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Hostile Negotiations

Different types of divorces have different effects on kids. The worst situation for children is a high-conflict divorce, where co-parents cannot agree upon anything in terms of parenting, finances and living arrangements. In these cases, there is often a history of dishonesty and infidelity, and at least one spouse feels like the victim in the marriage. The marriage is dissolving at the end of a long road of contentious, violent and devastating conflict, throughout which both partners have experienced intense feelings of betrayal, hatred and rage. The exes continue to argue in front of the kids as much as, if not more than, they did when they were married.

Children find it very difficult to thrive in this type of divorce. They feel forced to take sides, and to blame one parent for the fighting and hostility. Kids will often develop psychological, emotional and even physical problems from the stress of living in this type of environment. A phone call from one parent can send the other into a rage. Pickups and drop-offs are fraught with tension, snide remarks and accusations. This is the worst of both worlds—the parents are no longer together, but the children still cannot escape the conflict.

Many parents think that conflict with their co-parent will abate in a few months. However, in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study,” by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee, the authors maintain that a third of divorced couples are still fighting with the same intensity a decade after their divorce. Adult clients often recall horribly stressful interactions between their divorced parents, from verbal sniping at school functions to open scenes at birthday parties, weddings and even much later events, such as celebrations for grandchildren born decades after a divorce. Nor does the addition of a new partner for one or both of the divorced parents lead to a cease-fire. Many times, the introduction of new partners brings up or exacerbates feelings of jealousy and anger, especially when the new arrangement affects finances and the treatment of children.

If you’re in a high-conflict divorce like this, I highly recommend that you look for a counselor who can help you learn coping strategies to manage your emotions, particularly in front of your children. Anger, resentment and anxiety can come to the surface in frequent, open conflict. This conflict is toxic for children to witness and will have permanent negative effects on their psychological health, including their later capacity to form trusting intimate relationships as adults. Furthermore, stress may be a trigger for the development of underlying mental and emotional issues in children with predispositions toward these issues.

Signs that you should consider seeking help include:
– Losing your temper frequently with your co-parent in front of your children
– Being unable to get through the day without crying
– Calling in sick to work for multiple days
– Isolating yourself from friends and family
– Badmouthing your ex to your kids, even though you know you shouldn’t

Even if you’re in bad financial circumstances, there are many therapists with sliding-scale fees, and even therapists who take pro bono cases. You can find psychologists and counselors who provide therapy for free by researching “pro bono therapy” in your area. A therapist is not only someone who can teach you concrete skills for dealing with your anger and guilt. He or she can also be an emotional support, a safe place to vent your thoughts and feelings, and someone who treats you with respect and care. Therapy can be an oasis during a very stressful time in your life. Support groups for separated and divorced individuals can also provide a safe space to talk about your divorce and your struggles with your co-parent.

Medication management can also be a useful adjunct to therapy. If you feel irritable, angry, anxious, or tearful; if you are unable to accept joy into your life; if you can’t focus at work or home; if you are unable to engage in self-care (eating well, sleeping, exercising), you may be experiencing symptoms of depression. At the very least, you are likely experiencing an adjustment disorder due to the upheaval and chaos of your divorce. Many divorcing individuals find it useful to speak to a psychiatrist who can evaluate their need for antidepressant or antianxiety medications.

Other routes to regaining equilibrium include exercise, reading self-help books, mindfulness meditation or working with an alternative healing provider.

It is important to realize that if your emotions are frequently out of hand in front of your children, or are stopping you from being the best parent possible, then seeking help no longer becomes a matter of preference. You must move past feelings of shame, guilt and denial to acknowledge and address your behavior. Whether or not you personally have felt comfortable with the idea of therapy or medication in the past is much less important than whether these strategies enable you to be a more functional parent to your child. The priority is making sure that your child feels safe and supported during your divorce, which is particularly challenging since you yourself likely feel devastated as well. It is essential to do everything that you can to strengthen yourself emotionally to be the parent that your child needs during this tough time..

Samantha Rodman is the author of “How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family”

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