I recently had a mom walk into my office and she plopped down on my couch and began sobbing. When she was able to talk, she kept repeating, “Why, why, why, why?” I finally got her calmed down and asked her to tell me what was going on. Her response was not remarkable, shocking, or uncommon. It was simple. “Why can’t he just be normal?” She was talking about her ex-husband. With all of the current COVID stress in the world, she didn’t understand why he continued to fight her about things with the children that didn’t matter in the larger scheme of life. In the past week, she said he had sent a nasty email about the clothes the children were wearing when they arrived at his house. He also had complained to her in a lengthy text that he was not going to pay for their daughter’s violin lessons because he had paid for the violin and that was enough. He had called her on the way to her appointment with me (after her long day at work) to let her know that if she didn’t agree to change the parenting schedule so he could have the weeks he wanted for summer vacation, he would not let the kids attend her family reunion on July 4th like he had promised. Of course, I am only getting her side of the story, but regardless, it was clear she was exhausted. As a frontline COVID worker, she had a lot on her plate already just trying to stay healthy and present for her kids, but the addition of co-parent stress was obviously too much in that moment. It broke my heart. Her children are young, so she asked, “Do I really have to feel like this for the next ten years?” I said that I hoped not. It would have been easy for me to say that all she had to do was decide how much she was going to let his words affect her, but let’s be real. When it’s your children, it is personal and painful to have to defend every parenting move you make.
There are decades of research that tell us that a co-parent who intentionally tries to make the other parent emotionally miserable is directly causing emotional harm to the children. Children of divorce are highly sensitive to conflict between their parents and develop a special kind of radar to learn how to avoid and survive it. They also suffer when a parent is, or is forced to be, preoccupied with that conflict rather than the children’s needs. Additionally, the parent who imposes undue emotional stress on the other is the one the children are more likely to end up distrusting the most in the long run. Therefore, there is no good that comes to children when a spirit of revenge or self-vindication is the driving force behind a parent’s agenda in the co-parent relationship. My simple advice, and what I told the young mom in my office that day, was this: WHY is he the way he is or why is she the way she is? I don’t know. Why questions only keep you up at night and are rarely answerable. Instead, I asked, why do you worry about who he is so much? If he is difficult, stop fretting. If you could change him, you would still be married to him. Instead, set your boundaries so that you limit communication with your co-parent to a weekly email. That way you don’t have to hear the critical voice on the phone or worry about how to defend every negative text. You are not at the daily beck and call of your co-parent, so give yourself some breathing room and smile when yet another text comes through that tells you how horrible you are. You don’t have to answer them because you will address all needs in your weekly email to him. Write down the values you want to teach your children and let that guide your co-parent behavior. Focus on being a good you (not a perfect you) in front of your kids. It’s not easy, but it’s incredibly simple and rewarding. Here’s the key: If you do your best, your kids will notice and they will become a wonderful joy to you in your old age. So, stop asking “Why is he/she….(insert words)?” and just be a good human. That’s the key. It’s in your pocket. Put it in the prison door, and set yourself free.