This guest article comes courtesy of Joan Norton, J.D., with www.txparent.com, a Austin-based website offering a 4-hour online parent education class that equips separated and divorcing parents with problem-solving skills to end conflict, positively co-parent children in two homes, and help their children adjust to divorce.
If you have children, divorce changes rather than ends the relationship you share. Your happiness now rests on making your divorce succeed even if your marriage failed. Consider these seven strategies as you move forward in your lives.
1. Restructure the Relationship
Instead of interacting as husband and wife (which you no longer are), it is very liberating to form a completely new business-like relationship with your ex. While your divorce legally ended your marriage, the unfinished business of raising the children still exists. In order to effectively transact this business in the coming months and years, you and your ex must move away from the emotional attachments of a marriage and toward a “business-like acquaintanceship” where the emotional climate is more formal and less personal – or at least a lot less personal than it is now. You and your ex can think of yourselves as business acquaintances who work to fulfill a shared goal: to raise healthy, happy, and well-adjusted children.
2. Behave as Acquaintances
It will feel strange at first, but treating your former mate as a business partner or acquaintance is your ticket to a happy future. What is an acquaintance? An acquaintance is the pharmacist, the waiter, or the business associate we interact with only for work. When we speak to the pharmacist, we give her the prescription, and she fills it. The pharmacist presents us with a bill, and we pay it. If the pharmacist asks how we’re doing, we reply, “Fine, thank you,” even if we’re having a lousy day. Business partners and associates do their business courteously and efficiently while maintaining a low emotional profile. The purpose of their interaction is to accomplish a shared goal. The hallmarks of a business-like relationship are formal courtesies, public meetings, written contracts, little confrontation, low personal disclosure, and high personal privacy.
3. Exercise Courtesy and Respect – No Matter What
In a business-like relationship, the parties treat each other with courtesy and respect –no matter what—even if they have to fake it until they make it. Business associates do not insult, interrupt, or belittle one another. Why is this important?
• It empowers you.
No matter how your ex behaves, your plan of action remains clear and unchanged. You don’t need to wait helplessly by, hoping your ex will act like less of a jerk tomorrow than he or she did yesterday. Starting today, you take the lead in a positive way.
• It helps your children.
Acting courteously models positive social behavior for our children. Also, it creates an important island of safety for your child. While the behavior of your ex may remain frightening and unpredictable, at least your child will have the comfort of knowing that when mother and father are together, one parent will always remain in control and speak respectfully.
What if you ex does not deserve courteous treatment? Even if you feel that way, please consider your children. Your children have the right to see their mother and father behaving civilly toward one another.
4. Cut the Emotional Ties
Clearly, this takes time and effort. What are some ways to begin?
• Focus on your role as a parent, rather than your former role as spouse.
• Find new sources of emotional support such as new friends, divorce support groups, or counseling.
• Avoid leaning on your children, however; children need to know you will take care of them, not the other way around.
Cutting the ties is worth the effort because remaining attached to your ex keeps your life in limbo and prevents you from finding happiness in a new, better relationship. Tragically, it damages your children, too. When parents remain emotionally attached through hostility, bitterness, and destructive game-playing, their children feel these adult vendettas very deeply. Research confirms indisputably that:
• Ongoing conflict between the parents is the #1 cause of suffering, stress, and maladjustment in children of divorce.
• The lesser the amount of parental conflict, the better your children will fare in adjusting to the divorce.
Schedule a meeting to discuss business matters with your ex when the children are not in earshot. Keep the pick-up and drop-off times a pleasant, “battle-free” zone. This will be a great relief to your children. Don’t argue in front of your children or put the other parent down. This places your children in a conflict between the two people they love the most.
5. Enforce Your Boundaries
In a business-like relationship, you will limit your conversations to your shared goal of parenting the children – for example, your child’s health, school performance, and activities are acceptable topics. Matters such as the dating habits of your ex, past mistakes, and attacking differences in appropriate parenting styles are off-limits. Also realize that cooperating with your ex in a business-like way does not mean accepting abusive treatment. Seek counseling, and dial 911 or 1-800-799-SAFE, if you or your children are in danger.
6. Protect Your Pocketbook
Getting along with your former mate is not only good for your children, it is also good for your pocketbook. Parents who can solve their differences within the parameters of their divorce decree will avoid the emotional and financial drain of returning to court later with issues such as child access, visitation, and custody disputes. Many counties in Texas mandate a parent education class before finalizing a divorce involving minor children.
7. Discover Resources
Parenting is an ongoing process. Fortunately, many excellent resources exist to support you. In addition to the class we offer, we also recommend some our favorites:
Books for Parents:
Parenting Apart by Christina McGhee, MSW
Mom’s House, Dad’s House by Dr. Isolina Ricci
Books for Children:
Mom’s House, Dad’s House for Kids by Dr. Isolina Ricci (ages 10+)
The Dinosaur’s Divorce by Marc Brown (ages 4-8)
Free Webinars for Divorced Parents on the Texas PTA’s website
Free Online Video, Kids in the Crossfire, available at The Texas Young Lawyers Association website: www.tyla.org
Many families have successfully weathered the change of divorce, and you can, too.