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Children Caught in the Middle

Being in the middle of two angry parents stinks...

Here's a letter that arrived together with the usual holiday mail:

I am in the 8th grade. My English class is writing an essay on a topic that is important to us. I chose to do the effects divorce has on a teen. As I was on Google I saw your article on the same topic and it helped me a lot. I was wondering if you could take some time and send me some more information on that topic.

If more people understood the things divorce can do to a child or teen, maybe adults will think twice before they marry the wrong person and might find the right person to settle down with.

I was a victim of divorce. I know how it is. My parents fought and fought until they had enough. I was put in the middle of everything and had to make tough choices that I didn't really want to. I don't want anyone to experience what I did.

I really think this is an important issue. Thank you for taking the time and reading this letter.

Thank you for taking the time to write this letter.

There is no doubt about it. Divorce stinks, especially for children. If I had a magic wand, I would make divorce with children disappear. (Most of the time; sometimes divorce is the better option, usually because the alternatives are even worse.)

If I had a magic wand, I would also make every couple right for each other. But as my young correspondent surely will discover in the years to come, it isn't so easy to find the right person, or to know whether the person you think is right really is.

Still, I want to be clear. I spend a lot of time in my academic and professional career trying to make divorce less difficult, especially for children. But this does not mean that I am "pro-divorce." Actually, the opposite is true. I'm old school. I am very much in favor of promoting enduring, happy marriages, especially when children are involved.

On the other hand, to me it seems backwards to promote marriage by making divorce even more painful, as some marriage advocates want to do. Why can't we promote marriage by working to make marriage better (including by encouraging realistic expectations of marriage)?

But my ideas on how to promote marriage is a topic I'll address in another blog one day.

Right now, I want to focus on a different issue that my letter writer raised. Since we haven't eliminated divorce, can we do something about one of the worst parts for kids? Getting caught in the middle of all the fighting between your parents.

You don't have to think very deeply to recognize that being in the middle of a divorce is an uncomfortable place.

Picture yourself having dinner with divorcing friends. You like them both, and are trying to be supportive. But they get into an argument. Things get louder and angrier. You fail in your efforts to distract them. Even when you ask, they won't calm down. And now they each start to look toward you, seeking an ally in their escalating dispute. Pretty soon they start talking to each other through you. "Tell him that..." "Well, you can tell her that..." Finally, one of them storms off, yelling at you. "You won't see me again, not as long as you're friends with... that thing."

Places like this are where many children live before, during, and long after a divorce. It's not a very happy, comfortable, or child-friendly place.

I'm sure my correspondent could tell lots of real life stories like my hypothetical, and worse. Much worse. I've heard, and seen, a million of them.

In fact, I have a collection of photographs of torn down, blown up, and cut-in-two houses. All products of divorce. It's one thing to destroy your property. It's something else to do this to your children. In an effort to get back at their ex, or just because their own anger is so out of control, sadly too many divorcing parents end up hurting their kids. Blind rage.

Now, let me be clear. I'm not trying to deny anyone their anger. Divorce stinks for adults too. People going through a divorce have a lot of good reasons to be angry. If you're getting divorced, you should be angry at your ex.

By all means, be angry. Be furious. I won't deny you your rage. If you don't have children, indulge yourself.

But if you're a divorcing or divorced parent, you can't or shouldn't indulge. Instead, if you're a divorcing or divorced parent I want you to try to do some things that are emotionally unnatural. Look beyond your rage. Try to understand how you're really feeling. Try especially to control and contain your anger around your children and its consequences for them.

Here are some questions for divorcing partners who are also parents.

Is your anger hiding other, perhaps more honest feelings? Hurt? Pain? Grief? Longing? Fear? Guilt?

Can you really get 100% divorced if you have children?

Even if you have a right to be angry, do your children need to be exposed to your anger?

Have you exhausted all of your Gandi tactics in dealing with your ex's anger - or are you still rising to take the bait?

Is it possible that your children have a point of view about their father or mother that's different from your feelings about your ex?

Can someone be a jerk as a husband or wife, but still be an OK parent, or at the very least, the only mother or father a child has?

Do you still want your children to be dealing with your anger in a few years? When they graduate from high school? College? At your son's or daughter's wedding? When your grandchildren are born?

Can you find a way to love your children more than you may hate your ex?

You know the right answers to these questions. But doing what you know you should do isn't easy for anyone, especially parents, in the middle of the upheaval of divorce. I get that.

But this isn't about you. Or about your ex, no matter what a miserable, Axis II, selfish whatever she or he may be.

It's about your kids and their parents.

It's about finding a way to be a parent, even as your marriage is unraveling.

It's about doing your job as parents and as co-parents, so your kids can be kids, not forever children of divorce.

Stay tuned for more specific suggestions on how to do that, emotionally, practically, legally.

More from Robert E. Emery Ph.D.
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