Dear Mr. Dad. I’m getting divorced. My spouse is acting horribly and I have to admit that I haven’t been behaving much better. I’m angry and I find myself wanting to punish him. But maintaining this level of intensity is exhausting—and I can see that it’s hurting our children. Is there a way for me to start taking the high road at this point?
A: In a word, Yes. Since you and your spouse know each other’s buttons better than anyone, it’s easy to slip into defensive, uncooperative, and hostile mode. So kudos to you for recognizing the problem and making the first move to change things.
Let’s start with some of the basics. Make sure you have appropriate outlets such as friends, co-workers, and support groups to talk out your feelings about those frustrating encounters you’re likely to have with your soon-to-be ex. If you haven’t got anyone nearby, there are some good online resources, such as divorcecare.com, which offer groups, support, and a place to find information and solutions during these challenging times. Knowing that you’re not alone and that others have gone through what you are, and learning how they dealt with it will give you some excellent coping strategies.
In addition, there are a few books you might want to keep on your nightstand or in your briefcase. “The Co-Parenting Survival Guide,” by Elizabeth Thayer and Jeffrey Zimmerman, and “The Good Karma Divorce,” by Michelle Lowrance, are both excellent. I also encourage you to check into local divorce support organizations—you can probably get a list at your county courthouse. Do yourself a favor, though, and stay far, far away from groups populated by bitter, vindictive people Sadly, there are plenty of them out there.
Don’t stifle your feelings. It’s perfectly natural to want to punish (or throttle) your ex. But as soon as those emotions come up, find a way to get them out of your head in a productive way. Batting cages and punching bags are great for that.
Teach yourself some relaxation techniques. Next time your ex starts a fight or tries to drag you down, focus on your breathing and try to let it go. Another way to calm yourself is to keep a photo of your children with you at all times. Whenever you feel yourself slipping into negativity and hostility, take out that picture and remind yourself of what’s really important.
Kids go through divorce, too, but they don’t have the psychological resources to make sense of what’s happening around them. It’s our job to protect them from the unnecessary stress of spousal conflict.
The best thing you can do for your kids is to get along with your ex. Force yourself if you have to. Yes, you’re divorcing your spouse, but, like it or not, you’re going to be connected for life. There’s no document—legal or otherwise—that can prepare you for all the day-to-day conversations and arrangements that the two of you will have to make. The approach you take toward your ex is the one your children will adopt and it’s the best predictor of how well the kids will do after the dust has settled.
Finally, keep your kids out of adult arguments, and never use them as spies or messengers—even if your ex is determined to make your life miserable. While you may be tempted, trying to undermine your children’s relationship with their other parent will eventually backfire. Staying on the high ground won’t be easy, but in the long term, you’ll be thankful that you did.