Children cannot escape their
parents. When the parents are divorcing
or dissolving their relationship, sometimes the children find themselves in the
middle of the battlefield. Whether
witnessing their parents’ arguing, or being subtly recruited as an ally by one or both parents,
the children are in the middle and it causes great damage.
The dissolution of a love
relationship brings out the worst in otherwise nice or well-meaning people.
This overflows and is evident in Family Court, when the acrimony and pain is
freely aired in front of a Judge. Unfortunately, some parents cannot see beyond
their own pain, sense of betrayal, anger, etc. This acute narcissistic response
to the crisis of divorce or relationship dissolution is essentially tunnel
vision with a loss of empathy. Tunnel vision shuts down or curtails normal
empathy for others, in this case children.
Since it is unnatural to have empathy lacking for a child’s feelings or
welfare, then at times, the Court has to step in and make sure that the child
is protected. How is the narcissistic curtailment of empathy manifested?
Some cannot keep their
feelings to themselves and they say all sorts of horrible things to a child
about the other parent. If not overtly stated, then the feelings may be
communicated by facial expressions or other body language, conversations with
others within earshot of the child, and in extreme situations may manifest by preventing
the child from having normal contact with the other parent. As I’ve mentioned in this space previously,
anger can drive litigation with its resultant financial and emotional costs. Whether out of a sense of betrayal, or
victimization and a need/desire to get even, a child is a convenient vehicle
with which to hurt the other parent.
Nothing could be more irrational, but it is a common phenomenon seen often
in Family Court. Sometimes, a parent is
convinced (rightly or wrongly) that the other parent is incompetent as a parent
and is incapable and undeserving of having a warm, close and nurturant
relationship with their child. No
expense is spared, no effort or methodology is overlooked in the quest to
marginalize the other parent.
In some cases, a parent
might apply to the Court for permission to move far away, out of state. Court’s these days are inclined to allow a
custodial parent to move to another state if the move is “not inimical to the
child’s best interests” (the current Law in New Jersey, for example) and the
move is made for a good faith reason (e.g. Mom got a great job offer
elsewhere), among other factors. The moving parent must present a reasonable
parenting plan for the other parent, which usually consists of a few weeks in
the Summer and perhaps a holiday or two or school break during the school year.
Sometimes that arrangement works and is
satisfactory. Sometimes it is
unrealistic and even impossible to implement. A parent seeking relocation with
a child is not necessarily angry, vindictive or trying to marginalize the other
parent. An empathetic, sensitive parent
can still need to relocate for good reasons.
A Court (when the other parent objects) has to dissect away all of the
issues to determine if the move is a good thing, or not for the child, and if
it should happen at all.
Some parents, in their
short-sighted, narcissistic view, prefer to act on their belief (whether
justified or not) that the other parent should be marginalized, excised or
alienated. Acting out that belief and
proceeding with that agenda, can be very damaging to a child since the child
loves both parents. If there is adequate empathy for the child’s feelings, then
a parent sees the potential emotional damage, exercises appropriate parent-child
boundaries and inhibits their own behavior to shield the child from harm. If there is adequate empathy for the child,
the parent, in the presence of a child on any particular day, understands that
the child loves the other parent and is entitled to a relationship with that
parent (assuming that the other parent is a fit parent) because it is intrinsically
good for the child. It is good for the
child by definition, because the child has two parents. Even if the other parent is a terrible
husband or wife, that does not necessarily mean “poor parent” as well. When one party vilifies the other,
unfortunately the parent-part of the equation gets thrown in with the other
(often irrelevant to parenting) issues.
So besides being perceived as a bad spouse, that party is perceived as a
horrible parent as well even though he or she may be a great parent. And we know who loses out: the child.
The child knows that parent
A despises parent B. It hurts the child.
He/she feels the tension, sadness, anxiety inside. The child learns to hide feelings, not talk
about Parent A to parent B, to pretend that the parenting time that just ended
was no big deal, nothing special, for fear of hurting the receiving parent’s
feelings or causing a problem. In short,
the child learns the “rules” of the particular home he/she is in at any
particular time, and uses emotional energy or effort to be someone he/she is
not. The effort is expended trying to please the parent he/she is with. At the end of the day, the child learns to be
something he/she is not, learns to be guarded and to inhibit his/her love for
Parent B, just to please Parent A or to avoid Parent A’s anger or
disappointment. How sad that is for the
Being (perceived to be)
betrayed, abandoned, hurt, victimized by the other partner/spouse breeds
(irrational) hatred and contempt. But perceptions during a breakup, especially
when kids are involved can (and often are) distorted, short-sighted and
selfishly driven by misguided, subconscious motives. It’s hard to have that insight when a parent
is acutely narcissistic and in pain themselves; hard to conjure up empathy—even
for a child’s feelings—when there is so much anger fueled further by vindictively
obsessive thoughts. All of this is in
the context of a child going back and forth between two parents. It’s enough to
make a child walk on eggshells. But that
causes great anxiety and often depression which affect school, as well as
Parents going through a
painful divorce should learn to recognize that they may temporarily be unable
to be objective, unable to see the big picture.
They should recognize that it is common for the divorce crisis to exist
concurrently with an impairment of good judgment and impulse control. If a person acknowledges that (on their own
or via professional counseling), and understands that there are always two
sides to a dissolution, two opposing views of why it is happening, then
hopefully self-righteous, moralistic thinking can be avoided. Hopefully the
parent does not perceive him/herself to be a victim and play that role with the
resultant blame and anger.
