People commonly confuse a divorce with the end of a family. The two are not synonymous.
Marriage is created when two people enter a marital union and become spouses.
Family is created when children come into the picture and the spouses become parents.
Divorce is only the untying of the marital bond. The responsibilities, commitments, and love that come with parenthood continue for the rest of your lives.
Unfortunately, many divorce processes put the spouses through an adversarial process, making it hard to maintain focus on what is really important: the CHILDREN. Parents are the most important caregivers in their children’s lives. They really need to work together as a team, especially because children of divorced parents can often face even more challenges than many other children. Children do not need their most important caregivers to be at “war.”
In my 30+ years of helping children of divorce, I have helped families with co-parenting. That simply means that, even when parents maintain separate residences and are no longer married, they work hard to communicate, make parenting decisions, and interact in a way to maintain a sense of family and reduce conflict.
In essence, they keep their children’s needs in the forefront instead of their own personal anger, sadness, and fears. When seeing themselves as primary caregivers, parents can better let go of marital issues and, hopefully, end the dynamic that led to the end of the marital relationship in the first place.
When I help parents learn to co-parent I am not doing psychotherapy, nor is it couples counseling. Some people have called it “boot camp,” but really, it’s just about learning the business of co-parenting. In many ways, managing a family can be like managing a business. (I have written about this in a book I co-authored, The Co-Parenting Survival Guide.)
When not co-parenting effectively, parents can get so concerned with “being right” that they lose sight of the goal. For example, parents might agree that their daughter should play soccer, but they disagree about the rationale. One parent thinks soccer would be good for the child socially, while the other thinks it would be good for her physically.
They reached the same conclusion, but they focus on their different views instead of the shared conclusion. Or perhaps they argue about who decided the daughter’s activities last time, or which of them should be the one who signs the form. They could spend so much time arguing that they end up missing the deadline for soccer signups altogether!
Parents serve as the family’s Board of Directors. They need to focus on outcomes and the present needs of the child(ren). As with any business or organization, the shareholders sometimes get in the way of the primary objectives. Family “shareholders” might include relatives, friends, and new significant others. They have vested interests in supporting “their” spouse—so Mom’s sister is supportive of Mom, Dad’s best friend is supportive of Dad, etc.
These shareholders might say, “You can’t let him get away with that!” While they mean well, the result is often increased tension, an infusion of conflict, and a squaring off of one divorced spouse against the other. It is important to let the shareholders know they can best help by not making the other parent the enemy, but by being supportive of the children who exist in the context of their entire family.
Imagine a child falling into a lake without wearing a life jacket. How absurd would it be for the parents to stand on the dock, arguing about whose fault the situation was, who should be the one to take action, whether that action should be getting a rowboat or diving into the water, whether someone should call 911… all while the child is drowning.
Everyday situations might not involve this level of danger, but long-term harm is still being done to the children when parents bicker instead of simply taking care of the business of parenting and thus taking care of the children. The Board of Directors and Shareholders need to not focus on which member of the Board of Directors “wins,” but about whether the overall goals of the business are being met.
Is your family being managed by a unified Board of Directors? Please contact us to get help learning to move from being fractured divorced spouses to parents who are taking care of their children and giving their children a healthy sense of family.
My Divorce Recovery
Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D., ABPP
Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.