The dissolution of a family unit when parents separate or divorce is a difficult thing for everyone involved, parents and children alike. But, that doesn’t have to mean it will be contentious and detrimental.
In this episode I am joined by certified divorce specialist and the author of Moms Moving On, Michelle Dempsey-Multack. We’ll be busting some common misconceptions about divorce, discussing the importance of support – for your child and yourself, the destructive nature of shame and guilt and the ways single parents can make their children feel safe and secure during this massive transition.
It’s not the divorce that will mess up your kids. Your kids, if you give them the right tools, can adapt to anything. It’s how you treat each other in the divorce, in the co-parenting relationship thereafter, that can be detrimental to the kids.
Dr. Sarah (00:20):
There is a bit of an archaic notion in our society that parents must stay together for the kids, but when questioning what is best for you, your relationship and your family, the answer isn’t always staying together and that’s okay. Joining me today is writer and certified divorce specialist, Michelle Dempsey-Multack. Her new book Moms Moving On: Real-Life Advice on Conquering Divorce, Co-Parenting Through Conflict, and Becoming Your Best Self comes out today. This episode is all about busting some common misconceptions about divorce and helping you approach this emotional time with mindfulness and compassion, both for your kids and yourself as you navigate this transition.
Dr. Sarah (01:07):
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two in this podcast. I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Dr. Sarah (01:40):
Hi. Hello. I’m so excited. I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so excited today. We have a really special guest. Michelle Dempsey-Multack is here and she just came up with this incredible new book called Moms Moving On, and I really was excited to have you on the podcast. Talk about this such an important topic.
I agree. And I’m, I’m honored to be here. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Sarah (02:03):
Yeah. So could you share a little bit with the listeners, you know, a little bit about your story and how you got into this and how you ended up writing this book?
Sure. So I have been a certified divorce specialist and now co-parenting specialist for about three years. I was an educator in my former pre mommy life. I was a teacher and then after I had my daughter I stopped teaching. I was writing, I built my own writing business and a lot of the content I was writing for mommy outlets like scary mommy and parents. And all of that was, you know, your typical like mommy blogger type stuff. And then I got divorced when my daughter was two. And it was not hard in the sense that like I knew, I knew I could thrive as a single mom cuz I saw my own mom do it, but it was isolating and confusing. And there was so much that people didn’t talk about. And all of these books out there really only spoke to like the legalities or like, you know, dating after divorce. And I wasn’t there yet. I just needed to know how to survive as a 33 year old mom with a two-year-old while all my friends were still married and having babies. And so I started writing about it. Like I, the magazines and publications that I wrote for were really like accepting of my shift in my content. And I started sharing so much about my divorce and my co-parenting experiences on social media and there wasn’t really a platform for that yet. So it, people were listening and I realized that. So once I saw the need for more support in that area, I started my podcast because I wanted to be able to answer the questions that everybody was throwing my way and go right to the source of different divorce industry professionals, lawyers, judges, mediators therapists and then people started asking if they could hire me. So I’m like, oh, I don’t know, do you wanna work with me? And so I got certified as a coach and then a certified divorce specialist and now a co-parenting specialist. And then people would say like, where’s your book? Where can I pre-order your book? Or where can I order your book? And I was like well, I don’t know. I don’t have one yet. And so I’m like, okay, you gotta, I guess I gotta write the book. So two years ago, this whole journey towards writing this book began and now it’ll be out the week that you air this. It’s called moms moving on real life advice on conquering divorce, co-parenting through conflict and becoming your best self.
Dr. Sarah (04:32):
And I love, I mean, I think this is so important because I don’t think women and men, it doesn’t, it really parents who are going through divorce who are separating, who are parenting as co-parents there, isn’t a lot of support and there’s not a lot of like resources for families that are going through this. And yet it makes up a pretty large population of parents.
Yeah. Well, and I think that that’s, this is new, right? Like before the pandemic, more and more people under 35 were getting divorced, you know, divorce used to be this thing that like women did parents happened to get divorced after their kids went to college or when they were older. And that’s not the case anymore. I think we’re in this age of like empowerment and understanding yourself and self-awareness, and it’s making people realize that they don’t have to live unhappily attached. So the demographic has gotten younger and younger and now I think 35 to 44 is like the more popular divorce range. And so, you know, you, you know, you need a lawyer, you get all that legal advice, but then where’s all the emotional support. And where’s the, you know, where’s the hand holding when your kid has to go sleep with the other parent for the first time. And you’re like having a panic attack in the fetal position in your bed. Like there’s a lot of support you need for that, that you can’t just get from calling your lawyer.
