This article was a featured guest article on The Lilac Tree – Divorce Resources for Women
About the Author:
Dr. Leigh Neiman Weisz, PsyD, is the founder of a group practice in Northbrook,
IL called Coping Partners / Children Coping Clinic. (www.CopingPartners.com)
She specializes in working with children and families going through divorce.
She authored a book geared towards young children entitled “Kara Kangaroo’sCandy: A Story to Help Children Cope with Divorce.” She has run support groups for children at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and spoken several times at the Lilac Tree’s annual Divorce University.
Love your Children More than you Hate your Spouse
By Leigh Neiman Weisz, PsyD
When two adults embark upon their journey through divorce, they are often highly concerned about how their divorce will affect their children. While there are many variables that factor into how children fare following divorce, there is one clear factor that researchers and clinicians alike have seen to be a powerful one: the level of contention between parents. When children are exposed to high levels of interparental conflict, they are more at risk for later developing emotional and behavioral problems. (1) This factor has a greater impact than the age of the child and the reason for divorce and yet, despite parents knowing this, oftentimes children suffer because parents lose sight of this on a daily basis when confronted with the daunting task of co-parenting with their ex.
Divorce is ranked as one of the most stressful life events, second only to death of a spouse, according to the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory; adults must go through an emotional roller coaster to grieve the multiple losses of their marriage such as their intact family unit, their status within society, and the financial and emotional security.
While parents are often told “Don’t put your children in the middle,” this is hard to adhere to in the midst of tense interactions with one’s ex. It is my hope that another phrase may serve as a powerful reminder to parents and that the following examples may provide illustrative reminders of how vital your ability to let go of anger is to your children’s health and wellbeing.
Grieving the loss of one’s marriage, whether you are the initiator or the non-initiator, involves intense periods of love/hopes for reconciliation for one’s soon to be ex, anger, and sadness. Anger allows partners who may not be ready to truly separate to stay connected to one another. However, while it may be easier for adults to linger in anger rather than open themselves up to more vulnerable feelings like sadness and fear, for children this anger can be destructive (2). Often children are the focus of parental fighting, the focus of ongoing conflict and even court proceedings. When parents are frequently angry, “the child internalizes and carries within [themselves] the destructive hostility of the parent.”(3)
In graduate school a professor once said he asked divorcing parents to “Love your children more than you hate your spouse.” This seemed like something parents could hold onto more than the adage “don’t put your children in the middle.” Parents resonated with the anger at their spouse but also identified with their love and concern for their children. The command “Love your children more than you hate your spouse” made clear that anger towards one’s ex and love for their children are in juxtaposition.
Years ago, a child came to see me to process her parents’ divorce. She told a story of something traumatic that had happened to her, and this was a story we ended up processing at length during the course of the therapy. She shared that she was riding her new scooter in the driveway, waiting for her father to pick her up from mother’s house (a transition day). She fell off the scooter and was bloody with a huge gash on her chin that looked like it might need stitches. When the father pulled in the driveway and saw his daughter bleeding, he grabbed her by the arm to get her quickly to the hospital. Mom, having run into the house for only a moment to gather her daughter’s belongings, shrieked as she saw the scene. She grabbed her daughter’s other arm and said that she wanted to be the one to take her to the hospital. What then proceeded to happen was the scariest part for this girl who was already injured, in pain and afraid. The parents literally engaged in a human tug-of-war, one parent on each side pulling as hard as they could. These parents were not bad people. They were both terrified seeing their daughter hurt and could not regulate their own emotions or calm themselves down enough to think or act rationally about what she needed in that moment.
Eventually one parent “won” and got this girl into the car while the other parent followed and met the girl at the hospital. However, this experience haunted the girl for years because she did not experience emotional holding and safety or reassurance at a time she needed that comfort. Instead she witnessed intense anger over her, and she became highly aware that she was the source of conflict and animosity between her two most cherished people in the world. It took awhile for her to buy into my message that the divorce was not her fault because she saw her parents literally fight over her and her experience resonated more than my words.
If these parents had the mantra “Love your children more than you hate your ex,” they would have had to surrender control in that moment, to allow the other parent to drive their daughter to the hospital and meet them there–to recognize how the intense fighting would feel to their daughter. While many parents will not physically pull their child in two directions, metaphorically, this is a common experience among children of divorce. The more parents can hold onto their child’s experience, the more they can hopefully recognize how toxic their anger can be if not processed and worked through.
A second example also illustrated for me how critical this message should be for parents. My hope is that these stories will stay in your minds as reminders of why you need to work through your anger, rather than get stuck in it, and not allow it to override all other sensibilities. A divorcing couple I worked with fought over every little thing–they lost sight of their children and every late start day at school and every holiday became fodder over which to fight. Their son who was in theater always felt highly anxious before performances. A judge had determined that no matter whose day it was, both parents could attend these events.
The boy had a ritual of rehearsing lines right before performances with his mother who was the actor in the family that added to his feeling of confidence. His mother was always at the rehearsals and performances, and even on dad’s [court assigned] days, his mother came early to run lines with him. One day Dad became angry at Mom for something and declared that on his days, he would be the one to run through the lines. Rather than considering the son’s wants and needs in that situation, it became a way to upset Mom and assert his force since the courts had given him that right. If Dad had thought to “Love [his] children more than [he hated his] spouse,” he might have put himself in his son’s shoes and seen that this was not the only way to bond with him. He could have realized that there were other things he could share with him, but this long-established ritual was something his son had become comfortable with through the years and which felt nurturing to him.
Children do not get a vote as to whether or not parents divorce. They feel they have no voice, no choice and no control in the matter even though it greatly impacts them. Parents can help their children to adjust smoothly and show their resilience if they can mediate the intense anger so that children do not have to witness and absorb much of it. Children are half of each parent and want to be able to love both. They should not have to choose which parent is right or wrong or which parent to love. “Love your children more than you hate your spouse.” If you do that, you’ll be on the right path towards helping your children cope with this life-changing event. It is not easy to remember in the heat of the moment, however, so write this mantra inside your closet so you see it daily until it pops up as a mental alarm when you need it most.
Dr. Leigh Neiman Weisz, PsyD, is the founder of Coping Partners / Children Coping Clinic in Northbrook, IL. She specializes in working with children and families going through divorce. She authored a book geared towards young children entitled Kara-Kangaroo’s Candy: A Story to Help Children Cope with Divorce. She has run support groups for children at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Contact Dr. Weisz by email.
(1) Grych, J. (2005) Interparental Conflict as a Risk Factor for Maladjustment: Implications for the Development of Prevention Programs. Family Court Review, 43, 97-108
(2) Emery, Robert. The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing with The Emotions so You and Your Children can Thrive. (2006). New York, NY: Penguin Group.
(3) Lowrance, M. (2009) Heroic Parenting: Choose to Love your Children More than you Hate your Ex. Family Advocate, Vol 32, No. 1, p. 14-16