Tuesday, August 11, 2009

When Your Kids Really Need Both Parents

Whenever I teach a co-parenting course, I usually begin by emphasizing the pay-offs of positive co-parenting. I talk about how the parents need to love their children more than they hate each other. I remind them that -- as much as they might like to make their ex-spouse vanish from the planet -- the fact is, that bringing a child into the world means the two parents of that child will be connected to one another no matter what, for as long as that child lives.

This is unsettling news for many divorced parents who would prefer to move on with their lives and pretend that their children were born via immaculate conception or discovered motherless in a cabbage patch.

So, I often ask the parents to picture a future with their children. The one that includes the big events: graduations, weddings, births of grandchildren. Do they really want to force their precious children to choose which parent attends these events? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to share in the big events of their children's lives, without forcing leftover acrimony onto your child's special day?

This is the sort of standard stuff that I teach the divorcing parents that come into my classroom. This is fairly standard stuff with all parent coordinators out there... an ideal that seems unreachable from the point of view of warring ex-partners. Painting the picture of future highlight events seems to be a pretty typical approach.

Then, there was this past Friday. When two of the most successful co-parents I have ever known, were forced to co-parent through the unthinkable.

Let me introduce Vivian and Dan (names changed to protect privacy). When they divorced six years ago, they decided from the get-go that they were not going to allow their aggravation with each other spill over onto their three young children. Was it easy? Oh heck, no. I've seen Vivian so angry at Dan that she could just spit nails. But her children did not see it. I've seen Dan so bewildered at Vivian that he was nearly consumed with frustration. But his children did not see it. I've watched in admiration as both Vivian and Dan struggled with the exact same emotions and pains and shames and fears as any other divorcing couple. But they were dedicated to protecting their children from the choice they had made to divorce.

Shared parenting time? Sure. Vivian often thought Dan's parenting style was not up to her standard. But she knew it was adequate, and she backed off and allowed the children to have the kind of relationship with their father that they wanted to create. Holidays? Dan could have played the Disney Dad and bought his kids piles of goodies -- presents, vacations, expensive activities -- in a blatant attempt at one-upping Vivian... instead, he and Vivian coordinated the gifts and made sure that the kids knew they had come from BOTH parents, just like before the divorce.

And seeing them together with their children, even after both Dan and Vivian moved on and developed relationships with other romantic partners, I could always see that they had made the effort to put their own differences aside, so that they could support their children through the highlights of their lives: sporting events, school plays, parent night at summer camp.


Because this past Friday, Vivian and Dan had to endure the most excruciatingly harsh, intense pain a parent can imagine. They had to bury their thirteen-year-old child.

This is the image that is now seared onto my heart when I think of Vivian and Dan: the family sitting on the front row at the funeral service, older brother and younger sister of the deceased sitting in the middle; flanked on one side by Mom (Vivian), and on the other by Dad (Dan). The outer bookends of the row occupied by Vivian's significant other on one side, and Dan's girlfriend on the other. And when the pastor sang the final song -- one appropriately titled "Victory" -- Vivian and Dan took each other by the hand, and raised their clasped hands high into the air; a gesture of surrender to the Plan of the Great Creator, a gesture of support to one another, a gesture of strength as they created a protective tent over the heads of their two grieving children.

Naturally, I do not wish such a fate on anyone. And, when I teach co-parenting, I will still go back to the visual imagery of parents sharing the highlights -- the graduations, the weddings.

But the children of divorce HAVE suffered a death. They just didn't get a funeral. They still suffer the death of their family as they knew it. They suffer the death of confidence and trust in their world. They often suffer the premature end of their own childhood.

Wouldn't it be great if all parents would be willing to sacrifice until they found a way to surrender to the things that are larger than they are; give parenting support to one another; and use their strength and power to protect their children from the ravages of divorce.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Kitchen-sink Fighters

As a Divorce Coach, my life and my career are dedicated to reducing the conflict that scars parents and children during the time while the marriage is ending and they are working to re-structure a post-divorce family. My passion is to show people better ways to interact, so that they and their children can move on.