Dr. Sarah (05:58):
Right? Cause divorce is complicated because it’s not just a separation of the two people getting divorced. It, you have children, it’s a separation for everybody and it doesn’t have to be a traumatic separation. It doesn’t have to be an earth shattering separation, but it is a separation and it all separations are gonna to elicit really strong feelings from everybody involved. And if it’s not, then there’s probably a, some level of like detachment or denial or repression going on. Like we, we feel those. We feel that pull.
Right. Well, I think, you know, everybody will say, I’m gonna stay to, or people will tell you stay together for the kids or I don’t wanna get divorced cuz it might mess up my kids. But what, what you don’t realize is that kids are seeing this tension. They’re living this anxious existence with two parents who are not getting along or, you know, with one parent who’s constantly putting down the other or with a parent who’s always crying because of their unhappiness. Like that’s not healthier for the kids than two parents who are living their lives separately and happily. And that’s where I try to like bust the myth that divorce messes up your kids because it’s not the divorce that will mess up your kids. Your kids, if you give them the right tools can adapt to anything. It’s how you treat each other and the divorce and the co-parent relationship thereafter that can be detrimental to the kids. So that’s, you know, a lot of the work I do also is getting parents to realize that the best thing you can do is keep your children in the center of your divorce, but not put them in the middle. Like keep them in the center of your decision making skills or your decision making processes, but don’t put them in the middle of your anger and your emotional stuff because that’s where the messing up of the kids happens.
Dr. Sarah (07:44):
Right. I mean, and I think that’s true kind of parenting in general, right? Like first of all, I always say, it’s not what you do. It’s how you do it in any capacity. Yeah. And like, you know, also this idea that like it’s important to have these boundaries, right? We, we are the adults, we are the, we are responsible for being the containers for our children and not the other way around. So having, I love that like distinction of having your child be in the center, which means you’re holding them in your mind at all points in your decision making and in your actions with your partner and all with child. But then they’re not in the middle in the sense, like they’re not responsible for your feelings. They’re not responsible for your behaviors. And then there’s a real clear delineation that we’re making clear implicitly and explicitly to our children that like this, isn’t your job to hold responsibility for.
At all. And unfortunately, so many women that I work with in my one-on-one coaching practice, there is this like level of parentification that’s taking place because you know, unfortunately it’s more often the father who will dump the feelings out onto the child, like, oh, you know, well, daddy can’t buy you that cuz mommy took all of his money or, you know, daddy’s just sad because he had to leave. Mommy made him, leave the house and get a new place. And then the child automatically feels responsible for taking care of the parent. Which tells the child, I can’t have my own needs. I can’t have my own emotions because my dad’s upset or my mom’s upset. And so that’s also something to really avoid whether you’re married or not. I mean, your child should never be responsible for your feelings.
Dr. Sarah (09:23):
Right. And I, you bring up parentification, which I think is a really interesting concept that we talk about. Sometimes I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly defined it on the podcast before. Do you wanna talk a little bit about what parentification, regardless of divorce, just as a concept.
As a concept, it’s putting a child in a position to feel responsible for their parents, their parents emotions, you know, and if you think back to your own childhood, many of you listening will be like, oh, that was me. You know, maybe you had a parent who had a substance abuse issue who was an alcoholic and you were on high alert, worried about, you know, if mommy or daddy’s gonna start drinking, do I have to make sure you know that they get in bed? Okay. Or if your own parents were divorced as a kid, were you responsible to keep your mom happy? So you didn’t see her sad all the time. And that’s exactly what you wanna avoid because then, you know, we’re in this era where everyone’s like, oh, I’m a people please. You’re a people pleaser. We’re all people pleasers. Cuz we were taught to put our parents needs first in a lot of situations. And that’s, you know, it’s unfortunate, but because so many of us grew up like that. I know at least in as being a child of divorce, you don’t wanna replicate these patterns. You wanna break these cycles and you wanna teach these kids to, you know, feel safe in their own emotions and not worry about mommy and daddy’s emotions and teach them critical thinking skills. One person can feel this way and another person can feel another and you don’t have to feel the same as either of them. You know? So there’s so many lessons that come from co-parenting and, and getting your child adjusted to two homes that we overlook that we overlook, like the benefits of this in a way and focus on the negative. Cuz it’s easier for society to do that, I guess.
Dr. Sarah (11:05):
Yeah. Yeah. I’m curious, like, you know, I think you’ve brought up some already, but I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about how divorce affects children and one just being that it’s going to be bad for them. And this idea that like that’s the, this is a, oh poor us. This is the problem. And now we’re stuck with this and we’ve damaged our child in some way because we’ve chosen ourselves over them. And I just think there’s so many illustrations in our world of really, of like that, that does not have to be the outcome.
