Tony and May were at each other within five minutes of sitting down in my office. Although divorced for four years, they are still seething.
“He never shows up on time for the kids. It doesn’t matter if it’s to pick them up from a game or to take them for the weekend. He’s always late. He has no consideration.” That’s May.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” says Tony. “Never?” Look, I’m doing the best I can, but you know I can’t leave my computer on the dot. That long-distance job I have means I need a little flexibility. That’s what’s paying your child support!”
“My child support? My child support? That money is supporting our children, remember?” May turns to me. “See? Always the victim!”
This couple was referred to me because their kids are showing signs of distress. At ages 9 and 7, they are fully aware of the conflict between their parents. How could they not be? There are frequent heated phone calls. Every hand-off of the kids includes offensive and defensive words. The older boy told his school counselor that he’s worried his dad will be homeless because his mom is always asking his dad for money. His younger sister’s teacher is worried because she is getting more and more withdrawn.
The parents agreed to come see me because they both love their kids and they don’t want their divorce to, as Tony said, “screw them up for life.” But beyond that most basic agreement, they can’t seem to agree on anything.
These two seem hopelessly caught up in their fight. Although they absolutely agree that they can’t live together, they can’t seem to separate, either. Their struggles to separate emotionally are hijacked by their need to feel in control, or at least not to feel controlled. They were shocked when I suggested to them that they are as married now as they ever were. A legal document doesn’t finalize anything as long as former spouses are glued together by hate and passionate anger.
If you recognize yourself in this scenario, even a little, you owe it to yourself and your kids to extricate yourself from the fight. Even if you win a “battle” now and then, you — and everyone else in the picture — are losing. Parents who are caught in warfare with a former partner can’t reestablish a solid positive self-esteem and can’t move on to a healthier, happier relationship with someone new. Kids who are bystanders in their parents’ fights often get symptomatic as children and pessimistic about relationships when they are adults. You all deserve better.