25 Sep Learning to ‘Get Along’ for the Best Interest of the Child
Experts agree that nurturing, supportive parenting that provides firm but fair limits assists children in becoming healthy, well-functioning adults. However, a seven year study by Dallas’s Timberlawn Psychiatric Institute found the one factor that was the most important in helping children become healthy, happy adults, was the quality of the relationship between their parents. This one factor was more important than giving kids hugs, providing good discipline, and building their self esteem, or any other aspect of what is traditionally considered ‘good parenting.’ In light of these and other similar findings, our concern for the ‘best interest of the child’ in marital dissolution cases rests with helping parents communicate and work together after the divorce.
Children Do NOT Just “Get Over It”
Many of us used to assume, and some still do, that children will ‘get over’ their parents’ divorce after an initial period of adjustment . The Timberlawn study, as well as landmark studies by Judith Wallerstein and others, found that divorce not only hurts both parents and children, but that children suffer long term consequences including emotional difficulties, poor school or job performance, and difficulty achieving intimacy in their own relationships as adults. Wallerstein reports that one third of the children experienced moderate to severe depression five years after the divorce. Fifteen years after the divorce, many of those children were still experiencing the consequences of their parent’s break-up as they began love relationships and marriages of their own. Every child in her study feared repeating a failure to maintain a loving relationship in adulthood, all feared betrayal and rejection, and all remained very vulnerable to loss.
Continual Battles Worse than Divorce
What these and other studies have also found is, that while divorce hurts children, living with parents who continually wage embittered battles is even worse. Research shows that the children who suffer most are those whose parents divorce, and then carry on the battle for years through legal challenges, arguments, or refusal to cooperate with orders regarding visitation, custody, and child support. As Wallerstein points out, the courts have often believed that awarding joint custody would force parents to put aside their anger and cooperate for the sake of the children. However, often, the opposite occurs. The children become either the weapons or the trophies in their parents power struggle, or the unintended victims of their rage. Moreover, the chaos and emotional (and sometimes financial) strain that the divorce process puts on parents often makes it difficult for them to provide the security and availability for their children, further leaving the child’s emotional and physical needs unmet.
Does Counseling Help?
How can attorneys, mediators, and judges, then, assist a couple in repairing their relationship in order to either stay together and create a fulfilling relationship for both, or, at least, to communicate and work together after a divorce for the best interest of their children? Legal professionals often refer or order parents to marriage counseling, but many times, little seems to change. The same dynamics of conflict and discord continue throughout the legal process and long after agreements and orders are made. Successful marriage counseling teaches the couple practical skills to effectively move beyond the power struggle in their relationship and to heal the causes of that power struggle.
Negotiation and Contracts is Basically More of the Same
Many counselors are taught to use negotiation skills and contracts to help resolve conflicts. While these methods sometimes help, their benefit is often short-term. Using contracts and negotiation tends to civilize the power struggle for a period of time — until those very contracts become another expression of the basic power struggle. Focusing on ‘tit for tat’, or on the content of the issues (money, children, sex, etc.) is at best a band-aid, and at worst, in contractual form, fuel for the fire. Therapy in which each partner tells their story to the therapist with the therapist acting as a kind of mediator also tends to have short term benefits. Long after a couple leaves a courtroom or a therapist’s office, they continue to interact with each other and their children. Court orders, contracts, or agreements, in or outside of therapy, set parameters for the power struggle, but do not give couples the tools to move through and beyond it. Learning those skills is an important key to the parents’ ‘best interest’ and especially, to that of their children.
Learn Skills that Help You Step Out of the Power Struggle
Over the past 20 years, we have learned that teaching couples concrete, practical, skills that help them use frustration and conflict as an opportunity for growth and healing for both partners, instead of a weapon for more wounding, results in long-term improvement in the relationship. Instead of the tools remaining in the hands of the therapist, they are taught to and practiced by the couple. In this way, couples can move from automatically reacting to each other in ways that are hurtful or hostile, to intentional, safe, and healing communication and behavior.
