Serving the needs of separated and divorcing families

The Cost of “Playing Family” Post-Divorce

You may be very surprised to hear this but cooperative parents may be too cooperative!  I know it may sound contradictory to hear me say that too much cooperation between co-parents can harm the children!  However in certain cases this is true!

Besides the highly-conflicted parents I have in my practice I also have the luxury to work with parents who are not only child focused and cooperative but also care about each other as friends.  However it is common to see these parents so  focused on their child and so committed to minimizing the negative impact on their child, that they try too hard to “play family” whenever they can.  This is sometimes the result of an ambivalent separation or out of the parent’s own resistance to being away from their child.

For example, these parents recognize how much their children want them to be together that they may plan dinner together, share holidays and even go on vacations together.  The noncustodial parent, in an attempt to minimize their own loss along with their child’s, may arrange to be at the home every day to walk their child to school or they come to the home to jointly put their child to bed.  On one hand this may feel wonderful for the child however the parents do not realize that they are inadvertently delaying their child’s adjustment to the divorce.  Playing family feeds into the child’s fantasy that the parents may reconcile.  “If it looks like my family maybe it is my family.” In that wonderful moment when both parents are in the same home together the child may trick his mind into denying the truth of the death of the family they knew.  The moment the noncustodial parent leaves to return to their residence the child experiences the pain anew.  Unknowingly the parent is ripping off the band aid of their child’s adjustment whenever they “look like or act like” they are an intact family.  The wound cannot effectively heal if the parents are giving a false hope to their children.

Now this does not mean that the co-parents should not be friendly, should not attend sports at the same time (different cars), plan a birthday party together, and be as cooperative and pleasant as possible for their child’s sake.  If in doubt I suggest to the highly cooperative parents that they give their child a year to really accept the reality of two homes before spending so much time together.  The child must internalize the truth that their family resides in two homes not one.

Another problem often overlooked by these parents is the complication of falling in love and remarrying.  One set of co-parents spent so much time together each weekend that when the father fell in love and remarried the children blamed the new wife for ruining their arrangement.  The parents went from very cooperative to high-conflicted as this shift occurred.  Most new partners would not want their spouse to be spending so much time with the former spouse to play family.  Most would not be comfortable with this scenario.  Same would apply if mom re- married and her former husband was hanging out at the house all the time.  If one of the co-parents changed their patterns the new spouse will surely take the blame delaying the child’s adjustment to this new adult.

Now there are some remarried co-parents who are the exception.  Not only do they have a positively friendly co-parenting relationship but the new spouses do as well.  This is truly ideal. The children are then able to enjoy the love of all four parents at the same time in a healthy relationship that is not as likely to foster reconciliation fantasies. So resist trying to see your child every day or trying to socialize with the other parent.  Give yourself time to adjust to reality while you give your child this same gift of time.

Susan Boyan, LMFT






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