Graduation Day: A Primer for Badly Divorced Parents


By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Graduation day is soon to arrive, and families are coming together to wish their young people well as they mark an important milestone in their lives. For some families, hopefully most families, graduation day brings pride, excitement, warmth, and togetherness. But for some divorced and reconfigured families, the expected togetherness of graduation shifts unresolved feelings into painful focus.

Certainly, there are couples that manage to divorce amicably and who are able to co-parent gracefully. It is when the divorce has been bitter and the issues that led to it continue to fester that family events are anxiety-laden for everyone involved.

Graduations often are the first occasions during which badly divorced moms and dads come together and have to be civil to each other. If one or the other has remarried and brings the new spouse along, it means that the un-partnered parent is confronted with that reality. If, as is often the case, one parent has sacrificed to make schooling possible, it can be infuriating to that parent and confusing to the child to have the other parent present to take some of the credit. As one of my young clients put it, “Why should I include my Dad in graduation pictures when it’s been my Mom who has made all this possible?”

Remember, This is Your Child’s Day

Even when everyone agrees to be on his or her best behavior, the prospect of a day fraught with underlying tensions is not an inviting one for the graduate. Often enough, the kids simply don’t want to deal with the complications. Some go so far as to think they should skip graduation to protect one of their parents from having to deal with the other.

Generally, this is a mistake. The child should not have to sacrifice an important life milestone to make parents more comfortable. The family’s public acknowledgment of pride in their offspring at the graduation ceremony is part of what makes such an event so significant and memorable. For the graduate, it is a recognition of their own accomplishments and a statement of intention. By standing in front of those who care, graduates demonstrate that they have completed a life-stage and affirm that they are moving on to the next one. The well wishes of friends and family help boost them over any anxiety and on to whatever they are going to do next.

It’s unrealistic to think that a couple that was not able to divorce well will be able to suddenly manage each other just because there is a celebration going on. But some careful planning can minimize the discord and put the attention where it belongs — on the young person who is marking an important transition. The best gift that parents in this situation can give to their children is to shield them from another go-around of the same old fight.

How To Prepare

In therapy, I seldom see both sides of a bitterly divorced couple when a family gathering is imminent. I generally see one person who is still very hurt and angry in the wake of a divorce but who wants to make the day go well for her or his child. Here is what we usually talk about:

  • Your former partner is not going to change, even for the sake of your child, even for the sake of this important day. Of course, I might be wrong. Perhaps she or he is doing painful and honest work with a therapist somewhere but, if you haven’t seen an indication of major change in the past six months, it’s a mistake to think that there will be change now. Your job is to stop having an investment in her or his change and to focus on your own.
  • Do your personal work and make enough time for it. The only person you really have influence over is yourself. Work with your therapist to figure out why this person you divorced still gets your goat so thoroughly and how to let it go. You are no longer married. Whatever she or he says or does really has nothing to do with you!
  • Be prepared. You already know which of your former spouse’s behaviors hook you. Write them all down. Think about ways you can react to each one that changes the outcome. You can’t change what he or she will do or say but you can certainly change what you do in response. Rehearse your new responses — in your mind and in role-plays with trusted people.
  • Have supports available. Still feeling shaky? Make sure that you have friends at the event who will be there for you. Talk with them ahead of time about ways to create a buffer between you and your former partner. Ask them to keep you occupied and to surround you with conversation so there really isn’t much room for more than a hello and a nod of acknowledgement to your ex.
  • Arrange for “time outs.” Figure out ahead of time how you can take a break if you need to. Perhaps arrange with one of your support people for a way to leave for a few minutes so that you can catch your breath, bang your head against the wall, count to ten, say a prayer, or whatever else would help.
  • Don’t drink! Whatever you do, don’t have more than the obligatory toast. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and will unravel all these preparations.
  • Have an exit plan. Figure out a graceful way to leave if things get too difficult. Often knowing we can leave allows us to stay.

If you’ve made the choice to put the old fight behind you, the ideas listed here will help you through. Focus on your child. It is his or her day. You can’t prevent your former spouse from spoiling it if she or he is bent on doing so. But you certainly can avoid becoming a part of it. When you pull it off, you will feel very good about yourself. More importantly, your child’s memory of you on his or her important day will be about your love for him or her, not your anger with the other parent.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is a psychologist and parent educator in western Massachusetts. Her e-book “Tending the Family Heart” is available on and For more parenting information and resources, follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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