Yeah. That’s like a garbage mindset. And I write about it so much in my book because I mean, look, my own parents were divorced. Was it easy on me? No, because they had a high conflict contentious divorce. But am I so glad I didn’t grow up in a home with a mom who allowed her husband to cheat on her and be emotionally abusive? Absolutely. Because that’s the situation I would’ve found myself in most likely. So you know, these misconceptions of like kids need an intact home to thrive are just, they’re bogus. And I, I write a lot in my book about the fact that Harvard research shows scientifically proven children only need one stable caregiver to thrive. So if you’re single parenting and people are like, oh, it’s gonna be so hard for your child to grow up with the other parent. Well, no, unless you sit around saying, it’s so hard for you, Johnny, you don’t have your dad here. It’s, it’s what you make it. And children only need one person to set them on a path and give them the emotional support and consistency that they need. So if you have two people willing to do that in two separate homes, even better, you know, it doesn’t have to be this self-fulfilling prophecy of like, we got divorce, the kids doomed. Cuz if you start looking for things that are messing them up, you’re, you’re gonna find them and feed into them. You know, with everyone talks about kids are resilient. I’m of the belief they’re not born resilient. You have to teach them to be resilient and adaptable divorce. And co-parenting is a super critical teachable moment time where you’re like, okay, you have to now transition to somebody else’s house. How can you do that so that you feel good? What do you need to be comfortable? You’re teaching them to adapt in all different situations, which is a definitely an important skill to have in life, you know?
Dr. Sarah (13:29):
Yes. And it speaks to the, the thing that I think is really true about parenthood, it’s an active, you know, it’s an active position. You know, to parent is to be very active. It’s a lot of work. If you want a parent. Well, if you want to create the, the connections for your child to help them learn things like resilience, things like self-worth things like a growth mindset, you actually it’s it more work and, and it’s not easy.
It’s really hard. Actually. I’m tired.
Dr. Sarah (14:00):
It is. And like I often tell like, I’ll coach parents on like a parenting strategy and it’s, it’s a lot more work than some of the quick fix behavioral interventions that just manipulated a child’s behavior into like changing and those work too. But I think that they have a short halflife and I think if you really wanna make these sort of really lasting impacts on your child, you know, stuff happens, tough stuff happens. And if we want to use that as an opportunity to show our child, Hey, when tough stuff happens, I can be this for you.
Dr. Sarah (14:38):
Yeah. I’m here. And I’m gonna give you a lot of information about what’s going on. Yeah. I’m not gonna sweep this stuff under the rug. I’m not gonna sit, pretend like everything’s fine. I’m gonna show you my feelings. Not gonna make you manage them, but I’m gonna show them to you and I’m gonna be open about them and I’m gonna help you walk through the ways that I’m managing my feelings. So you’re modeling this like healthy coping for your kid while not asking them to manage it for you, but they’re they get to witness it. Right. We’re not hiding this stuff from them.
Yeah. And I wrote in my book, I started a chapter with you know, my clients will start crying on, on zoom when we’re working together. And they’ll say, I’m so sorry, I’m crying. And I’m like, why are you sorry that you’re crying. Like you’re getting divorced. This is, this is a big deal. You’re allowed to cry. And you know, people always say, is it bad to cry in front of my kids? It’s listen. I don’t think you should be sitting around crying to your kids about your life. But if your children see you upset, like that’s okay, you’re human. You have well-functioning to ducts and you’re allowed to use them. Don’t make it a point to cry to them every day. But explain to them, sometimes mommy gets sad and sometimes mommy needs the space to be sad because sad things happen, but here’s how I’m gonna make myself feel better. And that’s another thing it’s like, you’re teaching them that it’s okay to not have to be happy all the time or follow the rules all the time. Like people are human and the more human they see you, the more grace and acceptance they’re gonna give themselves as they grow up and make mistakes and, you know, feel all different types of way.
Dr. Sarah (16:13):
I couldn’t agree with that more. And I think it’s so universal. Like I love how you’re applying it to divorce, but I genuinely think these are principles that are about being human.
