6 Common Mistakes Divorced Parents Make
Going through a divorce is similar to the experience of a family death. Tragedy, sadness, bitterness, and anger ensues in different stages. The stakes are the highest when children are involved. Children are more precious and valuable than any material asset or stack of cash that could ever be fought over – but it’s easy to forget what is in a child’s best interest when parents focus on being self-righteous and getting what they feel is owed to them.
I was about three years old when my parents got divorced. I never knew what it was like to live in a home with two parents. The only marriages I witnessed were their second ones to my stepparents. That was my reality. The idea of ex-husbands and ex-wives getting along and being friends was an alien concept to me. It did not exist in my world; thus, as a child, I believed that reality did not exist anywhere else. My biological father always insisted that ex-spouses, especially ones who shared kids, who were friends were abnormal.
When I turned 18, I had a dramatic and tragic falling out with my biological father. One, that led me to cut off ties with him. What I came to find over my time in college was the large number of blended families with stepparents and biological parents who actually got along, and were shockingly even friends. My godmother even made a kind gesture to include her new husband’s ex-wife, the mother of his children, in her recent wedding. As I watched these other relationships before my very own eyes, my idea of what was normal changed.
Both of my parents expressed to me the sentiment they felt on their wedding day that they should have never married each other. My conception was accidental – an admission by my mother made after years of telling me it was planned. Their divorce and proceeding years of co-parenting were filled with vitriolic spitefulness, malicious hostility, and a lack of big-picture understanding. They were a match made in hell. In the words of both my parents, I was the only good thing to come of it.
The result was tens of thousands of dollars wasted on lawyers and years of emotional warfare that left all involved filled with resentment and wariness. But the greatest harm that was done was to me. I was left with the pernicious feelings and characteristics of insecurity, self-hatred, lack of confidence, and coldness to name a few. I struggled in my high school years with bullies, mild depression, and suicidal ideation – something I’ve never been completely honest about.
I would never tell anyone to remain in a marriage that isn’t working. Despite the past, I am grateful that my parents got divorced. Regardless of the acrimony that encompassed my childhood, I have no doubt that living in a home in which they were unhappily married would have been
monumentally worse. Children would rather come from a broken home than live in one. I am no exception.
Life isn’t perfect, and neither are parents. I never expected them to be. Yours won’t either. But as a child of divorce, I know there are some basic mistakes divorced parents should be aware of; they may seem obvious and easy to avoid, but so often aren’t. Here are six common mistakes made by separated and divorced parents.
1. Making the child the messenger
My parents would occasionally exchange a few words at the door during drop-off or pick-up
about scheduling, but other than that, their communication was mainly via the telephone, email,
or through me. Occasionally, I would overhear or eavesdrop on a screaming and yelling match
over the phone. Sometimes they would try and hide it. But I always heard it even across the
house. When that ceased to work, they would give me letters to give to the other. When the
child becomes the messenger, they are in the middle.
2. Speaking negatively about your ex
My father was the biggest offender of this, but my mother was no exception. My very large and
expansive vocabulary of curse words comes from my parents. Some of the most vile names
anyone could call a woman were learned from watching my father call my mother them. My
mother would crack crass jokes about my father and stepmother’s weight and then compare me
to them. My father, along with his cursing, would start every weekend when he picked me with
asking me what “satan” (my mother) said about him that week. These are just a few of the
many examples. Your child will naturally take traits from both their parents that can be seen in
themselves. When a parent speaks in a nasty, hateful way, your children will automatically
think, “Well, I’m like Dad/Mom, so does that mean I’m bad too?” Avoid planting those seeds of
3. Not being the adult
Getting into text, email, and phone wars is for teenagers. Or so I thought until my parents
engaged in this behavior. When you partake in this type of behavior, you are teaching your
children that this is OK. Not surprisingly, my childhood social life was soaked with drama,
upheaval, and social media bullying. If you feel a conversation is turning into a fight, try to
diffuse it, and if it doesn’t work, walk away. When you need to talk about something with your
ex, do it in private when your child isn’t around. Don’t turn it into a three-ring circus.
4. Talking money with the kids
Both my parents would at times vent their frustrations with the other parent at me. My father always made a point to make me notice that he paid his child support on time and in full. My mother took opportunities to express to me that child support wasn’t actually a lot of money, that she would receive the checks late, and that she thought he was hiding assets to decrease the amount the court would mandate he paid. Money is adult business, so don’t involve the kids. I look back and view the child support issue as materialistic, petty, and frivolous. Both sides of my family lived upper-middle class lifestyles. Money was never an issue, and it shouldn’t have been made into one. Certainly not a problem I should have been involved in.
5. Initiating battles
Not every little disagreement is meant to be arbitrated. Let some things go. Decide in your mind the few things that are non-negotiable and let the little stuff go. Saving the emotional energy and not wasting it on nonsense issues is something you will be grateful for later on. My mother
chastised my stepmother for feeding me Tropicana orange juice and insinuated she was a bad parent for giving it to me because it was “unhealthy.” She was livid when my stepmother would take me to get my hair cut or when I got my ears pierced, even though she never took the initiative to do it. Over a decade later, I’m sure my parents have forgotten these things, but I haven’t. The tit for tat will suck your soul dry and hurt your child the most.
6. Being foolish enough to think your kids don’t get what’s going on
Every time my father was around my mother, I could see his skin crawl. He detested so much as breathing the same air as her. His body language spoke for itself. All the repugnant things my mother and stepmother said about one another made it even more uncomfortable when they were polite to one another. My parents’ relationship was similar to the Cold War with a series of detentes that were often broken. Even during those detentes, I knew they didn’t like each other. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. I had never-ending anxiety every time they got within so much as one town of each other. Your kids aren’t stupid. Even when you’re faking niceties, they will know – which makes it all the more important to try and create a real peace, if not friendship, with your ex.
My parents did the best they wanted to do with what they had. What they failed to do was put my needs above their own. They resented and detested each other, and wanted to be righteous, more than than they loved me. They were right fighters. For that, their will always be a rift. But all the bad doesn’t negate the good. There were many good times. My mother recognized that my work ethic, tenacity, and academic success were traits I got from my father. My stepmother and mother at times came together and recognized with each other as women when my father crossed a line. All sides of my family came together for my Sweet 16 – no stress, no anxiety, we all had the time of our lives.
Divorce brings out the devil in even the best of people. When children are involved, they are always the ones hurt the most by the fallout. I certainly was. If it’s an option, do everything in your power to create a peaceful, amicable friendship with your ex and their new spouse. In
some cases, it’s just not possible with some personalities. Any relationship takes work, and a friendship with an ex is no exception. You, but most importantly your child, will be very grateful for it in the long run. The greatest gift you give yourself in return for fostering that relationship is your child’s respect.