14 Dec What Does A Good Divorce Look Like?
A good divorce has something to do with Santa Claus. Children, up to the age of four, can’t distinguish between the thoughts they have in their imagination and the real events of the day. Often, they become confused. This is a fun aspect of living with children as adults because we get to play with their imagination and we can give them rabbit and mice families, benign aliens like E.T. and Santa Claus.
Then about the age of eight or so, they begin to see through our secrets and they discover how we have worked to nurture their innocence and delight in their ability to live in fantasy.
At about this same age, eight or so, they also begin to discover their parent’s flaws, so that by the age of thirteen they are experts in what’s wrong with their parents.
This is a natural and healthy developmental process. But at four, when they believed whatever their parents told them and they imagined they lived in a safe world protected and nurtured by their god/hero parents, at this young age they didn’t need to know how screwed up their parents really were.
When my husband, David, was four, at noon he used to wait on his front steps to hear his father whistling coming home for lunch one block away. As soon as he saw his father, he ran toward him as fast as he could. To hear him tell it, he ran 100 MPH and when he got to his father, his father’s hands met him at his waist and took his momentum and his father’s strong arms threw him high in the sky, up into the trees, no the clouds and when he came down his father’s giant hands clasped completely around his waist and set him firmly on the ground.
David described his mother, Elizabeth, as the 132nd cousin of Queen Elizabeth, but prettier. She understood what made things beautiful, how to arrange flowers, set a beautiful table, arrange furniture and make a beautiful home. She was always to him the epitome of grace and poise.
By the time, David was thirteen he was emerging into an accurate excellent critic of his parents. But at four it seems important that his parents were gods in his eyes. It would have been such a tragedy for him if one of his parents had destroyed this image before he was ready to do it himself.
Children don’t need for parents to tell them “the Truth.” Children need their parent’s protection from the truth until they are mature enough to understand and psychologically manage knowing reality.
With all children, children of divorce and children of intact families, they need parents to have adult boundaries. There are things that adults know that children don’t need to know. In a good divorce both parents agree on what their children need to know and when. They maintain adult boundaries about reality.
Especially they protect their children’s beatific image of the other parent. Their children need this vision of their parents until they don’t. In a good divorce both parents build up their children’s view of their other parent. They never detract from this image. Let your child do this themselves without your help.
Part of adult information in a divorce has to do with how blame for the divorce is parceled out between the parents. It is tempting to use the child to help you recover your wounded ego in a divorce by telling them your version of the divorce and recruiting them as an ally against your former spouse. Don’t.
Tell your children that you failed the other parent and that both parents failed each other and their children. If you believe in God, say that you have asked God to forgive you both.
As for them, your children, it is their job to love both of their parents equally and not to take sides and avoid knowing details that might tempt them to take a side.
Another part of the adult reality that children don’t need to know has to do with parenting negotiations after the divorce.
Say for example you are the mother and you want to take your children to your parent’s home over Christmas when their cousins will be there. You ask for those special days six of the eighteen days of Christmas break in return for giving him the remainder of the time.
When your children learn of these plans, they protest and don’t want to spend equal time with you. You might say, “well of course, I would love for you to do that, but it’s up to your dad.”
If you say that they will get involved in what was an adult decision and torment their father for time with you.
This might feel good to you to have your children want to be with you in this way. You may enjoy this victory at their father’s expense.
But think about the turmoil you have created in your children. They have been given the illusion of adult power that they can’t refuse. They will become miserable when they are with their father to intimidate and guilt-induce him into giving them their way. They and their father will be miserable until he relents. And if he does it, they will be miserable all through their time with him.
These parenting negotiations are none of their business. When your children ask you if they can spend more time with you, this is what you should say:
“This arrangement is your father’s and my decision. I have plans on the days you are with your father. I will be fine and I will have a great time. Don’t worry about me. And you will have a great time with our father.
This matter is decided. We know what’s best.”
This statement keeps the boundary in place. Adult parenting negotiations, like legislation, looks a lot like sausage making. It is better for your children if they don’t know the details of your decision. Adult boundaries.
In addition to good adult/children boundaries a good divorce creates civility between parents. You can both come to their children’s soccer practices and games, gymnastic classes and recitals, graduations and weddings and your children will feel goodwill between you both and not feel tension or competition between you for their loyalty.
Of course, part of civility requires that you bite your tongue and never speak ill of their other parent, especially in public.
One especially important aspect in a good divorce should go without saying that is you live up to the promises and obligations that are part of our divorce agreement. Don’t force the other parent to become a saint or a long-suffering martyr by neglecting to play their child or spousal support. Don’t be late to pick up your children when it’s your parenting time. Be sure to produce proof of insurance, a medical insurance card and have your children’s passports available when asked for.
