Psychological effects in children of divorce
“I wish my parents would just be friends”. Is it really so hard?
In many divorces the end of one’s relationship as spouses also signals the end of one’s relationship as parents. Children are caught in loyalty conflicts as they love two people (their parents) who are enemies of one another. This causes the children to feel anxious, depressed, and/or angry. It can cause them to keep secrets from one or both parents and in more severe circumstances cause them to feel like they have to “pick a side” and align with one parent so at least they are not caught in the middle. In our offices, children will often tell us that while they understand their parents will not get back together, “I wish my parents would just be friends.”
Parents often tell us how while they themselves are willing to get along with the other parent, it is the other parent’s fault that the relationship is not better. They will give us countless examples of how they have been hurt before, how the other parent clearly isn’t willing, and of how they have been told the other parent is “toxic” and they should have as little to do with them as possible. In short, they say, “It’s just too hard and it just won’t work.” But, is it really to hard? Maybe it just can work.
One night a divorced mom took her first grader to see her third grader’s school play. She got to the auditorium early and found some seats up front. As she was sitting down, she said to her first grader, “Do you think daddy would like to sit here up front?” She knew from past experience that dad would show up at the last minute, just before the play started. Her first grader beamed with delight and mom had him save the aisle seat. He, of course, turned backwards in the second seat in the row and kept a keen eye out for dad who did arrive moments before the show was to start. Dad came down to say hello when the child waved to him and mom said, “We were wondering if you’d like to sit here and watch the play.” To which dad simply said, “Sure, that’ll be great.”
The play began and the third grader (who was a wonderful tree in the show) saw his parents and brother together up front. At the end of the show he came off the stage and received his hugs and congratulations together from both parents (not worrying about somehow getting to both parents spread out across a crowded auditorium). As the family left the school, the third grader was holding both mom’s and dad’s hands, looked up and said, “I’m so glad you guys are friends again.”
Mom and dad were deeply touched by the impression such a small easy gesture had on their children. It did not require a resolution of all of the marital hurt. It did not require them to socialize together, trust each other, or get back together. It only took a moment and the awareness to treat each other in the same fashion they might treat a social acquaintance. Or said another way, it only took the recognition that the school play was about their child and that they were each there as a parent, not as an ex.
It’s really not so hard and yes it can work. Think of all the times and the small ways you can show your child that you respect their love for their other parent by interacting in a positive and civil fashion, there-by keeping the divorce from always being the dominant factor in every moment. In the family above, mom and dad acted in a way that kept the divorce out of the auditorium. You can too.
Dr. Jeff Zimmerman is a psychologist who specializes in helping families of divorce and training divorce professionals. He is President of Beacon Behavioral Services, LLC and Co-Founder of the P.E.A.C.E. Program (Parents Equally Allied to Co-parent Effectively). See website.