Saturday, June 21, 2008

All About Boundaries, Part 2

We talked before about building new boundaries with the person you used to share everything with. Creating emotional, physical, financial, and legal space between yourself and person you are no longer married to is essential to moving on with your life.

But the difficulty comes in finding ways to create and support boundaries with the person that you still share children with. You still share parenting responsibility with this person, and you will need to learn how to effectively share time and energy with your children in a way that both supports your own boundaries, and respects those of your ex-spouse.

One of the primary ways in which you will engage with your children's other parent is through communication. This is where boundaries come in handy. Two of my clients, whom I'll call "Greg" and "Marge" can illustrate. Greg wants to spend time with the kids every-other Wednesday evening, which the court order allows. Marge doesn't mind if Greg spends that time, but she wants him to take the kids to church. Since Greg is not supportive of Marge's religion, and since the order does not specify whose right it is to select the children's religion, Greg sees no reason why he should give up "his" time by taking the children to church.

So, on the weeks that Greg is supposed to have the kids Wednesday night, Marge arranges for several members of her church to telephone the children, and entice them to attend that week's activity. By the time Greg picks up the kids, they are very excited and eager to go to church. Greg feels that he has been "set up".

If you were Greg, what would you do?

1. Ignore the problem and take the kids the church. You don't want to come off as the 'bad guy'.
2. Find ways to manipulate the children into not wanting to attend church that evening after all, such as enticing them with an activity that is 'more fun'. After all, two can play at that game.
3. Tell the kids 'the truth' - that their mother is conniving to step on top of your parenting time, and you will not put up with it. If necessary, make them feel guilty for choosing 'her' activity over spending time with you.
4. Talk to Marge and request a different parenting night to replace Wednesdays. If she doesn't go along with the idea, then threaten to take her to court and have a judge modify the order to a different night.

All of these alternatives are ways that Greg can protect his boundaries. Unfortunately, all of them come with a host of collateral damage, no matter which one he chooses. Let's look:

If Greg chooses Option #1, he is giving Marge implicit permission to continue to encroach on his parenting time. If she can get away with violating the Wednesday night boundary, then it's only a matter of time before she is scheduling other enticing activities and events during other times that the children are supposed to be with their Dad. Once that ball starts rolling, it's very difficult to get it stopped! Soon, Greg's children will hardly ever see him. What's more, they will also learn that anything and everything else is the world is more important than time with their Dad. Sadly, they will also soon come to believe that their Dad wants it this way, too. While Greg is 'playing the nice guy', the kids are wondering why their Dad doesn't want to see them.

So, what about Option #2? Why not show the kids that they are important, by making it easy for them to choose to be with Greg? Sadly, this option does not maintain boundaries at all. It merely puts the kids in a drivers seat for which they have no license. When they are faced with a tug-o-war with each parent vying for their 'vote', they have been given power for which they are ill-prepared. Best to let the grown-ups make the decisions about where the kids go.

And, Option #3 hardly fares any better. Now the kids are still expected to make a choice, and they are also expected to understand subtleties of human emotions that they cannot comprehend. They don't know why Dad thinks that Mom is bad; they only know he is saying bad things about her. It's never a good idea to help children understand "the truth". They are not equipped to understand, and attempting to inform them only makes Greg look bad. Especially if he adds in the emotional blackmail of making the kids feel guilty for not siding with him.

Then there is Option #4 - a good start it seems, to attempt a compromise. Why not allow Marge to have the kids every Wednesday night - that way, she can take them to church all she wants - and Greg can have the kids on a different night. That way, the kids can spend the same amount of time with him, which is what he wants. Option #4 breaks down if there is an implied or explicit threat attached - go along with this *or else*. But what can Greg do, if he proposes Option #4, and Marge doesn't go along with it?

The thing is, in boundary-setting, Option #4 is merely premature. If Greg sets a boundary regarding the scheduling of activities during his parenting time, then the reality is, Marge may be the one to end up suggesting Option #4 herself. Here's how: if Greg simply states that he will not support any activity which has been scheduled by Marge if it takes place during his parenting time, and if Greg is firm about this boundary, both with Marge, and with the kids, then it will be Marge who is in the "discomfort zone" about the outcome, and who will be looking for possible alternatives. Greg just needs to be patient. And firm.

The important element here is in the communication. And here is where we apply B.I.F.F.

BIFF communication between co-parents is (B)rief, (I)nformative, (F)riendly, and (F)irm. Here is a possible way that Greg can send a BIFF communication to Marge regarding Wednesday evenings:

"Marge, I notice that you are scheduling activities and appointments for the children, to take place during my parenting time. This violates the court order. Please refrain from making any future plans for the children that take place during my parenting time. I will not honor or keep any activity or appointment that you have made if it takes place during my parenting time.
Sincerely, Greg"

Note that Greg does not expound on Marge's manipulative behavior, nor does he attack her character or bring up all of the past incidents where Marge has scheduled activities. He addresses her behavior at face-value. Greg informs Marge that he will not honor the appointments she has made. He is neither unkind nor disrespectful. He is friendly enough to make his explicit request: "Please refrain..." and he is brief and to-the-point.

When Greg picks up the kids on Wednesday, and the kids ask about going to church, all he has to say to them is "I have communicated with your mother on this issue, and when you are with me, we will spend our time together as I see best." Yes, there will be complaining, but overall, the kids will learn three very important things: their parents are communicating; their father has boundaries; and their father is confident in his fitness as a parent. These are three great truths that the children need to know. They don't need to know all of the rest of it, but they do need to know that they (the kids) are not in charge, and that the people who are in charge (the parents) are competent. Period.

When Greg and Marge came to see me on this issue, they were still in the thick of battle. Each was grappling for control, and the kids were being torn apart as a result. Helping them see and learn to honor each other's boundaries was a key for helping the kids stay out of the cross-fire.

Greg and Marge still have a lot of co-parenting issues that come up. But as each issue arises, we go back to the basics: how to create and sustain personal boundaries, and how to honor and respect the boundaries of the other parent. This is the key to successful post-divorce co-parenting.


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