Divorce is a minefield, and the children are the most vulnerable to injury.
I have spent a lifetime trying to protect children and reduce the harm from a contentious divorce.
I think I have found several ways to do this, beginning with taking litigation off the table.
How to Help Your Children Avoid Emotional Damage During Your Divorce
Tip #1: Take Litigation off the Table (if at all possible)
Sixty-four years ago, when I was five, my parents divorced. My dad is 95 and still carries the anger and pain from that experience. They were in and out of court until my sister and I were 18. Then there was nothing legal left for them to fight about. Like an addiction, they fought and continued to fight despite the fact that neither would ever win.
Even when the court battles ended, they continued to hate each other and to share those feelings with us. My sister and I always felt we had to choose sides. We were pulled to align with and protect one or the other parent. We looked for which parent to blame. The conflict of the divorce had driven my father to leave the state of Michigan where we lived. He decided to move to California.
Once, I talked with him about this abandonment. My father showed me papers from the “Friend of the Court” in Michigan. He wanted to prove to me that he did fight for more time with me and my sister. Recently I looked up what the Friend of the Court does. I learned that one of the jobs is to settle disputes between parents during and after the divorce regarding custody, parenting time, and child support. The Friend also makes sure that parents obey court orders regarding custody, parenting time and child support.
In my parents’ case, the Friend of the Court had his work cut out for him. He failed on all counts. The vicious cycle never let up. My mother defied the court order regarding custody and prevented our Dad from seeing us. In retaliation, my father did not pay his court-ordered child support of $25 per week. Or from Mom’s perspective, Dad would not pay his child support. So she didn’t see why he should have visits with us. For the next 45 years, until my mother died, they continued to spew venom about each other to us. Even after my mother died, my father continued to call her by his favorite pet name for her, “the nightmare.” One day, not that long ago, I asked him to stop.
Everyone Knows A Bad Divorce is Bad for Kids
Everyone knows that this kind of divorce is bad for kids. Litigation is bad for kids, but some divorcing parents simply cannot resolve their differences. The judge knows almost nothing about them or their children. Yet he gets to make decisions that will affect the family for years. And since there is always a “winner” and a “loser” the court becomes a revolving door. That is until the parents either run out of money or simply give up. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Alternative dispute resolution processes such as mediation and collaborative practice help parents get to a “win-win” resolution.
Tip #2: Deal with Your Own Emotions
Easier said than done, right? This is where self-care comes in. Talk to friends or a therapist (not your kids). Take walks in nature, learn to meditate for just five minutes a day. Develop a gratitude practice, and journal every day. Pray. Exercise and eat well. Find things you enjoy and do at least one every day. Think about your “ustas”—maybe you used to do art or yoga or run marathons. This is a good time to reclaim the things you “usta do” that you enjoyed.
I am sure that my parents’ divorce and ongoing conflict set me up to be a psychologist. Not surprising that I specialize in helping families divorce differently. Because of the rage, fear, and disappointment that comes with the end of a marriage, some people still want “their day in court.” They want to prove that the other parent is at fault, sick, crazy or evil.
Sadly, this rage is a way that people avoid dealing with their more painful and vulnerable emotions. They may allege that the other parent is an addict, abusive, narcissistic, or dangerous. For these parents, who have not come to terms with their own emotions and the parts they played in the collapse of the marriage, the children become the trophies or the spoils of the warfare.
It is painful to see these battles, knowing the scars that such warfare will leave on the kids. Some years ago I realized that my court-involved adversarial clients were literally making me sick. My stomach was in knots at the end of the day. I finally made the decision to refer these kinds of cases to my colleagues.
Instead, I focus on the parents who want to put their children first and stay out of court. These are not simple or easy cases. These are parents with rage, grief, guilt, and fear. But they are willing to work through those emotions. They choose to commit to resolving their conflict without a court battle. It is important to them to continue to co-parent after the divorce is finished. Their motivation is not to defeat the other parent, but to do what is best for their children.
Tip #3: Make Your Kids’ Well-being Your Top Priority
Twenty-five years ago my soon-to-be-ex and I struggled to set aside our own feelings for the sake of our children. We agreed to bird’s nest custody, alternating time with our children who stayed in the family home while we each found places to stay when we weren’t with our children. We maintained this arrangement for over a year until our divorce was final. It wasn’t easy but we were able to focus on the kids despite the very real conflict of the divorce, and we were committed to mediating and staying out of court.
At that time mediation was the option that kept us out of court, but mediation did not provide the support and tools we needed to continue to co-parent cooperatively. Mediation resolved our legal issues but did not help us set aside our own feelings for the sake of our children. We had to make that our most important intention, and it wasn’t always easy.
You Probably Agree on One Thing: You Love Your Children
I have never met parents who wanted to hurt their children. Parents may stop loving each other, but they always continue to love their children. It is that love that can build the bridge to a better divorce. A couple may not agree on much, but they always agree that they both love the children and want them to be resilient. I let my clients know that a bad divorce damages the children’s resilience. For this reason, I will not go to court, nor will I work with them if they are determined to litigate. I tell them that in court the real losers are the children. I challenge the parents to restructure their families without tearing them apart. If they agree to this, I can help them to do so successfully.
Tip #4: Imagine a Kinder Divorce
Fortunately, more and more parents are coming to me for a kinder divorce, a “conscious uncoupling,” or a less adversarial process. Imagine a divorce that allows each of you to heal and move on with dignity and mutual respect. More parents now recognize the importance of continuing to maximize the children’s time with each parent.
Imagine Respecting Your Co-Parent (A Story)
Recently I met with a couple who had been living as “roommates” in separate bedrooms for three years because they did not want to disrupt the children’s lives, and they both wanted to be full-time parents. They valued and trusted their friendship but no longer felt romantic toward each other. Their nesting arrangement had evolved organically over time, without any formal agreements and had worked well until the husband discovered his wife’s new relationship. The surge of anger and sense of betrayal of their friendship made him question their decision to stay together as planned until their three children were out of high school.
In our meetings, they were able to process the pain of the discovery, discuss agreements regarding new relationships, and then reaffirm their friendship, mutual respect for each other as parents and their commitment to focusing on their children’s well-being. They began a thoughtful discussion of next steps, and because they still wanted to nest, they were able to make specific agreements regarding a number of issues, including communication and new relationships.
Imagine Your Resilient Children
In my experience, parents often want to strike back or punish each other when there has been a breach of trust or a betrayal. Now it is becoming less common for parents to want to take the children away from the other spouse, even when trust has been damaged, or when they have strong feelings about their different parenting styles. This couple was able to set aside their own strong emotions and focus on protecting the vulnerable children. They reclaimed their goal to co-parent more effectively and strengthen their children’s resilience. These parents imagined, and then actualized a kinder divorce.
Tip #5: Consider Collaborative Practice
The relatively new divorce process option of Collaborative practice provides much-needed support for parents who agree to take litigation off the table. Sometimes I imagine how my parents’ divorce, and my own divorce, would have turned out if a collaborative divorce had been available. My Dad would have stopped calling my mother his “nightmare.” My mother could have supported my father’s role in our lives, instead of undermining it. Taking the children out of the divorce minefield would have allowed the whole family to heal. It would have let us move on to a healthier next chapter. Stopping the destruction of war between the parents, and making peace as a restructured family under two roofs will be the gift you give to your children.
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