Ending any long relationship is never easy but ending a relationship where children are involved presents extra challenges. How do you balance and attend to your own feelings and needs whilst also supporting your children with their concerns and upset? Separating is hard; losing love and that sense of belonging to someone is disorientating and painful. Often, we erect such enormous barriers to mourning our losses that it can seem impossible to see over the top of them, towards a future. Some people mourn quietly; they retreat and hide themselves away. Others mourn a separation noisily, sharing their grief, their hurt and their worries with friends, therapists, colleagues and family. And then, many of us mourn angrily. We find ourselves furious at our losses, raging at the unfairness of it and incensed by the sense of powerlessness that loss engenders. And, furious, we look to blame and punish, which is a potent recipe for a court battle.
Processing your own feelings about your ex takes time, even if it was you who instigated the separation. Collaborating with your ex around where your children live and how much time each of you spend with them is, for most people, one of the toughest parts of separating, and if you feel wounded and angry with your ex, these feelings can really interfere with managing day-to-day arrangements.
Most parents worry about how the separation will affect their kids and what a divorce might mean for their children’s mental health and future development. The reality is that most children will be confused and upset at first, but children are resilient, and the research tells us that with the right kind of parenting, children can recover well from the loss and disruption. However, there is now a wealth of research that shows that how parents treat each other after a family break-up, is the most important part of helping children recover from the shock of their parents’ separation.
One of the hardest things parents face at this time is having to have contact and talk with the person you’ve just separated from, especially if you’re struggling with painful emotions and trying to come to terms with this enormous change in your life. Feelings can run high in you and in your ex-partner which can make it difficult to put your children first. It’s common, when emotions are stirred up to confuse your feelings about your partner and how they were with you from how they might behave with the children. If you feel your ex was always cold and uncaring towards you may be anxious that they’ll treat your children in a similar way. It can be tempting, at these moments, to ask your children about what’s happening in their other home and because children really do want to keep their parents happy, they may show or only talk about the things that they sense you’re happy to hear. If they know that dad will be furious about mum going on holiday with her friends, it’s unlikely they’ll feel free to chat to him about what mum is up to next weekend. Gradually, children may tell you less and less which is a pressure on them and can make you anxious about what is really going on in the other half of your kid’s life.
Children, need a lot of love and attention during this time and if you’re not only grieving but also fighting with your ex, there may not be much energy left over for really listening and nurturing your kids. When children feel they are the cause of the arguments between their parents this can be particularly harmful, leaving them feeling guilty for being the “problem”. “Kids in the middle” have to manage a loyalty conflict. Who should they believe? Who should they support? You may think that fighting your ex over contact and money is your way of protecting the children, but ask yourself if this is really the case?
Parting can be very hard, and some people find themselves keeping their relationship going by having these kinds of rows. Rather than let each other go, you may stay preoccupied with your ex through court battles or long, angry emails. These arguments may indicate that despite moving to a new house, perhaps even acquiring a new partner, you’re still not fully emotionally separated.
Often the hardest task of creating a better working relationship with your child’s other parent is to begin to recognize and understand how you might be contributing to the discord and then, when you’ve taken this hard look in the mirror, the next step is to take responsibility for trying to do things differently.