A woman is separated from her husband. Her son comes home from a weekend with his father. Before he greets his mother, he hesitates for a moment: “Will I tell Mama how much fun I had with Papa? Will I hurt her feelings? Will my being close to Papa cause me to lose Mama?”
When a child is involved in the conflicts between his separated parents, it hurts him. He is agitated and constantly on guard, keeping his real feelings secret as he tries to sort out how to please both parents. When he desires the company of one, he begins to feel guilty for being disloyal to the other. He is actually deprived of the full experience and enjoyment of both parents’ love.
Research shows that one of the most important factors in helping children successfully cope with separation is an ongoing relationship with both parents. American psychologist Edward Teyber says that the stronger demands for a child to take sides and choose, the greater his conflict and the more poorly he adjusts to the separation. But what if the other parent does not live up to his or her responsibilities? American parenting writer Vicki Lansky says that as long as the parent is not abusive to the child and is not endangering his safety, it is important for the child to see the other parent. There is no need to point out this parent’s shortcomings. The child will come to his own conclusions as he grows up. Parents need to prioritize their child’s welfare over their own negative feelings about their former spouse.
Managing the Conflicts
Separated parents thinks that the breakup will end their fights, but are often horrified to realize that the fights continue after the marriage (and may even intensify due to issues about the children). Teyber says that parents need to begin the psychological or internal work of ending their marriage in order to gain emotional distance from it. The whole process cannot be done quickly but it will lead to a more cooperative parental relationship.
How does one start? There are several things to consider:
- One must grieve or mourn. Parents need to accept feelings of sadness about unfulfilled hopes and dreams for the relationship. Oftentimes, they are filled instead with anger and use their child as a weapon in the battle to get even.
- One must recognize contradictory feelings that get in the way. There are good things in a marriage that need to be acknowledged, but a spouse might avoid looking at the positive aspects of the relationship in order to reduce the pain of being left or lessening the guilt of leaving. Out of guilt, a spouse may even dwell on the other parent’s weaknesses to prove that the separation was a good decision: “See he (she) is really bad.” Some parents may find it hard to separate their own feelings from their child’s feelings: “How can you love that person? He (she) hurt me so much.”
- One needs to see his own contribution to the problem of the relationship. Parents must stop putting the blame on one another and admit their own share of responsibility for what happened.
To avoid the child getting hurt in their conflicts, parents need to respect one another and encourage their child to be close to both of them. If problems arise between them and have to be settled, it should be done privately.
What if one parent does not cooperate? It is better if the other parent holds back and refuses to retaliate. Then the child can be provided the feeling of safety that he is seeking. Doing so minimizes the risk of problems such as failure in school or acting out angrily and defiantly.
If parents realize the ill effects of loyalty conflicts, they will understand how crucial this issue is for their child. As Teyber says: “Parents should encourage children to have the best relationship they possibly can with the other parent. As hard as this can be to do, it is the most loving gift divorcing (separating) parents can give to their children.”