Dear Dr. Wes & Julia: When walking through the minefield of divorce it's difficult to determine where to step. One wrong move, and what had seemed a safe path blows up in your face. The (nonresidential) father of my children ranging in age from 10-22 has adopted a lifestyle very different than the one we as a couple modeled for our children. He is an admitted alcoholic and has returned to drinking, and he is co-habitating with a woman who does not want children. My children don't understand the change in their father. I don't want to trash him and have tried hard to encourage all parties to maintain relationships and to include dad's girlfriend in activities. My children are finding this frustrating and confusing. How can I preserve family values when their father's values differ so greatly from mine? How can I encourage the children to maintain a relationship with him when they are angered by his new lifestyle?
Wes: I try to be careful advising readers to "get thee to the therapist" every other week, offering some sound advice that won't take the place of therapy, but might help get things back on track and stave it off a bit. Yours isn't one of those cases. While each of your children may need to visit with a therapist to deal with various issues related to the divorce and custody, I think the more efficient and obvious solution is for the adults to get involved in a co-parenting therapy. In high-conflict divorce the court often orders this, but if the problems are subtler as you suggest, the onus may be on you to get the ball rolling. Divorce classes or encounter groups - though worthy of the time spent - are no substitute for establishing a long-term relationship with a therapist trained in divorce therapy, who can help you and your ex-husband raise, address and hopefully resolve your concerns. Without that, your kids will struggle with parents who feel resentment and hostility with each other and who cannot easily answer their inevitable questions without as you put it, "trashing" each other.
While different providers use different approaches, I favor one in which the co-parenting therapist also meets with the children, helping them come to understand the divorce and advocating on their behalf. This can get a little dicey if the therapist is not crystal clear about his or her role along the way. But if everyone understands the therapist is foremost interested in the best interests of the children, and will intervene with the adults to bring this about, things can go pretty well. Some therapists will decline seeing both the parents and children. In that case all involved therapists at least need to be housed in the same clinic to coordinate treatment. Once you get too many disconnected therapists involved in the same family, there's an inevitable breakdown in communication.
Finally, I'd be cautious in framing "family values." You propose that your ex had different values when you were married, but you also say he was an acknowledged alcoholic. Sometimes people haven't changed as much as we think they have, and what one perceived as a particular family value during the marriage may exist more in memory than in reality.
Julia: You've absolutely been a bigger person for not trash-talking or ostracizing your children's father. It takes a lot of maturity and effort, especially under the circumstances of divorce, to control your emotions. So you should be commended for remaining so neutral in front of your children.
You're right to set a good example for your children, but, unfortunately, they are in a different place than you right now. For you, the divorce means separation from a difficult spouse. For them, a father figure and protector is being removed. This wears on them in a different way than you, especially because of his described alcoholism and new girlfriend.
As counterintuitive as it feels, I've constantly read that when faced with grief and "dark feelings," embracing them is the best way to go. So let your children feel the way they feel. Let them talk about it and vent if they need to, but don't try to force relationships if no one is feeling ready for it or prevent them if they are. Also, although I don't want to cop out of a problem, I agree that counseling for both you and your children is in order. Seeking help doesn't necessarily mean the problem is out of hand, just that a third party may provide insight to the problem.
Finally, keep up your current spirit. It sounds like you've handled a very difficult and potentially messy divorce very well so far. Unbeknownst to you, your strength and optimism may be helping your children more than it appears. They need your support more now than before, so remain supportive and open to them; the problem will get better with time.
Next week: The Double Take contest winner and scholarship recipient is announced.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.