Divorce: The Classic Struggle of Divorced Parents

Divorce: The Classic Struggle of Divorced Parents

In last week’s blog, we provided 10 guidelines for helping parents with the struggles they face with divorce. This week we will look at how to address the differences in parenting styles that are often intensified during divorce.

Some divorced parents waste precious time and energy fighting a never–ending control battle with their former spouse over how to parent the kids. Children adjust to different parenting styles, if their parents aren't manipulated into giving in or getting angry. Let’s look at this exact situation playing out between Doug and Julia over their daughter Emma’s behavior.

Attempting to Control Both Houses

“Doug, how could you let me down like this, again? I think you do it just to undermine what I’m trying to do with our daughter! You know good and well why I had to tell her that she couldn’t drive for a month. Emma took my car without permission and stayed out all night. I was worried sick. You said you would support me by not letting her drive, and then you turn around and give her your extra car to drive. How are we supposed to make her responsible if you reverse every decision we make?”

“Now Julia, you don’t have to be so upset. I was going to call you and tell you that I think you’re just overreacting on this. She’s just a kid for Pete’s sake. What she’s doing is just typical teenage stuff. You need to give her a little slack. Maybe if you’d lighten up a little, you’d both be a lot happier.”

“Wait just a minute, Doug. That kind of behavior might be typical for some teenagers but it’s not how all teens act. She’s gone way over the line lately. It’s getting worse all the time. She doesn’t feel that she has any limits at all, and I can see why. Every time she misbehaves, you’re there to excuse it away and turn me into the bad guy for trying to hold her accountable for her actions.”

The Classic Struggle of Divorced Parents

Here we see two divorced parents embroiled in a classic struggle. It could be a competition for Emma’s love on Doug’s part. But it probably goes deeper than that. Doug doesn’t like conflict. He not only wants his daughter to like him best, but he also wants to make sure she is happy. Playing the role of the good guy is easy for him. It fits right into his life-long pattern of conflict avoidance.

Julia, on the other hand, is left with the responsibility of helping their daughter grow into a responsible person. She knows that will only happen if she sets limits and holds Emma accountable for her actions. But this is difficult for her. It often puts her in the role of the bad guy in her daughter’s eyes. Despite this dilemma, she tries to hold the line with Emma even in the face of repeated acts of sabotage by her husband.

In her attempts to be a good parent, Julia is making several mistakes that continue to lock all three into a vicious cycle. Emma misbehaves, Julia punishes, and Doug overturns the punishment.

Doug’s Mistakes

Doug is willing to sacrifice Emma’s long-term happiness and quality of her future life in exchange for her short-term happiness. He fears the loss of Emma’s love and he lives with the mistaken idea that she will appreciate and respect him in the role of her protector. Overturning his ex-wife’s discipline also gives him a chance to make mom look bad in his daughter’s eyes. Little does he know that later in life, he will most likely be held in contempt when Emma comes to realize that being a good person is far more important than short-term happiness.

Julia’s Mistakes

Julia holds on to a fantasy that she and Doug are a team and that he will support her because that is what he should be doing. Even though that has never happened, she fantasizes that it will the next time.  If that were true, perhaps they might still be married, but they are not.

Based upon this mistaken idea, Julia imposes punishment that must be upheld when her daughter is at Doug’s home. This gives Doug both the opportunity and the power to rescind the punishment and place himself in the role of Emma’s hero.

Only after she gives up on the fantasy that her actions will be supported by Doug will she be able to quit asking Doug for something he is not able to give. This means that Julia must start imposing consequences that are carried out only during the time in which Emma is staying at her home. This puts her back in control and reduces some of her disappointment and resulting anger over not being supported.

Julia’s next mistake is believing she can make both homes work the same. This is one of the tragedies of divorce. All the energy she uses trying to make this happen is energy that can be spent on things she can control.

Her next mistake is that of talking to Doug about this problem. All her discussion with Doug accomplished was to give her ex-husband yet another opportunity to go on the offensive and to attack her parenting attempts. It did nothing to change the situation.

Julia’s Solution

Once Julia decides to take control of the situation, she will impose consequences that only apply while she has custody of Emma. If her daughter tries to get dad to intervene, Julia should not allow him to change her mind. She needs to practice the following statement and use it often “Doug, in the past I have made the mistake of trying to make your home run like my home. I promise not to do that anymore. I won’t tell you how to handle Emma when she is with you. If I see her needing discipline, I’ll handle it here without asking you to deal with it while she’s at your place. And you are welcome to do the same.”

Her next step is to share some facts of divorce with Emma. Since the relationship between Julia and her daughter are strained, it is very unlikely that mom can get all her thoughts out without facing a counterattack. At times like these, teens are experts at taking parents on “bird walks,” arguing each point until both are totally off the subject at hand. What starts out as a discussion soon becomes a fight. Neither person has heard the other. The solution to this is for Julia to put her thoughts in writing.

Thanks for reading these two blogs about divorce.  We hope this gives you some ideas that you can implement in your home. You can find more strategies in the audio, Love and Logic: Keys to Helping Kids Cope with Divorce.


Thanks for reading!

Dr. Charles Fay

Love and Logic: Keys to Helping Kids Cope with Divorce

Back to blog