Dear Patti,

I never thought I would have to say this, but I am getting a divorce. After two decades of marriage and three children, my husband left me for a much younger woman he works with. It all feels like such a ridiculous cliché, but it’s true. Now my estranged husband has the nerve to suggest that he and I go to counseling together for our kids’ sake! We were already in marital counseling the whole time he was carrying on his affair!

Recently I was venting to my mother about how furious I am, and to my surprise, she immediately started talking about the many negative effects that divorce can have on children. She mentioned low academic achievement, low self-esteem, chronic stress, insecurity, and poor emotional self-regulation in adulthood. Now I have even more heavy worries about this divorce, which I never wanted and can’t do anything to change.

My mom is right; the children need to come first. Now that we are in this predicament, I want to do what’s best for my three kids. What should I do? I’m so angry with my ex-husband but I’d rather deal with that on my own in individual therapy so I don’t have to see him anymore. Can joint therapy really help us now that we’re already getting divorced?

  — Isla

Dear Isla,

Many studies have shown that children from divorced families fare far better when two basic conditions are met. First and foremost is that parents learn to co-parent their children in a positive, collaborative way. The relationship between the divorced parents should be generally supportive. It is in the children’s best interest for them to be protected as much as possible from the negative consequences of a dissolved marriage. The goal is for parents who no longer love each other to still parent together successfully.

Unfortunately this is easier said than done, especially in a situation like yours where you feel deeply betrayed by your spouse. Divorcing parents often believe that they’re going to get rid of the other parent as a negative force in their own lives. In actuality, when the divorce and custody battles ensue, they often find that old resentments continue to rise and interfere with their ongoing relationship.

The second healing condition is that the familial relationships in the children’s lives that were important and meaningful to them prior to the divorce are peacefully and consistently maintained. This includes not only their relationships with their parents, but also with friends, grandparents, aunts, uncle, and cousins. This is also not as easy as it sounds, since when there is a conflicting relationship between the parents, relatives and friends often take sides.

There are other factors beyond the immediate divorce that may affect your children, such as changes in economic resources. Your children will be dependent on the two of you to help them understand what is happening. They will need assurances that you will be responsive to their needs and concerns. They will most likely be afraid of being abandoned, of being caught in the middle, and of future failures in their parents’ and their own lives. Children may act out in an attempt to process their own anger or as a cry for help. Disruption in either parent-child bond can result in one parent befriending the children at the cost of the other parent. Co-counseling can be an excellent place to talk about these issues together as they come up.

The focus of treatment in counseling may include establishing a new post-divorce relationship with each other as parents, creating supportive environments for your children, decreasing the level of conflict between you two, and agreeing on parenting practices. The therapeutic focus may also include working on improving parent/child relationships, discussing how to respond to your children’s questions, dealing with your children’s negative beliefs that they may be responsible for your divorce, helping your children have a separate relationship with each of you, and helping your children express their feelings without judgment or discounting from either of you.

Individual and couples therapy can be the place where you and your husband process your feelings, which can decrease the tendency to disclose too much to your children about the reasons for the divorce, financial struggles, sadness, personal worries, or criticisms. As a result, your children will be less distressed by the divorce and the many changes that it brings to their lives.


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.