Co-Parenting In The Context Of Divorce Or Separation

Silhouette of a man and a boy on the seashore
Image credit: photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

In a recent interview, Michael Douglas reveals that he no longer feels the need to keep everything from his children regarding the state of his marriage:

"I'm more and more prone to tell kids just about everything," he says. "There's been a whole school of thought about things you should not tell children – if there's a problem in a relationship, [people say], 'Let's not let the kids know.' Kids know. They know everything. I would err on the side of pretty much sharing everything. They can digest it, you know? It's life."

Making Sense Of Feelings In The Complicated Game Of Life

It is life, and when it comes to the relationships that spouses or ex-spouses have with each other, kids and adolescents are indeed very sensitive. They pick up on the subtle nuances of the relationship and respond to what is being said – and not said – by each parent.

Most parents involved in a divorce have been counseled not to say anything negative about the other parent. And this one sounds easy, but is actually very hard to achieve, because it is not just the outright barbs that are negative, but also passive statements that we all occasionally utter.

Things like “well, you know how your father / mother is…”. Even an eye-roll or raised eyebrow when a child talks about something the other parent has done (or not done) can be damaging.

Staying Mindful Of The Special Needs Of Children

A child might even fashion an identity out of this by being the one to report behavior to the other parent; they can establish a role for themselves in the shifting sands of divorce. But at heart, a child or adolescent needs the reassurance that the parent is dealing with anger and other emotions in a healthy way – not by lashing out at the other.

And so we cannot just pay lip-service to our feelings about the other parent, we must really learn how to let go of our anger towards the other spouse. This does not mean condoning unacceptable behavior from our ex-spouse, but it does mean finding a way to speak of it to the spouse with a measure of calm. You don’t have to be friends with your ex; you just have to respect them.

We must also avoid using the children as part of a power struggle. For instance, if they would prefer to have both mom and dad at the next soccer game, even though it may be visiting time for one parent and not the other, then put aside your differences for her sake.

Let your child’s emotions and the best interests of the child be your guide here. This does not mean that we ask the child what they would prefer; this could make them uncomfortable and put them in the middle of the situation.

We might even say: “I want my children to hate him / her, because they are just not a good person.” Frankly, even though this is understandable when the marriage has been challenging, we do not want minimize these feelings and pain, it is selfish to act out on this and will lead to emotional damage for the children. What’s vital is what’s in the best interest of the children. They need to be the priority.

We must be the adult in the situation. Even if your ex-spouse slings barbs and accusations at you through your children, it is not up to you to reciprocate. Your children will learn from your poise and calm. Again, this does not mean condoning the behavior. See below for some tips on how to express yourself over any issues with your ex-spouse.

Here are some techniques that you might find helpful. None of them will be easy, and all will take effort and work, but it is worth it, both for your mental health and your child’s.

Sending Love

(Allow 20 minutes) Sit in a quiet room in a comfortable position. Take a few deep breaths and gradually allow your breath to return to a normal pace. On each breath in, imagine light, warmth, and love filling you, spreading from your heart all the way into fingertips and toes and extending out through the top of your head.

Take a moment before breathing out, allowing the light to warm you and fill you. Then, when you breathe out, imagine sending this warm light to the other parent. Let it wash over them, with no judgment or thought.

This may take time, but each time an uncomfortable thought comes, let it go, gently and without judgment. Just bring your mind back to the sense of light and warmth. Do this for as long as is comfortable, perhaps 10 to 15 minutes. Sit quietly afterwards and see if anything has shifted in your body or emotional state.

Writing A Letter To Your Ex-Spouse

Write your ex-spouse a letter that tells them that you forgive them. List each thing that you feel anger over, and then let them know that you forgive them for it.

If anything arises that you need to apologize for, you can do this here, too. You may have to do this more than once.

When you’re finished, either file it away in a very safe place or tear it up. This letter will not be sent; it’s only an aid in letting go of anger and resentment.

Learning How To Speak To Your Ex-Spouse

As in any conflict management situation, it is best to avoid accusatory statements and language when speaking to the other.

Try using a compliment sandwich:

  • Starting off with something that the other parent does well (I know how important the children are to you),
  • Putting your concerns in the middle (I feel as if you don’t value my time or the kids’ feelings when you are late to pick them up), and then ...
  • Add a second compliment at the end (I know what a great dad you have always been.)

Also avoid the use of words like “never” or “always”, too. These can only enflame the situation.

Professional Help

Some divorces are amicable and in these cases, co-parenting and working with your former spouse around the children is less difficult. When the divorce, however, is volatile, working through your feelings about your ex will take considerably more effort.

One technique to work through this is emotional release work with a trained psychotherapist who specializes in this. Working through the anger, disappointment, and resentment is not only going to be of benefit to your children, it will also help you to heal.

Psychotherapy uses many different techniques in a safe and compassionate environment, helping you to learn to cope. Nassau Guidance’s licensed therapists have extensive experience in divorce and blended families, and work with each client on an individual basis. We hope that you will find the help that you need!

Sources And Resources

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