So it may seem paradoxical that I actually DO advocate "fighting", but hear me out.

My good friend, Mark Rogers, refers to an argument as a "discussion with the heart heat turned up". This is an apt description. For most of us, when we feel passionately about a topic, we will bring emotional energy to it. If that topic is in disagreement with someone else, and if they are equally passionate about their position, a fight will ensue.

But there are ways to "fight" that can be healthy, and ways that are unhealthy. One of the ways that is unhealthy is when one of the parties simply swallows down their point, rather than present their position. This tactic masquerades as "peaceful", when in fact, the party who "stuffs" their emotions in this way is likely to suffer from serious health problems related to chronic stress, is likely to build resentment that can be fatal to the relationship, and is likely to "explode" when the pressure of all those stuffed emotions gets to be too much.

However, the other unhealthy fighting style that I wish to address in today's column is the "Kitchen-sink Fighter". You've probably already guessed what this person does in the fight: they throw in every accusation imaginable, every complaint, every past infraction, everything including 'the kitchen sink'. Rather than focus on the topic under discussion, this fighter rambles all over the place, engages in ad hominem attacks, and resorts to crazy-making tactics to distract and disrupt the argument. If you've ever observed this behavior, you may have found yourself wondering if the person really wanted to resolve the issue, or if they merely wanted to keep the fight going.

Sometimes, the Kitchen-sink Fighter is just a "Stuffer", going to the next phase. Having never gained resolution on any of the topics that they have previously stuffed, the Stuffer becomes a Kitchen-sink Fighter when the pressure of all of those previously unresolved issues finds a weak spot during the fight.

If you are engaging in conflict with a Kitchen-sink Fighter, what can you do? Practice some of these key phrases:

"I would like it if we can focus on this one issue for right now. Can we put those other issues aside for the moment?"

"I hear your concerns, however, I think we will get more accomplished if we keep working on resolving this one things, first."

"Would it help if we write these other ideas down, so that we can get back to them later? For right now, this one issue is the most important to me."

You can change up the words so that they feel more natural to you. The primary thing is to focus on the issue that you started with, promise your partner that you WILL come back to the other items, and put the emphasis on your own feelings, not on accusing the other person. For example, "you never stay on topic, all you ever do is ramble around" is not going to get you very far with your partner.

If you are a Kitchen-sink Fighter, then ask yourself how that works for you. Do you find yourself accomplishing resolution to the issues you are attempting to address, or do you see yourself going around in circles? Would you rate your times with your coach, counselor, or mediator as effective time, or do you often feel that when you are done, all you did was waste your time?

If you realize that being a Kitchen-sink Fighter is not working for you, then it may help to create an agenda. You might ask your coach or counselor to help you limit the topics in your sessions to just one, or maybe two topics at the most. If you've spent enough time to get to the third topic, then frankly, you are probably emotionally exhausted and due for a rest.

Working our way through conflicts, disagreements, and arguments is not a bad thing. Every human on the planet -- guess what, even the happily married ones -- finds themselves in disagreement with someone who is important to them, at some point or another. The difference is in what you learn to do with it.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Shame -- the root of much bad divorce behavior

Recently, I asked a client of mine if she was ashamed of her "failed" marriage. She answered "no" -- that she did not feel shame at all. She was proud of the fact that she had had the courage to leave a marriage that was not working for her. Her self-esteem was growing as she discovered things about herself that she had suppressed during her marriage. And, she had a new love interest who was treating her with the dignity and respect that had been lacking from her ex-husband.

However, I pressed a little bit more, because there were things I was concerned about. Did she still attend the same church as she had during marriage? No. Why not? She just didn't feel as though she "fit in" anymore. Did she hang around with the same friends as before? No. Why not? Same reason.

And the coup de grace: how many times in the past week had she told someone her "divorce story"? Well, there was the hairdresser. And the air conditioning repairman. And the teller at the bank that she had spoken with about a bill that her ex-husband was supposed to pay but hadn't.

