During couples therapy, many reasons for a lack of harmony come out. Infidelity, lack of communication skills, losing interest in the relationship amongst others, are commonly cited as troublesome for one or both people. All are very valid reasons for seeking help. However, one complicating factor that is sometimes present is the presence of an ex partner or spouse who is still very much part of the present instead of being left in the past. This can be an even bigger issue when children are part of the equation. The problem can be easily solved with the correct boundaries and frameworks plus dealing with the emotions that keep the link going and it is never too late to establish it.
During a divorce process where children are involved, it is extremely important to have a clear framework so they know where they stand. The sooner this is established, the better. Children will always be affected by the separation of their parents and it falls to the parents to create this structure when emotions are at their highest. This can be difficult and is often pushed to the back of the priority list but without this, problems are being stacked up for later.
The importance of this structure which promotes a clear framework allows everyone to know where they stand. I am a big advocate of establishing this framework as early as possible after a final decision is made. It allows everyone to heal and move on and avoids the situation I will describe later. The framework determines such things as visitation, interaction between the parents which is kept at communicating about the children and avoiding the confusion of still trying to act as if the family is together in some way. It also assumes that when the children is with either parent, there is limited contact with the other parent. This will quickly help the children establish a routine of being in two homes.
Without this structure, a situation can develop where the ex is still very much involved. This might work for a while but when a new partner comes into the picture, it can complicate the whole picture and affect the new relationship. It is very difficult to ask a new partner to stand by and allow happy families to happen. They are very often excluded and a part of the relationship is closed off to them.
I have clear examples amongst my client group where the ex partner still plays a prominent role in this confusing situation and confusion is the correct word. In both cases, the children are suffering because there are no clear boundaries to work with. In one case, the father turns up unexpectedly and sits in the house with his ex, the mother. He then disappears and the children might not see him for a month when he is with his new partner. The mother also has had various new partners who have left her due to this. The mother has never really moved on and is still negatively attached to her ex…talks with the children about him…and cannot really heal. The father is driven by a sense of guilt that drives him to compensate by buying material goods for the mother and the children. He turns up to do household chores and repairs and in this case the lines between togetherness and separation are truly blurred. The children are badly suffering in this case because they simply do not know where they stand with two parents who have not dealt effectively with their separation.
There are also cases where things are very clear between the separated couple but they choose to be “friends” and continue to act as a family, going on holiday together, etc. While this may seem functional, it is again a lot to ask a new partner to bear.
Hard as it may sound, things progress better when there are clear boundaries from the start. The following is what a framework could look like and certainly would have helped the couple above come to terms with their situation quicker. We have to realise that a framework is being established just when emotions are at their highest and the motivation to do so is perhaps at its lowest. I am assuming here that the relationship was not abusive.
As soon as it is established that the relationship is over, the following needs to be established as soon as possible:
1. Set up a framework for visitation for the children. Establish the fact that when the children are with one parent or another, there is no contact with the other parent except in emergencies. This helps the children to adapt quicker to their new situation of moving between two homes.
2. Establish a method of contact. I always recommend email initially and this helps to avoid constant texting ( blaming and escalation).
3. Establish procedures for handover of the children which should be boundary based. This means no hanging around drinking coffee, watching tv etc with the ex. Avoid family outings and holidays. It might seem functional but is confusing for the children, new partner and all concerned.
4. Create boundaries to avoid being manipulated into unneeded contact.
5. Get help with the acceptance part of the process. This could be to deal with feelings of loss or guilt that could be present. A new relationship is less likely to be successful if these feelings are still there.
6. If a new partner comes into your life, remember that your only obligation to your previous situation is to co-parent effectively. If no children are involved, a clean break with no contact must happen.
This is always a tricky situation and cutting the cord with someone you decided to have children with is not easy. However, if one or both are truly serious about moving on, then this process must be followed.