One of the most misguided concepts divorced couples with children have is that they will actually be able to get divorced. Even after the legal dissolution and remarriage, ex-spouses who have children together will always be those children's parents. Parenting decisions have to be made, schools and extracurriculars have to be chosen, homework has to be monitored and transferred between houses.
Co-parenting is dramatically altered through parental alienation, mental illness, or abuse. But most exes don't have divorces this extreme. And while they may hate each other, and be bitter about the circumstances of the break-up or the way the settlement went down, they still comprise a family for their children -- albeit, a family that is reconfigured.
While it may be unthinkable early on that contentious co-parents could both attend a child's graduation, wedding, or participate as involved grandparents, doing those things becomes likelier as years pass.
Which is why working through anger, honoring the terms of the divorce agreement and creating consistency in both households is crucial for the well-being of the children.
What's Possible When Children Come First
An example: a man I know was devastated to learn that his wife of 20 years was leaving him for another man. She wanted to move from Los Angeles to Boston -- with their twin daughters -- where she had family, better job opportunities and the man she had fallen in love with. Guess what the husband did? He moved back to Boston as well, where he also had family, got a job, and a home close to his ex and daughters. They now have an amicable divorce and an enviable co-parenting relationship.
I realize some readers may be apoplectic at this point. I am not advocating that exes pull up stakes and relocate for the sake of an ex-spouse who strayed. Clearly, this is an unusual situation and one that was only possible because the ex-husband had a job and extended family waiting for him back east. But I mention this case because it is a remarkable example of what's possible when divorced parents shelve their anger and put their children first.
Exes must realize that their actions towards the other parent impact that parent's household. If you are consumed with resentment toward your ex, it is imperative that you work through your feelings in therapy rather than take them out on your former partner. If you make life hell for your ex, you also make life hell for your children.
Following are two common ways exes get back at their children's other parent. For the sake of clarity, I have made these examples gender-specific, but they can be employed by both men and women.
Trying to Control What Goes on in the Other Parent's House
Mothers often have difficulty entrusting their ex-husbands with the care of the children. Sometimes this is because they have been stay-at-home-moms who shouldered the bulk of child-rearing. Sometimes this is because they feel that they are more in tune with their children's needs. Sometimes they feel superior for other reasons.
The conviction that mother knows best can lead to intrusive attempts to control what Dad does in his house, like multiple calls to the kids during Dad's timeshare days, interrogating kids about what they did when they were with Dad and frequent e-mails to Dad with copious instructions on the care and feeding of the children.
Unless you have good evidence that Dad is endangering the welfare of the children, stay out of his business! Yes, he may do things differently from you, but he would still be doing those things if you were married. It would be great if you could synchronize all aspects of child-rearing -- meals, bedtime, homework supervision, parenting techniques. Rarely is this possible, however. Although you may believe you are helping Dad and protecting the children, compulsive meddling communicates to both that you feel Dad is incompetent.
While it's often unconscious, this sense of superiority poisons a co-parenting relationship and hurts the children's relationship with the other parent. Do you really want your kids to grow up thinking Dad is a nincompoop, and you're the only parent they should trust? If the answer to this question is "yes," you need to re-tool your approach to child-rearing.
If you don't get a handle on your need to be "the best", you will model competitiveness for your children and give them a blueprint for how to blow up future relationships. Another reason to stop sweeping Dad's side of the street: your kids could end up feeling smothered by your intrusiveness and distance themselves from you over time.
Withholding Child Support
Child support is designed to help the person with less resources -- generally, but not always the ex-wife -- comfortably provide for the children. In a perfect world of equal pay and equal parenting, there would be no child support: exes would scale down their lifestyles in equal measure, be able to afford two homes, and split all the children's expenses equally.
But we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a world in which women typically earn less than men, and, if they have been out of the work force for years due to child-rearing, jobs that pay enough to support a family are not readily available to them. And if an ex-wife is working, she is probably paying a hefty portion of her salary in childcare fees.
Some men resent paying child support because they believe their ex-spouses spend the money on expenses that are not child-related. While this is sometimes the case, more often than not the recipient of child support is using that money to feed the kids and keep a roof over their heads. Withholding child support, becoming unemployed in order to modify child support, or simply paying child support late hurts the children. If a mother is stressed out because she doesn't have money to cover rent, the children feel it.
Having two homes doesn't mean you're no longer a family. If you are tinkering with child support by telling yourself your kids will have everything they need -- and more -- with you, you are not acting in the best interest of your children. You are acting from a place of revenge against your ex and you need to work through these feelings so that your children grow up feeling safe and able to enjoy their childhood.
Trying to out-parent or undermine your ex are forms of competition. These tactics belong on the sports field or in the business arena, but have no place in family life. Families rife with competition are dysfunctional minefields that wreak havoc on the psyches of their most vulnerable members -- the children.
Your number one job as a divorced parent is to support your kids' relationship and home life with your ex. That means paying court-ordered child support on time, respecting your ex's boundaries, and letting your kids know they don't have to take sides. The greatest gift divorced parents can give their children is the sense that they're still a family.
Follow Virginia Gilbert, MFT on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@VGilbertMFT