After an extended conversation, my client finally came to realize that she still felt very much ashamed of her failed marriage. She felt compelled to explain to everyone that it was not her fault, that she had done all that she could to save the marriage, and that it was her ex-husband, not her, who had committed adultery and subsequently filed for divorce.

Then we spent the next few minutes talking about all of the ways that shame can creep in, and the behavior that it can drive. When a person is ashamed of the outcome of their marriage, they will squander a lot of energy attempting to convince the world that they are not at fault; they are a victim; they are free of accountability. This sets the divorced person up for two potential problems.

One is, being a victim disempowers people. When a divorced person stays stuck in their victimhood, they cannot move on from the marriage. They have shackled themselves to a post-divorce world from which there is no obvious escape. This person often sabotages future relationships without even realizing what they are doing. This is the first date who can't stop talking about their "evil ex"; the co-worker who walks around sighing all the time whenever they aren't engaged in weepy, hush-toned personal phone conversations; the neighbor who whines about how difficult and overwhelming life is since that jerk or 'witch' left the family. The sad part is, most folks who are stuck in post-divorce purgatory don't realize it. They cannot figure out why their friends no longer want to hang around, why neighbors and church members avoid them, why they cannot ever seem to get that second date.

The other potential problem -- as mentioned before -- is that an ashamed divorcee is a bad-behaving divorcee. When a person cannot reconcile the failure of their marriage and feels compelled to redress the wrong, this leads to many of the classic maneuvers that so many divorcing people engage in. A "wronged" person can justify stalking their ex, sabotaging their ex, stealing from their ex, poor-mouthing their ex, harming their ex, and many of the other acts that take place during and right after divorce. This harms the ex, obviously; and the children of the divorce, also rather obviously... but what many divorcing spouses do not realize is that it harms them, as well.

As paradoxical as it seems, the path to overcoming victimhood is often accountability. It takes an acceptance that what happened is real, and it takes a willingness to courageously examine one's own contribution to the end of the marriage. Only then can a person feel empowered enough to rise above the wrongdoing of the other party.

And the key to accepting accountability is to face the shame. Face it head-on, admit that you hate walking around without that ring on your left finger, confess that you somehow feel "lesser" when you think about not being married any more. Wade unabashedly into that awful emotional milieu and own it. Utter the words out loud. "I feel embarrassed that I couldn't make my wife love me". "I feel ashamed when I go to church and everyone else there is married". "I feel like a failure when all of my children's friends come from 'intact' families". "I don't want anyone to know that my marriage didn't last". "I believe that being divorced makes me a bad person somehow". Whatever the feeling is, whatever the belief is, bring it out, and look at it. A coach or counselor can help you explore the feelings in an emotionally safe space, so that you can see what is triggering you, deep down below the place where you make decisions or choose behaviors.

A person who has faced their shame, lifted it out, addressed it, and disposed of it, gains several positive rewards. He or she can now move past the divorce itself. If the divorce is still being settled or negotiated, he or she can have clarity regarding which values are important to them -- which will help the parties reach an agreement more swiftly. Most important, a person who has reconciled their own shame and put it to rest, can then save all of the emotional energy that would have been squandered on protecting their psyche... and put it to use creating the next phase of their life, for themselves and for their children.

Shame is a part of any divorce -- in small quantities or large -- and can easily hide beneath other, more obvious emotions, or hide so well that the person experiencing it never even realizes that it's there. Removing shame, and creating a new life that is free of shame, should be a primary goal of any divorcing person and their coach.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

When the other Parent Sabotages Exchange times

It's exchange day. Your court order says that you are to pick up the kids from a certain location at a certain time. Only once again, your ex-spouse is changing the plan. He or she calls and says the kids won't be ready until later. Or, the kids won't be at the assigned location. Often the other parent will specify an alternate location... and at times in the past, when you have gone to the alternate location, the kids haven't been there after all.

