What I've learned about Life through Co-parenting
I used to look at being a divorced woman as one of the greatest failures of my adult life. As time has gone by and healing has solidified itself within my own life and spirit, I have changed my self talk to a more positive stance. I am able to honor the person I met and fell and love with and the changes and circumstances which occurred which led to the ultimate decision to end our married relationship. Like so many other marriages, ours ended with a lot of hurt, confusion, and lack of support.
Divorce and breakups are traumatic to the heart and psyche and can lead to feelings of victimization on all sides. When we feel victimized we can rationalize our behavior and can engage in acts which surprise ourselves and even those we love. Breakups can bring out the very worse in everyone. Culturally we do not have a frame for divorce or endings which does not leave us with a burden of a broken legacy for ourselves and/or the children involved.
I navigated divorce as a parent. I don't feel like the divorce ended when the papers were signed filed. Instead it took us many years to navigate from a very destructive place which took years of processing to a place of moving toward healing. As a parent we can decide that our story is the most important; our victimization is more important to hold on to rather than being an act of forgiveness and healing in the world which works as an example to our children.
I have in no means conquered all there is to in the arena of co-parenting. I have a long way to go and a lifetime to learn it. There are fundamentals I feel comfortable enough sharing at this stage of our development which I hope will get you to thinking. Even if you are not married or divorced or co-parenting I can guess you know someone who is and you just might be a support person who can help them in their journey. I've learned a lot about life, forgiveness, empathy, healing, and love through this journey of co-parenting.
Create a Co-parenting Framework (it's a life long process)
When I divorced I had ideals about co-parenting but not the necessary acceptable framework. There were lots of books on co-parenting with the other person who was in a lot of ways healthy. There was very little which focused on the safety and fear issues which result from a marriage which ends due to domestic violence. Not only did I need an acceptable framework, but he did as well. We didn't have a healthy marriage, how were we to develop a healthy un-married relationship? It isn't as if we could just write each out of the picture indefinitely, though we might at times have wished to.
My particular situation required counseling, support, understanding and education about the dynamics in a marriage which DV has occurred, not only for myself and my children but their other parent as well. I had steps I needed to take no matter where my former spouse was in his healing process, which made family and friends very uncomfortable and at times very angry. There were also mistakes I made a long the way which sometimes made things harder. No matter the reason for divorce, counseling and co-parenting classes should be considered.
We have learned a lot through this process. In the beginning I had no desire to create a safe place to discuss issues with my former spouse. Understandably being in the same room would create panic attacks, as I still carried a lot of fear from being abused. As much as I wanted to create a clean slate for co-parenting it was almost impossible to navigate. The children and I had the wonderful aide of a counselor who believed the abuse occurred and helped me navigate my own healing so we could move toward healing between the children and their father. At some point if both parents are working on their own healing and issues, there comes a space where you have to recognize the need for a safe place for the divorce to occur and move away from what was - to what is- to what can be. This is true in any co-parenting relationship.
Whether or not a marriage ends due to DV or other irreconcilable differences, it is more than just the couple which is effected. Extended family, children, community, friends are all effected. We need to make room for the idea each person has the right and place to grieve the loss. Also to recognize we are not responsible for another's grieving process or to limit the time they need to grieve. We also do not each need to hear the others process. At first I thought I had to carry everyone's feelings about our breakup. In the process relationships were damaged which took years to mend. It is important to be able to voice " I cannot listen to your feelings about this. I value them, but I'm not in a place I can carry those right now. I will be happy to let you know if and when I arrive in that place." The person then can find an acceptable outlet for their feelings such as a counselor.
For children it is particularly important to allow them to grieve. There are five stages of grief, even in divorce and if we allow a place for healing then the children who are experiencing the divorce along with their parents can avoid many of the pitfalls and self esteem issues.
It is important for a child to continue to have their parent be a part of their story, within a network of safety, no matter what. This looks different for each family. In relationships where violence, drugs, and or safety issues are present the safety net has to be well guarded. It could be as simple as talking to the children in a positive manner about an absent parent who is unable to be there or presents a safety issue. Another option is supervised visits with over seers who believe in what occurred and is willing and able to protect the children in cases of abuse or neglect. I'd like to add many people feel a partner who abuses their spouse can be a safe and healthy parent to the kids. I'm on the fence about this, as the abused spouse is often re-victimized through their former spouses relationship with the children and am under the firm belief that spousal abuse is child abuse as it damages the child.
Bottom line, it is going to look different for every set of circumstances and a trusted counselor is very important. There will be lots of people in the dynamic who do not always understand why certain things are in place so dialog is very important but so is holding firm to what values your children are being taught through this life circumstance.
In cases where both parents have had loving and safe relationships with the child/children it is important they get as much times as feasible with both parents. I'm a big fan of 50/50 splits in divided homes where both parents are loving and healthy and abuse has not occurred. My husband Seth and I decided a long time ago if we were to ever split the children would remain in the family home and we would rotate in and out so as to provide them with a stable environment.
The primary goal should ALWAYS be to provide a loving and safe environment for the children. I've seen co-parenting situations work successfully and others become a disaster not only for the grownups and children but the support systems such as school, church, extended family and friendships. Each couple who has decided to split has to deal with their own unique circumstances. Often times one or both are unable to heal and be mature with the situation. Remember just because the other is not, doesn't give you license to throw all caution to the wind and cause damage too. Be the bigger person and a loving example to the children.
It took my former spouse and I a lot of years to get to a place where his time with the children felt safe or comfortable for me and them. Our compromise would not work for many people, nor would it be safe or recommended. He spends many Holidays and dinners with our entire family. I wouldn't say we have arrived in any sense of the word, but we continually move toward a better place. Sometimes it is two steps forward and one step back. As the children get older more and more dialog occurs about how they want their relationship with him to look and progress. They honor my feelings and need for safety and I honor their desire to have a relationship with him.
