Michael Scott is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and a child custody mediator. He has been a therapist since 1982 and maintains a private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. Since 1985, Michael has served as a child custody mediator for The County of Santa Cruz Superior Court. He is an educator offering workshops both nationally and internationally on marriage, divorce, parenting, education, personal and professional development, conflict resolution, and the developmental needs of children.
PO Box 822 * Santa Cruz, CA 95061 * (831)423-0521
Divorce is like a roller-coaster ride with a life of its own. Regardless of what one may think, divorce is a process of which one is not in control. Many professionals agree that second only to the death of a spouse, divorce is probably one of the most significant crises in a person's life. While some still imagine divorce to be an event, it is clearly a long-term process of disengaging from one's marital partner. This occurs on many levels including physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual. Although the legal divorce time frame varies with geographical location, many fail to recognize that there is also the intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual divorce that inevitably must take place. All of these last substantially longer and well past the signing of the legal documents.
It is often the case that one spouse is seeking relief and wants out of the marriage while the other spouse does not. As a result of this discrepancy the individuals are frequently in different stages of their grieving within the various levels of their personal process. Ideally, the grieving process of divorce takes a few years. In less optimal situations, it can take a lifetime. The divorce process can be viewed in stages.
PRE-DIVORCE, OR DELIBERATION STAGE
This stage begins while the couple is still together. One spouse begins to recognize feelings of dissatisfaction with the marriage and tries alternately to cope with the feelings and to resolve them. If that spouse is unable to resolve these conflictual feelings, a decision to leave the marriage may ultimately be reached. If, and when this point occurs, that spouse generally becomes unavailable to the relationship on one or more of the various levels of human experience; physical, intellectual, emotional, social, or spiritual. Frequently, anger is a common expression in this stage.
It is not uncommon that the spouse who is left files for divorce. This is often an attempt on the part of that individual to experience a sense of control over the upheaval surrounding the experience of being left. Uncertainties and instability are prevalent at this stage. The emotional impact is often overwhelming and will affect each spouse. Economics, finances, and property issues consume the divorcing couple at this stage. If there are children, custody may become a major issue riddled with fear, pain, and anger. It is not uncommon that one of, or even both spouses, cast the other in as negative an image as possible. Each perceives and remembers only those selective events during their relationship that fit the negative view currently being presented. This process of negativity most likely serves the function of helping a spouse disengage from the partner and justify the decision to separate or divorce. Unfortunately, professionals (therapists and attorneys) along with family and friends who are seeking to support, very often enhance the negative image in an attempt to offer help.
This stage usually lasts approximately two years after separation and has been referred to as the "crazy time" in the life of a divorced person (Trafford, 1982). During this stage, people experience feelings of chaos and irrationality, insecurity and panic. It is experienced as destabilizing as the life the couple created has vanished and instability is present. For the vast majority, these feelings do pass in time.
In this stage, individuals attain a new equilibrium as they redefine their life. It is a time when each spouse begins to gain a sense of comfort and stability as a single person. New relationships may begin to evolve. When the storm of divorce has been weathered successfully, feelings of self-confidence and optimism return. It is true that the vast majority of couples manage to maneuver their way successfully through the divorce process. The goal of divorce is find relief from an unhappy situation. A successful divorce should provide that relief.
Divorce is an adult concept. Divorce from a child's perspective is very different from that of an adult. With rare exception, most children would not choose divorce for their parents. Next to death, divorce is the most devastating experience a child can go through. As a result of current research, more is known about the effects of divorce on children today than in the past. Most children get through divorce and lead productive adult lives; significant minorities of children, however, do demonstrate various degrees of difficulty. During the Pre-Divorce stage, parents are frequently distracted with their own emotional turmoil. It is not unusual that the needs of children often are not recognized and even go unattended. Divorce for a child is extremely frightening. A child of divorce may very well feel more vulnerable and less secure. Consider your chronological age as an adult. Let's say you are thirty-eight years old. You have thirty-eight years of psychological development, emotional experience, vocabulary, and socialization. And consider how difficult a divorce is for you as an adult. Now let us assume that you have a ten-year-old child. That child, therefore only has ten years of psychological development, emotional experience, vocabulary, and socialization. That child is going through the same divorce yet does not have the resouces to cope with it as an adult would cope. The transition into adulthood appears to be more tenuous for children of divorce. There are certain predictors that reflect an easier adjustment to a divorce for a child. These include parents not fighting or undermining each other, and continued and regular contact with both parents in which each parent has a warm and supportive relationship with the child. It also helps if parental expectations of the child are consistent and age-appropriate for his or her development.