Through it all, the outcome is that no matter what you do, it seems that your ex-spouse is back in control, calling all the shots, running you around, and holding your kids hostage. Should you fight back? Should you retaliate by doing the same thing to your ex when access time switches back to them?

It's a dilemma, isn't it? You don't want to fight; but you do want to defend your boundaries. You don't want to damage the kids, you don't want to relinquish power and control, and yet their other parent doesn't seem to give a diddly about harming their own children and holding them hostage in order to play "parent-terrorist". And that's just what they are doing.

But if you cave in then you just keep getting more of the same. So, contrary to popular belief, caving in does NOT end the fighting, in spite of the most fervent hopes of those of us who believe in peace.

The primary thing is to find a way to "take away the stick". And, in the meantime, with every incident, keep your children's needs foremost.

Friday evenings are often 'trauma-drama" times for me as a Divorce Coach... when I have a high-conflict divorce case going on, my Friday evenings are often a barrage of phone calls from clients who are trying to get their court-ordered access, while their crazy exes play all sorts of rotten games. Here is what I tell my clients:

1. If you can communicate directly with your children, do so. Reassure them, calm them if they are distressed, do NOT convey your own distress about the situation to them, do NOT blame their other parent for not allowing you to see them. Remind them that you love them, and that you are eager to see them, and you will do so as soon as possible.

2. Abide by the court order to the letter. In all communication with the other parent, remind them that you will abide by the court order no matter what. If your court order is "silent" on certain details (such as a specific pick-up location), and if these details are now the lightning rods attracting conflict, then ask your attorney to enter a motion for clarifying orders. No one can anticipate in advance all the different things a high-conflict ex-spouse is going to find to fight about -- especially if you have a lazy or inexperienced attorney the first time around -- so once you've identified some key areas of conflict, then get solutions in writing and get them sanctioned via court order.

3. Collect evidence and document, document, document. Keep a journal, record dates and time. Upload voice mail recordings. Take pictures of the exchange place, and note that you were there at the correct date and time.

4. Do not engage in a chase all over town to get your children. Imagine what the children must be going through, if they are being carried to location after location in some weird dramatic event. Sometimes, if you just let it be, the other parent will carry the children back home and you can go there (ALWAYS with a third party and a video camera) later that evening or the following day and pick the children up then.

5. If your attorney is not assertive about entering a motion for an order of enforcement, then get an attorney who is. You need an attorney who understands the emotional impact of alienation on children, and who takes parental access very seriously.

6. With every subsequent contact with the children, emphasize how important they are to you, how eager you are to see them and be with them, and how you look forward to time with them. If there is a specific activity or special "connection point" you can mention ("we'll make animal pancakes next time, just like we always do") then bring it out. Give the children as much reassurance as possible that you are there for them and eager and willing to be engaged in their lives. If they express disappointment in not being able to see you, resist the urge to blame the other parent at this time. Just listen to the children, and address any of their fears or concerns with reassurance of your love for them. Help them feel safe and secure.

7. If you find your own emotions -- especially anger or frustration -- becoming overwhelming, call your coach, a trusted friend, pastor, or other 'safe' outlet to express your concerns. This will help you remain more calm when your children need you.

Parental access is just one of many ways that high-conflict parents use their children to exert power and control over an ex-spouse. It is emotional abuse. It is "parent-terrorism", and it needs to be handled delicately in order to minimize the possibility of accidentally inflicting additional harm on the victims (the children). The parent who is attempting to enforce access has a large task ahead of them -- to reduce both short-term and long-term damage to the kids. This is not easy under any circumstances, and is especially difficult when there are additional feelings of anger, frustration, fear, and helplessness involved. This is why the on-call availability of a good coach can make the difference between a successful outcome -- or -- one more divorce scar that a child will carry out of childhood.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

From Whence Comes Bias?

