Five Things Divorcing Couples Need to Know
I have the greatest respect for people facing divorce. I know first hand, heart and head, the courage one must gather in order to proceed. Divorce tests the limits of the sturdiest people. It can challenge our self-view, life-view and bearing all at once.
What follows are a few things I learned through my own divorce and mediating couples through theirs.
Support. Get help early and often. Contrary to the image of the loan hero, strong people know the importance of getting support. Emotional support isn’t a luxury, it is critical for your physical and emotional well-being and consequently, for your children’s. If you aren’t getting encouragement from the expected places (i.e. family members or old friends), look elsewhere (therapists, support groups, etc.), but under no circumstances go without emotional support. What is support? Genuine support validates your authentic self. It generates feeling valued and accepted. It is the nourishment you need to take care of yourself. Emotional support provides a safe place to feel your feelings. People who provide emotional support accept you as you are while you move through uncomfortable and undesirable thoughts. A common error people make is waiting too long to get help. There are no points for seeing how long you can go it alone. In fact, if you wait until you are in desperate need, you will likely require more intensive help for a longer period. Just as you would not refuse to refuel your car, and spend weeks pushing it around rather than conceding to pull into a gas station, check your emotional tank regularly and be sure it’s at least ¾ full at all times. Support can take different forms. When Ken Feinberg, Special Master of US Government’s September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, was meeting daily with families of victims from 9/11, he spent his evenings attending concerts and symphonies. Feinberg supported his wellbeing by consistently partaking in a life-affirming activity he loves. Find what nourishes your mind and heart and seek it out regularly to regenerate to face the challenges of divorce.
Think with care. Stay away from negative projections and globalizations. If you were physically rundown you would nourish your body conscientiously. When you are emotionally fatigued it makes sense to take the same precautions. Pay attention to what you allow into your brain. Be vigilant about your thoughts. Nourish your wellbeing by replacing critical, habitual thoughts with encouraging, gentle affirmations. A paradox of our minds is that we are most compelled to ruminate on our major problems when we are least able to access our analytic thinking. If you are going through a divorce it is time to keep your thinking in the present, and keep it simple. It is not a good time to review each of your character flaws and every personal and professional disappointment. This is an exercise you can start (if you insist) after the immediate demands of divorce have passed, when you are availed of your best, balanced thinking.
Two kinds of abuse good parents should be aware of.
Parentification. Whether you divorce, separate or remain together, your children need to be your children. Parentification occurs when children are treated like and expected to behave like adults in relation to their parents and/or siblings. It is one of the most common forms of dysfunction that occurs when families reorganize due to divorce. Roles once filled by adults are now vacant, and children instinctively slip in to fill the gap. This should be guarded against vigilantly. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the damage this sort of boundary violation and inappropriate role assignment cause developing people. So, parents: anticipate that you will have needs, longings and empty spaces; trust that you will fill them, over time, with appropriate adults and activities. Seeking emotional support from appropriate resources will help protect against using children to fill adult emotional roles.
An offshoot of parentification is a subtle form of verbal abuse and boundary violation: exposing your children to too much information about your divorce, yourself, and your spouse. Depending upon their ages, children have often not fully distinguished their identities from that of their parents. Therefore, the child’s own value may feel assaulted when a parent is verbally attacked. Whenever you argue in front of your children and/or speak pejoratively about the other parent to or in front of your children, it is important to understand this as abusing their boundaries. Not only are you burdening them with information that will evoke strong, conflicted feelings, you are setting them up in an inappropriate role as your confidant or equal. Again, however your role with your spouse changes, your children’s roles need to remain stable. Be careful with your speech not because this will protect your spouse, but because it will protect your child. Children often endow messages from their parents with far more heft then the parents intend – so use special care and deliberation when speaking to and around children.
Reclaim your power by clarifying what is and is not in your control. Determining what we have power over and relinquishing the rest frees us to use our resources. Divorcing couples often revisit things outside of their control – what the other party should be doing, should have done, shouldn’t have done, and so on. The choices and behaviors of other people are always outside our control. Deciding who you want to be is always within your power (even during the turmoil of divorce). Each choice you make is an opportunity to build your self respect. Be aware that your choices affect the people you love and loved. You need not consider taking care of anything but this legacy in order to act according to your principles and highest self. This may be the most effective way to replace regret with peace and dignity, for you and yours. It is possible to embrace the unwelcome experience of divorce in order to cultivate the person and parent you want to become.