Five-year-old Max told me that his parents got divorced because his father doesn't like fish and his mother made fish for dinner. They got into a big fight and then got divorced. Nine-year-old Christina said how much she looked forward to her birthday every year - it was the only time her mother and father were in the same room at the same time. Thirteen-year-old Jason told how confused and disturbed he was when he excitedly showed his mother the hand-knit fisherman's sweater his father brought him from a trip to Ireland. His mother took one look at it and said, "How does he have money for a sweater like that when he hardly gives us enough to eat!" Then Jason didn't know if he could wear the sweater or would it upset his mother too much. Sixteen-year-old Samantha smiled happily when she said, "I suppose I'm lucky. My parents get along."
For many years, I've been working as a therapist with families that have gone through a divorce. It's everywhere, and divorce is so pervasive that we've come to sort of expect it. When you meet a young adult, you might ask, "Are your parents still together?" as if the fact that they might be is unusual, and it probably won't last.
I've worked with parents, but have also worked with lots of kids who come from divorced families. My sample is skewed because I'm a therapist and people usually only come to see me when there's some symptom or problem, but I'm guessing that what I've come to expect in the lives of these kids is really the norm and not the exception.
Many divorced people find co-parenting so horrifically difficult and painful that they give up trying to hammer out a functional relationship with an ex-spouse. As time goes on, that person becomes more and more of a stick figure - a representative of someone who exists on this planet only to cause you frustration and trouble - and the relationship becomes frozen into a contorted series of strange and alien encounters. Hard to believe that this was someone you once loved and who once loved you.
The adults get used to it, and so do the kids, but at a cost, and that cost is the giving up of a chunk of emotional freedom. Think about a happy, secure five-year-old, yakking away about something that interests him, excited to tell his parents some story. Now think about that same kid who wants to tell dad about the fun time he had riding a pony with mom and her boyfriend.
Dad's face clouds over and he starts to look distant and it doesn't take long before the child reads the warning signs - shut up or dad is going to get sad or mad. So kids learn to muzzle their exuberance and the story remains untold. Rather than being able to run free in a sunny field, they learn to carefully navigate the minefield of their parents' hurt feelings.
So what am I saying by highlighting this grim reality? It's this. I think that parents need to keep trying to find ways to fashion workable relationships with ex-spouses, as hard as that may be. It's not normal for kids to see their parents going to great lengths to anxiously avoid each other, or worse, watching them degenerate into screaming fights every time their paths cross. Of course there are times when avoidance is necessary - if there's been violence or abuse. But that high conflict dynamic is all too common in the garden-variety divorce between two otherwise decent people.
Don't settle and assume it can't be improved. Rather, let me suggest that parents go on a personal crusade to figure out how to reduce tension with an ex-spouse and make the communication even a bit better and more natural - to have more normal conversations that are not booby-trapped but instead, permit a flow of discussion between parents, for the sake of the kids.
How to do that? Read books about co-parenting, talk to a family therapist on your own, but most importantly, open your mind to the thought that it can happen. And when your kid tells you about the fun he had on the pony with your ex and his or her significant other, take a breath, smile in a relaxed way and ask, "Did the pony have a name?"