Yeah, for sure. And the other thing I wanted to say is, you know, if, if anybody’s listening and they are going through a divorce and they’re just trying to manage when the other parent is super high conflict. So it’s important to bring this up because if we’re talking about divorce, messing up the kids, when there is a high conflict situation happening, that’s very hard on the kids. Is it going to hinder their ability to thrive in life? Probably not. If you one reasonable parent in an unreasonable situation, but this is also one of those times where you can teach children, harness, you know, their own feelings, own that, speak up to the parent who is not making them feel good, or who is saying things that you know is not does not feel safe or good about the other parent. And, and that in itself is a lesson. So I just, I don’t want anybody listening to this. And you know, thinking like if I don’t do these things, my kids will be messed up. No. Right. All you need to do literally is what you’re doing now, seek a little help, stay grounded, put your children first, do not put them in the middle and just do the best you can because you’re probably doing a lot more than your own parents did for you. And that’s plenty.
Dr. Sarah (17:37):
Yeah. And I think, you know, I often say if you’re listening to podcasts like this…
You’re already seeking help and you’re doing a good job.
Dr. Sarah (17:46):
Right. You’re paying attention. You know, you’re paying attention to what’s going on inside of you, you’re paying attention to what’s going on inside of your kid. It doesn’t mean you’re never gonna fight with your, you know, your ex, it doesn’t mean that. And that doesn’t mean that you, every time you do, you’re damaging something, you know? But repair is also a really important piece to this, I think. And that is, you know, I talk about this a lot in the context of like, we’re gonna lose it with our kids. We’re going to have moments where we are just not our best parenting selves. And what do we do after that? Like do we cloak ourselves in like guilt and shame?
Oh, that’s a good question.
Dr. Sarah (18:23):
Or do we talk to our child about it? Do we say, Hey, I messed up. I lost my cool. I’m sorry. I don’t think that felt good for you to experience me in that way. And I wanna do better.
I just had this happen to me over the weekends. I had a moment. I gotta say like, actually my daughter’s therapist said to me once, like, you’re almost too good. Like you say all the right things. You know, you’re validating her emotions. I follow more of this like conscious parenting model. Yeah. And like, she needs to see you mess up every once in a while. And I’m like, you know, type a perfectionist. I’m like okay. Sometimes I spill a drink. I don’t know. And she was like, no, like, you know, if, if you happen to have a moment where you’re not being your best parenting self, like own it, talk to her. So this happened recently and I yelled at her and I’m not a yeller. I don’t believe in it. I don’t think it’s productive, but you know, mama was PMSing. She’s got a lot on her plate. And there was just another nervous breakdown from my seven-year-old that I couldn’t handle. And I yelled and she looked at me and was like, like, she couldn’t believe that came out of me. And I felt horrible. Like, I said, mommy needs a minute. I went into my office, I shut the door. I started crying. And I’m like, how did that happen? So I’m like, okay, I’m not just gonna come outta here and pretend everything’s fine. And be like, so you wanna snack? I’m really real with her. And I went in her room and I sat down. I’m like, how do you feel right now? And she’s like, not good. You’re so mean. And I’m like, it made you feel so bad when mommy yelled, didn’t it? Yeah. I didn’t like it. Why’d you do that? I’m like, you know what? I don’t even know why I did that, Bella. Like, I’m so sorry that happened because that’s not the way that I speak to you. Usually it doesn’t make me feel good to do that. It doesn’t make you feel good when I do that, God, I really have to apologize and give you a hug. And then she ended up being like, I yell at you a lot too. I guess it’s not nice. And I’m like, you know, now you see how it felt for you and I’m so sorry that had to happen. And so we had like this really real moment and we’ve been joking about it ever since. Like yesterday, I’m like, honey, come on, we gotta get to school. She’s like, or what? You’re gonna yell. And I’m like, well, you know, she’s a little bit sassy. But those moments are so real. And so like important for our kids to see. They don’t need like robotic, perfect parents. They really don’t.
Dr. Sarah (20:43):
No. And I feel like, I feel like this comes up a lot with like parenting scripts. Like, I feel like there’s so many scripts out there for like what we’re supposed to say. And then it’s like, we end up kind of like I’ve had patients who’ve told me they like, I did this thing that I read on Instagram and my kid said like, mom, you feel like you’re reading a book right now. Like, they’re just like, what, what is this, this way you’re talking to me. That’s not you. And so I’m always trying to help parents think about like, what’s underneath the script. How do you understand like the core nugget there and then turn it into your own words? Because we, when we don’t, when we have to have that authenticity in our parenting.
