Breaking Those Old Habits, Custody and Co-Parenting After Divorce - Indiana Divorce Law 2013
There are many growing pains in those weeks, months and years after a divorce occurs. Ex-spouses adjust to their new normal and often experience feelings of fear, sadness, relief, joy and confusion as they try to rebuild their lives. During this time, they may also find themselves in situations where they are continuing to engage in communication (which led to their divorce) that is combative, malicious and hurtful. Unfortunately, many of the negative characteristics that were present in the failed marriage will often transfer over to the post-divorce relationship, which, in turn, continue to affect the children. In children of divorce, the music stops but the dance goes on. Children who are exposed to on-going parental conflict are at a disadvantage because they internalize the negativity. The effects of marital conflict on children can include:
• Physiological-They secrete excessive amounts of adrenaline during conflict.
• Behavioral-They have a lessened ability to retain focus.
• Social-They are compromised in their ability to make friends.
• Academics-They have lower math and reading scores by age 8.
• Physical-They have more infectious diseases.
In order to decrease the parental conflict, the ex-spouses need to take stock in the communication patterns that were taking place in the past and now in the present. For many years, a common belief was that couples were divorcing because of their unresolved issues with life stressors such as money, sex, children, work, etc. But what we know now is that it was not the stressor itself that led to the divorce--it was the negative behavior they used while communicating to each other about the stressor.
Dr. John Gottman, a clinical psychologist, researcher and author of several books including The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, conducted longitudinal studies for 30 years on couples and concluded that there are four predictive behaviors to divorce. He identified these behaviors as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” because of the devastating effect they have on relationships. They include:
• It is an attack on the spouse at the core, leaving one feeling assaulted, rejected and hurt.
Example: "You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. You’re just selfish! You never think of others, let alone your own children!”
• This is treating your spouse with disrespect and/or mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language, such as eye-rolling. This is the “I am up here and you are down there” mentality.
Example: “You truly are an idiot.”
• This can be seen as an attempt to protect oneself, but really it is an attempt to blame the other person.
Example: “The problem isn’t me, it’s you!”
• This is when one person decides to “check out” or withdraw from the interaction.
Example: “Why are you acting like you could care less about what I am saying? I know you can hear me!”
One of the most helpful tools that divorced parents can have is an understanding that these toxic communication patterns do not need to continue as they begin the process of co-parenting their children. There are antidotes to the Four Horsemen, which can be used to help shift the communication patterns. They include:
Criticism-Try to complain without blame. Use “I”statements and relate them to what you are feeling.
Example: "I was scared when you were running late with the kids and didn't call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other."
Contempt -Try to focus (even if it seems small) on something that your ex-partner has done that is good and beneficial for your children.
Example: “I really like how you handled yourself at the school meeting.”
Defensiveness-Try to accept responsibility for any part of the issue.
Example: “Oops, I forgot to call and let you know that we were running late. I will let you know in the future.”
Stonewalling-People withdraw because they are internally overwhelmed. Calm and soothe yourself before you continue contact.
Example: “I am going to need a 20-minute break before we can continue our conversation.”
Although the marriage is over, the parenting continues. The transition to co-parenting can be a challenge, but can also be an opportunity for growth. The communication patterns that contributed to the divorce CAN change. Children learn by imitating the behavior of their parents. As they get older, they will fall back on what they learned in childhood. It is never too late to demonstrate how to manage conflict and role model what respectful communication looks like. Remember: what you do now is what they will do in their future.
“The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.” –George Santayana
This posting was authored by Shannon Loehr, MSW, LCSW. Shannon is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in the Broad Ripple area of Indianapolis. Her practice focuses on working with individuals, couples and families dealing with a variety of challenges. She lives in the Indianapolis area with her husband Andrew and their two children. You can check out her website at www.shannonloehr.com