“The divorced family is not just a cut-off version of the two-parent family. The post divorce family is a new family form that makes very different demands on each parent, each child, and each of the many new adults who enter the family orbit.” – Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 10)
Following the divorce, every family will take on its own unique trajectory that is as individual as the people involved. Yet there are several common styles that the post-divorce family tends to assume. It would benefit parents to take a few moments to reflect on their own situation. The following examples of family types are meant to help you determine what trajectory your family is on, and help you decide whether or not this is the situation you want to be in, what you can do about it if it isn’t, and what ideals you should strive for as you repair your lives.
Post Divorce Family type #1: The friendship-based family
The ideal divorce is one where the marriage ends but a positive family relationship remains. As discussed earlier, divorce shouldn’t (and generally doesn’t) mean the end of your relationship with your ex and the kids, just a change in the relationship. Divorce may end a marriage, but parents will always be tied together as family through the children. You want to do everything possible to keep ‘family’ in tact even as parents go their own separate ways.
Keeping close, intimate attachments with both parents can make all the difference in the world in terms of whether your child emerges unscathed from this experience or is scarred with issues that they’ll carry with them for life. Maintaining a sense of family and belonging is extremely important. The friendship-based family is a way to accomplish this.
In such an arrangement parents get divorced, but they remain partners in the child’s upbringing. They strive to be friends. They change from husband and wife to a type of family relationship that more resembles the connection that a brother and sister might have. They still like and respect the other parent, which helps them cooperate. They support each other, stick up for one another, and can still get together and do things jointly from time to time. When step-families enter the equation, they welcome these new members into the family just as a grandparent might welcome a new grandchild. They get to know each other and may participate in family excursions together. The degree to which these idea’s can be accomplished is of course dependant upon the participation of both parents, who need to first accomplish the following:
A) Resolve and set aside any hurt that is still there. Parents can’t be bickering and fighting with each other and maintain a working relationship to raise the kids. It’s important to leave any past hurts behind you.
B) Both parents need to have moved on and recognize that the previous relationship is over. Only when this is done can the relationship change. Divorcee’s can often become good friends to each other without anything “getting weird,” so long as it’s accepted that the past is in the past.
“(My parents) got divorced when I was 16 years old, but my dad always did right by my mom. They still speak on the phone probably once a week, and they have been at both of my children’s births together hugging and crying. They taught me what the meaning of family is – even beyond a divorce.” – Family attorney Laura Wasser (Interview, June 2012, p. 115)
The aforementioned scenario is the best possible outcome after divorce, and is what every parent should strive for.
Post Divorce Family type #2: Cooperative partners in parenting
In this arrangement, parents may not be friends, but each is mature enough to put their personal emotions aside because they know it’s in the best interest of the kids. Each parent understands and accepts the importance of their parental responsibilities, and is committed to putting their disagreements aside to do what’s best for their children.
Parenting partners may disagree on various things, but are able to keep their conflicts under control and work around them. They compromise and are able to work out issues of contention. They may not enjoy each other’s company, but they are able to suck it up and put on a happy face in front of the kids.
These arrangements are typically more formal than friendship-based families, but they maintain enough flexibility to meet their children’s needs. They can come together and be civil to share in a child’s significant life events. They share decision making responsibilities and are cooperative partners in parenting. They’ll help the other parent in times of crisis, because they recognize the importance of that parent to their child. It’s the next best thing to the friendship-based family. Parents may still harbor their resentments, but at least they make an effort towards only hurting themselves. Children can usually sense the tension, but if they aren’t in open conflict with each other, it keeps the collateral damage to a minimum.
Post Divorce Family type #3: The disinvolved and disinterested duo
In this scenario, former spouses become disconnected after a divorce. One parent simply vanishes from the scene, making a clean break from their former life. They may send child support payments or mail a postcard here and there, or even participate in visitation schedules, but they otherwise vanish from the child’s life in any kind of meaningful way.
This situation may spare a child of the conflict common to many households after divorce, but it’s hardly a blessing. The child suffers an injury to attachment. They feel abandoned by a parent. They are likely to struggle with Mommy issues or Daddy issues even decades later. The scars created by the parent who drops out of their child’s life never go away, and the void it leaves can be difficult to fill.
Often times, the other parent is thrust into this situation by circumstance, not by choice. You can’t attach a chain to your former spouse and make them stay to be a parent. So if you’re stuck in this position, the best you can do is try to surround your kids with as much love and support as possible, and to explain the other parent’s actions in a constructive way.
A second type of disinvolved scenario occurs when both parents remain involved, but simply act as though the other parent didn’t exist. There is no communication, no attempts at proper parenting, merely a child bouncing back and forth between two people who are closing their eyes and hoping for the best.
Post Divorce Family type #4: The mortal combat ex-couple
This is the worst case scenario. These are former spouses who will not let the past die, and who allow their sense of hurt and injustice to carry on strong in their current arrangement. It is difficult for them to talk to each other without arguing, which makes co-parenting impossible. These families represent the quarter or so of all divorcing couples who are still immersed in severe conflict 10-years after the divorce.
These antagonistic feelings leave little or no room for compromise in their parenting arrangements. There are power struggles over visitation and child support. There are constant disputes over parenting and arguments about what should or shouldn’t be done. In fact, when the anger is intense enough, one parent may go against something precisely because the other parent wants it. Each parent considers the other an arch enemy, and so thwarting them at every turn becomes priority #1. Thus each parent is going to be subjected to constant, ongoing frustration.
This power struggle and conflict affects the whole family. Kids are coerced into taking sides. Visitation becomes a weapon. Children become pawns amidst it all, exploited by both parents as a way to injure each other. The children must serve as ambassadors to their two bickering parents; innocents caught in the middle of a battle between two immature adults. Relatives are also drawn into the conflict, and step-family situations add all new dynamics to the epic battle.
Parents who go this route should be prepared for years of stress and turmoil to come. You may not be married, but you’ll still fight like you were. This arrangement provides all the downsides of marriage without any of its benefits. The anger never dies, it only escalates. The insults continue, and the hurt becomes hardened. A child’s birthdays or other special occasions become stressful, non-joyous experiences. Custody exchanges mean cold stares or arguments. These parents can expect no help from the other one during times of stress and crisis, nor any leeway in parenting issues that come up. In fact, they can expect precisely the opposite.
Usually over time, the non-resident parent will gradually withdraw from the lives of their children, since staying involved is riddled with pain and conflict. In split-custody situations, the only reprieve comes from the last of the children turning 18 and no-longer being subjected to court-ordered custody. But rest assured, your kids will never forget what you put them through, and often times this only becomes apparent once they reach adulthood, and suddenly want nothing to do with either of you.
You can’t control what your ex does, but each parent can control their own behavior. If your ex is determined to insult you whenever possible, you need to be determined to take it without flinching or dishing it back. If they want to try and thwart you at every turn, focus on what you can control and worry about your own life. Your ex may even be able to deceive the kids and trick them into alliances against you. But kids aren’t stupid, and in the long run, if you handle it in stride and maintain your compassion, they’ll always figure out which parent is being more mature and reasonable.
Unless you want to be continually miserable and put your kids through hell, this is your only option. Your maturity will be rewarded, and the kids’ affections will swing your way. Eventually, it’s likely your ex will even tire of their antics. It’s harder to keep anger going and make hatred seem justified when the other person appears entirely unaffected and disinterested in trying to hurt you back. Only by turning the cheek can you prevent a perpetual cycle of hurt from forming. It’s the only way to allow the conflict in divorce to eventually die.