14 Apr Spare the Children: How Marital Therapy for Separation Can Help you to Divorce Without Dragging Your Kids Through the Mud
I have been a Marriage and Family Therapist for about twenty years. I have worked hard with hundreds of couples to improve, enrich and sustain their relationships. It has been my privilege to help couples who were on the brink of divorce to find each other again and re-establish a life of love, closeness, intimacy and sense of safety. This work has been tremendously rewarding for both me and my clients. One couple that I helped 3 years ago just sent me a personal birth announcement, which read as follows:
“Dear Dr. Regev, we are thrilled to share the good news of the birth of our daughter Ashley* with you. Although three years have passed since we were seeing you, we feel that our work together contributed to our relationship in more ways than we can count. We are sure we wouldn’t be together if it wasn’t for you and, for that, we and our children thank you from the bottom of our hearts (although the kids are not aware, of course). We have learned to resolve our differences and to be more in tune with one another. We learned that creating a Safe Haven for ourselves is the number one priority in our relationship and we try to remember that on a daily basis. You are always in our hearts! Love Joel and Lindsay*
Helping couples to become happier together is definitely the work that I’m mostly proud of and have satisfaction from. However, from time to time, even the most concerted efforts on my part and the couple’s part have not yielded the desired result, and a few of the couples I’ve worked with ended up separating.
Many of the couples who decide to separate are concerned about possible adverse effects on their children, especially when the children are young. What will be the effect of a “broken home” on the children and how can we spare our children from damaging distress, they often wonder.
In an ideal world, if parenting couples reached a conclusion that separation/divorce was inevitable, they would collaborate in outlining an amicable separation agreement that would make the needs of their children a first priority. They would each generously make concessions so as to minimize the negative effects on their children as well as maintain mutual respect and peace between them.
Unfortunately, more often than not, separating partners behave in ways that affect their children negatively. Some partners become so hurt and vengeful, that they are unable to calmly negotiate the terms and conditions of separation and to put their children’s well-being at the top of their priority list. The damage to the kids can be serious, unfortunately. Kids may become anxious, fearful, clingy or sad, even depressed. They may exhibit new behaviors that may present a challenge to parents and teachers. This is normally a sign that the level of distress in the home is overwhelming and too high for the child to handle. It should serve parents as a warning sign that their children are suffering and that different ways of dealing with the situation need to be explored. When parents separate, it is usually very unsettling for children as an intact family and stable family life instill a sense of safety in children. Here are some ways separating/divorcing parents sometimes intensify the distress for their children at a time when stress is high to begin with. It goes without saying that parenting couples should do their utmost to avoid these behaviors.
- Badmouthing the other parent to the child – saying to a child that the other parent is bad, neglectful, irresponsible or plain evil is damaging to them. The other parent is the child’s mother or father and they should not be made aware of their shortcomings, even if those are true. Children get their sense of safety from their parents and when one parent badmouths the other in order to win the child over or just vent, they are taking away from their child’s sense of safety and may be sending the child the message that they have to choose between the parents. This is likely to be very unsettling for a child.
- Using the child as a messenger – some parents, not wishing to engage in any communication with the other parent, will use their children as messengers. Usually the messages that they entrust in their kids’ hands are spiteful, critical, angry or negative in other ways. For example, a mother said to her child on the phone while she was at her father’s home “tell your Dad that if he doesn’t bring you back in time for dinner tonight he is not going to see you for a long, long time.” The child sensed the tension and anger of her Mom and started crying bitterly, thinking she was not going to see her Dad ever again. This is, of course, damaging to the child’s peace of mind and sense of safety.
- Exposing the child to arguments – whether the arguments are about the child or a different issue, when parents argue and voices are raised, it often affects everyone who’s exposed to the argument, let alone young children. As stated above, children get their sense of safety from the calmness and stability of their parents. When they are exposed to volatile arguments they may become anxious and may engage in behaviors that are directed at stopping the conflict, like crying, wetting themselves, hitting their sibling, etc. anything that would draw the parents’ attention to them rather than to each other.
- Allowing children to overhear negative information about the other parent – sometimes people forget, when talking to a supportive friend or family member that children are very perceptive and may be even more sensitive and attuned to what is going on when there’s a lot of distress in the home. While the need of partners who are undergoing separation to vent is understandable, it is the parent’s responsibility to protect their child from over-hearing negative comments about the other parent. Such information, overheard by a child, may be very unsettling to them and may cause the level of distress/anxiety/misbehavior to rise. Seeking support at any stressful time is a good idea, but make sure your child is not privy to damning information about their other parent (i.e., talk to your support person when the kids are asleep, not around or in school).
- Discussing the details of the parents’ differences and disagreement with the child – even if in your view you are merely recounting absolute facts or truths about the relationship or the separation process, you should leave your child out of it. Children should not be put in the impossible position of taking sides or judging who the evil parent is. They have no other mother and father and it is likely to put them in an impossible double bind to have to choose between parents. Children who have experienced a double bind situation, like having to choose between parents and being doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t, tend to have more emotional and behavioral problems than children who are not put in this position.
- Using bribe or excessive fun activities in an attempt to win your child’s heart – some separating/divorcing parents introduce lots of fun activities, favorite foods or anything they know their child likes in order to win them over, when they spend time with them . They may be trying to assure that the child prefers to spend time with them over the other parents. The rule of thumb here is that what a child probably needs the most is routine and stability. Life is not a continuous visit to the amusement park. Therefore a parent who does that is not preparing their child for real life but rather instill unrealistic expectations in them. What a child needs most of all is love, reasonable boundaries and stability. Also, trying to take your child away from their other parent is likely to harm rather than benefit them.
In marital therapy for separation, I have helped separating/divorcing couples to process some of their hard feelings toward one another in a way that made amicable separation possible. I have helped couples to define their mutual goals as responsible parents, while taking care of their own needs. Couples often come out of this process feeling positive about their future co-parenting relationship and feeling like their dignity has been preserved. The process isn’t always easy, but, for most couples, it pays off. You might be interested to know that research has confirmed that children of amicable divorces fare better both emotionally and behaviorally than children of acrimonious divorces.
Dr. Regev is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist and a Registered Psychologist. Please feel free to contact Dr. Regev with any questions or to book an appointment. Dr. Regev can be reached at 604-671-7356 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
* Names have been changed in order to protect clients’ privacy.