Caught in the Middle
- Dr. David A. Swift Smalley Relationship Center
- 2003 22 Jul
Can children of divorce love both of their parents without paying a price? Many children have told me they keep their feelings about their "away parent" secret. "It's hard to know what to say to Mom. She flips-out when I tell her how much I miss my Dad. She'll go into some rant about what a lousy father he is and how he never pays child support. I know he should pay child support, but that shouldn't give her permission to say bad things about him".
Slamming the ex is one of the most popular and damaging things divorced parents do to each other. Continued problems after divorce, and the anger that goes with it, are common. This anger can come from anywhere, and may be left over from the issues surrounding the marriage or divorce. Issues continue to mount, as does the anger and often parents start talking about each other.
Who gets caught in the middle? Ask most any child of divorce and they can accurately tell you about the quality of their parent's relationship. It is important to them, and they will listen closely for new or additional information about the relationship. They love both of you, and should not be made to suffer because of it. It can be very difficult to keep the negative issues away from the children, but it is possible to keep them out of the middle. The problem is many parents don't realize the damage they're doing or worse, don't even try.
It is important to remember that your anger toward your ex is yours, not the children's. The children did not divorce the away parent, you did. Try not to make your anger theirs. Children have a natural loyalty to both parents, and should be allowed to love each parent without suffering a penalty. Think about how you felt when your parents where attacked or bad-mouthed by your ex. This is a very common problem in marriage and can easily illustrate the bad feelings associated with parent bashing. You may have experienced the same process if your parents confided in you about each other. Being placed in the middle is no fun, and neither is trying to choose sides. When children have to choose sides they are put in a no win situation.
Too often the children are made to be messengers. "You tell your mom not to bother coming one minute early to pick you up. I have till 5:00 pm and I'm not letting you go early. This is my time, not hers". "You can tell your dad this is the last time he'll see you until I get the child support payment". Talk about "killing the messenger", this is a terrible spot for children to be put in. This is a "black hole", and should be avoided at all costs. Communication with your ex is your responsibility.
Remember that divorce creates insecurity in children. Having them handle your problems makes it worse. One of the best messages a parent can send their child is that they have things under control. This creates a sincere feeling of safety and security, and will pay off for your children. Money problems, rules, inconvenience, and scheduling are common problems with every divorce. The only way to handle these issues is through direct interaction between the parents.
For those of you who can't seem to get through a conversation with your ex without fighting or arguing, an option might be the following. Dealing with these situations can be smoother if parents treat each other like they were transacting business. There are certain rules, times, and methods of exchanging information, and delivery. I would frame it around precious merchandise so valuable that it must be handled with extreme care. Communication and timing is of the utmost importance.
Try to start this new style on something relatively common. Do not start with who will pay what for the braces, or what age is appropriate for which piercing. Visitation always seems to be a factor. Rules are usually defined in the divorce decree. Many will set dates and times for visitation, and responsibilities for care. Use these statements as the foundation and build up.
The following is an example of what steps to take to minimize problems:
- Identify the opportunity (I did not say "problem", you're dealing with valuable merchandise here)
- Communicate about facts, not feelings. (Feelings are confusing, usually negative and contagious)
- Discuss the options and their advantages and disadvantages. Keep the information factual, not personal (Tina doesn't feel well... not Tina is sick and you always forget her medication).
- Set up a clear plan. Repeat the plan to each other. Write it down.
- Follow through. Be courteous (would you keep your business client waiting?)
- Don't question the merchandise (Let the children determine the topics they talk about).
Your relationship with your ex is not going away. Working together becomes a positive for everyone. Working together does not mean you will always have your way. Be flexible and see if your "good will" comes back to you. Keeping the children's feelings and well being first will help you when dealing with your ex. Remember, relationships waiver, but can always improve. You both maintain a common goal. Keep your children healthy.
(c) Copyright 2003 Smalley Relationship Center.
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