There are many growing pains in those weeks, months and years after a divorce occurs. Ex-spouses adjust to their new normal and often experience feelings of fear, sadness, relief, joy and confusion as they try to rebuild their lives. During this time, they may also find themselves in situations where they are still communicating to each other in ways that contributed to the divorce. These interactions are often combative, malicious and hurtful. Unfortunately, many of the negative characteristics that were present in the failed marriage will often transfer over to the post-divorce relationship, which, in turn, continue to affect the children.
In children of divorce, the music stops but the dance goes on. Children who are exposed to on-going parental conflict are at a disadvantage because they internalize the negativity. The effects of marital conflict on children can include:
Parents must increase their awareness of what they contribute to the interactions with their ex. For many years, a common belief was that couples were divorcing because of their unresolved issues with life stressors such as money, sex, children, work, affairs, etc. But what we know now is that it was not the stressor itself that led to the divorce—it is THE WAY THEY TALKED ABOUT THE STRESSOR that determined the end. This speaks to a couples ability to manage conflict.
Dr. John Gottman, a clinical psychologist, researcher and author of several books including The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, conducted longitudinal studies for 30 years on couples and concluded that there are four predictive behaviors to divorce. He identified these behaviors as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” because of the devastating effect they have on relationships. They include:
One of the most helpful tools that divorced parents can have is an understanding that these toxic communication patterns do not need to continue as they begin the process of co-parenting their children. There are antidotes to the Four Horsemen, which can be used to help shift the communication patterns. They include:
Criticism – Try to complain without blame. Use “I”statements and relate them to what you are feeling.
Example: “I was scared when you were running late with the kids and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
Contempt – Try to focus (even if it seems small) on something that your ex-partner has done that is good and beneficial for your children.
Example: “I really like how you handled yourself at the school meeting.”
Defensiveness – Try to accept responsibility for any part of the issue.
Example: “Oops, I forgot to call and let you know that we were running late. I will let you know in the future.”
Stonewalling – People withdraw because they are internally overwhelmed. Calm and soothe yourself before you continue contact.
Example: “I am going to need a 20-minute break before we continue our conversation.”
Although the marriage is over, the parenting goes on and on and on. The transition to co-parenting can be a challenge, but can also be an opportunity for growth. The communication patterns that contributed to the divorce CAN change. Children learn by imitating the behavior of their parents. As they get older and find themselves in relationships, they will fall back on what they learned in childhood. It is never too late to demonstrate how to manage conflict and role model what respectful communication looks like. Remember: what you do now is what they will do in their future.
“The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.” George Santayana
Shannon Loehr is a licensed psychotherapist at Northside Mental Health in Broad Ripple. In her practice, Shannon works with couples seeking support in areas that range from “marriage maintenance” to interventions focused on affair recovery or couples in crisis. Shannon also works with adults as individuals looking to better manage issues related to depression, anxiety, trauma, and other life-interfering issues.