A Tale of Two Separations

Jordan and Elizabeth find themselves in conflict most days.  Jordan says one thing, Elizabeth hears something different, and then an argument seems to erupt from nowhere. Their three children are intensely aware of the unstable relationship of their parents and the family.  Eventually the fateful day comes.  Mom and Dad have a meeting with their 13, 11, and 8 year old children.  Jordan announces to the children that Mom and Dad have to live separately so their continual conflict does not further damage the children and each other.   They assure the children of some of form of residential schedule that provides for consistent relationship with both of the parents.  Their parents will continue to love them and maintain the activities and relationships important to them.  Jordan and Elizabeth acknowledged their ambivalence about divorce as a solution to their relationship struggles.  They promised the children that they will seek out whatever counseling or help needed to figure out their relationship problems.  Both parents agree on a six month timeline to offer the children as an up or down message about their divorce or potential reconciliation.

Aaron and Anna have what appears to their church fellowship to be the ideal marriage.  Their three middle school and high school age children are doing well in school and seem to be college bound.   In private, Anna and Aaron’s relationship is very different.  They tend to maintain a pattern of criticism and defensiveness toward each other.  As their silence and eventual contempt for one another grow they become drawn to other more satisfying relationships.  Aaron becomes immersed in his corporate management job and Anna connects with a man she has met at a church fellowship meeting.  One fateful Saturday morning, while the children are out with their activities, the veil is torn away and the fairy tale unravels.  Aaron’s regular viewing of pornography and Anna’s emotional affair are suddenly out of the shadows and into the light.  Both parents react in the pattern of defensiveness and contempt that has grown between them.  Aaron storms out of the house feeling hurt and unjustly blamed for the demise of their relationship.  The children are home by late afternoon expecting to go to the Saturday evening church service as usual.  They are met with the disastrous news that Dad has left the home and has decided to live elsewhere.

`I will summarize some of the factors that influence how the affected children from either family will likely adjust to the impending divorce.  From the child’s perspective, the divorce really begins at the point of physical separation.  How parents start a separation have a lot to do with how well the children adjust to a new way to navigate life as two families.  Unforeseen loss is always more traumatic than something anticipated.  One or more of Aaron and Anna’s children will likely invest huge amounts of their life into avoiding loss.  Jordan and Elizabeth sent a message of competence to their children.  Our stuff is our problem and we will take care of you.  Premature reconciliation will be a major risk to their family.  When the loneliness and the full impact of the separation really hit Jordan and Elizabeth they will be drawn back together.  “Let’s try again.”  Getting back together without resolving the issues that drove them apart in the first place will likely set up a major explosion in about six to eighteen months.  One separation was bad enough.  Jordan and Elizabeth’s children risk going through two separations plus several months of instability in between.

The three strongest predictors of how well children will cope with their parents’ separation and divorce:  general parenting ability, resources available to the children (not just financial), and the degree of conflict between the parents, and how much the children are drawn up into that conflict.  In the vignette with Aaron and Anna, they were set up to carry their current relationship conflicts into their divided family parenting.  John Gottman defines those relationship destroyers as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:  criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.    Anna will tell the children what she wants to hear about their father when she talks to her peers or family members about Aaron’s abandonment or use of pornography.  Parents will hear from the children the information about the other parent that confirms the expectations they’ve established.  Instead of triangulating the children in their relational conflicts Jordan and Elizabeth left room for them to experience their own array of emotions and insecurities.  With such a message of ownership from the parents, the children will be supported as they move through their family crisis rather than look for somebody to blame.  Such an investigation process, especially for the 11 and 13 year old, promises two dangerous results:  a confusing narrative that only invites more questions and more struggle in their love for one or both parents.

These examples are not about a right or a wrong way, but two different paths through a terrible path and some of the consequences. That’s why it’s so crucial to seek resources and counseling help when facing these struggles. You are not alone.

Next Steps:

Connect with these divorce adjustment and co-parenting resources:

Dinosaurs’ Divorce:  A Guide for Changing Families, Marc Brown

The Co-parenting Handbook:  Raising Well Adjusted and Resilient Kids from Little Ones to Young Adults  Through Separation and Divorce, Karen Bonnell

Co-parenting After Divorce, Lisa Gabardi

The Co-Parenting Communication Guide, AFCC

Planning for Parenting Time:  Arizona’s Guide to Parents Living Apart

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