A method that I use and that has proven to be very effective in helping couples repair their relationship, and in helping those who divorce communicate and act toward each other in a productive and healthy way, is Tikkun.
Overview of Tikkun
Tikkun is a unique integration of the philosophy of Martin Buber, Imago Relationship Theory, the Positive Change relational skills of Appreciative Inquiry, the peer co-counseling methods of Re-evaluation Counseling, and Relational Neurobiology. It is intended to be a short term therapy that teaches couples tools to discover the wounds underneath their power struggle and learn how to heal them. There is also a three day Adventure In Intimacy workshop for couples based on the same model of therapy. In the Tikkun model, couples learn that the power struggle between them is a normal part of any relationship, and that while divorce is one way out of it, it is not the only way. Divorce, couples learn, gets rid of the partner, but not of the problem. Couples learn the ‘unconscious’ reasons they chose each other, and why they would tend to choose the very same qualities in their next partner. While insight in therapy is important and helpful, it is not enough. Unless couples learn to do things differently in their interactions, they will never get beyond the same difficulties they have already encountered. Tikkun focuses on learning and using practical tools to move through and beyond the power struggle. One of the key elements is learning how to create emotional safety for one’s partner, which ultimately leads to increased safety for oneself. Often people have very good intentions in attempting to change their behavior, but feel like failures when they revert to their old patterns. Creating safety empowers both partners to invite each other out of those protective patterns in positive, specific, and measurable ways. In Tikkun, partners learn how specific things they say or do (or fail to say or do) trigger the fears and pain associated with wounds that their partner received long before their marriage. They learn to hear, understand, validate and empathize with their partner’s experience, whether or not they agree with it. They can then identify and ask each other for very specific requests to heal that area.
What If the Decision to Divorce is Already Final?
If a couple remains firm in their decision to divorce, Tikkun offers the tools to communicate and interact in ways that are healthy for both parents and their children during and after the divorce. It also provides a good-bye process that helps create an emotional closure for both parties. A legal document does not mean that a couple is divorced on an emotional level, particularly when one or both parties is ambivalent about the divorce. Wallerstein’s study found that after ten and even fifteen years after divorce, close to half of the men and women had not given up the hopes and disappointments attached to their previous marriage. Half of the women and one third of the men still felt intensely angry with their former spouse ten years after their divorce.
What is the “Best Interest of the Child?”
Chapter 61 of the Florida Statutes, in discussing the ‘best interest of the child’ in divorce proceedings, emphasizes the ability of a parent to allow and encourage continued contact and a close parent-child relationship with the ex-spouse. (F.S. 61(3) (a) and (j). The court also considers factors such as maintaining continuity and a stable environment for the child and the mental health of the parents. (F.S. 61 (3) (d) and (g). Without learning specific ways to navigate and move beyond the power struggle which has brought the couple to divorce proceedings, those significant aspects of the child’s ‘best interest’ seem to be, in many cases, wishful thinking. Tikkun Relationship Therapy can teach parents the skills to co-create those realities for themselves and their children.
Do Yourself and Your Child a Favor
Whether married, divorced or separated, couples who learn new skills to use conflict in a healing and healthy way, who learn how to become more intentional rather than reactive, who can discover ways to step out of a power struggle rather than be controlled by it, serve as an important role model for their children. Couples today have new knowledge and techniques available that can change the way they relate not only to one another, but also to other people in their lives. Parents can learn how to parent more effectively as they discover things in their own history that were wounding and realize how to prevent repeating those wounds in the parenting of their children. Most importantly, they can lead the way for their children to develop and maintain loving relationships with both parents, as well as strong, secure, intimate, and healing relationships as they mature. Learning to get along for the best interest of the child is indeed possible.
By Hedy Schleifer, M.A., LMHC
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