Whether or not you agree with Judith Wallerstein’s conclusions about the impact of divorce, this much is clear: Couples will continue to end their marriages and children will continue to be exposed to the stresses that result from these breakups. Therapists, in turn, must be prepared to help families productively reorganize themselves in the midst of pain and chaos.
The fundamental goal of a good divorce is simple yet challenging: children must experience their parents as a working partnership that reliably nurtures and protects them, regardless of how estranged the parents may be from each other. In this sense, the family as a parenting system continues. Following are a number of approaches clinicians can take to help parents and children establish this arduous, yet essential, new way of being a family.
Get Involved Early
Become an active partner in negotiations that will shape the post-divorce family system, because these agreements–or the lack of them–can have enormous long-term impact on children. For example, Wallerstein notes that too often fathers never formally agree to pay for their child’s college education. As the child approaches college age, he or she is apt to become highly anxious about this lack of commitment. Even if the father ultimately foots the tuition bill, the protracted uncertainty has already eroded the child’s basic sense of trust and safety. On this and other issues with long-range impact–for example, the changing nature of children’s visitation preferences as they mature–parents must be helped to envision the future and plan accordingly.
Many parents fail to fully understand their child’s developmental needs, which can unnecessarily complicate post-divorce adjustment. Therapists can help by taking on a teaching role and clarifying what behaviors are merely part of the growing-up process. For example, a girl turns 14 and starts to beg off visiting with her dad on the days stipulated by the custody agreement. Her father, in turn, views this shift entirely through the emotional prism of divorce. He may worry: “My daughter is still angry with me,” and/or become furious: “My wife won’t lift a finger to protect my right to visits.” Yet, the daughter, like many 14-year-olds, may simply be developmentally ready to spend more time with friends and less time with dad. A therapist can make it clear to the father that his daughter may not be rejecting him, but instead is simply maturing–and needs to feel that her father supports her new passion for friendship.
While I may be preaching to the choir here, it is critical to help divorcing parents understand the systemic nature of family relationships. Wallerstein notes, for example, that many at-home mothers of preschoolers may precipitously return to work because of pressing financial needs created by the divorce. In such cases, the mother’s leave-taking can intensify a small child’s already enormous sense of loss and disruption. If the father is angry with his ex-wife about the divorce, he may feel a kind of bitter satisfaction that she is now forced to work. By helping the father understand the systemic nature of family relationships–in this case, how his desire to punish his former spouse may also hurt his young child–he may be persuaded to continue financially supporting the mother for a period of time, so that she can give their child the nurturing he or she needs.
The good divorce isn’t just about managing and respecting feelings. It is also about the purely practical arrangements that can help children thrive. One 15-year-old boy I worked with grew increasingly resentful of his custody arrangement, expressing his anger by showing up late for visits to his mother’s home or sinking into moodiness once he arrived. Upon discussing this with him, it turned out that this boy’s friends no longer knew how or where to reach him on short notice. Instead of repeatedly leaving messages at two different homes, they had simply stopped calling–and he had begun to miss out on parties and other get-togethers. This boy may have needed to work through his feelings on numerous issues, but he also had a clear, nuts-and-bolts need: a cell phone.
Out of guilt and/or a desire to protect their children, many parents fail to come clean about why they are divorcing, taking refuge in vague statements to the effect that “Mommy and Daddy can’t live together anymore.” As a result, many youngsters grow up never understanding why their family “failed,” and often struggle far into adulthood to make sense of their disrupted childhoods. It is important, therefore, to encourage parents to speak candidly (and age-appropriately) to each of their children about the reasons they ended the marriage.
Truth-telling may also mean apologizing to children for causing them pain. I worked with one family in which the mother had frequently been verbally abusive to the father during the months prior to separation. Post-divorce, this woman’s adolescent daughter remained furious at her until she sincerely apologized for her behavior, which she acknowledged had been deeply hurtful to her daughter. Children have a highly developed sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, and we need to help parents meet them on this plane of experience.
Help Parents Show Caring
Parents need to understand the profound influence they wield on their child’s future intimate relationships–and learn to behave in ways that protect that future. In a striking finding, Wallerstein discovered that the girls in her sample who grew up to enjoy successful marriages and rewarding lives had attentive fathers or stepfathers, who paid caring attention to their daughters’ schoolwork and social lives. This quality of dependable attentiveness helped the girls feel, in Wallerstein’s words, “cherished and valued,” which enabled them, as adults, to expect a lot of their relationships with men. Yet, sometimes divorced parents, particularly fathers, feel too displaced, angry or guilty to keep paying attention. Therapists can help parents learn how to clearly and consistently communicate their caring, whether they share a household with the child or live at a distance.
Help Open Up Communications
It can be very helpful to convene periodic family meetings, in which children and parents have the chance to openly assess the “family divorce,” correct misunderstandings and make needed changes. For example, an 8-year-old girl complained to me in an individual session that she couldn’t have friends over when she stayed at her dad’s house, because he lived with her grandmother, who “can’t stand noise.” As a result, this young girl felt deeply lonely at her father’s home. I convened a family meeting wherein I encouraged her to discuss this issue with her dad, who was surprised and distressed to learn of his daughter’s sadness. It turned out that the girl’s conviction that she couldn’t have friends over stemmed from an overheard conversation about her grandmother’s love of quiet that she had blown all out of proportion. Overnight visits with friends soon followed.
It goes without saying, perhaps, that such family gatherings can quickly turn destructive, if the parents’ relationship is volatile. Before convening family meetings, you may first need to work with ex-spouses to create a reasonably constructive parenting alliance.
Widen the Circle
Clinicians who work with families of divorce must address much more than the child’s relationship to mom and dad. We need to attend to the entire map of the child’s relationships, including connections to grandparents, siblings and peers, as well as with pets, school and favorite games and activities. As we examine the surrounding structures in a child’s life, we must identify the things that truly count for him or her. To the extent that we can declare some of those things sacred and shelter them, we are also sheltering the soul of the child.
Marla Isaacs, PhD, is a Philadelphia psychologist and coauthor of Therapy of the Difficult Divorce.