Increasingly in our family law court system we are seeing divorces that can be identified as “High Conflict”. Entire careers, and hundred of thousands of dollars are being made by this phenomena, and whether you consider this wrong or right, one thing we can probably all agree on is that YOU do not want to be the less that 10% of divorces that use 80% of the family court resources.
If you are recently divorced and find your co-parenting relationship starting to deteriorate, it is important to stop divorce conflict before it goes too far. Here is my advice to you:
1. Love Your Child More Than You Hate Your Ex.
During divorce, and sometimes long after, parents are so consumed with their hurt and resentments that they retreat into survival mode. For some parents, survival mode equals attack mode. The idea that children are resilient enough to be immune is a myth.
In my work with anxiety and trauma clients, I have adult clients of High Conflict divorce, who at age 20, 30 & 40 are still suffering the emotional damage caused them by having been witness to their parent’s anger towards one another. In adults this effect manifests itself as anxiety, depression, neurosis and chronic health issues. And this damage is not intentional. Minimizing one’s own behavior or blaming a children’s fragility occurs because the High Conflict parent must focus on their own survival. The unintentional damage that loving parents cause their children seems inevitable because these parents do not have the knowledge and practical skills to parent in a crisis. Throughout a difficult divorce, parents’ unbridled emotions almost always put their children in harm’s way.
Refocusing your energy on the childhood experience is paramount to good parenting. Connecting more with your child’s needs and separating them from your own is not so easy when you are flooded with resentment for your ex-spouse. Get really authentic about how you have been inauthentic in your parenting. Have you made some less than stellar choices under the guise of the children’s “best interest”? If you cannot bring yourself to make amends with the other parent, find a trusted friend or family member to get clear on this. This is hard work, I know, but it is necessary work.
Love your child more than you hate your ex, and let that love motivate you.
2. Pay Your Child Support.
It is amazing to me that anyone would need convincing on this issue, but alas… While there are legitimate cases where a parent is unable to pay (job loss, illness, family hardship), in my mediation work I have seen most cases of “failure to pay” are born out of simple spite and vindictiveness. Indeed, if you can afford to see me and pay my mediation fee of $250 an hour, then certainly you can afford to contribute to the care and well-being of your child.
Deliberate non-payment of support, coupled usually with purposeful underemployment, is just gross negligence. And to be clear, this goes for both parents. While the term “Deadbeat Dad” gets passed around a lot, increasingly, Mothers too are falling under the “deadbeat” parent laws across the nation. At the time of this writing, the United States Census shows only 57% of Moms required to pay child support for their children actually do so. Meanwhile, a simple internet search results in a plethora of websites aimed at helping Fathers avoid paying child support. Presumably, there is a demand for this service. Get it together Mom and Dad, equally.
Deliberate non-payment of support adds fuel to the high-conflict fire of divorce. If a healthy co-parenting relationship is not possible between you and your ex-spouse, at the very least separate out your anger with your spouse from your legal and moral obligation to your children. Your children know what is going on and they will grow to understand the motivation.
In his discussion of how children cope with high conflict divorce, San Francisco Psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, Paul Livingston, writes that in these circumstances of High Conflict “children are faced with a barrage of words, events and thoughts that they are not prepared to deal with in any healthy way.”
According to Livingston and a growing body of research, children who are witness to their parent’s anger towards one another are more likely to suffer as students, experience deteriorated relationships with peers, have a lower level of self-confidence, more anxiety and feelings of depression than they would otherwise. Divorce doesn’t ruin children. Angry, divorcing parents do.
3. Do the Work You Need to do to Heal After a Divorce.
Grieve your Divorce. I don’t care how lousy your ex might have been, a divorce is the death of a dream that did not come true. It is painful, regardless of who initiated the separation. And every divorce deserves to be grieved. Pretending it is a celebration is not only unhealthy, it is inauthentic.
Keep old friends. Make new friends. Divorce can be confronting to others. Be prepared to lose some friends and support. Consider that these occurrences usually have nothing to do with you and are just representative of what happens in the world of transition… things get lost. Be open to new people, new support and new friends.
Get Professional Help. If you want to keep those friends, both new and old, don’t make them responsible for holding the entire magnitude of emotionality you might be dealing with. Moreover, your friends and family are not objective. While you might not always like what you hear from them, they are still unlikely to successfully facilitate the radical self-examination you may need to experience in order to learn and grow. And really, why go through the pain of divorce without at least some growth?
If you have children, leftover issues from the marriage, such as anger, pain, betrayal and loss of trust can interfere with how you show up as a Mother or Father. Parenting becomes the scene for unresolved marital issues and no one suffers more than the children.
My husband’s psychotherapy website includes the phrase, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.” Heed those words, always, but especially in the face of divorce.
If you recognize yourself in any of this– that level of awareness is HUGE and it is the first step. Without being made wrong or being judged, consider contacting an experienced Divorce Coach or counselor to help move you through the “no longer” and “not yet”. A lot of little lives depend on it.