Yeah, we totally do. And I think, you know, the main message in those scripts is always the same, like validate how your child is feeling and help them work through whatever it is. You know, I follow a lot of parenting people and yeah, I can see what you say. Like, you don’t wanna sound like verbatim. Like you’re taking your advice from an Instagram reel. But one of my best friends is an early childhood expert and she’s actually a contributor to the book and she’s helped me so much. Like there are times like the first time I caught my daughter lying and I didn’t know what to do. I’m like, do I take away her iPad? Like, what do I do? I don’t know what to do. And she’s like, okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. And she tells me, and then I can like bring it down to my daughter’s level. And it’s, it’s just, you know, it’s helpful to understand at we’re no longer in an age where you can just sweep these things under the rug or, you know, shut down your kids’ emotions cuz you don’t know how to deal with them. I feel like, I mean, we were all kind of treated that way as children cuz our parents didn’t have the resources and the information they have now. And I think it’s great that we’re so much more in touch emotionally with our kids.
Dr. Sarah (22:29):
Yeah. I think as a field, I think there’s a lot more emphasis. Like even in graduate school when I was learning child development, like it was all behavioral, it was all about behaviorism and like the idea that like a child’s nervous system and they’re the way that they regulate their emotions, the way they perceive safety, interpersonally should be the first things we think about when we’re trying to help a child regulate and feel understood and then we can manage their behaviors. Right. But that like, you kind of need to do it in that order for it to be effective.
Right. Versus just yelling at them and expecting them to like, not feel that way anymore.
Dr. Sarah (23:03):
Yeah. Or like, like a lot of like like a reward, punishment models, right? Like rewards will increase the behavior. Punishments will decrease the behavior. So just looking at it about like behavior. If my objective is just to change my child’s behavior rewards and punishments do work and that’s what we all learned in graduate schools as psychologists.
Right. But that’s, it’s a bandaid cuz then you’re not looking at like where the behavior is coming from. Like when my child did tell a lie, why did she do that? Like, yes, the lie was bad and it needed to be addressed. But like where was that coming from? And so right. You know, we that’s where, why you say we have to work so hard, but we have to work to understand those things.
Dr. Sarah (23:42):
You have to be investigator. I always say we’re like, we’re we have to be detectives. We have to go underneath the behavior to try to figure out what is, what is motivating that behavior to show itself. And usually like the case of lying it’s often shame, right? Yes. Or fear that I’m gonna be, that my parent will be angry with me or not wanna love me as much. So I want to do anything I can do to make that not be the outcome. So I will lie to get you to not, not dislike me or look poorly upon me. So we can kind of meet that lying with some compassion and some curiosity. Huh? I wonder what made you feel like telling me that, that thing that I don’t think happened, you know. And aligning with them to be like on the same team, looking at the problem together, Hey, let’s figure this out kind of as a team, you’re going to dismantle that shame and the behavior of lying will kind of dissolve.
Yeah. Shame and guilt are too, you know, terrible emotions that I think we as adults have to understand the difference, but between, and then really work hard to take our children out of that like mindset of shame.
Dr. Sarah (24:52):
Yes. Yes. And I think, you know, going back to the idea of divorce, I think shame and guilt are huge factors for parents for both, you know? I think a lot of parents fear that I’m, I’m not doing best by my child or, or my child isn’t gonna have the best possible life. And I think you really do an amazing job of, of dismantling that fear because I don’t think that has to be the outcome at all.
I think the best thing that happened to me, even though it painful and it was traumatic, my parents divorce took, they got separated when I was eight, but I didn’t really see my dad much before that he was never around. And their divorce was final when I was graduating high school. Okay. So like my entire existence, every memory I have of growing up revolved around this divorce. But regardless it strengthened my bond with my mom, it made me witness like this badassery, this mom, you know, she was from another country, didn’t have any support or resources here in the states like rose from the ashes, like a Phoenix ended up falling in love with her divorce attorney, like sex in the city. And the whole thing was just such a great lesson for me in so many ways. Like I, I have my issues from my parents divorce. I have abandonment issues and neglect issues for my dad, but I was literally given the blueprint for how to thrive as a single mom, as a divorced woman and what not to do with, for your children. My mom did a lot of things wrong, both my parents, but I in turn learned what not to do and how to be a better, more present, more mindful co-parent
Dr. Sarah (26:34):
Yeah. So what are some of the things, what are some of the most important takeaways would you say?
I would say no, it’s not better to stay together for the kids. Never talk badly about the other parent in front of the child. Even if the child is, is encouraging the behavior. If the child says daddy’s so mean you don’t want to, that’s not something you wanna validate. You can help them explore why they feel that way and offer them solutions for how to approach the issue. But you never wanna align yourself up with your kids’ feelings like that because it just creates loyalty, bind. You want to take the high road always in co-parenting it’s not easy. I would say I probably do it about 90% of the time because I’m human. And that’s hard. Like I have to really restrain myself sometimes, but if you can take the high road and learn which battles to a pick, not fire off emotionally, every time your ex does something you don’t like, I think you’re gonna be on a path to success. For sure. Yeah.
