Kevin D. Arnold, Ph.D.

Kevin D. Arnold Ph.D., ABPP

The Older Dad

Why Be Friends after the Marriage Dies: Ask the Kids

An "Ex" Partner is Never an Ex-Parent

Posted Jul 29, 2012

When marriages end, most of us believe that our relationship with our former spouse ends too. But, when we have children, the relationship with the "ex" changes, to be sure, but it might never end. Whether we agree to a shared parenting plan, or are ordered into a different child-rearing arrangement, we parent as a party of two.  Setting up the new rules for parenting challenges our adjustment more than perhaps any other part of our new life. Rearing our children well with the other parent can produce happiness, but continuing to fight after the divorce hurts everyone: our ex-spouse, our children, and ourselves.

What causes hostility after divorce

Several factors that lead to divorce also contribute to hostility afterwards when parenting. As marriages spiral downward into greater isolation and conflict, husbands and wives often change their beliefs about each other, adopting largely negative views. They believe each other to be both a) fundamentally flawed and b) unable to change for the better. These modified beliefs often create fear about the other person, making it hard for estranged parents to easily resolve their differences about child-rearing. The fear drives each of us to protect ourselves and the children from the other parent. Instead of co-parenting, we shield our children from the harm we fear can now happen.

Another factor stems from differences between the two patents in their readiness to end the marriage. Often one spouse reaches a stage of disengagement from the marriage before the other spouse does. This disparity in phase can create shock in the less-ready spouse, leading to resentment or desperation to save the marriage. Unfortunately these emotionally charged reactions can lead the other parent to dispassionately reject efforts to save the marriage, creating a "chase after—run away" cycle of conflicts. In the end, both parents are more alienated from each other, leading them to turn away from the idea of cooperative parenting later.

A last barrier stems from a phenomenon in which the history of the marriage is rewritten. Commonly, when couples split-up, each one filters what they remember about the courtship and marriage, either focusing only on the bad or the good. The resulting "story" of the marriage changes into either an completely negative, or rose-colored idyllic, narrative. The extreme perceptions of the marriage hamper communication through the shift from conversations about the problems at-hand, to, the discrepancies between thief fundamental beliefs about the history of their relationship. We can easily find ourselves arguing about the “real” way things went in the marriage, and forget to talk about the children’s needs. 

Staying Parenting Friends with the "Ex" 

We all find anger and hostility hard to control at one time or another. Research tells us that feelings of anger can result in hostile actions, but they don't have to ... there are healthier ways to adjust to divorce. Not every negative feelings must be expressed in negative behaviors toward the other parent.

1.  Fight the urge to demonize your ex-spouse:  If a common outcome of a failed marriage is labeling each other as permanently flawed, then a reasonable solution is acceptance of responsibility for your role in the marriages demise. Conflict thrives on attacks and defensive responses. Conflict resolution flourishes in the mutual ownership of the failure to "fit" in the relationship. Our children require we be civil to one another after the divorce, and we help them (and ourselves) when we reduce the hostilities by resisting the urge to blame each other.

2.  Shift the perspective:  Divorce can mire the best folks into repeating the indictments hurled at each other. While divorcing, many of us feel the need to plead our case and be heard (since we didn’t feel anyone listened while we were married).  But when the marriage ends, our vantage point can change. The future holds new possibilities—but we obscured those possibilities if we focus only on our painful past.  As parents, we can change our view, seeing each other through the eyes of our children. Most of us would agree that children need to love their parents (unless a parent is abusive and destructive).  We can gain a new perspective of the ex-spouse by adopting the viewpoint of our children. We ask ourselves “How will what I do to, or say about, the other parent be seen by our children--will it help our children to feel supported for loving their parent?”  We benefit ourselves by changing what we say or do, and help our children feel good about loving the other parent.

3.  Focus on healthy children:  Our children need us most when times are hardest.  Unfortunately, they read our needs (as parents) very skillfully, and can take on take on the role of parenting us through peacekeeping and pseudo-strength. We serve our children best through focusing on their needs for stability and safety during the painful transition of divorce. Parents nurture their children, through divorce, by focusing most on the children’s needs, by resisting the urge to place them in the middle, and by building an adult support group. Children can more easily adjust when we remember to focus on them (and our job as a mom or dad) more than we do on our own needs.

So what can I do

1.  Keep it Real: Divorced parenting starts with a realistic commitment to jointly parent: realistic about how hard it can be, and committed to the job of parenting above all else. Many of us care most about the children, but unfortunately we easily fall into a trap of arguing as if we are still married. If we know to expect the "pull" of these old habits, we can more easily prevent them by proactively putting the children at the forefront of our thinking--especially when interacting with the other parent. 

2.  Change your Angry Thoughts: When faced with feelings of irritation, we often chose to give ourselves permission to act out hostility out. Instead, we could disagree with our angry thinking, and create new ideas about solving problems for the sake of the children. This kind of skill requires practice, like writing out your new thoughts, then rehearsing the ideas with a "mock" ex-spouse.  Practice prepares us to win the challenge.

3. Stay Present: Conflicts almost always rely on remembering past injuries or hurt feelings. We cannot afford to live in the past if we are to parent well. Divorced parenting requires a constant view to the moment at hand--the present in which our children face the fears of a new family set-up; a present when our children need us the most. If we find ourselves drifting into the painful past, then we can shift our attention on the faces of our children and their need find a new “normal” for the future.

4. Be the Parent in Every Interaction: We so easily fall into the old pattern of fighting….as if still married. These old habits can appear even when we originally meant to talk about a parenting issue. To overcome the old patterns of fighting, we must redefine ourselves in every moment as the parent. In the beginning, many people use cues to remind themselves to stay in the role of mom or dad: they hold pictures of the children while talking with the other parent, or they always use the children's names (rather than saying "the kids").These cues can be concrete reminders that we are a parent whenever we deal with our “ex.”

5. Don't Reward the Ex's Anger: After a fight with the other parent, many folks ask themselves, "How did I let that happen again?" We are seldom aware of how easily we are triggered into a fight, and how rewarding those fights can actually be. The fights give us attention or a relief of the pent up anger we carry with us. But, one way to break that pattern of arguing is to control how you are manipulated by these rewards. Be in control of the kind of attention you give the other parent. Find healthy ways to expend the frustrations you feel about the divorce. Even though hostility leads to painful emotions, it can also provide a powerful reward through attention.  If we withhold attention during hostility, and instead give it liberally when interactions go well, we can break the cycle of useless hostility. We can learn to praise the other parent, and ourselves, when parenting occurs cooperatively. 

The Final Word

Many researchers have shown how resilient children are to divorce. But their capacity to bounce back can falter in the face of constant parenting battles, and under the tension of being placed in the middle of our conflicts.  When children are kept from those hostilities and allowed to feel safe, they can rebound to live a healthy life even after divorce. And, we too adjust best when we focus on our children's adjustment to divorce, rather than our past injuries.  We play to our strengths by taking the high road of healthy parenting, and we can more easily adjust if we keep our eyes on our kids' needs.

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