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Tara Fass

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Caught In The Middle

Posted: 10/28/11 09:00 PM ET

The bifurcated child -- shuttling between the homes of his or her separated or divorced parents -- is, by definition, caught in the middle. Imagine the child as a bird migrating from one place to another, essentially homeless until you provide a safe perch. How can you help this child glide in for a smoother landing?

Most co-parents with issues, who seek mediation and counseling, are in some version of custody hell. When they seek my guidance, I'm sometimes reminded of Alice in "Through the Looking Glass," who finds that nothing is quite what it seems. We're talking about a mirror, after all, and frequently it's a funhouse mirror, a genie all distorted and bent out of shape. How can you bring reason to a genie that won't go easily back in the bottle?

If you've acted out in shameful and betraying ways in your relationship, or you've disengaged (grown cold and distant, or worse) from your children's other parent, it's helpful to remind yourself that you are not alone. But regardless of your mood from day to day, you need to take special care of your kids. They require a safe and steady, holding environment. They're growing up, whether you're fighting with your ex or trying to heal.

You must access the core resources to bow out of your romantic relationships with your heads held high -- setting a good example for your children and clearing the path to a brighter future. Trouble is if you are still in conflict mode with your former significant other, you are still in the throes of what I call the "emotional divorce."

You may have a tendency to obsess over your past love connection in the name of justice and fairness. But the competitive, tit-for-tat, scorekeeping approach doesn't help anyone, especially not your offspring, who absorb and feed off this poison. They're continuously watching us, but when children are on high-alert, they especially watch us like hawks and parrot back what we provide for them. Be careful what role-modeling seeds you sow -- down the road it will be a version of what you reap.

If you're still wrangling after the breakup, it's time to recalibrate. Not knowing how to stop your hurtful ways -- the very stuff that got you into trouble when you were together -- is proof positive that you need to let go of the past and take new steps. If your child is trying to fix your relationship or engaging in storytelling that is keeping him or her at the center of an imbroglio, that's another sign it's time to turn your attention to getting along with your co-parent.

Try to give your ex the benefit of the doubt, and trust but verify as my teacher, Isaac Berman, Ph.D advises. Just quieting down can speak volumes. Backing up is not giving up. Feeling lost? Focus on one good thing and remember what the kinder need. After all, they light you up and are the delightful result of your relationship with the co-parent.

Focus on the knottiest problems about how to share custody in a way that benefits the child. Dr. Berman says it's an art form to acquire a taste for what is odious to you. He thinks you can downplay the pain of conflict by conceiving of it as just another way to stay in touch that has outworn its value. Additionally, your enlightened self-interest should remind you if your former partner wins you win too. It follows then, that your child wins as well.

As you prepare for a session with your mediator or therapist, have the courage to internalize the message, "I am in conflict with someone I once cherished. How can I avoid being part of the problem and improve the situation?" Such radical honesty may soften your former mate and restore him or her to a more accommodating place, which it turn can ease the process of sharing custody in a way that makes the child feels comfortable in BOTH homes.

If you allow yourself to dwell on being disgusted with your situation, you may be inciting or feeding the problem. Only by acknowledging this will you have something substantial to work with to help you keeping the solemn promise to your raise your children right.

When dealing with the Bifurcated Child, each parent can be the dreaded finger pointer as well as the one the being pointed at. Stay mindful of the bigger picture, which is that every action you take, every mood you display, has an effect on your kids. And don't punish yourself when you make mistakes, or judge too harshly when your former significant other screws up.. As Leonard Cohen sang, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." He could have been talking about illuminating your looking glass with that light.