Hear more about our work at Kids Come First by listening to the Resolution podcast here: www.resolution.org.uk/nicola-withycombe-kids-come-first/
Kids Come First are members of Resolution, a community of family justice professionals who work with families and individuals to resolve issues in a constructive way.
Breaking Up is Hard To Do
Whether we’re separating, divorcing or engaged in the process of ‘consciously uncoupling’, many of us (over 50% in fact) are experiencing the trauma and effects of a partnership relationship breakdown these days. And if you have children, the end of your intimate, couple, co-parenting relationship can often feel like ‘splitting up’ means ‘splitting you’ and you may notice that your children just can’t seem to get enough of you. So why do you feel so ‘halved’?
Well, firstly, you’re literally no longer one half of a ‘double act’–you’re now a single parent – and that feels different emotionally. When we’re in love and together, we adopt or absorb parts of the person we love. It’s no wonder people use the term “other half”to describe their partner. So, of course, when we break up, we do feel diminished and possibly halved. It’s as if we have lost parts of ourselves and feels like something is now missing.
Secondly, whenever we lose something or someone precious to us (our relationship), we begin to experience a whole range of ‘loss-cycle’emotions that feel like being thrust on some awful, uncontrollable roller coaster, with it’s dramatic and confusing ups and downs. This cycle is a necessary human journey, helping us process the change. And while we all experience the journey in our own unique way, there will be times, as you recover from your separation, when you may feel overwhelmed by the different stages of grieving the loss i.e. sadness, anger guilt, depression, etc.
Your children experience these emotions too! So you will notice that now, more than ever, they depend on to be your ‘whole, strong self’- especially when they have to adjust to being with only one of you at a time. They suddenly find they are always missing one parent. It’s easy to see why they may also find it hard to share you with their siblings. So if you are able to set aside special time with each child, they will really appreciate this and you will be able to enjoy them more –instead of feeling like you are being stretched or pulled in different directions.
Creating a ‘Safe Roof’ Effect for Your Children
How is it possible to work together as parents when it seems you disagree on everything? When you are both so wound up by the personal conflict that this can often be ‘played out’ in front of your child. Remember, children can be very astute and pretty clever at figuring out how to get what they want! They can be especially good at achieving this when they observe that you don’t speak or see each other. This in itself is not necessarily bad, (particularly when there is high conflict) however, you don’t want them to be keeping secrets or lying to both of you and potentially finding themselves in an unsafe situation.
The beauty of being a parent is that you want to pass on all the good stuff you were given to your children. Often, in the process of divorcing or separating we lose touch with ourselves, no longer recognising our skills and strengths as parents. We’re no longer able to celebrate our children together, which can lead to an extremely sad and fragmented family situation. Opportunities to share the good moments and our children’s achievements are very rare when separated.
It’s easy to compare and criticise each other’s parenting styles more then ever when separated, especially when we really don’t see eye to eye. The love ‘glue’ that was once applied to heal and patch up your differences or help you find a compromise has dissolved. So how do you find a way to work together when the foundation you once built up has collapsed?
Some see this as an opportunity to finally bring up their child as they see fit and even more reason to have their own unique parenting style. Whilst this is perfectly fine, it’s best to agree on and stick to at least 3 core values that you both want for your child – such as manners, boundaries, swearing, mealtimes, etc. The rest can be flexible, allowing each of you to enjoy your time with your child, demonstrating your individual styles of parenting whilst still respecting each other’s skill set. Remember, difference is good and offers more opportunities for your child!
Your children need to know they have a ‘safe roof’ over their heads. Not only a literal one but a metaphorical one provided by both of their parents.
Is My Ex-Partner My Enemy?
Having had a bad experience with an ex-partner can leave such a suspicious imprint that it’s hard not to hold a dim view of them once you separate. Having proven so unsuitable as a partner, it’s all too easy to convince yourself that they must be a lousy parent too.
Questioning and reflecting back on the relationship, you may have felt frustrated by their ‘lack of presence’ when you were together but have noticed that since your separation your ex is suddenly laying claim to being ‘parent of the year’. Or they appear to be doing all the things you wished you could have done together as a couple and as a family. Now suddenly they want ‘more time’ with your child compared to when you were a couple and they were far too busy working. And just when you were hoping to keep the contact to a minimum after separation – now they are taking you to court over it!
But let’s say your couple relationship was simply not working well and the other parent was not at their best – and possibly neither were you. Then, of course, any changes in their behaviour may now seem highly suspicious. However, the chances are that your negative views of your ex will seriously skew your aspirations for your child as you are likely to react towards them with a lack of confidence or belief in their parenting skills or disregard them by literally not wanting to discuss parenting issues or even think about them.
There is bound to be an overlapping of co-parenting issues that affect your child’s relationship with their other parent. Also your difference in parenting styles will become more obvious and you may perceive this as an irritant or obstacle to your newfound solo parenting style, believing “it’s better not to have to deal with them or have them around – it’s far too much bother!”