Dr. Sarah (27:32):
What about support outside of, you know, the family
You need support and very often you need to find it outside your family because your family might not be okay with your choices. They will say, well, me and dad have been together for 40 years, despite X, Y, and Z. Well guess what, mom and dad, I’m not you. And I want something different for my kids. So you need to find the people who will support you and help you through without making you feel guilty, shameful like you did something wrong, you know, you don’t just want like a cheering section of people telling you you’re great, but you want the people in your life who can understand who have been, where you’ve been, who can hold your hand through certain parts of it. And that’s essentially why I developed the podcast. My Moms Moving On membership community, my Instagram space. And now the book and actually one of the reviewers who read the book said, it’s, it’s on the back on the endorsements that it’s like re divorcing mom’s best friend. It’s literally the book understands, cuz I’ve been exactly where you’ve been. But you need that. And it doesn’t need to be a whole crew of people. It can be one person who you’ve connected with because they got divorced last year and you just wanna pick their brain. So many people in my community personally, who are going through a rough patch in their marriage and who are headed for divorce will reach out and say, Hey, I know you went through this, please, you know, help, help, help, help. Don’t be too shy to reach out to that person.
Dr. Sarah (28:57):
Wow. That’s interesting too, that like there becomes sort of a little bit of a, like we’ve gone through we’ve, I’ve paved this road first, you know, and, and there’s like an you know, a built in support network of people out there who have this shared lived experience which can be so healing to talk about it.
And before you run to a lawyer, if you’re thinking of getting divorced, work with a coach, work with somebody who’s gonna help you learn which battles to pick what you need to actually fight for in your divorce. How to understand a parenting plan. You know, a lawyer is really great to get the job done and there are some really great lawyers out there, but it’s also not their job to hold your hand through anything and emotionally support you through the divorce. So I think if you go into the divorce already feeling emotionally supportive, it’ll help curb a lot of the, the need to drive the divorce from an emotional angry place. And it’ll save you a lot of time and money in court in the process
Dr. Sarah (29:58):
That makes so much sense. I feel like while I don’t do divorce coaching, I’ve certainly done a lot of couples therapy in my time. And like one of the first questions I often ask couples when they come to see me is, do you both wanna be in this relationship? And there’s no right or wrong answer to that. But in order to kind of go forward in couples therapy, I’ve gotta know, are we trying to mend something or are we trying to have amicable separation? Because that’s a lot of times people come to couple’s therapy not to get back together, but to break up. They might not realize that’s what they’re coming for, but that ultimately becomes the work. And it’s not, I mean, there’s no right or wrong, but I think you have to kind of decide that.
One of the most common questions I get asked is how do I know if it’s time to leave my divorce or leave my marriage? How do I know if it’s time for a divorce? And I have a whole course based on this, because that’s a really difficult question to answer. And one of my first responses is if you haven’t gone to counseling and you haven’t done the things to like really work on this marriage, will you be able to put your head down on the pillow at night, feeling like you did it all because if not, then you’re gonna, you’re gonna feel regret and shame and guilt. But if you know that you went to counseling and you’ve done all the things and you’ve sought the help to make this marriage work, then you can probably make a more informed decision as to whether or not it’s time to move on. But marriage counseling, like it has to happen. I really do think, you know, that is the lifeline you call in like the last ditch effort. And that was advice. Actually, my mom had given me, she’s like, you don’t wanna leave this marriage until, you know, you’ve done everything because you will go to sleep at night, feeling guilty and wondering what if, and that’s the same advice I give everybody else. I’ve had many clients who will reach out out and we’ll do a session or two. And I’m like, I don’t know that you wanna leave this marriage and I’ll encourage them to go. You know, it’s not that I’m pro divorce. I’m pro making you feel good after divorce. And I’ll encourage them to go try a little harder, try a little bit more inevitably, they’ll come back to me and they’ll say, I’m so happy I tried, but yeah, no, this isn’t gonna work. And but I think that trying is so important.
Dr. Sarah (32:06):
Well, cuz it gives you clarity. It really does. It helps you really tap into the, your authentic feelings about stuff and that you might have a hard time getting to all by yourself. Cause we’re so defended against feeling that kind of pain.
