As a Therapist who has spent over a decade working with families and children, I’ve had the great privilege of sharing the various journeys of many, many clients. Some journeys (especially at the end of my work with clients) take a positive turn; I cherish the moments when I see clients thriving and no longer needing therapy for the time being. Most people, however, begin their work with me at the start of a challenging journey, such as a journey of separation and divorce. Since I specialize in working with children, teens, and parents, the caregivers typically reach out to me after they’ve made decisions to end their relationship. They are oftentimes seeking out support for the purposes of best caring for their children through the transition. Sometimes they need support in developing c0-parenting skills, and sometimes they need support in how to tell their children about the divorce (and most times, both). If you need help in planning how to tell your children you are separating, this article may be helpful, here.
I haven’t kept track of how many separated or divorcing couples I’ve worked with over the years, but it’s been a lot. I’ve noticed there are some unique characteristics specific to couples whose family transition through divorce have gone more smoothly than others – specifically the skill to shift from ‘personal’ to ‘parental’ in their relationship for the sake of their children.
What does shifting from a ‘Personal Relationship’ to a ‘Parental Relationship’ mean?
When couples are able to shift from a personal relationship to a parental relationship, members of that couple have decided to maintain a respectable co-parenting relationship with one another for the sake of their children. This means all personal feelings toward your ex are set aside (not away, just aside for the time being) during your interactions to allow for a peaceful co-parenting arrangement, which benefits your children.
Obviously members of a couple who are ending their personal relationship have a long history of personal memories & experiences with one another, as well as the feelings that accompany those memories and experiences. Significant grief is usually present for one or both parties, and that needs to be addressed individually and privately. To shift from personal to parental is not at the expense of processing your own emotions. In fact, it may be fair to say that it is impossible to shift from a personal relationship to a parental relationship without processing that grief, and for some, anger and hurt.
How do I make this shift?
Give yourself a safe space to be personal.
If you or your partner have decided to end your relationship, your children need for you to process your emotions, just not in front of them. I’m not suggesting that you hide your sadness, but I am suggesting you have firm boundaries around when you work through all your emotions openly and honestly. Scheduling an appointment with your individual therapist for counseling could benefit you for these reasons. Therapists are trained at being a ‘container’ of your messy challenges, emotions and choices. Having a safe space to work through your ideas, pain, and decisions is an invaluable way to provide self care. It also gives you a time and space to do that away from your children. Helping yourself in this way actually helps your children for this reason. If you choose not to pursue therapy yourself, consider safe family members and friends who are supportive of you. By giving yourself the gift of working through your very personal feelings privately, you’re able to work toward shifting your relationship with your ex to a parental relationship in front of your children.
Establish some boundaries to the parental relationships and interactions.
Boundaries create safety. Boundaries during a divorce create safety for you, your ex, and (perhaps most importantly) your children. Here are some specific things to consider setting some firm boundaries around:
- Communication Format – If your emotions about the breakup are still very raw and you find it difficult to maintain a respectful tone in person with your ex, perhaps in person communication should not be the format through which you communicate. A safer communication style may be via text or email. Additionally, there are apps available to help families set up safe communication with one another when high-conflict divorce is present.
- Drop-offs and Pick-ups – You should consider location and information being shared at these meet-ups. If one another’s homes are chosen, decide if the ex-partner should wait outside. Also decide the format of communication at these meet-ups for necessary information only. Keep all personal information for another time. Information at drop-offs and pick-ups needs to be centered around the health and wellbeing of your children. Topics usually addressed during these times include updates on health/sleep/diet/illness, homework requirements, doctor appointments, etc. Keep the exchanges brief and respectful. Remember – your children are watching. This is their transition from your home to their other home. Try to keep it peaceful for their sake.
- Shared Events – Decide if one or both of you will attend your child’s school and/or extracurricular events. Ideally, both of you would attend to show your full support of your child, however if the temptation of moving into a personal and reactive relationship in person is too strong to allow a parental relationship to exist, keeping some distance altogether may be what’s best for a while as you find ways to manage and sort through your personal feelings.
Those couples who practice the skills above to shift their relationship from a personal one to a parental one for the sake of their children do not accomplish this without significant effort and practice. Give yourself some grace and understanding as you practice these new skills. With intention and practice you can gain the Parental Relationship with your ex that you and your children deserve.