Writer and broadcaster

My husband wants a divorce after 30 years. What do I tell the children? The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

Some time ago, out of the blue, my husband told me he wanted a divorce. I was horrified and astonished – we had been together for more than 30 years and I was looking forward to celebrating our wedding anniversary. At my request, we went to counselling, but it became apparent that he thought the relationship was over and that it had been for some time.

It turned out that he had concealed how he felt for a long time, because he wanted to stay in the marriage while our children were growing up – his own parents went through a toxic divorce when he was a teenager. Divorceproceedings are well underway and we have now finished mediation and reached a fairly amicable settlement of our finances. I have accepted the situation and I’m looking forward to life on my own in a new house, with my pets, numerous hobbies and interests, a part-time job and many friends, free of his covert disapproval.

However, what keeps me awake at night is: how do we tell our children? They are in their 20s, have finished university and have both got good jobs hundreds of miles away, so they come back rarely. They have partners and happy, successful lives of their own, but they still think of our house as home, and I’m certain that they have no idea that we are planning to split. The news will come as a bombshell, and I feel that it should be broken face to face, and to both of them at once.

My husband seems to think they will take it all in their stride, which is ironic given his own family’s history. I’m worried about whether they will take sides, even though it is happening because we have grown apart and are fundamentally incompatible – something that became very obvious once we were no longer concentrating on rearing our children. We agreed that the best way of helping them to accept it was to remain on good terms and make a success of being apart. I’m determined to keep my side of the bargain, even though it means I have had to agree to a financial settlement that isn’t very fair – but that’s the price I’m prepared to pay, to keep things nice for their sake.

Can you recommend any tactic that would make breaking the news less painful for them, and the consequences less severe?

The general advice is to tell the children with both parents there. So even though your children are grown up, that would be preferable. I’m not sure how you will facilitate this, given that they visit rarely – do they live anywhere near each other? Could you arrange a visit to them, or halfway somewhere private? I would tell them as soon as you can organise it.

Something struck me, however, and it struck the specialist I consulted, couples and child psychotherapist Dr Marguerite Reid (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), too. For all that you say the arrangement is fairly amicable and that you are on good terms, we got a sense of bubbling resentment.

If you think the settlement is not fair, I would urge you to look again at it if you can. Not because I want to encourage money-grabbing but if it is unjust, this could come back to haunt you. Dr Reid feels you have perhaps “gone down this route to keep things amicable, but that you might regret this in years to come. It is also important for the children to see that you are splitting in a fair, amicable way.”

Dr Reid is clear about how you should approach telling your children. “[Both of you] meet them together, be clear about what you and your husband want to say and be honest about what has happened,” she says.

I feel this might be difficult, given that you and your husband seem to be coming at this from different angles. You also both need to get your stories straight – and whatever they are, you have to stick with them. The reason I said “get your stories straight” is that there are contradictions, even in your letter. You say that you accept the situation but then add that you think it’s unfair. You say it’s a total bombshell but then say that it was obvious you were incompatible as soon as you stopped raising children.

“You and your husband,” advises Dr Reid, “have to be really clear about what you are and aren’t going to share with your children. But your children are grown up, they may react, but they are young adults and have lives of their own; if you and your husband were to lie and give them a rosy picture, it would not be helpful.”

Dr Reid recommends that you insist your husband is with you when you decide to tell the children. “But if you have to go ahead and tell them on your own, still be clear about what you’re going to tell them, and how.”

As ever, do not criticise your husband, however tempted you may be: remember your children are 50% him. I wonder why you thought they may take sides? I think all you can do is be honest – and let them engage some critical thinking.

It sounds as if you and your husband have done a fantastic job of raising your children. But make sure your husband doesn’t say he hung on until they left home, and make sure you don’t say you have accepted second best for them. They didn’t ask you to and in so saying, you’ll make this divorce about them. And it isn’t. It’s about you and your husband.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 26 May 2017.