I know a young couple with a 10-month-old baby who are getting a divorce after a toxic 18-month marriage. Mom filed for divorce and they have been separated for a while now – but they are still trying to hurt each other. Both are jealous, loud, accusing, demeaning, irrational, using vile language, even now that they have agreed to split up. They both fly off the handle very easily, they are both grieving; they didn’t mean for it to end this way.
Wounded people wound other people – and mom and dad both were abused as children. They seem to want to hurt each other even more now that their marriage is ending than they did before; perhaps they think they have nothing to lose. Each blames the other; each mostly justifies their own behavior as a response to a wrong from the other. Anger is always part of the grieving process, but they already were emotionally volatile from their early imprinting, so they are both super touchy right now – and it shows!
What I want to talk about is the 10-month-old little girl, we will call her Anna, who is the real loser here. Both parents adore her, and she is a happy, bubbly baby. I am pretty sure Anna is better off seeing her parents separately and not having to deal with her parents screaming at each other all day long or being openly hostile to each other.
Studies show that children’s developing neural systems are impacted by parental hostility.“Far from being oblivious to parents’ conflicts, infants’ processing of stimuli, such as an angry tone of voice, may occur even during sleep.” Studies have shown that when parents argue, even when the child is asleep, it causes changes to the child’s neural systems that make it harder for them to regulate their own emotion later in their lives. The more hostile the tones, the greater the damage. Probably this is exactly what happened to mom and dad, and the cycle is repeating.
But unless her parents can find the maturity to respect each other, Anna is not out of the woods yet. For one thing, the only time her parents see each other is when she is being picked up, so their tempers flare at exactly the worst possible time for Anna. Studies show that children can generally cope with and adapt to their parents’ divorce, living in two houses, all of that without being damaged…
…but they can’t cope with their parents’ ongoing, continual hostility to each other!
Ongoing parental conflict even after divorce can be very emotionally damaging to the child. Studies show that if divorced parents can’t curb their anger and bitterness and make friends with each other for the sake of the children, or at least pretend, their ongoing, long-lasting hostility towards each other may damage their children. It isn’t fair to children to be brought into adult conflict.
“The longer parental conflict continues and the greater the tension between the parents, the greater the likelihood that psychological difficulties will result for children such as emotional and behavior problems, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, low self-esteem, school problems and a number of other difficulties.” Kathy Eugster, MA, Child and Family Therapist
It doesn’t look like Anna’s parents are going to be able to be friends for a very long time. But they are the grown-ups and it is their job as parents to shield her from their bitterness.
As the grownups, how can they best shield Anna from harm?
- Children always need to know that both parents still love them very much and that they, the kids, are not in any way responsible for the breakup.
- A simple explanation is best, repeated over time, that mommy and daddy just were too different, or couldn’t agree on things any more, etc. Kids do not need to know any of the details. As they go from mommy’s house to daddy’s house, they already know their parents are different, and they can accept that.
- They’re kids, let them be kids and worry about school, having fun with their friends, playing sports or an instrument, getting a new bicycle, etc. Help them to manage the logistics of going between two houses with THEIR needs in mind.
- Anna is too young for an explanation, so her parents are going to have to find a way to be cordial with each other even if they have to pretend. They will have to hold themselves back even at any time they speak over the telephone (she will be listening, remember, even if she is asleep), and especially when Anna goes from one parent to the other.
- They can text their anger all they want if Anna is sleeping (she will definitely feel the hostile vibes if she is awake). It won’t actually help them to heal though, so I don’t recommend it.
- Being cordial and friendly may be very difficult right now and SO they might need to find a neutral third party to pick her up from.
- Anna’s parents might want to see a family counselor to work out ways to shield her from the worst of their problems, especially since she is so young and can’t talk about HER feelings. Either way, they must learn to set Anna’s needs above their own and discuss her needs for food, toys, clothes, medicine, her new likes and dislikes, new milestones. Some parents re-bond later as friends as their child’s first and best fans.
- As she gets older, Anna should get the same explanation as above…”Mommy and daddy both love you very much, more than you could ever guess, but we are just too different, we just couldn’t agree on things and live together. How can we make this easier for you?
- This goes without saying but may be the most difficult of all. You must never criticize the other parent, his or her different values or activities or parenting styles, his or her new friends or partners, where your child can possibly hear you. This is especially difficult when there come stepparents into the mix, because you WILL feel jealous, but very, very important.
When all is said and done, each parent must accept that you cared enough about each other at one time to bring a child into the world, and that what you are telling the children is actually true.
You ARE very different, but the love you each have for that child is a bond that will always bind you together, and so you agreed to disagree about many things to shield Anna from the worst of your anger.
Here’s a goal for you – At 72 I can tell you that as Anna matures and you see each other at graduations and weddings and other such big-family times, the old hurts may dissipate and you can look at each other in your old age, give each other a gentle hug and say…
“Thank you, thank you for Anna. We did OK, you and I, despite everything, and look at how she turned out – WOW! I am so proud of her, and I am proud of US for making it work.”