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Breaking The News
You're getting a divorce. You've talked to your spouse. Now how do you tell your children, friends, and family? Should you tell your co-workers and your boss? Here's how to minimize the damage when you break the news.
By Meg Mathur

There's no question about it: the decision to divorce causes great upheaval. During this difficult time, you'll want and need the support of your family and friends more than ever. But how do you tell them the news that your marriage is over without creating undue stress for yourself or them? And when -- and how much -- should you tell the folks at the office? How you approach this subject depends on a couple of factors: the nature of the separation, and who you're announcing it to.

Realize first, however, that there are no hard-and-fast rules to follow when you're breaking the news. What follows are some basic guidelines: modify them to fit your unique circumstances.

Family and friends

Unless your spouse was an unbelievable jerk, your family and friends probably haven't been looking forward to hearing about your marital breakdown, and their reactions are likely to be unpredictable, to say the least. Telling them is going to be painful and awkward, to greater or lesser degrees.

There is danger in giving too much information about fights or infidelities...

If the separation is non-adversarial, you and your spouse could consider sitting down together with each of your families to tell them about your breakup. But if your split is acrimonious, don't break the news together: it could spark yet another fight between you two, only this time in front of your family.

Practice what you're going to say. Decide how much you're comfortable with telling them, and which details are appropriate to share with which people, then try not to be pushed into giving additional information. There is danger in giving too much information about fights or infidelities: it can leave your listeners angry and depressed with no outlet for their feelings. And if you eventually reconcile with your spouse, all those sordid details can make it hard to believe -- or accept -- that the two of you are back together.

Be gentle when you tell your loved ones, but don't start off with a long preamble: you'll spare everyone some anxiety if you just come out and say it, and then explain the situation as tactfully as possible. Start with whomever you're closest to, whether it's your brother or your bowling team. Don't expect any particular response; there's no guarantee to how people will react.

If your marriage wasn't a healthy one from the start, your friends and family may actually react positively to the news. But "healthy" may be a relative term in this case. If they disliked your spouse, they'll think that having him or her out of the family picture is a good thing. You, on the other hand, probably had a major struggle deciding whether or not to end the relationship, and their easy acceptance may shock you.

If your family has had a loving relationship with your spouse, however, they may feel torn between their loyalty to you and their bond with him or her. Unless your ex was secretly abusing you during your marriage, try not to demand that your family sever all ties with him or her. If you have children, make every effort to create a positive relationship with your ex-inlaws -- and encourage your family's good relationship with your former spouse. Your children will reap the benefits.

Beth Joselow, who divorced in 1991 after a 20-year marriage, makes these suggestions in Life Lessons: 50 Things I Learned From My Divorce:

  • Ask for support from your family, but don't try to dictate their behavior toward your former mate.
  • Be conscious of your family's history with your former mate and of how they may be suffering the loss of your marriage along with you.
  • If family members seem insensitive to you, it may be because they're trying to work out their own feelings about you and your former mate. Let them know that you feel hurt, and give them a chance to rethink their attitudes.

You may not be able to accurately predict the reaction of each of your friends when you tell them about the divorce, Joselow warns. "Some friends will drift away from you, some may become staunch allies of your former mate, some may make you feel so bad each time you talk to them that you talk to them less and less often," she says.

If this happens, try to take it in stride. "Take a closer look at the nature of your relationships with the people you once regarded as friends and who now seem to have disappeared," advises Mel Krantzler in his book Divorcing. "This is your time for reevaluating your connections with them. Ask yourself how many of them were habitual acquaintances rather than true friends, persons you knew because they lived in the same neighborhood and had lifestyles similar to your own, based on being married and having children ... Losing them is really the loss of an old habit rather than the loss of true friendship."

At the office

Divorce is such a personal issue that you may wonder why you would need to tell your boss and your co-workers about your situation. There are some advantages to breaking the news to the right people, such as your boss, however. Your work schedule may have to change due to appointments with a marriage counselor, a mediator, or a lawyer, and your boss will be more supportive if he or she knows about your difficult situation. They may also be more understanding if your productivity decreases for a few months because you're feeling especially depressed and distracted.

It's also a good idea to tell your human resources department about your separation or divorce. You may be eligible for some extended health benefits (such as therapy) that will help you through this difficult time, and the human resources department will have the information you need.

There may also be pragmatic reasons to let your company know about your split: your tax status may have changed, and the payroll department may need to adjust your pay check.

You may also want to break the news to some co-workers. Some of your closest friends may also be your co-workers, but not every person you come in contact with at work needs -- or wants -- to hear every last detail, so limit what you say and stick with the facts.

Answering questions

Inevitably, you're going to have to answer questions about your divorce. You have two options: be honest and direct, or answer with "I'd rather not say" or "I'd rather not talk about it right now." Some people, even your family, may be inclined to ask uncomfortable questions ("Did she cheat on you?" or "Was it his gambling?"). If you want to answer those kinds of questions, go ahead, but don't feel forced into disclosing more than you wish to. Politely but firmly tell people that you are unready or unwilling to discuss the matter right now.

Telling your kids

How you tell your kids depends on their age and developmental level. "Young children between the ages of three and five, for example, will really need concrete information," says Joan Sinclair, a social worker, family mediator, and counselor in private practice in Toronto. "They'll need to know they'll be taken care of, they'll be safe, that they'll have their toys with them, and that their needs will be met." Remember to keep it simple. Your children really don't need to know -- and they won't understand -- a lot of the more personal details of your divorce, so don't burden them with any unnecessary information. "It's not that you want to hide anything," Sinclair says. "Just tell them what they need to know."

How you and your spouse handle this difficult discussion with your children is a possible sign of how well you'll handle co-parenting. "It may be difficult, but if you can [break the news] together with grace as a team, it will show your kids you will always be together as parents," Sinclair says.

Children's concerns are largely of a practical nature: they'll want to know where they're going to live (and with whom), where the dog will live, and whether they'll still be going to the same school. Before you tell the kids, work out a temporary visitation plan and find a new place to live, if necessary. And having a room ready for the kids in your new place will help to put them at ease about their future living arrangements.

Assuring kids repeatedly of your love for them is the best way to cushion the news: Tell your kids that your love for them is not going to change until they understand that -- and then tell them again.

Time Heals

This is an extremely difficult time for you, and you may feel compelled to tell everyone or no one at all about your situation. Remember that by telling your loved ones about your divorce in the most gentle way possible, you are surrounding yourself with positive love and support -- not rallying the troops for a battle against your ex. Divorce is a big transition for you and the people you care for, so give yourself and them time to process this news and come to terms with the changes that are about to occur. It won't be easy, but patience, support, and trust can ease the transition for everyone.

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