As divorced parents, we all wonder how the divorce will impact our kids. Our job as parents, divorced or not, is to ensure that our kids have a happy, healthy, stable and balanced life. But for many divorcing or divorced parents, emotions run high and conflict with our former spouse feels unavoidable.
Our culture trains us to ignore our emotions. So when the hyper-stressful experience of divorce occurs, it can feel particularly challenging to allow ourselves to feel pain, while also taking into account the need to provide a stable, non-volatile environment for our kids.
Of course, there are plenty of guidelines on how to behave as divorcing parents, but it can be hard to follow them consistently if we haven't dealt with the personal pain of losing a partnership.
So, for the sake of both yourself, your ex and the kids, be kind and patient with yourself and allow the tough emotions to arise. Here are 14 essential steps to help you honor your emotions and cultivate patience with the process of healing, while also tending to your role as a parent.
1. Learn to identify your emotions.
Taking the time to recognize emotions sets the stage for a rational and almost business-like co-parenting relationship. This may sound like a cold, almost clinical way of thinking about parenting, but it is a helpful tool for maintaining healthy boundaries with your ex, and creating a calm space for your kids. So try to get into the practice of just noticing what you're feeling as intense emotions arise (e.g. "Right now I'm angry ... sad ... lonely"). This practice will help you become more reflective, rather than reactive.
2. Focus on concrete values and goals.
Reconnect with what is important to you as a parent. Some divorcing parents create a collaborative mission statement, outlining their intentions. For instance, "My kids will have two parents who are kind to each other," "My kids will know their well-being is the priority," "My kids are not responsible for my feelings."
3. Avoid compromising your values.
Our emotions can cause us to respond in a way that undermines our values. It's important to remember that while values are permanent, our emotions are temporary; they ebb and flow like waves. When you're triggered by a particular interaction or situation, try asking yourself this: Am I going to react emotionally or am I going to respond in a way that supports my values?
4. Get in touch with what is triggering you.
If there is a certain dynamic that continually gets to you, dive deeper. Ask yourself: What is really going on here? Why does this bother me? Is there a healthier way to interpret the situation? Am I trying to control the situation? Am I trying to please my ex, and why?
5. Buy yourself some time.
If your ex says something that feels stressful, don't react. You are entitled to set boundaries, so do it. Try politely asking, "Can I get back to you?" or something equivalent. Time will provide you the space you need to reflect and get back in touch with your values.
6. Do the best you can, and be patient.
If you make a mistake, whether it's an angry outburst or a pint of ice cream, accept that it was just a mistake. Sometimes we get stuck in a story about our mistakes by either seeking blame or shaming ourselves. So skip that and plan instead to respond productively the next time.
7. Grieve as much as you need to.
When you allow yourself to be present with difficult feelings, you will heal faster. Rather than sublimating your emotions only to wait for them to resurface in some other way, familiarize yourself with the grief cycle and you'll learn why actively engaging in your emotions is important. Your co-parent will be grieving too, so when harsh emotions such as anger are directed towards you, try not to take it personally.
8. Consider the other parent's point of view.
Always do this, no matter how difficult or off-putting it sounds. If your ex has a concern that sounds ridiculous, wait a second. Ask yourself if there is truth in their concern. And if you're initiating the concern, consider what your co-parent might be thinking, asking yourself again if there is truly a cause for alarm.
9. Meet the kids where they are.
Without judging or making the kids responsible for your feelings, allow them to express themselves openly. If they are sad, let them express sadness. If they are excited about an outing with their mom or dad, mirror their excitement. These are all opportunities to learn about their emotions and their experience, and doing so will strengthen your bond with them.
10. Respect their relationship with the other parent.
Never make negative comments about the other parent. Never start a conversation with your kids by quizzing them about the other parent's activities. Never make your child worry about your welfare. Never discuss legal proceedings with them and never use your child as a messenger.
11. Communicate with your co-parent.
Never use drop-off or pick-up as time to have a substantial conversation to talk about important issues. Try to schedule a regular phone call, or maintain an email correspondence to communicate about homework, friends, activities and other important issues that may arise. Keep it polite and to the point.
12. Remember that conflict steals your time with the kids.
Conflict takes time and energy, and believe it or not, we can choose whether or not to engage in it. Parents who regularly engage with their negative feelings toward one another and find themselves fighting will spend less time engaged with their kids. It's simple.
13. Fake it till you make it.
No one will deny that for any kind of emotional suffering (and physical suffering for that matter), time is the most essential ingredient. Time is what allows us to heal and move forward. But you can't put time on hold for your kids. So until you're feeling better, you may have to find a way to go through the motions of healthy co-parenting.
14. Celebrate successes.
Divorce is rough, really rough. So when you respond well to a challenging situation, take the time to notice it and feel good. It's a sign that you're healing.
While this work will help with your co-parenting relationship, the bonus is that it will also encourage you to live and love in an authentic way. The more open, aware and in touch you are with your emotions, the more likely you will be to choose activities that you truly enjoy and the better prepared you'll be to have connected and fulfilling romantic relationships in the future.