Stephanie Setliff gripped the steering wheel of her SUV. On the verge of tears, she raced to compose herself. Out of nowhere, her 9-year-old son Chris had said, “Mom, it’s really hard for me that you and Dad aren’t together anymore.”
She and Greg had divorced five years ago – Chris and his twin brother Alex were only 3 ½ when they split. But the pain at that moment was just as present for Chris as it had been for Stephanie in the weeks and months after her 10-year marriage had ended.
A pediatric psychiatrist, Stephanie was no stranger to the hurt children experience when their parents’ marriage fails, but Stephanie figured out fairly quickly that she and her ex-husband could work through the pain as civilly as possible or they could rip each other’s heads off, and in the process rip their boys’ hearts out.
She chose to do it right, but it was no easy task.
Navigating divorce well for the sake of your children has to start the moment the breakup is imminent, says Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., an authority on the effects of divorce on children. “You can be angry the rest of your life, but put it over there,” Wallerstein urges parents. “You may never, ever recover from the hurt of divorce, but Jimmy’s only 8, and he doesn’t understand the things that make adults upset.”
Wallerstein counsels parents to make a do-or-die decision to put the interests of the children first, consciously laying aside anger and the wave of emotions that accompany even the most amicable of divorces, in order to foster the quality of life most parents want for their children. But, she asks, who’s going to be the one to step up and do it?
Stephanie decided it would have to be her. She realized she’d have to suck it up for the kids’ sake, be bigger than she ever thought she was capable of being and forgive hurt that most people are never able to get past. Today, she has no regrets.
My Pain, Your Pain
Like most couples when they marry, Greg and Stephanie had visions of living happily together for the rest of their lives. And like most couples, they faced their share of struggles.
“When we were mad, we weren’t good at communicating to each other why we were mad,” Stephanie says, looking back, “and we went on like that for a while and built these patterns that weren’t good.”
Stephanie says there were “several somethings and maybe one something” that led to her and Greg’s split. His work required a great deal of travel; she was a busy doctor and mom. And though they both say they put in a huge amount of effort to keep the marriage intact, it eventually unraveled.
In the early months after their divorce, like every ex-wife, Stephanie wanted more from Greg in the boys’ lives. She admits to blasting him in their private conversations but never in front of the boys. Sometimes it took every ounce of self-control to rein in the angry words, she says. “There were times when my tongue was almost bitten in half.”
And then there was Greg’s new relationship with Barb. Ouch.
The story has all the earmarks of a Desperate Housewives episode: Husband and wife divorce. Husband gets new wife, 17 years his junior. Ex-wife and new wife have their first meeting at a kids’ sporting event, and the thing could get really ugly. But it doesn’t.
At a time when many women would have been ready to scratch out the new wife’s eyeballs, Stephanie broke the ice with a simple hello – a gesture of kindness that was fueled by her desire to give her sons the best chance at living normal, emotionally healthy lives.
Stephanie, though not particularly religious, had heard family members talk about praying for people that hurt you. Since she was having a tough time getting over the pain, she took their advice and tried praying for Greg. That didn’t go so well. She was still too upset. So she shifted strategy.
“I started praying for myself to not be so upset,” she says.
She describes months of praying at night – the time when she was most vulnerable – for the anger to subside and for forgiveness to replace it. She also sought professional counseling. “I had to own my part in all of this,” she explains. “It takes a level of self-awareness.”
And then there was the guilt.
Though Chris and Alex were little more than toddlers when Stephanie divorced, they were well aware that things would be different. “We never wanted our kids to grow up in two homes because of divorce. We tried very, very hard to make it work,” Stephanie says.
Together she and Greg explained to Chris and Alex that they just weren’t good together anymore and for them to be the best parents possible, they needed to live in separate houses.
The boys had plenty of questions. “So, if Daddy’s house burns down, can he come live with us?” and “If Daddy gets sick will you still take care of him?” they asked. The answer was an absolute yes.
Wallerstein encourages parents to create a beginning point for helping their children understand the end of a marriage by saying to them, “When Mom and Dad got together, we thought we’d be together forever and we were so happy when you were born. The one part of our marriage that will stay together is the part that loves you.”
Stephanie’s feelings of guilt were eased when a colleague assured her that the boys’ missing their dad at night and the emotions and hurt were all normal. That they were asking questions and voicing their pain even years later as Chris did on the ride home were indicators that they were processing the split in a normal, healthy manner.