A good divorce keeps the past in the past. This means you don’t hold grudges from your marriage. If your wife marred the man she had an affair with be sure that your children don’t know that. Be sure that they know that you want them to love him and be loved by him when they go to her home for Thanksgiving. Don’t make your children feel guilty about leaving you. And don’t make them think that loving this new man in their life is a betrayal of you.
Though this divorce may be a major life event for you, you want it to only be a minor episode in your children’s childhood. You can only do this by insulating them from your hurt and by transforming whatever bitterness you feel from the divorce into transforming energy to build a new world and future for yourself.
A good divorce gives your children a united parental authority structure. As with your children’s teacher, when your child gets in trouble at school, you want to present a united front with their teachers.
Children want to split authorities and play one off against the other. When they can they escape childhood, and become a player in what happens next. They are the tie-breaker between two equally strong authorities. If they can split authorities, they get control.
This may not seem like such a bad thing, but consider the three-year-old who knows not to get in the street, and yet she tests her parent by going there anyway, believing that her authority structure will protect her.
If her parent is not watching or is not there and she finds herself in the middle of the road with no one to pull her back, think about how afraid she becomes.
This is what happens to a child who successfully splits her parents and pits one against the other. She may get her way, but she has not authority structure that works to pull her back to safety when she steps into a dangerous spot.
So, when your children return from the other parent’s home complaining about him/her, don’t take their side. If at all possible side with the other parent. If you are having difficulty doing that, call the other parent and ask them to re-tell you the story. Likely, it will be a different story, one that you can support.
And when your children hear you tell the other parent’s version, they are reassured that their parents work together for their good.
Different parents often have different parenting styles and you are likely to think yours is best. Your children probably realize that you think this way and they use this to tattle on the other parent. Your response should be “just because he/she parents differently than I do, doesn’t mean that I’m right and they are wrong. Children learn different things from each parent and he/she has their way of teaching you what you need to learn. I’m glad you have him/her in your life. He/she gives you things I don’t.”
When your children confuse you and you are not sure how to respond to the parental challenges they present you, call the other parent and ask them to think this through with you; who better understands how your children can crate difficult parenting conundrums better than their other parent.
If the other parent calls you to consult with you about a parenting decision, don’t be quick to answer. Listen, see the difficulty your children are creating for him/her. Share a parenting mistake you feel you made. Then offer ideas, options, not answers.
In most families, including divorced families, members often play various roles; comedian, conscientious caretaker, detached observer, drama star, and so on. Two typical roles parents are often given are one, the white hat love-you-no-matter unconditional loving parent and two, the black hat, challenging I believe in you, no excuses you can do it parent. Often the mother is the soft touch white hat parent and the father is the firm deep voiced black hat parent.
In all families, it is good to have these two forms of nurturing children in tension with each other as parents make decisions about children. Sometimes children need parents arms to hold and comfort them. Sometimes they need to be encouraged and challenged to defeat their fears. As children get older they need less comfort and more challenge.
In traditional 1960’s nuclear families these parental roles were usually clearly defined. Mother’s needed a father’s deep strong voice to support her attempts to create order and structure as she fought the chaos of her children’s impulses. Father’s needed help from mother to reassure the children that their father’s sometimes brusque reprimands were really his way of loving them.
In divorced families, often a single mother can become overwhelmed with her adolescent male son’s anger and petulance. The divorced father may ignore the mother’s problem and let her and her son drown in their emotional morass.
Or the single father who has a reticent introverted personality and speaks few words can lose emotional contact with his children and have no clue about how to reconnect with them. The divorced mother may simply enjoy her victory over the socio-emotionally inept father, allowing the children to emotionally divorce him and lose their father.
In a good divorce, mothers and fathers would work together to fill in the gaps that might have been filled if they had remained married. In a good marriage, the mother who is intimidated by her boy/man son should call on his father for help. The father should quickly step in an tell his son he cannot intimidate his mother or, indeed, any woman with his physical size, strength, voice and presence. And if he continues to disrespect his mother, he, the father, will be sure there are consequences and that his sons mother is protected.
In a good marriage (divorce), when the father is losing his emotional connection with his children, he should reach out to the mother and ask her for ideas and support. She should challenge her children to reach out to their father and she should give him ideas about how to enjoy and be present for his children. She more than anyone else can help prevent her children form losing their father.
Collaborative co-parenting is an important part of a good divorce.
A good divorce gives you many gifts. Perhaps the most important is your forgiveness of the other parent. Oh, you may think your forgiveness is a benefit to him/her. And perhaps it is and perhaps they won’t see it that way. But your forgiveness of them is a gift to you. It cleanses you of bitterness. It renews your spirit. It releases you from the past. It lightens your spirit and lets you concentrate on your life in this moment and on the creative of joyful tomorrows.
And also, imagine what your forgiveness of your children’s other parent does for your children. It makes your divorce an incident in their lives that did not derail their childhood and force them into adult reality before they were ready.