By Aurisha Smolarski, MA, LMFT
PACT Level 2 Therapist
The marriage and relationship have ended, and you wish you could just say goodbye to each other and move on. But . . . you have kids.
Relating to each other as divorced parents can be as much, or possibly even more, of a challenge than the marriage had been. Feelings of anger, hurt, sadness, longing, and relief may taint your perspective. But whether you experience an amicable or contentious separation, a continuing relationship as parents is necessary. You two are still responsible to each other for the care of your children.
“Wait, what? I still have to be in a relationship with this person?”
Just because you no longer share a bed or life goals, you are still operating inside a social contract that demands a commitment to the co-parenting partnership moving forward.
Fortunately, there is no reason why people who can’t be married can’t operate well in a different kind of relationship. PACT therapists know that a relationship with a set of shared principles based in fairness, mutuality, and cooperation can provide the foundation for a secure-functioning relationship.
Reducing the Stress of Divorce on Your Kids
Perhaps the most fundamental guiding principle of any healthy interaction is the idea that “what is good for you is good for me” or creating win-wins, thereby shifting the I-oriented stance to a we-oriented stance. The idea of being on the same team isn’t just applicable to marriages but to any relationship, including divorced co-parents.
When parents divorce, it’s easy for the newly single parents to get caught in the battle of looking at “what’s in it for me” – of forgetting what’s in the best interest of each other as parents, of the children in particular, and of the greater good.
When these battles take over the parenting relationship, adults inadvertently put an unfair burden on their children. As therapists, we typically see the child’s inability to cope play out as a behavioral change in school, where children act out, become aggressive, or withdraw from social interaction.
The kids are not the problem. Something is out of balance in the home, and kids react to it. The burden of taking care of parents should never be on the children but where it belongs, with the adults. When parents hold themselves accountable to the idea of mutuality, it’s good for each parent, it’s good for the child, and it’s good for the community.
Creating Common Purpose Through Secure Functioning
What does a secure-functioning relationship look like between divorced parents whose common purpose is raising a child together? This case example illustrates the idea of creating win-wins:
Suzie and Phil are a couple in the midst of a divorce with two young children. Phil, successful and career-driven, quickly moved into a new relationship and is fighting hard to keep what he thinks is his since he makes more money. Suzie recently discovered that Phil has a secret bank account and has not been open about his finances. He feels that she spends money carelessly. Now, Suzie finds herself feeling scared about her financial situation and unsure about getting back into the work force.
When these two come into the office, the session quickly escalate into a fighting match, with neither listening, only trying to convince each other of what is rightfully theirs. They fight over money and time. They both use ultimatums, blame, and child custody as ways to assert control.
Suzie: I’m always reminding you that it’s your turn for the kids, and you always seem to have an excuse as to why you can’t take them.
Phil: Yeah, but I have to travel a lot for work. I’m doing the best I can. (He leans back putting his hands behind his head.)
Suzie: And it’s always last minute. I never know what to expect week to week or what to tell the kids. How am I supposed to have a life? (Her face flushes. I notice her jaw clench for a moment.)
Suzie: We have 50/50 custody, but I have them all the time. I should be getting more child support. (She looks at me. I look back at him to redirect her back to him.)
Suzie: It’s not fair. You get to prance around with your new girlfriend and expect me to pick up the slack.
Phil: I’m paying what we decided on. This is ridiculous. You can’t control the kids.
(Their voices escalate. I have the sense they have forgotten I am even there.)
Therapist: “Do your kids have to listen to this?”
They stop and look at me. Their eyes shift uneasily from me to the ground to each other.
Therapist (to both of them -- down the middle): “I see you both as scared little children, fighting and grasping for fairness and control in an extremely painful and confusing situation. I have a feeling you both probably want to do this better.”
Their bodies start relaxing, and their faces soften. Tears well up in her eyes. His face flushes.
Therapist (to Phil): When you look at her, who do you see?
Phil: My ex-wife and mom to my kids.
Therapist: And what are you seeing on her face?
Therapist (to Suzie): And, when you look at him, who do you see?
Suzie: The father of my kids.
Therapist: What are you seeing on his face?
Therapist (to Phil): When she talks about last-minute trips and childcare changes, what do you think she may need?
Phil: I guess to have more notice and maybe to help figure out childcare, if I can’t make it for my time.
Therapist: Does she like that idea? (I direct him to notice how she responds.)
She is nodding. Her shoulders relax a bit.
Phil: She seems to agree.
Therapist (to Phil): Tell Suzie.
Phil: Is that OK?
Suzie: Yes, that’d be great. Thanks.
Therapist: Suzie, what do you think Phil might need?
Suzie: I understand that your trips are for work. Maybe we can make a calendar, where we can list everything at the beginning of the month and as soon as we know of any upcoming changes.
Phil (nodding): That could work.
Suzie: I’m just so overwhelmed. (starts crying silently)
He reaches out and briefly touches her knee.
She looks at him, smiles briefly, then moves her chair back a bit.
Building a Cooperative Co-Parenting Partnership
In thinking about what is good for the other, Phil and Suzie are actually creating a win for themselves. They become less defensive, which opens their understanding and empathy toward their situation.
Therapist: So, how do you think it might also be good for the children to see you guys communicate like this instead of the fighting?
Suzie: I might be a bit less stressed and able to plan better.
Phil: Well, I’m sure seeing us fighting isn’t fun for them.
Therapist: And, seeing their adults cooperate respectfully, they will feel safe and calm. So, if you do have to negotiate in front of the kids, how fortunate that they’ll get to see it done in a way that everyone wins.
Phil and Suzie nod in agreement. They are finally ready to create win-wins – and see their children reap the benefits from balanced co-parenting.
The big takeaway? What’s good for the other is actually good for me, and it is good for our kids as well.
Parenting is not easy, and can be particularly difficult when parents are divorced. You don’t have to like or even agree with the choices the other makes, but creating an outcome with two winners will make for a more equitable and balanced system all around.
The good news is you don’t have to figure this all out on your own. It’s normal and healthy to reach out for some extra support, so please don’t hesitate. We’re here. Go to the PACT directory today. Find a PACT therapist in your local area to help get you started on creating a healthier co-parenting relationship.