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Cut The Conflict In Front Of the Kids

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Many men who go through separation are dads. We know that the separation not only impacts ourselves and our partners, but also our children.

Sometimes that impact is strongly negative. This is the stinging lesson I learned:

Out-of-control conflict between parents is bad for children to witness. They remember it. They dread it. They worry about it.

Psychologists say family conflict before, during and after separation is stressful for children. They can respond by becoming anxious, aggressive or withdrawn. Such conflict can even trigger behavioral problems.

Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way. My journal records the damage and the pain incurred on a day when I failed to keep my boys clear of the conflict. After being unable to contact my former partner by phone, I went to her house to sort out who would have the kids and when. I went there even though she had asked me to stay away -- even though she wanted no contact with me.

October 4, 1996

My wife and I, faces six inches apart, shouting at each other, over each other, through each other. Raw anger. No threat of violence. Just a giant vent. She telling me all the hurt stems from me deciding to leave the house, and me shouting "but you wouldn't have me back" over and over and over. And there watching, my three-year-old son, his face a mirror of our anger. Then he charges me and grapples with my thigh. "Daddy you hurt Mummy. Bad Daddy. I want you to go."

"Is this how you're not going to argue in front of the kids? (my former partner says) ... Is this the way you respect my privacy?"

I can vividly see her eyes popping out of her head as she yelled at me, and her mouth launching words like missiles.

An hour of argument followed. My son often interjecting, asking us to stop, shouting at us to stop, pushing me, grabbing me.

It was such a disaster.

Now, my ex-wife and I rarely fight. In fact, we rarely speak to each other in person and only briefly on the phone.

But years after the separation, my youngest told me that when all four of us are together, he worries that Mum and Dad will fight.

I carry his pain and worry with me as a reminder. A reminder to control myself, to avoid further conflict in front of them. I will regret till the day I die my shouting matches with his mother. For they were not merely arguments, or the last struggles of a dying relationship, they were arrows aimed at his three-year-old heart. How unfair, I think now. How I wish I had the opportunity to do it again, to do it differently. But I can't. I can only change what I do now and in the future.

I urge you to get legal advice. It's as simple as that. Talk to a lawyer you trust.

Whether or not you have kids, whether or not your divorce is amicable, it's a good idea to know where you stand legally.

I know many men feel strongly about the financial aspects of a separation. And certainly, lawyers make a lot of money battling over matrimonial property and support payments. For many men and women, the financial part of the split becomes a jousting match -- one more opportunity to score points, affix blame, inflict pain and get revenge.

When I separated, though, I knew I did not want more fighting. The last thing I wanted was to bring in lawyers and have a costly legal battle.

Nevertheless, my relations and friends all advised me to get legal advice. They said I was very emotional, that I had been through a lot, and a good professional might help me see things I might otherwise miss.

So I went to a lawyer. Armed with a lot of questions I wanted answered. And we talked. And he let me know what the law said. But he also had some good advice. He said that if my former partner and I could work it out on our own it would be much better for everyone involved. He even said the law encouraged separating couples to negotiate the financial split on their own where it was possible. He said court action tended to exacerbate existing conflicts. But if we couldn't sort it out by ourselves, then he and the courts were there to help us.

Eventually, my former partner and I did agree on the financial side of things. That agreement needed changing as the years passed, but I've always been glad I got that initial legal advice.
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This is part of a Huffington Post series. I call it "For Men Who Have Everything, Including Separation -- Thoughts on Surviving Separation."

My goals are straightforward:
  • Offer hope and humor to men who are disconsolate after a relationship has hit the rocks
  • Offer a resource to women -- sisters, mothers, friends -- who care about such men

I wrote "For Men Who Have Everything, Including a Broken Heart" because I would have liked a book like this when my first marriage nose-dived.

I offer it in a spirit of brotherhood and with a strong faith that once our broken hearts mend, we have the capacity to be more compassionate, wiser, more resilient and stronger than we were before.

For those interested in reading the earlier posts of this series, links are provided below:

For Men Who Have Everything, Including a Broken Heart, #1 #2 -- Grieving is Healing #3 -- Beware Precipitous Action #4 -- Love Thyself #5 -- Deal with the Real #6 -- Blame is a Trap #7 -- Create Multiple Explanations #8 -- Freedom, Courage & Splitting Up #9 -- Parenting Apart: Soccer and Wandering in Life's Changes