Separated Parents and Mutual Antagonism
by Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Some separated parents they cannot avoid provoking and antagonizing each other, co-creating conflict from which both seek relief. Yet and even though separated, they continue with their miserable ways, each complaining of the other. Both are looking for the other to desist and thus relieve the conflict.
Children of these parents go back and forth between them. They are the emissaries. They provide the fodder for parental complaints. Their secret mission is to keep the parental relationship alive and even though in conflict, parental conflict still signals a parental connection.
As these children inform each parent of the goings on with the other, neither parent is apt to redirect them from delivering their messages. Thus both parents can claim that the messages are non-solicited and certainly not coerced. Being children and particularly when young, the messages are distorted and reflect a child’s perspective. However, the parents take the messages as gospel and the child’s perception as clear and accurate statements of fact.
A child unsatisfied with the other parent’s dinner meal complains of being starved. Next, unsatisfied with the bedtime, a child complains of cruel punishment, being sent to bed early. Sometimes innocuously, a child merely comments or muses about the behaviour of a parent’s new partner and the other parent is racked with fear about the goings on of the other. Mountains are made of molehills. Sinister plots and outcomes are seen in every instance and one parent cannot resist intervening on the other for the sake of the child. The intruded upon parent however, seeks privacy and certainly denies any and all allegations. The fight is on and while the parental connection is kept alive, the children are subject to anger, hostility and conflict.
Making mattes worse is when one parent leads his or her life with a sense of entitlement. Not only is what I am doing fine, but I am entitled to parent as I see fit and I am certainly entitled to be happy, date, develop new relationships, expose my kids to my new relationships and enjoy the company of new companions by day and by night.
So, on the one hand we have a parent who is self-centred and on the other hand, a parent who cannot resist taking the bait and escalating matters. The dynamic is toxic and as one antagonizes the other, they escalate their respective behaviours and the child lives on a diet of acrimony.
The challenge from a therapeutic point of view is to get both parents to disengage, to leave each other alone, recognising it is the antagonism that drives them both and that is the truly toxic part to the child. While parents may concern themselves with the standard of care each provides and/or the moral role model each presents, the outcome for children of separated parents is more determined by the parental conflict than the behaviours at issue. As the parents disengage, they must also help remove the child from the role of emissary. Comments about the other parent are not to be implicitly reinforced by letting the child prattle on, but rather parents should redirect the child to other matters, more notably issues of the moment with the present parent.
The objective is to limit escalation by facilitating better boundaries, recognizing that given the self-centred nature of one parent, the likelihood of getting that parent to change their ways is quite remote and relative to the behaviours in question, it is the parental conflict that will be more destructive to the children’s psychosocial development.
The goal is to extricate the child as emissary and to limit the toxicity of the family experience. In the end, you have a happier, better adjusted child who when older, will better understand the respective behaviour of the parents and make choices for themselves.
If you are the parent who continues to worry about the moral role model of the other, concentrate more on your behaviour as a role model and still limit conflict. That way you are not drawing more attention to the very behaviour you may find objectionable and you offer your child a range of experiences from which to draw.
Mutual antagonism and provocative behaviour: neither is truly acceptable, but conflict is still worse.