by Tami Sollo, LCSW, Coordinator, Divorce Specialty Center
For a family, going through the complex stages of divorce they often experience similar losses to those associated with the death of a loved one. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced us to her five stages of grief decades ago to help make sense of the grief process. They are Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance. The loved one in the case of divorce is the marriage and the family’s hope for the future. One of the differences in most cases is that all of the involved parties are still alive. So what happens when you are asked to continue your relationship with your ex-spouse in order to raise your children together? What do you do when every interaction with your ex-spouse involves emotional warfare? How do you handle it when you barely have enough energy to get out of bed and take a shower, but you still have to go to work, pick up the dry cleaning, help the kids with their homework, make dinner and have a conversation with your ex about whether or not Suzy should be allowed to go to the high school dance?
In the state of Illinois, the divorce statutes have been modified to move toward a shared parenting model. The old custody model often gave the mother the lion’s share of parenting responsibility. As more and more households have required two working parents, fathers have taken on much more responsibility for their children’s needs. Mental Health professionals believe that in most cases, an equally close, satisfying and healthy relationship with both parents is in the best interest of the children of divorce. In this ideal scenario, parents never talk negatively about the other, they support their child’s relationship with the other parent and the parents (who are divorced by the way), communicate effectively and never use their children as messengers. Obviously, this is where it gets pretty complicated.
Parents that have completed their Parenting Plan through Mediation perhaps are more familiar with conflict negotiation. However, Mediation’s purpose is to end the marriage, not improve communication skills. Often the co-parenting relationship will take on many of the same dysfunctional interactional components present in the marriage. The same triggers that caused the communication difficulties are still present. This is especially true when parents have gone through a messy, litigated divorce. Most parents want what’s best for their children. It’s easy to understand the concept of shared responsibility and open communication, but not always easy to accomplish.
Open communication is essential to a successful shared parenting experience. Communication can be electronic, or in person, but what is most important is that both parents provide consistency and predictability for their children. Young children can be adversely affected by the unpredictability that arises when parents don’t communicate well. So, how do you learn to do this with a partner with whom you are now divorced? The answer may be found in conflict negotiation theory. Finding shared interests for a couple creating a Parenting Plan is a way to move people from separate agendas to a shared agenda. Therefore in co-parenting therapy, one of the first tasks of the therapist is to find mutual interests that the parents can agree on. For example, both parents may share the interest of providing their child with a good education. They just may not agree on what constitutes a good education. It is the therapist’s job to discover how each parent defines their hopes for their child’s education. There may be commonalities that can be utilized to come to a shared agreement.
Many divorced parents have developed triggers for one another that escalate emotions. It is difficult, if not impossible to communicate once your ability to listen has shut down. This is most likely what happened during the marriage. It would be cumbersome to rework the relationship and eliminate the trigger buttons. However, it is possible to help parents recognize when they are being triggered, and to develop skills that lessen the impact of those triggers.
Sometimes parents are so worried about their children, financial concerns and interactions with their ex-spouse that they forget about taking care of themselves. We all know that we can’t take care of others unless we take care of ourselves, but sometimes our own needs during this time of crisis get lost in the shuffle. Remember that you and your ex are very important role models for your children. How you handle yourself during this time is what your children see and will likely shape their own behavior as they mature. It is essential to have your own support systems in place so that you don’t lean on your children for support. You need to have a place where you can process your thoughts and feelings, and release your anger about your ex-spouse, separate from your children.
The Divorce Specialty Center at JCFS Chicago provides a Co-Parenting program that combines conflict negotiation and therapeutic techniques. It is a ten to twelve session program that can help assist separated or divorced parents to improve communication skills and focus on their children’s welfare. If you have any questions about the program or other services provided through the Divorce Specialty Center, please contact Tami Sollo at 847.412.4347, or call JCFS Chicago at 855.275.5237.