When Parents Clash
Saving Your Sanity
Don't Play Games
Nigel knows all to well that there is no right answer to his mother's question, "How is your father?"
"It makes me very uncomfortable," he says. "I know that if I say he is happy, that will make her upset. But if I refuse to answer, that also makes her upset. And if I lie, then it makes me upset. There's no way to win that game."
"People have been fighting through their children for too long," says Frances Goldscheider, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at Brown University in Providence, R.I., who studies the impact of divorce on children. "It can almost become a habit." When you are 10, it can be hard to be assertive, she says, but as an adult it's important to outgrow such patterns.
"People know when something is being asked in a hostile way," says Christy M. Buchanan, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and co-author of the book Adolescents After Divorce. She says if questions about the other parent seem invasive, they are probably better left unanswered. Buchanan also suggests refusing to carry messages between parents. If a parent seems to always talk negatively about the other parent, she suggests saying something to the effect of, "I love you dearly but I love dad (or mom) too. It's hard for me to hear either one of you talk badly about the other. Could we just not have those kinds of discussions?" While the parent may not react well to such changes at the time, it may help to minimize such patterns in the future, she says. And once you've said it, remember to stick to your guns.
Give It Time
You may find that the parent who leaves moves on with his or her life a lot faster than the parent who was left, says Eth. Nigel sees this in his own parents' lives. His father was ready to date just a few months after the separation. His mother, on the other hand, is still deeply affected by the divorce years later. "There is a process that can't be rushed," Eth says. Like other situations that involve feelings of loss and grief, people move through the stages of healing on their own time. "The parent who left may be ahead because they started the process secretly long before," says Eth.