The Father's Rights groups argue vehemently and relentlessly against the obvious bias in Family Court. And it is obvious: in contested custody cases, Mothers still win nearly 90% of the time. Fathers still overwhelmingly are expected to pay child support, while over 25% non-Custodial Mothers never receive any order of support; and of those that do, a startling 60% are in arrears, with almost no enforcement efforts directed at them. Contrast this with a 96% compliance rate of Fathers who have support orders, and a nearly 100% prosecution rate of those who do not comply.

While almost all states now have laws that require child support compliance in order for a person to renew a license to drive, many states also proof of compliance by any applicant for a hunting or fishing license. Which gender do you suppose they are targeting there? Imagine a law that required all "persons" getting a pedicure to first demonstrate that they were current on a child support order? Yeah, right.

So the bias exists.

And we can spew all day long about how horrible the "Divorce Cartel" is, what with its biased judges, colluding attorneys, and contracted clingers-on (aka "custody evaluators", "child specialists", etc.).

But the truth is, there is not one single entity in the entire "Divorce Cartel" who is doing anything more than reflected a bias that is prevalent in society at large. That's right. As much as we would like to blame the Family Court System, they truly did not invent the anti-Father bias. They only reflect it.

So if the Family Court System didn't invent it, who did?

We did. Us. Society. You, and Me.

Don't believe it? Then go into your heart, and answer honestly a few simple questions:

If you are a woman, do you believe -- deep in your heart -- that it's your husband's (or future husband's if you are not married) responsibility to support you? To support your children?

If you are a woman and you work outside the home, is your income considered "extra", while his is "essential"? If yours is also "essential", do you resent him, or the economy, because his inability to provide adequately requires you to work?

Do you feel that a man is "lesser" if he is a stay-at-home-Dad? Do you automatically expect the man to hold a job? Would you feel ashamed or embarrassed if you were a stay-at-home-Dad? If you were married to one? Would you feel compelled to explain yourself or your choice?

If you are a divorced woman, do you automatically expect to receive child support? If you earned more than your ex-husband and were ordered to pay child support to him, would you feel - on some deep level -- that this is not right or fair, because you are the mother?

When you hear the word "Deadbeat", does your brain automatically fill in the next word "Dad"?

When you about a woman not having custody of her children, do you automatically assume that there is something wrong with her? That she lacks some "maternal instinct"?

If a man claimed that he had been abused by his wife, how would you react?

If a woman claimed that she had previously been abused by her ex-husband, would you automatically believe her, if you knew absolutely nothing else about her or her ex-husband?

The point is, each and every one of us brings biases into the mix.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Another Way to Combat PAS

So this is my own journey, as I learn more about this syndrome, both for the sake of my skids, as well as for my clients who are victims of this awful practice.

At first, I thought combating PAS had to happen in the court system. The targeted parent needed the additional power/authority of a judge and an order backing up the child's need to have both parents. And this really is an important step.

Secondly, I focused on helping the children get a different story. When the only story they heard was from the alienating parent, then all of the energy of the targeted parent was used up attempting to "counter" that story. The other parent did NOT abandon you, the other parent did NOT stop loving you, the other parent has NOT started a whole new family and forgotten all about you. It was so important for the children to not feel a total loss.

Thirdly, I focused on restoring the targeted parent's "goodness" in the eyes of the child. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of (understandably) defensive targeted parents start. They cannot see that it's more important for their child's emotional needs to be met... they only see that they've been slandered, denigrated, trashed, etc. In many cases, they not only have to defend themselves against accusations being made to the children, but also public accusations that have huge consequences. So it's reasonable for the targeted parent to want to defend their reputation. But it should come third, after the children's emotional need has been met.

Fourth -- this is what I learned recently, or I should say, learned at a whole new level -- it's important to focus on modeling appropriate adult behavior for the kids to see. I commented on this in the "buying Christmas presents" thread. But it really came out for me recently when I was working with one of my clients, a targeted BM (rare!!), who worried about finding balance between time with her children, and time with adults in her life. She believed that spending time with adults during those precious few weekends when she had her children with her would take away from her time with her children. I asked her "when do your children EVER get to witness their mother being treated with dignity and respect by other grown-ups?" Never. "So the one and only model of behavior for how you are to be treated is the one they are getting from...?" Yep, that's right. From the man who has launched the non-stop denigration campaign for years.

