Divorced Parents and the Conflict Dance

The loss and pain of divorce can be extraordinarily challenging. When children are involved, parents’ hurt feelings are often re-activated as they find themselves needing to communicate extensively with the very person who has caused them such hurt and pain. While most parents know that their children will be better off if they communicate amicably and cooperatively with their child’s other parent, confusion and hurt feelings can lead parents into a “conflict dance” that can generate further pain for the whole family.

If you are a separating or divorced parent, consider the following statements:

• My child’s other parent argues with me over the silliest of things.
• Making decisions together with the other parent is almost impossible.
• The other parent almost always considers him/herself first, even over the children.
• Our child avoids talking about their other parent with they are with me.
• Our child keeps secrets from me or the other parent.
• Our child often does not want to be with either me or the other parent.
• The other parent withholds information from me concerning the child.
• The other parent is generally irresponsible.
• We continue to file legal motions over points that seem very important but later prove to not be critical.
• I would collaborate with my child’s other parent but he/she does not collaborate with me.
(modified from Thayer & Zimmerman, 2001)

If more than a few of these statements are true, you and your ex-spouse are dancing to a destructive beat. Such conflict can exacerbate children’s hurt. Even as they are dealing with the loss of divorce, their parents’ conflict may cause them to feel “caught in the middle”, guilty, confused, and conflicted.

Even if you feel that the other parent is the primary initiator of conflict, there are steps you can take to disengage from the dance:

– Acknowledge that you are a partner in the conflict dance and your behavior is affecting your child.
– Disengage from your dance partner. Do your best to refrain from blaming, name-calling, or yelling in discussions with the other parent.
– Focus on what you can do to be a more cooperative co-parent, rather than only on what the other parent can do.
– Get support. Talk to friends who are understanding of your situation, seek out support in your community; in your synagogue, church, or mosque, talk to a professional, or consider seeking help from a family therapist.

Here are some further tips for communicating with your child’s other parent:

– Think of the other parent as a “business partner”. If you remember that you are trying to nurture a business-like relationship, it will be easier to remember how to communicate effectively (respectful problem-solving, avoiding blame, etc.).
– Try emailing your child’s other parent instead of calling, especially if you are feeling angry or hurt.
– Pause and give yourself a few moments of quiet time before discussions.
– Share an online calendar for important dates for your child.
– Have weekly scheduled phone sessions with the other parent to discuss agendas or important decisions.
– Let the other parent know when you need time to consider an issue and when you will respond with an answer.

Freeing yourself from the conflict dance can open up options for working with the other parent that will benefit you and your child. While such steps are often difficult, your child will likely feel more secure and be better able to cope with the tasks of childhood.

Thayer, E.S. & Zimmerman, J. (2001). The Co–Parenting Survival Guide: Letting Go of Conflict after a Difficult Divorce. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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