In spite of the fact that many people believe they and their children will be better off if the couple gets a divorce, in the aftermath, they often realize they have traded one set of problems for another. I have had many conversations with frustrated exes who don’t understand why in the world the two of them can’t agree on anything when it comes to parenting.
And Keep Your Children Out of the Middle
By Julie Baumgardner, MS, CFLE
Life is Different
Even though you have lived with this person for a number of years, you are now learning how to live separate lives while still parenting your children well. There may be things your ex is doing that you don’t totally agree with, but you have to figure out how to work within the boundaries of your new relationship while always taking into consideration what will be in the best interest of your children.
For starters it is important for you to get your game plan together for how you will manage as a single parent.
• Get organized – Make a plan for moving forward. Take time to sort through activities, job demands, a budget, available resources, friends who can provide support and back up, etc. This will help you to be more in control of your situation and to focus on what is important.
• Focus on family – Set expectations, keep the lines of communication open, establish boundaries – you are still the parent and should set aside time to be together as a family.
• Throw perfection out the window – It isn’t about having it all together. It is more about doing the best you can under difficult circumstances.
• Ask for help – It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. There are resources available, but you have to make the connection. Neighbors, church friends and co-workers are often ready and willing to step up to the plate when you need them.
• Take one day at a time – After you have put a plan together, don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture.
This transition time can be very challenging. Having a plan in place will help you bring some order into your life and help you keep your cool when things don’t go as planned with your ex.
Keep the Children Out of the Middle
An old African proverb says, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
“Biological parents who fight and refuse to cooperate are trampling on their most prized possessions – their children,” says stepfamily expert Ron Deal. “Elephants at war are totally unaware of what is happening to the grass because they are far too consumed with the battle at hand. Little do they know how much damage is being done.”
Parents who want to reduce the negative effects of divorce on their children should strive to be effective co-parents because it reduces between-home conflict and increases cooperation. Taming your tongue, for example, is critical to cooperating. Conflict containment starts with controlling your speech. You cannot be an effective co-parent without doing so.
“Parents have to remember and accept the fact that while they can end a marriage to someone, they will never stop being parents,” says Mr. Deal. “While you may be relieved to be out of the marriage, your children have been in a transitional crisis. How well they recover from that crisis has a lot to do with you, the parents. The key to successful co-parenting is separating the dissolution of your marriage from the parental responsibilities that remain.”
According to Mr. Deal, children successfully adjust to the ending of their parents’ marriage and can fare reasonably well if:
• the parents are able to bring their marital relationship to an end without excessive conflict;
• children are not put into the middle of whatever conflicts exist; and
• there is a commitment from parents to cooperate on issues of the children’s material, physical, educational and emotional welfare.
Many ex-spouses have great difficulty cooperating about anything, let alone the nurturing and disciplining of their children. That does not absolve them of the responsibility to try. Their children deserve their best effort.
Co-parenting does not mean sharing all decisions about the children or that either home is accountable to the other for their choices, rules or standards. Each household should be autonomous but should share responsibility for the children. It does not mean that rules or punishment from one home necessarily cross over to the other home.
For example, if your child gets in trouble on Thursday and he loses his television privileges, in an ideal world it would be great if your ex was willing to enforce the consequence over the weekend. In reality, that may not happen, so the actual consequence would go into effect when your child returns home to you. Telling your ex that he/she has to enforce your consequence usually leads to more conflict.
Mr. Deal believes effective co-parenting should look something like this:
• Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household.
• Schedule a monthly “business” meeting to discuss co-parenting matters. Make a list of things that need to be discussed. A word of caution: Do not discuss your personal life or that of your ex’s. If the conversation drifts away from the children, re-direct it back to your children and their activities, schedules, etc.
• Never ask your children to be spies or tattle-tails on the other home. The goal is to decrease distress, not create more. If you hear information about what happened while they were with their other parent, listen and stay neutral.
• When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don’t capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent.
• Children should have everything they need in each home. Don’t make them bring basics back and forth.
• Try to release your hostility toward the other parent so that the children can’t take advantage of your hard feelings. Bitterness, hurt, and anger keep you from being the person and the parent your children need you to be.
• Do not disappoint your children with broken promises or by being unreliable. In the midst of a complicated and difficult situation, you have the opportunity to show integrity, honor and respect. Even when you don’t like someone anymore you can still find a way to be respectful – even if you don’t think they deserve it.
• Make your custody structure work for your children even if you don’t like the details of the arrangement.
• If you plan to hire a babysitter for more than four hours while the children are in your home, give the other parent first rights to that time.
• Suggest that younger children take a favorite toy or game as a transitional object.
• If you and your ex cannot resolve a problem or a change in custody or visitation, agree to problem solving through mediation rather than litigation.
“The reality is that many parents who were poor marriage partners are good parents, and their children enjoy them very much,” says Mr. Deal. “Give your ex-spouse the opportunity to be wonderful with the children, even if he/she wasn’t wonderful with you.”
You are traveling in uncharted waters. While you probably have friends who have experienced this and are willing to give you advice, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is right for your family. I once had a father tell me that it had been six months since his divorce and that it was time for his kid to get over it. Children of divorce don’t ever “get over it.” They may learn how to cope with it, but for the rest of their lives they will be faced with making decisions that are a result of their parent’s divorce.
As time goes by, you may feel like you are moving on, adjusting and putting this chapter in your life behind you. However, this is not something your children will “put behind them.” At every turn your child will be faced with new insights and more questions. It is imperative that they understand that the divorce was not their fault. Equally as important is being intentional about modeling healthy relationship skills with your children.
Julie Baumgardner is the executive director of First Things First, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.