Have you seen the commercials for the new TV show on ABC? It’s called “Splitting Up Together,” and the premise is a couple who decides to end their marriage, but continue living in the same house for the sake of the kids. While this is certainly not a scenario that I am advocating, the bigger message is what’s important.
When divorcing, both sides should be prepared to do things that they might not feel totally comfortable with, but are necessary because the needs of the children come first. Lessening the trauma of divorce on the children needs to be the primary concern. Otherwise, we run the risk that the children will carry the unresolved traumas (even if subconsciously) into adulthood, and the cycle of unhealthy relationships will unwittingly begin again. I would think that one thing all divorcing couples SHOULD be able to agree on is that they want their children to be happy, well-adjusted adults who can maintain empathetic, balanced, loving relationships.
Parents need to be self-reflective and willing to set aside blame for the divorce, or they won’t be able to put the needs of the children first. If one parent is always bent on “winning” a discussion, or trying to force the children or ex-spouse to comply with their demands, there can be no empathy or compassion for the feelings of the children. The children become pawns in a struggle for power and control between people who should be moving into healthy and happy new lives, not continuing to fight the battles of the past. Leaving behind the power struggle allows parents to focus on what’s most important, nurturing and supporting their children.
Empathy and compassion for the feelings of the children are critical in all parenting, not just parenting the children of divorce. This is not to say that if the children are sad we give them whatever they want. Rather, we acknowledge their feelings, validate that what they are feeling is normal, and give them the tools to deal with whatever the disappointment or frustration is that they are feeling. I’m sure we can all think of lots of examples of this. A child is throwing a temper tantrum because it’s bedtime. We can deal with this by meeting them with anger, or we can say “I understand that you’re frustrated. Everyone feels frustrated when they don’t get what they want, but that is something that happens all the time. It’s mommy’s job to keep you healthy though, so bedtime is when mommy says.” Of course the child will still be angry, but they will know that their feelings are normal, and will not feel judged.
This scenario would be the same for children of divorce. There is an additional wrinkle though. I believe divorced parents have an obligation to LISTEN to the needs of their children. These children are facing inordinate levels of stress and sadness, and the parents have the ability to lift this burden, if they are willing to put the needs of the children first. For example, it’s understandable that both parents want to see their children open presents on Christmas morning. But the custody schedule says the parents need to split the holiday, with parents alternating Christmas morning each year. This schedule is for the convenience of the parents, not the children. The children’s deepest wish would be to have both parents share the excitement. Do the parents WANT to do this? HELL NO! In most cases, unless the parents have been practicing empathy towards their children for a long time, the last thing they want is to have their ex crashing their house on Christmas morning. BUT IT’S NOT ABOUT THE PARENTS. It’s about LISTENING TO THE NEEDS OF THE CHILDREN.
Shouldn’t parents do everything they can to avoid turning their children into the stereotype of a child of divorce? You know the one. The one who has to explain to their friends that their parents don’t speak, and has to tell their teacher that they don’t have their homework because they accidentally left it at their mom’s house, and they were at dad’s last night. The children who carry extra stress of having the two people they love most in the world sitting on opposite sides of the soccer field. Every one of these scenarios is inflicted on children by parents who care more about reminding their ex-spouse that they’re still angry about the divorce than listening to the needs of the children. In 2018, there is enough research on the effects of divorce that parents who put their children through this should be ashamed of themselves.
What if one party is emotionally or verbally abusive towards the other? In that case, the other party may feel that they must limit contact in order to recover from their own trauma as the victim of abuse. Keep potentially contentious discussions via email (preferably with a third party cc’d to ensure that conversations remain civil). However, in many circumstances involving the children, it might still be possible to “put on a happy face” in public scenarios, helping to bolster the emotional well-being of the children. I promise, that if you do that, you will be giving your children a gift. Sit next to your ex-spouse at the play. They won’t show their abusive tendencies in a public place, and you can focus on your children, distracting yourself from your personal stress of sitting next to him or her. Your children will be given the gift of enjoying their special moment without the sadness of having to find their parents in separate places in the audience. Your other children can sit with you both without having to feel the stress of divided loyalties, or the embarrassment of having to run from one parent to the other while their friends watch. If you have been subjected to abuse, but are able to do this for the children, you will be making a step towards preventing the trauma of the divorce effecting your children in the future. You will be helping to end the cycle of abuse. You will be preventing the abuser from causing any further harm to the children, at least for that moment.
I’m not saying that it would be an easy road, but the benefits to your children far outweigh any emotional satisfaction you think you are getting from holding a grudge towards your ex (because we all know, holding a grudge hurts nobody but yourself). Even in the most contentious divorces the parents have a responsibility to listen to the needs of their children. It might not be “Splitting up Together,” but it’s a great way to start changing the stereotype of a “child of divorce.”