The Promise You Made For Your Children

by Dana Boyle on November 17, 2011

This one is for all the clients I’ve had who come to me, not because they want more stuff, not because they want a bigger share of the pie, not because they care about 401Ks and refinancing homes.  This one is for the clients who come to me because they made a promise together.

They dreamed of a family with the one they loved, they got married, they had children, they had hope.  They made a promise with their spouse to raise those children with certain values, goals, and dreams in mind and now they are divorcing and that dream and those goals and values are at risk of being ripped away, not from them, but from their children.

Some divorcing couples do this well together, despite the breakdown in their own relationship.  In those cases two people are still committed to the family they created, even though it is in transition.  Couples like these may fight over finances, but when it comes to the kids, they will do whatever it takes to keep stability and love surrounding their children as their family transforms into a divorced one.

Unfortunately, in some cases one of the two has divorced themselves not just from their spouse, but also from the very fiber of the family that they created with their spouse.  Once in a while someone has moved on, not just with a new, shiny romantic interest, but with a whole new set of priorities and allegiances that have nothing to do with their family.

In my legal practice, I hold the space for my clients to grieve for the loss they are experiencing.   Divorce is a loss not dissimilar to a death.  It’s a death of the life someone had.  It’s a death of a relationship, at least in the form it once held.  It’s a death of dreams and hopes for the future.

It can be unbearable if it is the death of a family.

There are moments when I am advocating for a client and I can truly feel their sorrow, their desperation, their grief, as they plead with their spouse about their children.  Most of the time, we lawyers put on a tough poker face and advocate with logic, reason and intellect.  Often, I take a moment and take off my lawyer hat and articulate what I can feel my client wanting the other side to hear – what is important to them, and what needs to be said with the humanity that it deserves.

I had such an experience recently.

A father who has moved on from his family, not just his wife, refused to even consider paying for tuition to a religious based school for the children even though he had been doing so while in the marriage.  While he had rational arguments for not doing so, his wife reminded me that they had always talked about this since before they had children.  They wanted their children to be raised with a certain set of values, Christian ones.  They wanted their children to have the best education – which they thought was the particular school we were talking about.  In fact, they had a family tradition of attending these schools.  They started their children in the program, but since the father took a new lover who has several children that he is now supporting, it all came down to dollars and cents to him.

I could feel my client’s heart breaking as we negotiated and he and his attorney refused to commit to tuition, and ultimately to the program of education that the two parents had dreamed for their children and had already put their children halfway through.  I could feel her grappling for the right words to appeal to him, for a way to remind him how important this was even if they weren’t together, and I could feel her imagining telling her children they had to start public school because daddy left and has a new life.

Imagine telling your child:  Daddy left, so your life is going to be completely different.

I asked everyone to pause for a moment, and I explained that I am a holistic lawyer.  I don’t just care how we split assets and divorce two people.  I care about how it affects their whole lives and the lives of the children they have together.  I care about their family.

Then I said to the father, “I think what your wife is asking here is to remind you that you made a promise.  When you were in love and you got married, back when things were beautiful between you and you decided to have children, you made a promise together to those children.”  His eyes welled up and looked down at the table.  “What’s important here isn’t necessarily bottom lines.  You may have some good reasons why you can’t afford tuition.  What’s important is that you created this family with her and while you don’t want to be married to her anymore, you will always be the father of these children.  How are you going to do right by them?  What I can feel her wanting to know is how are you not going to abandon them?  How are you going to finish what you started and raise them the way you promised to?  How can you work with her to do right by them together?”

We continued to negotiate and left with the issue unresolved, though he was moved from his solid no.  When the other side left the room, I continued to discuss it with my client who appealed to me with all the reasons why this was so important.  She was choking down her emotions and trying to keep it together and rational.  She did a very good job.

I paused.  I turned my chair toward her and told her I understood that she was advocating for her kids and that she had a dream for their lives along with their dad and that it must really be painful to watch him not only leave her, but prioritize his new life in such a way that he was in effect leaving the children too.

She wept.  I found her some tissue and comforted her.

Divorce isn’t about dividing lives and dividing stuff.  We often make it about that.  Lawyers are especially good at it with their formulas, tables and statutes.  Thing is, there are people involved, hearts that get broken, and little lives that will be changed forever.  It’s a delicate thing when little people are involved.

The issue may not always be tuition to school.  There are endless topics that can bring up the same core issue.

What promises did you make when you had a child with someone?  What promises did you make to your child?  When you decide to move on with your life, how do you propose to keep your promise to the little people who matter in your life?

Does leaving your spouse mean you are leaving your children?  Most of us, of course, don’t ever want that to happen.  You have to know it’s your child’s greatest fear.  What do you think kids freak out so much about when mom and dad divorce?  This is it.

Remember what you started all those years ago when you were starry eyed and hopeful for the future together.  Ask yourself how you can fulfill the promises you made to those children even though you have chosen a new path separate from your spouse.  How can you walk a new path AND do right by your children?

If you do nothing else, this is your most important task.  Those little people are depending on you.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

ulrike terbeck November 21, 2011 at 1:04 pm

BEAUTIFUL written…and so true…THANKS SO MUCH!!!

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Dana Boyle November 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm

No, thank you! Thanks for visiting and for commenting. :)

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