Parenting Through Divorce: Transitioning from an Emotional Partnership to Cooperative Co-Parenting
Shonnie Brown, MFT
In my years of facilitating divorcing parent groups, I have seen the same things over and over again. Group members express great relief upon being given some guidelines because they've not had the education and normalization that is needed. Here are some basic reminders that will help you help yourself and your children during this most challenging and unpredictable life transition.
It is appropriate to be very hurt and angry during divorce and the support and validation that you need must be completely separate from your parenting. Your children need you more than ever to be a role model to manage feelings appropriately and respond maturely. The emotional relationship with your former spouse must be separated out from the business relationship as co-parents of your children.
Don't expect this to be easy. You are suddenly an unprepared and often unwillingly partner in the difficult business of co-parenting! Taking care of yourself emotionally usually requires setting boundaries with your former partner to avoid escalating hurt and conflict. In the early stages of divorce, when animosity runs especially high, you may feel too upset or angry to deal directly with the other parent. Good emotional management may include choosing to communicate through a third party (attorney, mediator, counselor, unbiased friend) or indirectly (by e-mail, notebook passed back and forth, phone messages), especially when non-engagement best serves your children. Make this a mutual choice in respect of your emotional process and for the best interests of your child.
Children are innocent and unwilling participants in your emotional and legal battles. They rarely want divorce and it may be very threatening to their sense of safety in the world. You are responsible for managing your feelings. Take an anger management class, a support or grief group. Learn to model to your children appropriate ways to discharge feelings and self-soothe. Never act out or discharge angry feelings inappropriately towards the other parent when your children are present!
Children need you to be neutral. They have their own right to love and idealize the other parent no matter how much you despise him or her. They also have the right to feel their own disappointment which you shouldn't protect them from. A failed relationship for you is not something for them to carry at any age.
Understand the term loyalty bind. Children feel enormous and often subtle pressure to please both parents and are greatly torn when loving one parent causes distress to the other! Don't ever put your child in the middle. Your stance needs to be neutral and available for your child to share with you his/her feelings about the other parent. Learn to use active listening by reflecting rather than fixing, preaching, advising or consoling. Active listening gives your child the message that you are safe. It is especially important when your child returns from the other parent's house with information that may be upsetting to you:
Active listening encourages your child to tell you more about what he/she feels. It is child focused and therefore gives a message of non-involvement and neutrality when the other parent may be trying to hook you. The loyalty bind is subtle and tricky because children may also use the co-parenting relationship to get leverage. The best stance is always neutral active listening, and from there comes reassurance, problem solving or boundary setting. For example:
- Child: "Mommy has a new boyfriend and I hate going over there now!"
Parent: (seething inside): "Wow, you sound very upset. That's got to feel really bad."
- Child: "Daddy said he can't buy me anything to play with at his house because you have all the money!"
Parent: (taking a deep, deep breath): "Gosh, it must be really hard for you to hear your dad say that about me."
Be sensitive to the particular challenges of the primary custodial parent and the lesser or non-custodial parent. The primary custodial parent is often overwhelmed by a gigantic sense of responsibility for all aspects of their child's life and development; i.e. "It's my job to make up for the unavailability of the other parent." This is especially true when the co-parent is absent due to geography, substance abuse, mental disorder, incarceration or mood instability. Then the custodial parent usually feels terrifically overburdenedcarrying excessive guilt, overprotectiveness and self-sacrifice. The non-custodial parent often feels a huge loss of family, shame and hopelessness about sustaining any meaningful role in their child's life. Unfortunately, many non-custodial fathers, in particular, give up on trying to parent in such a limited fashion and truly become absent parents. In the short run, it is all too easy to let this happen. The impact on the child's development may be enormous.
- Child: "I want to go back to Dad's house. He always takes me to McDonald's for lunch."
Parent: "You enjoy the things you do with your dad."
Child: "I do. And I want you to take me to McDonald's like Dad does."
Parent: "I know you love McDonald's. That's something you do with Dad. In Mom's house we eat lunch at home."
- Child: "Mom's really busy with her new boyfriend."
Parent: "You sound very upset about that. What do you want to do about it?"
There are things that both parents can do when the child is separated from one parent, whether for a day or for an indefinite time. Very young children need frequent reminders of the absent parent through pictures, voice recordings, cards and songs. Pre-school kids like frequent phone check-ins, letters, stories and taped messages. School age children like knowing that Mom or Dad is involved with their schoolwork, sports or hobbies, no matter what the distance. The custodial parent's job is to use positive, yet neutral reflection through active listening, thus validating the child's frustration over the absent parent. For example:
Neither parent should undermine the value of the other home by speaking as if the child is going to "visit" their other parent. The words "Mommy's house" and "Daddy's house" tell the child that he has two homes. And he needs a room, belongings, clothes, etc. in both homes. When co-custody begins, parents often realize that different rules at different homes are confusing to everyone. Commonly, one person (usually the custodial parent) is labeled "the strict one" and the other is "the fun one." It is a huge challenge to let go of the things you can't change, including much of what goes on in the other house. There is an opportunity for your child to learn about flexibility and differences if you exhibit neutrality instead of judgment or resentment.
- Child: "I haven't heard from Dad in a week. Do you think he's OK?"
Mom: "I know you worry about your Dad. It's really hard not knowing when you'll hear from him."
- Teen: "I need my own phone so I can phone Dad when you're not around."
Mom: "I agree that you need privacy with your Dad. Let's figure out how you can earn the money to buy a phone."
Of course this doesn't apply when you think there may be real neglect or safety issues at the other house. But, generally, differences in parenting styles and house rules may vary considerably between co-parents. The best remedy for dealing with your frustration about the things you can't change in the other house is to bring the focus on the other parent back to your own parentingto being the best parent you can beneutral, safe, consistent, clear! And take the high road with the other parent whenever you can. The parent who makes the difference in a child's life is the one who acts with grace, consistency and self-control during divorce. An adult male group member once shared the following experience:
"My dad abandoned the family for another woman when I was pretty young. I was very hurt and angry and had to work hard to get through it. But what was far worse, and I still can't forgive, is the way my mother continued to bash and badmouth him. And she still does till this day. She really took something away from me and, in the long run, that had a far worse impact."