When you and your ex-spouse fight, it’s your children who suffer.
by Ron Deal
Shortly after my wife and I married, we went with my parents to Kenya for a brief missionary effort. My parents continued to lead an annual trip to Kenya for about seventeen years, coordinating volunteers’ mission efforts in East Africa. I will never forget going on safari in the Masai Mara and seeing animals in the wild: lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and hundreds of other wild animals Americans can only see in a zoo.
But what I remember most distinctly was the radical change in culture that we experienced. Clothing was different, social customs seemed odd, the economy and systems of government were unknown to us—we even had to learn to drive on the left side of the road. Despite all these shifts in customs, ritual behaviors, and rules of conduct, we learned to adapt quite quickly. Because my parents returned to Kenya year after year, the changes grew more predictable for them and, therefore, were not as traumatic as our first trip together. But they always experienced an adjustment period when traveling between countries. One year my father returned to the U.S. and began driving on the left side of the road. The oncoming traffic abruptly reminded him of the change in driving system!
You can see the parallel with children living in two homes because their parents are divorced. At first, the fact that the two countries have different rules, customs, and expectations may require an extended adjustment. Later, when the territory is familiar, only a brief adjustment time is required, especially when the rules and expectations are predictable. Sometimes children need gentle reminders from their parents about what the rules are (“You may be able to play before homework at your mom’s house, but here the rule is…”), but generally speaking children can adjust rather well.
Can you imagine what travel for my parents would have been like if Kenya and the United States had been at war? Getting on a plane and heading to the “other side,” even to do mission work, would have been considered treason. And once they landed, they would have been met with anger and rage as co-workers protested how awful the other country was because of their wartime tactics.
How would my parents function under that kind of stress? How would they cope with the external pressures to choose an allegiance to one side or the other? Every comment and criticism would be loaded with a battle for their loyalty, and trust would be defeated at every turn. And what if they decided to be ambassadors between the warring governments—would they have a voice? Depending on how suspicious the governments were and how convinced they were that the other side would never change, their attempts to bring peace would likely fail. What a losing position to be caught in.
An old African proverb says, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” Divorced biological parents who fight and refuse to cooperate are trampling on their most prized possession—their children. Elephants at war are totally unaware of what is happening to the grass, for they are far too consumed with the battle at hand. Little do they know how much damage is being done.
Guidelines for co-parents
1. Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household. Agree that each parent has a right to privacy, and do not intrude in his or her life. Make space for different parenting styles and rules, as there are many healthy ways to raise children. Do not demean the other’s living circumstances, activities, dates, or decisions, and give up the need to control your ex’s parenting style. If you have concerns, speak directly to the other parent.
2. Schedule a regular (weekly to monthly) “business” meeting to discuss co-parenting matters. You can address schedules, academic reports, behavioral training, and spiritual development. Do not discuss your personal life (or your ex’s); that part of your relationship is no longer appropriate. If the conversation turns away from the children, simply redirect the topic or politely end the meeting. If you cannot talk with your ex face-to-face due to conflict, use e-mail or speak to their answering machine. Do what you can to make your meetings productive for the children.
3. Never ask your children to be spies or tattletales on the other home. This places them in a loyalty bind that brings great emotional distress. In fact, be happy when they enjoy the people in their new home. (“I’m glad you enjoy fishing with your stepdad.”) If children offer information about life in the other home, listen and stay neutral in your judgment.
4. When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don’t capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent. Listen and help them to explore their feelings without trying to sway their opinions with your own. If you can’t make positive statements about the other parent, strive for neutral ones.
5. Children should have everything they need in each home. Don’t make them bring basic necessities back and forth. Special items, like clothes or a comforting teddy bear, can move back and forth as needed.
6. Try to release your hostility toward the other parent so that the children can’t take advantage of your hard feelings. Manipulation is much easier when ex-spouses don’t cooperate.
7. Do not disappoint your children with broken promises or by being unreliable. Do what you say, keep your visitation schedule as agreed, and stay active in their lives.
8. Make your custody structure work for your children even if you don’t like the details of the arrangement. Update the other when changes need to be made to the visitation schedule. Also, inform the other parent of any change in job, living arrangements, etc. that may require an adjustment by the children.
9. If you plan to hire a baby-sitter for more than four hours while the children are in your home, give the other parent first rights to that time.
10. Suggest that younger children take a favorite toy or game as a transitional object. This can help them make the transition and to feel more comfortable in the other home.
11. Regarding children who visit for short periods of time or spend time in another home:
- Sometimes it is tempting to only do “special activities” when all of the children are with you for fear that some children may feel that they aren’t as special as others. Do special things with differing combinations of children (it’s all right if someone feels disappointed he or she wasn’t able to go).
- When other children come for visitation, let the lives of those living with you remain unaltered as much as possible.
- Keep toys and possessions in a private spot, where they are not to be touched or borrowed unless the owner gives permission (even while they are in the other home).
12. Help children adjust when going to the other home:
- If the children will go on vacation while in the other home, find out what’s on the agenda. You can help your kids pack special items and needed clothing.
- Provide the other home with information regarding your child’s changes. A switch in preferences (regarding music, clothes, hair styles, foods, etc.) or physical/cognitive/emotional developments can be significant. Let the other home know what is different before the child arrives.
- When receiving children, give them time to unpack, relax, and settle in. Try not to overwhelm them at first with plans, rules, or even special treatment. Let them work their way in at their own pace.
13. If you and your ex cannot resolve a problem or change in custody or visitation, agree to problem-solving through mediation rather than litigation.
Excerpted from The Smart Stepfamily by Ron Deal. Published by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Copyright © 2002. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.
Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies, an expert in remarriage and stepfamily relationships, and author of a series of DVDs and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily and The Remarriage Checkup. Receive Ron’s free e-magazine at www.SmartStepfamilies.com.