Sometimes separation can change someone. They may not be the same person you once knew. Most parents want to be the best possible parent they can be for their child. Of course they may not live up to your ‘standards’ and there are going to be times when your child comes back exhausted and cranky from spending time with the other parent. This does not necessarily mean that your child is not in safe hands.
A child experiencing divorce or separation can be both emotionally and physically tired moving between different homes and adapting to different parenting styles. There is a period of re-adjustment for them – just as there will be for you. Getting used to being without your child and missing them is very hard and ultimately avoiding any contact with the other parent is highly unlikely.
Some parents are eager to find fault in the other parent, contributing to persistent negative profiling and intent on building a ‘case’ against them, claiming that everything they do is ‘in the child’s best interest’. Behaving this way helps vindicate and reinforce reasoning behind separation.
Your child has a legal right to see both parents and confusing your intimate couple relationship with your ex’s parenting skills could be seen as depriving them of that right. Denying your child a meaningful relationship with their other parent is an active criticism. And honestly assessing the difference between your wishes or those of your child can be a tricky conundrum to disentangle, especially when your child is probably telling you exactly what you want to hear. Sometimes seeking professional support can help you achieve a more neutral stance and filter out the emotions from the situation.
Unless there are safeguarding issues and concerns over child contact arrangements, your child has more rights than you do as a parent. The term ‘parental responsibility’ focuses on the parent’s duties towards their child rather than the parent’s rights over their child. Ask yourself if you are really doing the right thing for your child. As tempting as it may be to overrule your child’s right to see their other parent and to overtly or subtly criticise your ex, it is ultimately up to your child to decide what they think of each parent and they will be the judge of how well you each fared as separated parents.
How Playing The ‘Blame Game’ Simply Undermines Your Co-Parenting
As a separated parent, playing the ‘blame game’ may seem fairly satisfying in the short term but over time it surreptitiously undermines your parenting, negating and eroding the other parent in the process. Sadly, this is a typical behaviour observed during separation as the need to blame is very much a part of the initial stages of grief and fury. It can feel good to blame the other parent, absolving ourselves of guilt. And there are only so many painful emotions one can cope with when breaking up feels so dramatic and awful.
But by continually playing the ‘blame game’ we maintain our fixed position and remain ‘stuck’ in avoiding vital and necessary change. “It’s all his/her fault” we keep telling ourselves and feel justified in adopting this ‘easier’ stance where no shift or compromise (or healthy self-analysis!) can take place. But if we’re unable to be truly honest about assessing our own roles, examining our own behaviour and looking within ourselves, how can we determine how to change and learn from past incidents? We risk the situation becoming even more ‘inflamed’ to a point that will disable us, like a type of paralysis. Deeply entrenched and stuck in a ‘blaming’ rut, no progress or forward motion can ever truly be made.
Parents who get caught up in continually blaming each other are actually negating their own individual parenting prowess, robbing themselves of their strengths and qualities as parents. By spending so much energy focusing on one another’s mistakes, an impasse is quickly reached. At this point your children will probably feel hopelessly lost or overlooked. The end result is two negated parents creating a severe emotional deficit for their children at a time when children need to observe their parents being stronger than ever. Both parents need to conserve all their individual energy so they can focus on bringing up their children – an even more difficult task than usual!
Taking stock of oneself and learning to regulate our actions and reactions is far more rewarding and the results far more tangible. One can see the progress from within. Negative profiling the other parent; viewing them with an ever-critical eye; plotting their demise and obsessing over what they are doing with ‘your child’ ultimately only detracts from you as a parent.
The time and effort wasted obsessing and generating negative energy and blame results in loss of time spent enjoying your child. It’s only in building on the foundations of their childhood that we can continue creating lovely moments and memories for them.
It takes time to recover from the separation experience (especially if entrenched in court legalities) so if you continue to find yourself on this negative trajectory it’s time to explore alternative options and seek support.
Try to have more fun with your children. Stop looking at those court papers or taking note of all the times the other parent slips up. Or building a case to present in court about ‘what an awful parent they are’. Take the time to enjoy yourself and your child, to take a healthy control and reap the rewards of your decisive actions to move forward in seeking a fruitful co-parenting future.
Of course, it takes time to recover from a separation experience (especially if entrenched in family court legalities) so if you continue to find yourself on this negative trajectory after more than a couple of years, maybe it’s time to explore alternative options and other kinds of support.
Try to have more fun with your children. Stop looking at those court papers or taking note of all the times the other parent is late for weekend pick ups, or making a case for your solicitor to present in court about ‘what an awful parent they are’. It’s time to enjoy yourself and your child, to take a healthy control and reap the rewards of your decisive actions to move forward in seeking a fruitful co-parenting future.