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.
Inner freedom. It's nothing I've mastered, but rather a lesson that lately I can't ignore. Embracing this lesson will create space for peace and happiness and this is available to you. With inner freedom you will find joy from within not despair due to without's. Think about how rewarding life could be if you weren't living for materialistic pursuits, acknowledgement, and acceptance.
Loving and laughing with a group of friends or having your Facebook friends double.
Seeing breathtaking beauty in a landscape or getting noticed or applauded for something.
Working on something you enjoy, or promotion from your boss.
Two very different feelings. The first is intrinsic, the second extrinsic. The first produces satisfaction the second never will.
We are programmed early on to want outward praise; driven by self-promotion with our performance and behaviour. We pass this onto our children:
We often fail to encourage acceptance from within. We need to ask:
Meanwhile, we also struggle and take the new position in a less enjoyable but prestigious job, or drive this, wear that, maintain a current weight... you get the picture. It seems impossible to interrupt the unhealthy drive.
As a therapist I see countless people miserable because they married who they thought they should, went after the “good” jobs and took the courses expected. And now they feel stuck: difficult marriages, golden handcuffs, degrees they don't use.
How do you move away from this in a world where seeking external and not internal satisfaction is becoming more and more prominent with the information age?
Be present in your choices and stop chasing highs that will never be satisfied. There is always a better everything in the rat race.
Three big areas we could start to change:
1. Relationships: This challenge starts early. Kids go from happy in relationships to learning that relationships have currency: who likes us, who we like, and how it reflects on us. As we date we are at risk of seeing acceptance from a partner as a way for validation.
Examine your relationships and cultivate the ones where people add to your life. Be whole in yourself and stop relying on others to fulfill you.
2. Outward Appearance: Consider the many sad cases in Hollywood where stars have made countless physical changes under the knife in an attempt to find happiness or acceptance in a cut-throat industry. Or think of one's own desire to have a new outfit, new size, stating that “this will make me happy.” You will never be satisfied chasing any of this. The styles change and the size can always be smaller, breasts bigger, or this or that area tighter.
*Ask yourself what drives you to purchase, prune or exercise? Maybe you will choose a physical activity that you enjoy not pray for its end. Be mindful when purchasing, a desire to feel good can lead to impulse purchases that never deliver and the void again needs filling.
3. Jobs: I once heard a study which found that no matter the income bracket an individual was in, those interviewed thought they would be happier if they earned double what they are making now. $20,000/year joy at 40,000, 100,000 would feel they arrived at 200,000, 1,000,000 the sweet spot would be 2,000,000. See the lie?
*As you can see never choose money. Work in something that brings you happiness. Big discussions might have to happen about changing direction and what that means. Or maybe not, maybe you need to be present in the job you're in now, finding joy in the inner satisfaction of a job well done not letting your self worth be dictated by another.
You have everything you need to be happy right now here in this moment. Sometimes you will meet people who accept and live this. They are inspiring, full of personal power and choices, you have the power for this too. Chase this instead.