Parental Conflict After Divorce
There is so much emphasis placed on the goal of "no conflict" parenting today. But is the elimination of parental conflict after separation or divorce realistic? Especially after a father and mother have gone through a bitter separation or divorce?
In this article, we will discuss where parental conflict starts, how decisions today make a big impact on future conflict, how to use parental conflict to become a better parent and co-parent and we will chat with Dr. Max Wachtel about tips to reduce conflict.
While we have written about parallel parenting and how it is an effective means to bypass co-parenting when the latter is just not realistic, let's not forget that co-parenting is a learned trait. A parent doesn't just get good at it overnight or even in a matter of weeks or months.
Like anything else in life, it takes hard work and if a parent like you is not prone to effective communication, then start reading, learning and practicing it. Moms and dads, it's not just about you. You are doing this for your children. Parental conflict by you or the other parent after divorce doesn't have to haunt you or plague your kids.
Where parental conflict starts in separation and divorce
Every journey, good or bad, starts with a single step. Parental conflict is no exception. It's a journey born of unhealthy and unmanaged emotion, impulsive action and lack of foresight, on the one end, or poor reaction to the above, on the other.
When children become leverage after separation and into divorce
Parents often perceive divorce as a fight. And what weapon do some parents use in such a fight? The one that will hurt the other the most - the children. We have seen parents who take good care of their children and who have raised their children well completely lose perspective (and sometimes their minds) when there is a separation and divorce. Children become leverage through many means including:
- Parental gatekeeping
- Parental alienation
- False allegations of child abuse
- Frustration of the other parent's time with the children
- Violation of joint legal custody rights or
The goal of each such measure is two-fold, to different degrees:
- Frustrate and anger the other parent
- Harm the other parent's relationship with the children
Lack of trust equates a lack of respect
Children don't have to be leverage for parental conflict to exist. That conflict can take a hostile overtone through a lack of respect for the other parent. This disrespect comes from several sources, the most common in our experience being the following:
- Infidelity during the marriage that severely harmed trust
- Lack of financial support
- Perception (accurate, exaggerated or otherwise) of the other parent's lack of parenting skill
- Perception the other parent has abandoned or broken up the family unit
The lack of respect creates pause in a desire to co-parent, effectively communicate or foster the other parent's (typically the noncustodial parent's) relationship with the children. The tone of communication is often short and hostile, resistant to dialogue and rarely willing to solve problems. This lack of respect is often returned in kind by the other parent and creates unnecessary conflict which the children see and feel, all the while impacting their own psychology and emotions.
How the present positions taken in divorce can make future co-parenting more difficult
You have heard the expression that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In divorce and child custody cases, I can make it more simple. Parents will often get what they give and if a parent fails to change course before it is too late, he or she may cause permanent damage to the children. Of course, in cases that involve serious physical abuse or constant neglect, co-parenting can be quite difficult.
Sometimes, children have to be protected from a parent that poses a danger to them. For that, California child custody laws provide an avenue to get there. But that is the exception, not the rule and most parental conflict does not come from serious abuse cases. Most parental conflict shows itself through positions a parent takes in a divorce or paternity case, often within the context of a child custody battle.
The present positions that a parent takes and the choices that a parent makes set up parental conflict for months, years and sometimes decades to come. Most of them come from being short-sighted and placing emphasis on minor issues, even causing extensive litigation over them. This occurs over small percentage differences in parenting time, gamesmanship over income disclosure that then delays child support calculation, seeking orders to micromanage parenting responsibilities or, at the worst, false allegations, reckless or malicious gatekeeping or parental alienation. Each of these actions create a further divide between the parents, cause the other parent to react and set a precedent for distrust and lack of cooperation and compromise, going forward.
How parental conflict after divorce can teach better co-parenting
Those emotions are a great test of character and integrity. Overcoming them through logic and courage will not only help parents progress through to the road of co-parenting but will also set an example for the children that even difficult moments in life can be overcome and we can become better for the experience. I realize what I write is not easy to do. Nothing worth having is. That is where expert advice becomes important. That expertise isn't just the right attorney for the child custody case (although that is the right start) but also the help of a psychologist or qualified therapist. We had an opportunity to speak with one.
Why expert advice is often a quicker path toward success
I had the pleasure of communicating with Dr. Max Wachtel, 9 News Psychologist in Denver, Colorado and author of the blog PsychLawJournal.com. I asked Dr. Wachtel about the following:
B. Robert Farzad: What steps can parents take to manage their "tone" of communication and not just the substance of what they are trying to communicate?
Dr. Wachtel: The key to managing the tone of the conversation is to be mindful of how you sound. If you are trying to be cooperative, but you sound angry, the 'cooperative' part of the message will get lost. Huffing, sighing, rolling your eyes, using closed-off body language-those are all indicators that you are not willing to cooperate, regardless of the actual words you are using. STEPS: 1. Be willing to cooperate, 2. Be aware of how your nonverbal communication is being perceived, and 3. Listen. If you aren't listening, you aren't cooperating.
B. Robert Farzad: What are the top tips you would give parents to communicate with the intent to solve a problem, versus impose their will on the other parent?
Dr. Wachtel: The key here is listening and understanding. You need to actually listen to what your parenting partner has to say and try to understand where he or she is coming from. If you can't do that, you won't be able to parent effectively. Listening and understanding does not mean you need to agree with the other person-you can still assert your point of view and have disagreements over how to parent, but at least you will both understand the other person.
B. Robert Farzad: Do men and women handle parenting conflict differently and are there gender specific means to help men and women reduce conflict in their overt words and actions or in response to it?
Dr. Wachtel: Because of the way we are socialized, men tend to handle parenting conflict differently from women. One of two things can happen with conflict-1. Men can become very aggressive and confrontational, or 2. They can back away and become very distant. (Not all men are like this, but when coparenting goes badly, one of these two reactions is very common). When coparenting is going badly for women, they tend to become very controlling and they stop listening to their parenting partner. With both men and women, they can attempt to turn their kids against the other parent when there is poor communication.
Dr. Wachtel's answers shouldn't be construed as advice of any kind, including advice to your particular situation. If you need a referral to a California psychologist who may be able to help you and work with us in your child custody case, please contact us at the office and please refer specifically to this article as the source of how you found us.
What have we learned about parental conflict during and after divorce?
Parental conflict doesn't have to be the end of common sense and effective communication. While divorce and child custody cases can get the better of even the best parents, that shouldn't signal a surrender. It's a temporary setback. It should be used as an opportunity to learn, grow and become a better co-parent in the process.