“No,” he said, a note of anger and confusion entering his voice.
“Well, you’re the one who asked for the divorce right? You’re the one who is leaving.”
His brow furrowed in anger and I knew better than to push the issue. He was committed to a belief that absolved him of any wrongdoing, and it irritated him that I would challenge that narrative.
When he had gone, my mom took us aside and apologized. Again the act confused me, but with the benefit of maturity I see the wisdom in her action.
“Why are you apologizing?” I asked, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re still here.”
“I’m apologizing because I know this change has caused you pain, and that I had a part to play in that pain. I’m sorry for that.”
At the time, I was old enough that perhaps I didn’t need to hear her say the words. But my brother half relaxed and I could tell some of his apprehension had lifted. However, he still needed to hear the same thing from Dad. Unfortunately, my dad was dead set on his position that there was nothing to apologize for.
“Why should I apologize? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The stability of routine
One of the ways children make sense of the world is through boundaries. Boundaries provide them with security. Many of these boundaries are created and reinforced through routine.
Reading to your children at night is a routine, and sometimes children get so dependent on the routine that they cannot sleep without having first heard a story.
Another boundary is the expectation that an individual who has caused harm will acknowledge responsibility, and offer an apology. Even if a divorce is done in the interest of long-term benefit, it still causes immediate anguish. If my dad had offered an apology to me as a child, it would have helped provide a much-needed background of enduring stability in a difficult time.
A divorce is a confusing moment for a child, and children lack the maturity to navigate their emotions alone. The situation is further muddled when a parent insists the divorce is something to celebrate even though the child feels his world has been torn to pieces.
A shift in power
Not long after my dad moved out, my brother began to have behavioral issues. He was thirteen, and we began to have regular conversations with local law enforcement. My brother was mainly occupied in harmless pranks and minor altercations but he was drawing the wrong sorts of attention and there was a real concern the issue could escalate.
My dad’s response was to shower him with gifts.
Even in a traditional nuclear family, children learn to leverage authority figures. If Dad is more likely to grant approval for a certain action, children understand to ask him for permission before bringing it up to Mom. This is just fundamental human behavior and should not be taken as malicious. During a divorce, these opportunities are magnified.
My dad’s insisted on a delusion that his life was exactly the same with the exception that he was no longer married. Because he continued to deny the nuances of the new power dynamic, my brother was able to exploit miscommunication between our parents, and get himself into trouble.
In hindsight, it’s obvious that my brother was only making an attempt to get my father’s attention, and perhaps invite him to participate in our new reality. However, my father steadfastly refused to be moved from his established patterns of behavior, or accept that his attitude was creating challenges for all of us.
Offering an apology, even if he didn’t fully mean the words, might have assisted my father in recognizing the harmful repercussions of his actions. His insistence on maintaining a glowing personal assessment of his behavior served as an abdication of further necessary parental obligation.
The result was that the rest of us had to act with limited authority to help my brother get through the next few years, even as my father frequently reinforced his negative behaviors with lavish gifts, praise, and a complete lack of comprehension.
A fractured relationship
I’m pleased to say that my brother did pull through and got his life back in order, but it all would have been a lot easier for everyone if my dad had participated in good faith and with an acknowledgment of his responsibility.
Today, I feel that in addition to owing us all an apology for the initial pain of the divorce, my dad also owes us one for his irresponsible behavior in the following years. His insistence on failing to acknowledge the harmful effects of his choices leaves me disinclined to spend any time with him.
Divorce makes your children adults
There are things that we as parents do to protect our children in order to make their gradual transition into adulthood less painful. A divorce is an abrupt acceleration of that process. No matter how well you handle the divorce with your ex-partner, or how much better your life will be in the long run, you still have to recognize the trauma your children experience in the moment.
Mistakes in parenting are the kind of things that can compound and lead to greater and greater issues. It’s always easier to put your pride aside and express remorse when it’s obvious that a situation could have been handled with greater care.
Language about how a divorce is “positive” is discordant with how children may feel at hearing the news, and can lead to confusion and mistrust. It’s important for a parent to acknowledge this discomfort and speak words of apology which can provide reassurance that the child’s concept of structure remains in effect. You don’t have to apologize for fault, you simply have to recognize the pain and confusion your child is processing.
Simple and necessary words of comfort and growth
Speaking words of apology helps parents recognize how a divorce has repercussions on multiple levels, and helps kids maintain their trust and sense of security. Most children are not equipped to adapt and navigate their new emotional landscape. In order to succeed, children need unified guidance from both parents.
I try to apply the lessons I’ve learned from my dad’s behavior to how I interact with my own wife and children. Some people believe the old quote from Love Story that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” but I strongly disagree.
Without taking responsibility you cannot grow. Offering an apology is often the best avenue available to begin the process of healing yourself and your family.