The end of a relationship is complex, difficult, and confusing. When a relationship ends and there are children, this complexity multiplies. It might feel impossible to work with your ex, especially when they appear to work against healthy plans. As one friend expressed, "Shouldn't they, of all people in the world, want the best for our children and act accordingly?"
As a therapist, I am interested in people's motivations. What emotional responses are perpetuating the unhealthy patterns and locked horns? Recognizing this and taking on the work required to manage the hurts and feelings will make one less likely to take offense and become reactive.
I worked in custody and access for years and know that in the height of conflict people need reminding about the end goals for your kids. These goals should supersede the divorce details and the custody schedule. One constructive approach is to create a declaration as parents that helps the two of you focus on constructive communications and decisions.
Ideas for parents navigating the challenges of a separation:
We recognize that:
1. Feelings are here and we need to work through them separate from our parenting and our kids.
2. This isn't what we planned but we need to create a new normal.
3.The best interests of the kids might at times come at a cost to ourselves or opposite to our interests.
We commit to:
1. Keeping our children's best interests in the forefront.
2. Working together as best we can as invested parent.
3. Trying and trying again (it will take some work).
4. Working on ourselves and our self-awareness.
An Example of a plan:
It's over. You are/I am/we are angry. Since anger is the easier emotion, it is likely true that one or both of us is very sad also. At one point there were different plans that contained a future nothing like the present.The situation may have gotten ugly: things said that can never be taken back and betrayals experienced. It is hard, no matter how it went down. If one of us did something ugly or it was years of both perpetuating ugly, we now have to face and live with this. No one gets off easy, the transgressor or the transgressed and feelings and pain is present and needs to acknowledged. There might be a desire to run away. The thing is there are kids between us and the desire to disappear or not be in contact is not an option. We are bound for life for the best of reasons, the best of our relationship: our kids.
This leads to choices regarding how we move on: how we act, react and how we keep in mind the mental health and well-being of our children. It is important to do everything in our power to keep a best for the kids focus and objective, keeping the adult issues separate. This will likely include work on ourselves and sometimes require us to ignore or work around frustrations for the greater good. It will be important to strive to find a course of action with commitment and intention. Let's try.
This isn't what we wanted or planned for our kids but we are here. Our children are paramount to our pain and we have to find the strongest parts of ourselves to rise above petty-ness, jealously, controlling behaviours, snide comments, tearing down the other parent, being inconvenienced and the struggle of working through disagreements. We might not be able to fully do this together but we will try to do it on our own by first managing ourselves. Therefore, I will work on myself and you will work on yourself becoming the best of ourselves for our kids.
*If you can't get buy in from your very angry or unwilling partner, just remember people love to stay in the expected patterns. Your “in-relationship fight pattern” doesn't have to continue. If you step away from your usual responses and away from the known cycle, your ex will also have to make a shift. It might get worse but eventually with no one to fight with, the other will make changes.