To best help children through the divorce, consider the following: It is best to give simple explanations that are factual, but not details of the causes for the divorce; avoid blaming the other parent; let the children know that they are loved by both parents and that both parents will always be available for them; definitely let them know that they are in no way the cause of the divorce. These are but a few ideas. There are many books available to assist you. You may also wish to seek professional advice.
Children who have been raised by two parents need to feel that both parents still love them, regardless of a divorce and the resulting breakup of the family unit. Both parents continue to have the responsibility of raising their children with love, despite the reality that the parents will not be living happily together. Although parents divorce, neither parent divorces the child, and most certainly the child does not divorce the parent. Regardless of how you may feel as a marital partner, if you have children you will be co-parenting with the other parent in one fashion or another. The most functional form of co-parenting reflects cooperation, communication, consistency, and compromise. When these components are lacking, a dysfunctional form of co-parenting, better termed "parallel parenting," prevails. In many instances it is thought to be an unhealthy form of interaction for all parties involved. Granted, however, in some cases there may not be an alternative.
It is often difficult in the beginning stage of a divorce to remember that both of you have a common interest in raising your children. Regardless of what you may think, the other parent is doing the best that they can do in this very uncomfortable situation. Even if the other parent is staying up late at night thinking of how to make your life miserable, that is still the best that s/he can do. Attempt to understand the other parent's viewpoint. If you look for solution and problem solving rather than blame, you will find that co-parenting serves all involved. Refrain from discussing any issues with the other parent in the presence of the children; when the children are present, limit your conversation to a simple and courteous "hello" and "good-bye" during transfers. Do not even pass documents to the other parent at that time.
When calling on the phone to speak with the children, it is a good idea to only speak with the children, and not the other parent. If the other parent answers the phone, limit the interaction to, "Hello, may I speak with .... please." All other adult conversation between the parents should take place during a different phone call, when the children are not the reason for contact. It is even more effective if such conversations occur when the children are not present. As time evolves and the dynamic between parents eases, adult conversations most certainly can occur when the children are present, as long as the parents have mastered the ability to be cordial, respectful, and civil with one another. In addition, all conversations between parents, especially in the beginning phases of a divorce, should be pre-arranged so that both parties are aware of what the topic of dicussion will involve. It is never appropriate to send information through the child.
Often times, people fail to realize the importance of maintaining agreements that are negotiated regarding the parenting plan. Sometimes a parent may believe that picking the child up or dropping the child off fifteen minutes (read any time other than the agreed upon time) earlier or later than the agreed upon time is not a "big deal." What that parent fails to realize is that maintaining the agreement builds trust. And generally trust is usually not a "given" in the early stages of the divorce process. Similarly, requesting modifications to the agreed upon parenting plan is frequently seen as "taking advantage" and often generates resentment and a further lack of trust by the parent who is being asked to modify the plan. It is generally best to leave the structure of the parenting plan as it is defined for at least one year. If plans must be changed it should only be due to an emergency or unforeseen unique event and not regular or requent requests. If the situation requires a modification, it is best to ask, far enough in advance, by requesting the proposed change to the parent who will be impacted. Do not take for granted that the request will be understood as a necessity. Negotiation, cooperation, communication, and compromise are essential, but not a guarantee that the request will be granted. It is also important to remember that there may come a time when the person being asked to modify the agreement is requesting a modification. When children are involved, divorce requires a long-term view of the relationship. For more information about co-parenting, review Co-Parenting: Things to Consider by clicking on the link.
Frequently, parents experience a need to have their child be loyal to them as if in competition with the other parent for the love of their child. Sometimes it is difficult, but far more mature and healthy to reassure your child that s/he can love both parents. Children view themselves as being part of both parents. To reject one parent is to reject part of themself. In the long run this will impact the child's ability to value him or herself appropriately. If we as adults do not recognize our responsibility, surely the child will have to make the sacrifice. What is being asked of a parent going through a divorce is extremely difficult. But so too is it difficult for the child. We, as adults, have far more resources than our children have. How we as adults parent our children will impact their ability to either enjoy or to sacrifice their childhood. It is up to us as adults to help our children, not the other way around.