“In the short run divorce can be distressing for kids,” says Richard Warshak, Ph.D., a Dallas-based psychologist and author of Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-Mouthing and Brainwashing. “Most kids prefer that their parents stay together. But divorce does not have to take a terrible toll on kids if parents manage the divorce well and shield kids from unhealthy conflict.”
Stephanie is quick to note that this process can be extremely tough on one’s pride and sense of self, and it requires consistency – moment-by-moment decisions to do things right. “We didn’t do it perfectly,” she says. “We spent a lot of time right after the divorce rehashing everything. Then we decided this is not what we want.
“The ticket,” she says, “was learning to forgive myself for my part in all of this. I’m only human, and I had to give them the grace to be human and then I could let it go.”
Failure Is Not an Option
Ex-husband Greg Bryan calls Stephanie the difference-maker. “I give her all the credit for enabling us to be so successful,” he says. “If she’d stayed mad, we would have been the couple where the kids are a mess. We kind of approached this like I approach everything: Failure is not an option. Our kids are first, and they are what matter.”
Like Stephanie, Barb believes that the birth of her and Greg’s son Wade, who’s almost 4, was a turning point in their relationship, which up until then could best be described as cordial.
“She was there when we had Wade, and they just fell in love with each other,” Barb says.
Everyone agrees that Wade’s addition was the gel that made their blended family hold together. Stephanie has a special place in her heart for children, the twins were thrilled at having a new little brother and now Barb was more than just Greg’s new wife – they were a family.
The family arrangement was tested – and survived – earlier this year when Greg was in a serious car accident. “Stephanie was the first person I called,” Barb says. “She’s a mother, she’s a physician … and she immediately said Wade could stay with her. He was with them for almost a month, and that strengthened our relationship even more. It shows you who your true friends really are.”
It Gets Better, in Time
Not many divorces happen without a significant amount of fighting, but now eight years after Stephanie’s divorce, there’s actually quite a bit of laughing.
Chris and Alex, now almost 12 years old, like to joke about whose house has the best amenities. Dad has the deeper pool and the 90-inch TV, but Mom has two basketball goals.
“It’s half-good and half-bad,” Alex says of his parents’ divorce. “It’s bad because I want my parents to live together, but it’s good because we gained Bryan, Barb and Wade.”
Bryan Collins is Stephanie’s new husband, who she married this summer. Wade was the ring-bearer in their wedding – and Stephanie wouldn’t have had it any other way.
And but for the fact that the twins call Stephanie’s new husband by his first name, their interaction with him is like any typical father-son relationship, lots of noogies and headlocks. Chris and Alex are well-adjusted, polite and self-assured. They can hardly contain their love for their dad Greg, boasting about his adventuresome personality, and to them having a new little brother may be the best part of the deal.
Family dinners – that means everyone – happen almost every week. Bi-monthly family meetings are held to discuss schoolwork, parenting and discipline and whatever else needs to be managed in the boys’ lives. Double dates between the two couples and family vacations to Steamboat are not uncommon either.
The Setliff-Bryan families’ relationship might be a stretch for most divorced parents, but Dr. Warshak believes that as long as children are spending an adequate amount of time with both parents, children have just as good or an even better chance of being emotionally healthy as they would have had the divorce not taken place but the family was unhappy.
Practically speaking, Stephanie and Greg live within two miles of each other, which makes managing school and extracurricular activities easier than it would be if they lived across town. They make it a point for Chris and Alex to talk every morning and every night with whichever parent they’re not staying with, and they don’t adhere to a formal custody arrangement – three to four nights a week are spent with Stephanie, and three to four nights are spent with Greg, depending on the boys’ schedules.
Wallerstein strongly encourages parents to consider children’s interests and schedules and even include them in the planning phase of the divorce so that they feel valued and like they have a voice.
“People fail to understand that children are attached to important parts of their lives,” she says. “Their life is in the school and in the playground. Judges, lawyers and mediators only consider the rights of the parents, not the interest of the children.”
Surveying her own journey, Stephanie takes a realist’s view. She knows she’ll have to answer increasingly sophisticated questions from her boys about the divorce. And even if they come to understand that it wasn’t done perfectly, she knows for sure she and Greg did one thing right: They made a decision to put the children first.