Bottom line: let kids see their targeted parent interacting with other adults -- the ones who will honor that parent, show respect and dignity, and give energy to that parent. It is not only one more weapon in the arsenal against PAS, it is a gift to the kids.

We think of "teaching" our children by talking to them, instructing them, perhaps reading to them, explaining homework to them. We teach our children far more with our actions than we ever do with our words. Yet we don't spend anywhere near as much time truly examining the things we DO in front of our children and asking ourselves the key question: what is my child learning from me right now?

Blessings and positive energy to all... especially those who deal daily with PAS.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Whose Weekend Is It, Anyway?

One of the first things I teach parents is to change the words they use.

Parents are parents ALL the time. And children are NOT possessions.

I realize that the law treats the children like possessions. I realize that many parents do, too. I realize that many parents truly wish that their former spouse would simply wither and disappear, or get abducted by aliens, or in some other way vanish from the planet. This of course comes from an angry-ex-spouse place, and not from an understanding-the-emotional-needs of their children place.

Too many attitudes treat kids as though they are a trophy to be passed back and forth and fought over. As though they are merely one more "thing" to be split apart, like the bank account and the household furniture.

But reality is, children are 98.6-degree human beings with feelings and emotional needs, and one of the greatest needs they have is to remain in relationship with both parents. And, the reality is, that both parents remain parents after divorce. And no matter what a "custody" and "possession" order state, a parent is a parent 24/7.

So, let's change the way we talk about those relationships.

"Custody" = let's eliminate this word altogether. "Custody" implies that the children "belong" to one parent, and the other parent gets to "borrow" them from time to time. "Joint custody" (the real kind, not the joke that's written into most legal statutes), if it's truly a rebuttable presumption in the law, means that both parents are parents. Okay. Then no need for words to say it.

"Custody battle" = eliminated too. All parents remain parents. No need to fight.

"Possession" = "primary/active parenting time". One parent has a period of time when they are the primary/active parent. They are the first line responsible for the kids during that time. They take care of the kids in all ways, feed them, clothe them, house them, taxi them, support them, cheer for them, teach them, etc. The other parent is the "secondary" during this time. Think of it like a team where one player is out on the field, while another one is on the bench. The benched player is still on the team, still at the game, and ready to go out on the field if needed. Both are still players, both are still on the team, both are still responsible for the team's success... it's just that one is actively on the field while the other is back-up. And then they switch places.

"Access" = this is another phrase that should simply be eliminated. Every child ought to have access to both parents, any time they want it. A child of a non-divorced family can talk to Mom or Dad whenever they need to; call either parent on the phone; spend time with either parent as needed. Children should not have to lose this access to either parent just because the parents have decided to divorce.

"My time" = see "Possession". It isn't the PARENT'S time to own the kids. It's the CHILDREN'S time to be primarily in the care of that parent. Let's just stop using "my time" and "your time", "it's your Mom's week", "this is your Dad's weekend", "I get Christmas", etc. Children should never have to hear themselves referred to in this way. There is no quicker way to make a child feel like a piece of meat.

Imagine how much more quickly children would recover from divorce, if they knew that they were still cared-for by two loving parents. If children knew that today, Dad is your primary call, but Mom is right there as back-up... or next week, Mom is your primary, but Dad is right there as back-up. And you can call and talk to either one without getting dirty looks or snide comments. And it's okay to love either one, and to look forward to a relationship with either one.

Parents, parents, parents: it's not "your" weekend. It's your children's lifetime. If you truly love them, then you will erase these harmful words from your vocabulary, and practice saying the words that actually support relationship with two parents. If you struggle with this, then it's okay to get help. Talk it over with a counselor or coach - ask how to resolve the emotions that are blocking your way to being the kind of parent your children truly need: the kind that values their relationship with the other parent.

It's time to learn a new language: the language of Parental Support.