Very often, adults are emotionally vulnerable as they navigate a divorce. Frequently, there is an assumption that children are far more capable than they truly are. This assumption is often made, unfortunately, in the interest of meeting the adult's needs. This is not healthy for children. Allowing your child to sleep in your bed, even if they want to is inappropriate. Sharing your adult problems with your child can lead to emotional problems for the child. Regardless of how mature the child may appear, your child is still a child.
Sometimes a parent may feel guilty about the divorce and may become overly lenient in an attempt to counter the impact of the divorce on the child. Set reasonable limits for your children. Now that you are a single parent you will have to find a middle ground of discipline that was once shared by two parents. Simple and limited rules, clear expectations of behavior, consistent, fair, and behavior specific consequences can increase your child’s sense of security.
Not only is there the legal divorce and the emotional divorce, but there is a social divorce that is part of the overall process. This is the separation of friends and family that occurs as a natural part of the fragmentation of the nuclear family unit. The impact is not only on the adults, but the effects on the children are well known. There frequently may be a change in the living environment which can result in great distance between grandparents, cousins, friends, and other extended relations. The chaotic experience of the divorce threatens the needed predictability, consistency, safety, and security of every child. If at all possible, it is a parent's responsibility to maintain the continued closeness of relatives established during the marriage, even if the relatives are those of the other parent. This can be done through regularly scheduled time, if possible. If the child is seen as the priority, then the parent will recognize that the child's needs are essential and take precedent over the adult experience in the divorce.
Children should not be pushed or "pumped" for information regarding the divorce. If the child wishes to discuss the divorce, then the adult should be an active listener and permit the child to "debrief" rather than react to what the child is discussing. It would be most helpful for an extended family member to talk positively about both parents and make negative comments about one of the parents. If the parenting plan leaves little or no time assigned to extended family members, then it is best that the child spend time with such family members when that divorced parent is scheduled to be with and responsible for the child.
In our culture, the definition of a family has gone through many changes and configurations. Currently, there are more blended families than intact original nuclear families. Therefore, when blending a family there are a number of things to consider, and what follows are but a few. It has been said by many people that what is permitted in a blended family would not be tolerated for one instant in an intact nuclear family. This is critical to understand. If we look at an intact nuclear family as an evolutionary process where the family has had the opportunity over time to grow into their "rules" and family dynamics, then we can easily see that a blended family is a revolutionary experience. That is to say that the blending family brings with it different established sets of "rules" and "guidelines" that were an evolutionary process for a former family, but an unknown entity for this new family unit being established. It generally takes about two years of conscious effort to blend a family into a functioning unit. It is wise for the parents to discuss and establish, in advance, the discipline and implementation of consequences prior to blending the two families. Most professional therapists agree that it is best if the biological parent be the one to implement discipline for their child if at all possible. It is not unusual that the biological parent experiences the step-parent as being far more lenient with their own child and more strict the other parent's child. In fact, so too does the child have a similar experience. To say that blending a family is difficult is an understatement. Patience and appropriate expectations are highly prized in this effort. Finally, seeing a therapist who specializes in blended family issues prior to remarriage is most beneficial.
A viable alternative to costly litigation for many couples is mediation. This process employs a neutral third party; and is usually a professional and expert in the issues needing to be addressed, negotiated, and resolved. These issues may include finances, property, and child custody. In some cases, couples may have the ability to negotiate most, if not all, of their own issues. A child custody mediator is, most often, a licensed mental health professional with extensive background and experience with divorce, child development, and the needs of children of divorce, in addition to having specialized training in mediation. Child custody mediation results in what is commonly known as a parenting plan. Divorce professionals who mediate property and financial aspects of a divorce settlement are, most typically, attorneys, although specially trained mental health professionals also mediate financial aspects of a divorce. By "fighting it out in court," parents, perhaps unwittingly, increase their conflict and contribute to their children’s distress. For information about negotiating a parenting plan, click on the following link: Mediation: Things to Consider.
Depending on the jurisdiction, mediation is most often voluntary, although some states and individual counties mandate mediation prior to litigation for custody or visitation issues. Depending on the situation, participation in mediation is often beneficial for both spouses, as well as for the children. Check with your local Family Court Services for information regarding the availability of court-connected mediation services. Many individuals going through a divorce, however, prefer to seek the assistance of a private mediator in resolving their outstanding divorce issues. Such is often the case when parents wish to retain a greater sense of control over their own divorce, family, and parenting process. In such cases, it is critical to inquire about the professional background and expertise in the field of mediation, whether it be child custody, financial, or property issues.
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