On a side note: My husband, Seth, has an enormous heart. He has always honored that he can have his own relationship with the children and not be in "competition" with my former spouse. Both men have had to set aside their egos and place the children first. We have all had to recognize these children are very blessed to have two father figures, both bringing different aspects and attributes to the table. When either parent remarries it is important to honor their new relationships and place in the children's lives. It can create a lot of conflict for children when egos rule the roost instead of love.
It took a lot of years to get to a place where I had an understanding of my former spouses hurt. My hurt was so great and the betrayals I felt ran so deep I did not care if he had experienced pain because I was so sure what the children and I had experienced was so much greater, no amount of his suffering would ever make up for it. Pretty harsh, huh? I had to realize though I felt justified in leaving, he was wounded by losing his family. His own actions which led to the events wounded him and created hurt. No matter if his wounds were inflicted by his own hand or my actions, he had hurt. If I want to be a good parent, I needed to develop empathy for my former spouse and hope good things for him, because as he heals, it helps our children.
Kind regard toward the other person does not mean one has to compromise safety. Safety was really a primary goal for me. My trust issues with my former spouse did effect the children and their contact with him. My former spouse has had to learn to set aside his own desires often and recognize the act of seeing him drive down the driveway with my children created abject terror for me. He had to learn their memories of their early childhood needed to be healed and they each held their own fear. Parents have to come to a place in their own healing to listen to their children voice those feelings, be a safe place where fears are expressed, and honor them not with excuses but understanding. In any relationship it is important to own our actions and have empathy for what others experience at our hands.
In order to heal it is important for everyone to take personal responsibility. You can do this as a gift to yourself whether or not the other person ever does. You are only in charge of your own healing and actions. It is not dependent upon the other. I had to decided if I wanted to remain in the role of victim and continue my story in that role or did I want to change it?
It wasn't until I could acknowledge my responsibility and "failures" that I was able to grow past a place of fear and victimization. Now, I am not saying it was my fault I was a vicitm of domestic violence. I am aware that many women stay for many reason, and I had mine. I passively ignored and/or excused behavior for many years which effected my children. I actively engaged, as did he, in many attempts to fix the issues while we were married. Bottom line is within my own heart I had to own my decision to stay and allow my children to spend their early years in an unhealthy and unsafe family. Every person, in every relationship which ends up in breakup or divorce feels victimized by the other. I was at no time in my life or marriage a perfect person and had my own actions which wounded my former spouse.
At some point I had to move past what happened to me and create a new reality. Some days my old feelings resurface, and I have steps for dealing with and recognizing them. I have a choice at those times. Does this story our family shares become empowering or is it evidence only to our damaged past? Does it get retold in a healing manner or is it a tool for further destruction? My hope is in by talking about our path, we can heal ourselves and be an example to others.
Honor What Was Good!
In every marriage there are lessons of value and good times. It took many years of healing to be able to honor the good things we shared. I always had the idea it was important for my children not to carry the burden of trauma but also to have a legacy of positive. When you tear down your former spouse to your children you do more damage to your relationship and to your children's self esteem than you punish the other person.
Keep it clean. It is so easy to justify demonizing the other parent. In any relationship there is ample room to be justified in tearing the other person down. There is balance to be had in these situations so the children understand there are needs which have to addressed , such as safety, while not completely alienating them from their other parent. It requires a lot of commitment and healing from both partners in any relationship. My former spouse has had to give up a lot of his desires in order to create a safe space for the children and myself. In order to develop ourselves morally we have both had to let go of what is often best for us in order to do what is best for the children.
When we make mistakes, we need to make amends and commit to change so as not to continue patterns of wounding. As we awaken to new ideas and way of doing things, there should be dialog. I know my former spouse and I have many heated moments. He has had to deal with the pendulum swing from a former spouse who would no longer communicate to one who communicated very well and often times in a not so nice manner, as I learned to get my point across effectively and in a healthy manner. I am still learning how to tell him when I am unable to hear his point of view, or to listen without adding my own judgement, either trumping it with my own complaints or justifying not hearing him based on past grievences. He is learning to listen to mine without excusing his own behavior and allowing me to have my feelings without sending us into old patterns.
When someone feels wronged, Listen. Really listen to their concern. How did something you said or did impact them? Don't place value only on your intentions. If you were in the wrong are you able to be grieved by your own behavior and horrified about it? If so, tell them and ask for forgiveness. Take the other's feelings into account. When we are wounded we can justify retaliation, defensiveness and the throwing of darts or the firing off of cannons to annihilate the enemy. Take the steps toward healing.
Live With Hearts Wide Open
My husband, Seth, and I really felt like our family should open up and include those people the children loved. People I loved from my former family and people in his extended family. This took many years of healing before it could be done successfully and is not always possible in every situation.
My sons Seth brought to our marriage, as well as our daughter, call my former spouses mother "Grandma". She is loving woman with a huge heart and has gracefully accepted this. They can't wait to get annual Christmas and birthday presents from her. She has become a vital part to all of our children's story. Allow people room for growth and change as time goes by. We felt the more people our children have to love them, the more we can be an act of love and forgiveness in the world, the greater their ability to heal and carry a positive legacy and be well adjusted people.
Early on we had to set really firm boundaries. There were those in Seth's family who did not wish to accept me or the children I brought into the marriage. At one point we had to say "it's all or nothing..your choice" to many relatives. Most of them came around and have honored our whole family with acceptance and love. There are still a few challenging relationships, but even those teach us to live with our hearts wide open.