Eli Hillman, used with permission
Source: Eli Hillman, used with permission

By Eli Hillman, LCSW

Divorce is often a very bitter process. Two people, who may have loved each other at one time, often develop feelings of intense hatred.

When parents become polarized and divisive, children feel pulled to take sides and can get all twisted up and confused emotionally. It is critical to a child’s well being that divorcing parents work to be compassionate to one another.

Remember: sustaining compassion for your (ex) partner benefits your child(ren)!

Here are three suggestions for how to manage your intense feelings during—and after—a divorce:

  • Identify the underlying emotion towards your ex-partner

Melissa walked into my office to discuss her son John’s angry outbursts. I explained how important it was for us to explore her emotions to gain a better understanding of John’s behavior. With some hesitation, Melissa agreed.

“When did John start getting so angry?” I asked.

“At the time of our divorce. I’m still mad at my ex-husband. And since the divorce John is a different person. My ex and I don’t fight and we don’t talk. I only text. I don’t want John getting caught in the middle.”

I explained to her how even “hidden” emotions toward her ex-husband impact John. And for John to be able to feel good, she’d need to find a space in herself to explore and resolve her feelings towards Jim. Melissa, unconvinced, shook her head, but agreed to give it a try. “I want you to close your eyes and picture Jim. Tell me the feeling that comes up for you.”

“Mad. Anger.”

“If we can look beneath the anger what would we find?”

“Well he took advantage of me and never said ‘thank you’ for anything I did for him. I worked so hard to please him.”

“It sounds like you cared a lot about him and did so much for him, but he didn’t show appreciation. That’s hurtful and painful.”

“Yes.”

 I think it’s important to remember how much you cared about Jim and that you felt hurt by him. And that when you feel anger it is about the hurt you’re feeling.”

Melissa smiled with recognition.

  • Identify positive traits/strengths about the other parent

Erin, a nine year old, was referred because she was stealing from the teacher’s desk. Before I met with Erin I met with her mom Debra.

I explained to Debra how parent attitudes impact children. Debra told me that Erin started stealing three months ago when she stopped allowing Erin to talk to her dad on the phone. Debra had made this decision because she believed Erin’s dad Bill always disappointed Erin—she was trying to protect her daughter.

I empathized with Debra’s concern for her daughter, but explained that it’s important for her to hold a space for the “good” parts of Bill so that Erin, too, can feel good about him.

I said: “This may feel awkward, but I want to try an exercise I believe may be helpful for Erin. I want you to try—although this may be really hard—to name three things you still admire or admired about your ex.”

After a long pause Debra was able to find some old qualities she genuinely valued about Bill. She smiled and said, “Even though I’m mad at him he truly has some good qualities—he can be very warm and generous and he always had a great sense of humor.” Her relief was palpable.

  • Bring into awareness the goal you share with your ex: nurturing secure children.

Nick, Kyle's Dad, told me, “My way of disciplining is healthy. Margaret, my ex, allows the kids to do whatever they want. She functions out of guilt. Our homes are so different. She doesn’t even care for them. All she cares for is herself."

Kyle had his sixth birthday party the day before we met so I asked, “Did Margaret participate in the birthday preparation?”

Nick smiled, "She actually did. She made Kyle a Star Wars cake and he was happy. She really tried to make him happy.”

Nick and I were then able to have a discussion about the ways in which both he and his ex worked hard to make their children feel happy and secure.

Divorce need not be hateful

In fact, if there are children involved, it’s critical that divorce not be hateful. The more each partner can feel genuine compassion for their ex, the less anxious, angry and confused will be the children. No, it’s not gonna be easy. But it will be better for all concerned.

Eli Hilman, LCSW, is a License Clinical Social Worker and Psychotherapist in private practice in Forked River and Shrewsbury NJ.  He graduated the William Alanson White Institute’s Intensive Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program program. He treats individuals, couples and families and specializes in relationship issues using relational, dynamic and cognitive therapies.