When my relationship with my ex-husband ended, I had to simultaneously handle my anger, my ex-husband’s anger and our child’s needs. I was absolutely clueless about how to do this, yet the thought of raising our son in a venomous environment made me sick to my stomach. I’d seen firsthand with my parents what divorce does to a child. More than anything, I wanted my son to be free and loving with both his father and me. So far, what my ex and I have been doing is working. The following ideas are a few practices I’ve added to my “divorced and happily co-parenting toolbox.”
Think of the children first
Every marriage has two people who bring all of themselves to their union. We bring our strengths and weaknesses, and divorce usually brings out the most painful, unhealed parts of ourselves. When children are involved, we have a tendency to put our young ones in the middle of our pain. We must not. When our son was about 3, his father and I had a horrible argument in front of him that left me frustrated, angry and feeling hopeless. Within minutes my son was consoling me. I watched him as he placed his hand on my heart and his head on my shoulder. All his life I had been comforting him, and now he was doing the same for me. In that moment, I decided this would never happen again. Before the evening was over, I accepted that I had raised my voice; no one made me do it. The hardest part was owning that I was looking for a fight, and in doing so I put my child in an uncomfortable situation. It really is up to us as adults to always think of our children before we take actions that we don’t want them to see.
I felt animosity toward my ex-husband when we were splitting up, but I knew that it was not a feeling that my son needed to witness. I had to ask myself, “What changes can I make in my behavior that will likely create a new experience for everyone involved?” In each encounter I had with my son’s father, I resolved beforehand who I would be. If I was expecting him to bring our son home, then I would—in advance—make the conscious decision to be friendly and kind. If I needed help feeling friendly, I’d call a friend. I chose two girlfriends who promised to help me stay focused on what was best for my son and for all of us. They each reminded me to take responsibility for my feelings. They also listened when I needed to cry.
Make a list of goodness
In the darkest times, I kept lists and little notes of what I appreciated about my son’s father. Things like: He shows his love for our son openly; He is on time for all appointments; He goes out of his way to help our son. These lists helped remind me of the good things.
Create a vision
Soon after we divorced, I made it clear that I wanted to stay connected to my son’s father and create a loving environment in which our son could flourish. I wanted our son to feel loved and accepted in our homes. I also knew I wanted to be able to come together often and spend time as a family, even when that included new girlfriends and boyfriends. My vision for our son would be a community of adults and family members who loved him and one another. I also knew that in order for this to occur, I would have to start with me. That might mean therapy, relationship books and lots of support from friends. Regardless of what is required, making sure your children have happy well-adjusted adults as parents is your responsibility.
Set high expectations
When we have high expectations of ourselves, we usually get the best results. And while we may have high expectations of our former partner, we can’t control his or her behavior. But in reality, our former partner’s behavior doesn’t really matter. It took me a while to understand this, but eventually I decided that if someone throws rocks my way, I can choose not to return them. As tempting and difficult as it may be, we don’t have to fight fire with fire. I created a practice of asking myself, “How did I create this experience I’m having?” I’d journal my answers, and if I was really angry I’d write letters and burn them later.
None of these tools worked overnight. Divorces are usually emotionally charged and require that we are willing to grow for the sake of our children and ourselves. In my case of happily co-parenting after divorce, our transformation took about three years and is still evolving. My desire is for our son to feel loved, happy and whole—in both of our homes. So far, it’s working.