Tony and May were at each other within five minutes of sitting down in my office. Although divorced for four years, they are still seething.
“He never shows up on time for the kids. It doesn’t matter if it’s to pick them up from a game or to take them for the weekend. He’s always late. He has no consideration.” That’s May.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” says Tony. “Never?” Look, I’m doing the best I can, but you know I can’t leave my computer on the dot. That long-distance job I have means I need a little flexibility. That’s what’s paying your child support!”
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
“My child support? My child support? That money is supporting our children, remember?” May turns to me. “See? Always the victim!”
This couple was referred to me because their kids are showing signs of distress. At ages 9 and 7, they are fully aware of the conflict between their parents. How could they not be? There are frequent heated phone calls. Every hand-off of the kids includes offensive and defensive words. The older boy told his school counselor that he’s worried his dad will be homeless because his mom is always asking his dad for money. His younger sister’s teacher is worried because she is getting more and more withdrawn.
The parents agreed to come see me because they both love their kids and they don’t want their divorce to, as Tony said, “screw them up for life.” But beyond that most basic agreement, they can’t seem to agree on anything.
These two seem hopelessly caught up in their fight. Although they absolutely agree that they can’t live together, they can’t seem to separate, either. Their struggles to separate emotionally are hijacked by their need to feel in control, or at least not to feel controlled. They were shocked when I suggested to them that they are as married now as they ever were. A legal document doesn’t finalize anything as long as former spouses are glued together by hate and passionate anger.
If you recognize yourself in this scenario, even a little, you owe it to yourself and your kids to extricate yourself from the fight. Even if you win a “battle” now and then, you — and everyone else in the picture — are losing. Parents who are caught in warfare with a former partner can’t reestablish a solid positive self-esteem and can’t move on to a healthier, happier relationship with someone new. Kids who are bystanders in their parents’ fights often get symptomatic as children and pessimistic about relationships when they are adults. You all deserve better.
A word of caution: The following is not an appropriate approach if you or your former partner uses violence or the threat of violence to get his or her way. In that case, a professional needs to be involved to keep everyone safe while the two of you negotiate a less contentious relationship.
If you want to truly emotionally divorce but keep getting pulled into yet another battle with your ex, there are steps you can take to get out of the intense but negative relationship:
- Focus on your children’s welfare.
Your fights with their other parent are hurting them. Get those children out of the middle. Don’t comment about the other parent. Don’t send messages to their other parent through them. Don’t confide in them about your problems, your finances or, especially, your sex life. They are children, not arbitrators, messengers or counselors. They should not be expected to take sides in your arguments or shore up your self-esteem.
- Resolve to drop your end of the battle.
You already know from experience that angry words, threats or even friendly reminders won’t change a thing. Think of it this way: If you jiggle the handle of a locked door and find you can’t open it, how many more times do you jiggle it before giving up?Jiggling doesn’t work. You have to find another way. The same is true of your ex’s point of view and behavior. That “door” won’t open by continuing the same approach. You have to find another way.
- Decide that it is more important to finally be divorced than to be “right.”
Your determination to be seen as “right” or to “win” arguments hasn’t gotten you anywhere but deeper in the struggle. It does not really matter if your ex agrees with your opinions. If you continue to think so, you’ve given him or her way too much power.
- Limit conversations to practical problems that must be solved.
Do not engage in analysis of your ex’s personality, critiques of his or her current or past life choices or complaints about current or past behavior. Define the practical problem and focus on engaging your ex in finding realistic solutions.
- Identify your “hot buttons” — the issues, attitude or words that trigger your anger.
Your ex has learned that all he or she has to do is poke one of them and you will be derailed from talking about a problem that really does need to be solved. It’s important to know your buttons well so you can see the poke (provocation) for what it is — an invitation to fight about a problem instead of an effort to solve it.
- Find and practice ways to avoid reacting to the pokes.
One client told me that she has defused her “buttons” by quietly counting how many times her ex tries to poke at them. Other people meditate, pray, or focus on deep breathing. If you can’t do it for real, you can always fake it. (You can blow off steam later when your ex isn’t around to enjoy it.) Do whatever you need to do to present yourself as the mature person you are. Eventually it will become a habit.
- Calmly, quietly get back to the problem that needs to be solved.
Remind your ex that the kids need the two of you to stay out of fights and to stick to agreements. It’s therefore important to only make agreements you can stick to. Offer options. Ask for, and stay open to, your ex’s suggestions. Make sure the agreement is a genuine one. If provoked, go back to finding and practicing ways to avoid reacting.
- Give up the idea of absolute fairness being the result of every encounter.
Sometimes it’s better to let the ex “win.” (Not all issues are worth fighting about.) Sometimes it’s better to trade: I’ll give on this. Can you give on that? If it starts to feel out of balance, deal with that issue directly instead of indirectly through another fight about something else.
Still fighting? If you and your ex just can’t seem to disengage from mutual animosity, then it’s time to get some help. There are unconscious but powerful reasons that perfectly reasonable people stay in a perfectly unreasonable fight. An experienced therapist can keep you both safe while you tease out what you are avoiding, protecting or replaying by staying embattled. Once the core issues are identified, the two of you may be able to deal with them more effectively and with less emotional cost to everyone involved. The therapist can then help you find ways to cooperate when you need to.
Former partners don’t have to be friends or even very friendly to get on with their own lives and to protect their children. They do need to find a way to make solving problems more important than winning the fight. When they do, they can finally get themselves truly divorced.