Right. And you also, I, I mean, in my opinion, if you have children, you do wanna let them know one day that yes, we tried everything to make it work. We did all the things, you know, we didn’t just give up when it got hard. We, we tried. But sometimes, you know, it’s not so easy. Sometimes it’s not two people who have just fallen out of love and aren’t good for each other. There are many instances I’m working with a lot of women who have issues of domestic violence or emotional abuse. And those things are hard to fix in counseling. So I’m not saying, you know, if you’re being abused emotionally or physically, you should stick it out. See what happens. Yeah. And those cases run. But if it’s just a matter of we’ve lost that spark or we’re not happy anymore, or somebody cheated, you know, I know a lot of couples who have worked through infidelity, there are special marriage counselors just for that. So I think, you know, marriage is not a one size fits all model. It looks different for everybody. And if you can make it work more power to you.
Dr. Sarah (33:15):
Yeah. And if you can’t, it’s also really okay to say.
And if you can’t you’re gonna be fine, cuz I got you covered.
Dr. Sarah (33:21):
Yes. I’m curious. I wanna talk a little bit about co-parenting because I think, you know, you get through this divorce, you’ve done the work you’ve made the decision. You’ve gone through the process of divorcing. And now here you are two separate individuals, but you still are parents to the same child. How do you navigate that? Because it’s really complicated.
You die a little inside and then you have a lot of anxiety and then you realize, Hey, this isn’t so bad because my child has two parents who love them and wanna be in their lives. So how can we make this work? If you are a rational, reasonable, rational, reasonable person, you’re gonna be able to put your feelings aside eventually in the beginning, it’s really hard. You’re like, I hate this person or he hates me. And now we have to like share this kid. Like that just seems it is the most unnatural thing in the world. You know, you, carried this child in your body or you were the sole nurturer for this child in the beginning of their lives. And now you’re like, here you go, person. I hate let’s do this together. It’s tough. But once you work to help those emotions subside and you have to feel all the emotions, you have to go through the stages of grief. You realize that it’s not that serious, right? Like you’ve got your time to be a mindful, impactful, intentional parent. They’ve got their, and in between, that’s your time to help support the other parent for whatever they need, not, you know, be spiteful and not wanna help or encourage a relationship just because you’re mad. Like there’s, it’s not really all that hard when it comes down to it. I just think it’s our emotions that get in the way and make it difficult.
Dr. Sarah (35:02):
Yeah. I also think like, you know, kids, you were saying earlier, you know, and I know the research you’re referring to that a child really needs one significant stable, secure attachment relationship in their life to be able to have the benefits of secure attachment. And you know, a lot of times, obviously in an optimal scenario or divorce, both parents can create that really stable and secure relationship with their child with a really nurturing environment that we always wish for that. But sometimes that’s not possible.
Right? I mean, I didn’t have that and like, oh, I’ve had my ups and downs girlfriend, but I think I’ve done. Okay. You know, I’ve learned the lessons and I’ve been able to heal through a lot of this much later in my life than I should have, but you know, we all, we’re all, you know, we all want the same things out of life, right. We wanna be healthy. We wanna be happy. We wanna raise healthy, happy kids and you find a way to do it regardless of, of what life has put you through. And if you don’t have the other parent there, then that leaves space for the other loving adults in your life to come in and make an impact in your kids’ lives. You know, I didn’t have my dad, but I had an amazing grandfather who was basically like a father to me. I eventually had a stepdad. My mom’s divorce attorney that she fell in love with and uncles who really cared about me and cousins. And like you find the relationship, the important relationships you need in your life, through other people. So don’t, you know, make it so much about a loss for your child. If the other parent is not involved or willing to help or co-parent see who else can step in and fill that role in a different way. Because it’s not, you know, not every not everything you lose is a loss in my opinion.
Dr. Sarah (36:44):
Right. And I also think it’s important to remember, like you said, like a child can have secure attachment relationships with other figures in their lives beyond their biological parents. Yeah. And whether it could even be like a caregiver, like a nanny.
It can be a teacher. I know every person from a divorced family or not has like that one teacher, they remember that really made an impact on them. For me, it was my fourth grade teacher that was the year my parents were getting separated. And she herself had been going through a divorce and this woman, her name was Mrs. Pinella. And I wish I, her, she literally, she knew I was going through so much anxiety cuz it was so contentious. And every day I had like that anxiety, stomach ache or headache, she would keep me a few minutes in re like from recess and she would talk to me and she would gimme a few jelly beans and let me know it was all gonna be okay. And then she would help me after school with my math because, you know, if I, I was struggling in math and nobody was home to help me cuz my mom had to get a job or whatever. And she was just there and I felt like she made such an impact on my life that it was like she filled in immediately for what I was not getting. And it was, it was amazing. And I always thought of her and I always think of her. And I feel like that’s an example of, you know, not even a family member, just stepping in to be there and giving that support. It’s it’s it was major for me.
