- Written by John Brauer
One of the most difficult decisions in a parent's life can be the question of whether to divorce, especially in light of the potential effects on children. The research on this issue is less than helpful, because the nature of the problem is one that cannot be well studied in a controlled research design. While studies clearly demonstrate that children have more problems after a divorce, the studies cannot adequately separate the questions of whether the problems are from the divorce or from the poor relationship that led to the divorce. In studies of divorced families however, it becomes clear that after the divorce, families with ongoing conflict and poor communication and cooperation produce children with more difficulties than do families who master these issues after the divorce.
In order to help children deal with the reality of a divorce then, the parents' focus needs to be on means of doing three things. First, to reduce conflict, and to eliminate the effects of any remaining conflict on the children. Second to find ways to improve communication between the parents to provide better continuity between homes for the children, and third, to do everything possible to foster a relationship between the children and the other parent. These of course are not the only issues that will need to be addressed, but are three that are common enough to merit mention in a general interest article such as this.
First and foremost, understand that the conflicts and disagreements of the marriage are primarily none of the children's business. If your spouse was unfaithful or unreasonable or the partners simply could not align their goals to have a mutually satisfying marriage, the only two pieces of this that the children need to understand is that a) their parents could not stay married and still be happy and healthy, so they divorced, and b) that they will still both be parents to the children is spite of this. The children need very much to be left out of the middle of the parents' disagreements in all other regards.
In the course of a divorce, it is very common for the partners to be angry with one another. This is after all one of the ways in which we motivate ourselves through a horrible, adversarial experience, and consequently the anger is accompanied by a desire for vengeance. Unfortunately, the most easily accessible means for vengeance is to color the children's view of the other parent. This is abusive to the child, and must be avoided unless the child is in danger.
The most useful means of reducing this conflict come down essentially to three approaches. First, if contact results in anger and conflict, to reduce contact between the parents to written communication. This allows the parties to think things over as they write them, to allow others to review the communication to ensure clarity and non inflammatory statements, and to ensure that the recipient can review the communication at a time when they are most likely to receive it in the appropriate spirit.
Second, use support systems to assist in reducing conflict. This can include psychotherapy, and in most cases, this is a very useful approach. As most people have not been through a divorce with children before, and most therapists have assisted people in this situation before, a therapist can offer the benefits of professional experience with a situation which is for most of us a novel experience. A good therapist can provide an objective viewpoint in regard to how communication is likely to be hears, as well as pointing out issues that friends may be reluctant to point out, due to issues of loyalty to you as a friend. Friends can also be a useful means of support, but it is important not to cast them in a role where their job is to tell you that you are correct to be so angry, and thereby support you in increasing conflict rather than avoiding it.
Third, awareness of the new nature of your relationship is essential in reducing conflict. Understanding that the former spouse is now a partner in parenting, and nothing more is very important. It is often surprising when we find ourselves feeling jealousy about an ex spouse's new relationships, even when one has no desire to have a relationship with that ex spouse oneself. It is equally important to recognize that anger and disillusionment about an ex spouse generally leads to a tendency to view that ex spouse's behavior and communications in the worst possible light. Consequently, there is a tendency to take innocuous statements as slights and to respond angrily. This is important to recognize and keep in mind both because you will tend to do this yourself, and because your ex spouse is likely to do it to you. This enhances the need to be extremely careful in how communications are worded, so as to ensure that innocuous statements are not inadvertently interpreted as inflammatory.
This of course brings us to the second issue, that of improving communication. As poor communication is often deeply entrenched in a relationship by the time it approaches divorce, it is a very common pitfall in parenting after the divorce. In this issue again, a good therapist is extremely useful. there are books available as well that discuss in particular a communication style known as "reflective listening" which is very helpful, and which is further described in this article. The most effective means of making this work is to practice it sufficiently that one becomes comfortable with it as a general style of communication. If your ex spouse does not use this, no matter; it can still be effective for you.
Practice in this case means "with other people." If you only practice this skill with your ex spouse, it will not be a familiar tool, and your likelihood of using an unfamiliar tool in a stressful situation is very low. Practice this technique daily and repetitively. This means essentially that you need to make a point of "doing" reflective listening in at least three interactions with people in your life EVERY DAY.
The other benefit of this technique is that it is a very useful means of communicating with your children, coworkers, bosses and virtually anyone else with whom one wishes to clearly communicate. Time spent in practicing this skill will show benefits for you in all interpersonal arenas of your life.
The third issue is that of fostering a relationship with the other parent. This does not mean that you need to have an extensive relationship with the other parent, but that you need to ACTIVELY encourage the child to have one. This means strongly encouraging visitation, phone contact, letters, emails, invitations to events, open communication and use of the other parent as a support system. If the children do not believe that you are strongly in favor of a good relationship with the other parent, they are more likely to believe that they must choose between the parents.
If the children do not believe that you are comfortable with them having a relationship with the other parent, then they will not feel comfortable with telling you about any aspect of their lives which involves touching on that relationship. This is not permission to pump them for information about that relationship, but rather an expression that it is important that you clearly and actively demonstrate that you want them to have two active and involved parents in their lives. It is equally important to strongly encourage the children to be very open and honest with the other parent. While there is often a fear that the children are being enlisted to "spy" on behalf of the other parent, there is no reason why the child should not be encouraged to be as honest as possible with BOTH parents. Again, the underlying message here is that the children's welfare is the most important factor, and that it is your desire that they have the best possible support systems on BOTH sides of the family, to help them negotiate the transitions through childhood and into adulthood.
It is NOT important that the two households have the same, or even similar rules. It is not an issue anywhere else in life, and it is not an issue in terms of the two households. Children are quite capable of understanding that the rules on the playground are different from the rules in the classroom, the kitchen from the bathroom and the mom's house from the dad's house. The only issue here is that the rules in your home should be clear and consistent, so that the children can learn what is expected there. The rule's for the other parent's home have no relevance, so long as the children are not being damaged, neglected or otherwise harmed being a mere difference of opinion about what is "appropriate."
Finally, a common concern is that the other parent may be trying to damage the child's relationship with you. This is unfortunately a common occurrence, and the tendency is to fight fire with fire, and respond in kind. This ensures that the child is place in the middle of an inappropriate conflict, even if you were wrong, and the other parent is not trying to damage your relationship. A more effective means of dealing with this is to continue in your efforts to encourage the child to have relationships with both parents. In many cases, the children see clearly the difference in these two parenting styles, and are keenly aware of which parent is trying to rob them of a parent. If your efforts at fostering better communication and your efforts at fostering relationships are sincere and consistent, the children are far more likely to maintain a good relationship with you than if you try to sling more mud than the other parent does, and more importantly, the children are more likely to come out of the divorce with minimal distress.