Marriages come apart because one or both spouses decide they want something better. To make the divorce work better than the marriage, especially if parties will continue relating through co-parenting their children, parents must learn to set healthy boundaries. A three-step process can help.
In the premiere book on co-parenting,”Joint Custody with a Jerk,” Julie Ross and Judy Cocoran offer three questions to help parents define boundaries. Their premise is that any two parents can work together–even if one is an absolute jerk–when each learns what they can/should control and what to leave in the other parent’s lap.
First–What is the issue?
When people are upset, often many issues intertwine. If Dad shows up late for his parenting time, the combo of issues could include:
- Children are hungry and tired–having waited dinner for him
- Mom will now miss her date
- Dad’s lateness has become a pattern
- Dad stayed late for the overtime pay to buy summer clothes
- Oldest daughter is missing a party for Dad’s time and the late arrival makes her feel the sacrifice wasn’t worth it
And so on.
The first step is to focus on one issue at a time.
Second–Who brought the issue up?
Children may be complaining about the hunger pangs and missed party. Mom may be complaining about her missed night out. Dad may be complaining about the squeeze he feels in both providing for this children and getting to his time with them. Or, is Mom complaining about daughter’s missed party? Is Dad feeling guilty for making Mom late again, so he enters the door exclaiming, “I don’t care about your date!”
Noting who raised the issue can go a long way toward determining what should be done.
If daughter is just fine with missing the party, there is no reason for Mom to get upset. If Mom can still get to the time with her friends, Dad doesn’t need to take on guilt.
Third–Who has upset feelings?
Often the person raising the issue does so because he/she is upset. But, it’s good to consciously discern, “Who is upset over this issue?”
The answers to Questions 2 and 3 determine who owns the solution–
The person raising the issue and who has upset feelings over the issue owns responsibility for resolving the issue. No one else.
So, Daughter is upset that time with Dad has her missing her best friend’s birthday party. She starts complaining to Mom. All too often, Mom feels she must step in to intervene with Dad.
Better approach–teach Daughter to raise her own issues and work through them with her father. Daughter can explain to Dad that she loves spending time with him, but that this visit overlaps an important event with a friend. She might work out an alternative time with him one-on-one, arrange to arrive late to his house, or decide that time with Dad trumps a party. She will plan time to celebrate with her friend another day.
If Mom is upset that Dad’s late arrival has her missing a night out, that’s Mom’s issue to resolve. She can speak with Dad before planning her evening to pin down his schedule. She can proactively note his tendency to be late and plan accordingly. This doesn’t make his lateness ok. It does keep her from feeling jerked around–which has it’s own security and power. Mom could also hire a sitter for the period between when Dad should arrive and does, then present him with the bill. Dad can either pay or show up on time, but Mom’s plans remain in tact.
If Dad arrives feeling guilty and upset because his boss wouldn’t let him leave and now knows everyone at the house will be angry, Dad needs to own the situation. Either he works an agreement with his boss, or he makes different plans with Mom and the children.
Most ongoing conflicts result from upset individuals waiting for someone else to fix the problem. This creates a spiral of ill-will where nobody wins. It keeps people fighting battles that are not their own. It engenders a culture of conflict.
Alternatively, when people own the issues that matter to them, others lose the power to manipulate. Instead, people make their own choices and map a life that works for them.
There can be health after divorce. Boundaries make the difference. Defining who owns responsibility for an issue allows that person to act. And, everyone else to move on.