Thirty years ago, researchers were telling us that the top two factors that determined how kids fared after divorce were economics and parental conflict. Here we are into the less-stigmatized 2000s, and the top two reasons that surface in the research still today are economics and conflict. Why have we not gotten better at this? Economic distress on both parents after divorce is almost inevitable, unless you are in the top five percent of earners in this country. There is little that can be done about that until all parents, when they are married, decide to take better care of their finances and stay out of debt (something even our government has trouble doing). It’s a societal issue. Therefore, parents often divorce with little assets and too much debt, setting them up for having to significantly reduce their lifestyles and even enter poverty status. A drastic change in lifestyle can adversely affect children in many ways, including affecting their college choices. Again, there is little we can do about this after divorce except work to be better stewards of our finances and try to maintain employment that allows our income to exceed expenses.
The issue that can be resolved after divorce is parental conflict. Too often, though, parents say it is the other parent’s fault for creating so much conflict and that there is nothing that can be done to resolve it. Although another person’s attitude and behaviors can definitely create drama and conflict, it takes two to continue a fight. One person can put an end to the conflict, but it requires that person to be the adult; to be the rational thinker; to be focused on the children; and to have the courage to set boundaries. Hopefully, one person will take on all of those attributes for the sake of the kids. If one parent is emotionally or mentally unstable, drug or alcohol affected, a control freak or drama queen, the task of taking control of the conflict will most certainly fall on the other parent, who might be able to be the voice or reason. If both parents fall into one of those categories, the chances that their children will be part of the negative statistics is extremely high. To give the kids the best chance for success, at least ONE parent must take on the task of setting boundaries around conflict. Here are some tips:
- Stay out of each other’s body space. If you know drama is likely to ensue each time you come face-to-face, then exchange the kids at school or in a public place. If you do go to the other parent’s home, stay in the car and let the children come to you. Unstable people are not above trying to goad you into a violent argument that will get you hauled off to jail if it gets physical. So refuse to allow yourself to be put in that position in the first place.
- Refuse to have texting wars or argumentative phone calls in front of the kids. This is easy. Don’t answer or hang up if it gets bad. When the kids are in your presence, you can control what they experience with you. Parental conflict should not be one of their experiences. It hurts children to see or hear their parents fight, mostly because after divorce, the fight is often about the children. From their point of view, kids feel guilty and may believe it is their fault that mom and dad hate each other so much. Although the adults know this isn’t true, kids are well aware that if their parents didn’t have children, they would never choose to talk to each other after divorce. Let them know you respect them enough to not do that in front of them.
- Have a designated time to talk each week about the children and don’t stray from it. Pick a 30-minute time period that you will talk ONLY about decision-making for the kids and then end it. Throughout the week, keep a running agenda of items you need to discuss, and keep the conversation only about those topics. The minute the conversation strays from that and gets confrontational, inform the other parent that you will call him or her back next week if he or she is having trouble talking to you respectfully. In between talks, don’t respond to calls and texts unless it is an emergency. Control and drama people don’t like this, but they will soon learn that if they want to have discussions with you, they must follow the rules.
Obviously, these rules apply best when dealing with difficult people, so it is always better to be flexible and reasonable with one another, that is if you are dealing with a reasonable kind of person. If not, you may have to resort to these kinds of boundaries in order to maintain your sanity, and you would do best to legalize these kinds of rules by making them part of your court order. That way, you have the legal right to set strict boundaries around dealing with the other parent. Regardless, personal boundaries are our choice and we teach people how to treat us by the ways in which we stay true to our own health and welfare. If you have difficulty with this concept and always feel bad when you have to be firm about protecting yourself, then make your focus the kids. If you can’t do it for you, do it for them!
Diane Chambers Shearer is a licensed marriage and family therapist, divorce mediator, and parent educator in Atlanta, Georgia. She is author of Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families (Fairview Press, 1997) and publishes The Peaceful Co-Parent, a quarterly newsletter for divorce parents. For ordering information, call 404-218-1739 or visit her web site at www.dianeshearer.com