Children of Divorce
Easing their Pain - and Yours - with Openhearted Boundaries
By Kelly Tobey
What can we do to make divorce less devastating for children?
In an ideal world, all children would be fully loved and supported by their blood parents who, in turn, would totally love and support each other.
But back on planet earth, this ideal seems to be in short supply.
Even though a parental breakup is clearly not ideal for the children involved, in some circumstances it would be far "less ideal" for the children if those parents stayed together.
So what can be done to support children who are living with the challenge of having separated parents?
In short, the parents can do the necessary work to learn to love and accept each other, even though they've chosen to no longer live together. (This doesn't mean having to agree with or condone each other's behaviors.)
I would suggest that children are affected far more by the level of love and acceptance that is apparent between their parents and towards the children themselves, than just by their parents being together or not. In other words, parents who love and accept each other, yet have separated, are going to have a more supportive impact on a child than parents who stay together but haven't learned to love and accept each other. (I do mean true acceptance - not a sacrificial tolerance of each other.) It can be healthy for a child to know that two people can have differences - can chose not to live together - yet can still have the capacity to love each other.
Unfortunately, by the time many parents separate, their love has been obscured by a build-up of dislikes, resentments, problems they don't know how to overcome, and, in some cases, a growing hatred. When children witness this, they will often start to question their own ability to love. Think, for example, of the confusion for the children who love a father and mother who have forgotten how to love each other. Unconscious questions arise in the children's minds, such as:
If Dad doesn't love Mom, maybe I'm wrong to love her.
If Mom doesn't love Dad, maybe I’m wrong to love him.
Often children will feel compelled to pick a side in an attempt to settle their confusion. If the parents don't know better, they may even encourage the children to pick their side.
Unfortunately, when we suppress our innate calling to be loving with one person, it injures our ability to be deeply intimate with everyone else in our life. If children take on the idea that people have to stop loving each other when they have differences, then they will automatically start to close their hearts to everyone with whom they have differences, even those that are close to them.
What a difference it could make if parents and children could learn to develop "openhearted boundaries." That way, they could learn to say no to the differences that are not appropriate for them, but not need to close off their hearts and their love in order to do it.
It's often because parents never learned how to make appropriate boundaries in the first place that their breakups have harmful repercussions. Many people who think they have to stop loving in order to say "no" also think that if they do love someone they must always say "yes" to them. With these behavior patterns in place, a person cannot refuse any request that comes from a loved one unless they first close their heart and block the flow of love. If they haven't learned open-hearted boundary-setting, they will tend to say "yes" from a place of inappropriate sacrifice to any loved one that asks for something, rather than experience the pain of closing their heart.
For example, a beloved relative might call and ask the person over for a holiday dinner, and, even if they don't really want to go, they will feel bound to say yes anyway.
Continually making these kinds of sacrifices will eventually cause a build-up of resentment. If a person never learns to make appropriate, loving boundaries, eventually they will close their heart to the other person. Sadly, it's the only way they know how to give themselves permission to say no and to protect them self from self-sacrifice.
It's because of this dynamic that many parents will resist loving their ex-partners. They are unconsciously afraid that - if they were to love them - they would not be able to say no to getting back together no matter how inappropriate it might be. They will unconsciously use anything, from numbness through to hatred, to protect themselves and maintain their distance.
This can have fearsome consequences for children. The problem stems from the fact that children tend to pick up traits from their parents. If the parents aren’t tolerant and loving of each other - even in spite of certain traits - how long will it be before they recognize those same traits in their children and shut off their love to the children the way they did with their ex-partners? Children unconsciously sense this possibility, and it can make them feel very insecure.
So what can parents do?
Well, one thing is to learn how to make appropriate, openhearted, loving boundaries, so it feels safe to love without inappropriate sacrifice. When children see that their parents can love each other despite their differences, they don't have to live in fear of the day their parents will stop loving them simply because they resemble the other parent.
Whether a breakup has happened recently or long ago, if the parents continue to work on opening their hearts, they will be serving their children as well as themselves.
Kelly Tobey is an Integrative Transformational Processing Facilitator with StarTree Integration Adventures (founded 1991) Kelly provides, Private Sessions, Workshops, Facilitation Trainings and Retreats across Canada, and in Calgary, ongoing weekly drop-in seminars, called Expanding Heartfelt Living evenings.