Dr. Sarah (38:05):
And I think what Miss Pinella did, if I am understanding the story correctly, is she saw you.
Dr. Sarah (38:11):
And she gave you space to have the feelings that you were having. And she wanted to name them for you and she wanted to validate them for you. And she wanted to give you enough opportunity to kind of like keep them a little bit longer. Right. Like kids, I think parents are very quick to want their kids to be okay with all of this and want their kids to be back to this like happy kind of stable place again. But I think it’s also important to remember that it’s also okay. That they’re not right away. Like the goal obviously, long term is to get them to a place where they’re feeling comfortable with the divorce where they’re feeling comfortable with this new family shape and size. Right. Cause I always say families come in all shapes and sizes. And they got a new one. Like their family morphed, it changed. And it’s gonna take time for a kid to get settled in that new space and the more as parents and as people who support children who may be going through a family divorce, it’s important. I think to really give kids the space to have the feelings. And be curious to ask them about it.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Dr. Sarah (39:18):
And to let them talk about it. I mean creating a narrative, being able to tell the story of something hard that’s happening to you or that has happened to you is one of the best ways to make sense of it, to process the feelings that came out of it. Cuz what you’re doing when you’re telling a story is you’re making this kind of like initially sort of visceral experiential memory, a more processed verbal memory. So you’re like, you’re literally translating it into words, which is forcing you to process the experience. In a way that’s very organizing. We use it in trauma treatment all the time, we create a trauma narrative. Not that all divorce is traumatic, but just in general, this idea can be used. Like tell the story, write a, have your kid write a book, put it into actual words what their story is.
And I’ll tell you that that’s super helpful, but also super hard for a lot of parents because they don’t wanna hear the negative feelings. They think the negative feelings automatically mean like doom and gloom, but they don’t, they’re just feelings and yeah, those feelings need to go somewhere and have help being processed.
Dr. Sarah (40:28):
And I think that’s why coaching or therapy or some sort of support from a kind of professional to guide you on that path is really important because you need as the parent to have the tools to tolerate your child’s negative emotions about this without internalizing them and blaming yourself, because then they’re paralyzed as a parent. Like you need to be able to be resilient enough to receive and contain and help process with your child, all of their negative feelings without becoming activated and defensive. It’s hard. It’s you need a lot of support to be able to do that.
Oh, yeah. And a lot of self control and restraint.
Dr. Sarah (41:05):
And self-compassion right. Cuz it’s just very difficult and, but not impossible. Which is why it’s great that your, the work that you do is like a perfect resource for parents who are going through something like that.
Thank you. Yeah. I do think it is. And that’s why I created it because there was such a need for it. And you know, I’m excited to see how this book helps in the long term sense. You know, it’s, it’s evergreen, it’s something you can pick up and, and refer back to when you’re hitting a new challenge in your co-parenting life or when you are ready to date somebody after divorce, or if you’re looking for help getting back in touch with yourself and rediscovering who you are, it covers all of that. And so I’m excited to be able to bring that into the world.
Dr. Sarah (41:47):
Yeah. It’s a great book. You should check it out. Mom’s Moving On. We, you can put a link to it, the show notes for sure. And it’s, when is the date that it comes out?
Dr. Sarah (41:57):
Awesome. We’ll put it all in the show notes. And if people wanna get in touch with you or wanna learn more about your work well, how can they find you?
Sure. I’m on Instagram @themichelledempsey. The podcast streams everywhere podcasts stream. It’s called Moms Moving On. My website is momsmovingon.com. And email is info@momsmovingon.Com, if you’re looking for help or wanna work one on one.
Dr. Sarah (42:20):
Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on. This was really enlightening and just a really lovely conversation.
Thank you. Thank you for having me
Dr. Sarah (42:32):
For many couples. Past two years have been a difficult time and the pandemic put a great strain on our relationships, romantic and otherwise. If you’re navigating a big life transition like a separation, divorce, or even just shifting back to a new normal, after a couple chaotic years, it can help to be intentional about working towards building a life that is fulfilling and satisfying to you. If you could use some help getting started in defining how that looks for you, check out my free workbook, Building Back Better After COVID-19.
Dr. Sarah (43:05):It’s an interactive workbook aimed at helping you prioritize, cultivate and eliminate as you curate your new post pandemic normal. Tailored prompts and reflective exercises will help you to identify what has been working and what hasn’t so you can create a personalized roadmap and move forward with intention. You can download that along with many other free workbooks and parenting resources on my website. Go to the resources tab at drsarahbren.com. That’s drsarahbren.com. Divorce is difficult, but there is support for you when you need it. Until next week, don’t be a stranger.
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