Even if a person is convinced that they are “right”
and the other parent is “wrong”, there are certain ironclad rules that should
be adhered to with children, (assuming both parents are fit, not abusive, not
impaired by alcohol or drugs, or criminal behavior or a history of domestic
violence, etc.). Calling the other parent unfit because you don’t like that
person for how they treated you in a relationship, is not valid. Unfit is used here in the context of court
proceedings in which the court or local child protective agency deems the other
parent unfit. Being a lousy spouse does
not mean that spouse is a lousy parent. Also, your being the better parent does
not mean that the other parent should play no role as a parent, or be
The Basic Rules:
1.The children have a right to a loving relationship and good, quality time
with both parents and the children should know that you feel this way and are
supportive of this.
2.The children have a right to love their other parent (who you might
despise), and should be given the green light for them to freely do so, by you.
3.The children should never hear you say anything disparaging about the
other parent, whether directly or indirectly by overhearing you speaking with
others about the other parent.
4.It is your duty as a parent to shield your children from the litigation,
from the issues that led to your breakup, from your true feelings about their
5.It is your duty as a parent to make your child feel comfortable telling
you about the fun times they had with the other parent, or in showing you
pictures, gifts or souvenirs from time spent with the other parent. This means
you behave as if you are happy for your child even if secretly you are
seething. (If you are seething, you might consider getting counseling to help
you through this because seething only hurts you and makes you feel sick inside.) Acting happy for your child is difficult,
since you must be aware of your nonverbal cues, your body language, facial
expressions, etc. Rolling your eyes, tensing up, looking depressed, tearing up,
etc., all tell the child that it is not ok that they had fun with the other
parent. To teach your child that message, is to make your child compartmentalize
his/her life, needing to keep things to him/herself to avoid your reactions and
6.It is inappropriate and damaging to a child to pump that child for private
information about the other parent’s love life, financial situation, or other
information that is not relevant to the child’s parenting time. If your child is being mistreated by a
boyfriend/girlfriend, you will hear about it anyway, and you can act
accordingly. Most of the time, however, new partners of an ex are benign, not
wanting to cause any problems with their new partner’s child or other
parent. Your child should know that you
are ok with their establishing a warm relationship with the other parent’s new
girl/boyfriend, and that you are not threatened by that relationship (even if
you have insecurities of your own). If
you are overly anxious about the possibility of your child loving your ex
spouse’s new partner more than your child loves you, then you might benefit
from counseling for these insecurities. Your child may benefit from you being
in counseling as well. If you allow
yourself to feel competitive with your ex’s new love interest, it will lead to
emotional disaster for you and for your child, not to mention further
litigation. Avoid buying extravagant
gifts for your child even if you can afford it. It will only provoke a similar
response from the other parent, or hostility.
7.Do not lie to your child about the other parent. Also, do not relate stories—even if
true—about your ex to the child, if the stories are at all negative. Do omit
telling bad stories about your ex to the child, e.g. “Your mom had three
affairs.” or “Your father never did things with you until we separated”, etc.
8.Do not schedule appointments for the child when the appointment will occur
on the other parent’s parenting time, unless unavoidable, and unless you first
inform the other parent and gain their cooperation and approval. Do not sign up the child for extracurricular
activities that will take place on the other parent’s parenting time, unless
you have pre-approval from the other parent as well as an understanding that
the other parent will take the child to that activity.
9.Do not interfere with the other parent’s parenting time. Don’t call your
child frequently or unnecessarily, outside of your agreed-upon or court-ordered
phone time. Make pleasant small talk with your child rather than to interrogate
or pump for information. Don’t be intrusive.
10.Please share important
information regarding the health, education and general welfare of your child
to the other parent even if you loathe him/her.
Use email or text. For
emergencies and acute illness, don’t delay informing the other parent. Pick up
the phone and call or text. The child needs both parents to be in the loop.
11.Please do not act as
if the other parent does not exist.
Perhaps for you, the ex does not exist, but for the child, it is a very
different story. Act as if you are both on the same page regarding your
children, even if you despise each other, simply for the benefit of your
Generally, all of the
above require a degree of acting, keeping appropriate parent-child boundaries, keeping
your feelings to yourself, self-monitoring (e.g. for internal emotional upset, body
language, eye rolling, sighing, etc.) and by playing a perhaps phony role for
the sake of your children. Your role is
that of co-parent who respects the other parent as an equal. Even if you privately believe the other
parent is a pathetic loser as a person, and a waste of space on this planet,
there is nothing to be gained by your children knowing you feel that way. It only will hurt the children.
If you want to be the
best loving parent you can be, it would be good for you to allow, encourage and
facilitate your children’s love for—and relationship with—the other parent and
other parent’s family. Even if you do
not get thanked by the other party (because the other party thinks you are a
pathetic loser too), you are doing this for your children’s comfort level and
to generate as much good Karma as possible for you and your children. While you
cannot control the other parent, you can certainly aspire toward doing the
right thing by your children, for their benefit. You have the potential of control over what
you do, and it is a good thing to self-monitor, and to be cognizant of the
effects of your behavior on your children’s emotional and physical development.
Try to let go of the past as best you can, don’t harbor anger and resentment,
and go forward with your new life as a single parent with a child who depends
on your mental health, stability and good example.
Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.