This past weekend, I had a poetic family moment. You know, one of those greeting card moments where you visualize a leather bound book opening to a picture of the exact scene you’re sitting in. It was Saturday morning and my husband and I were lounging in bed while our son, who as usual had been up since the crack of dawn, was playing in the kitchen. I heard our daughter waking up, so I went to get her but after changing her diaper I realized that my husband hadn’t yet gotten out of bed. I brought my daughter back in to see if the two of us together could rouse him. My daughter, always thrilled to see her father, laid down on his pillow and turned to me saying (in her angelic, two year old voice), “I love daddy”. I smiled, laying my head down beside her and said, “I love daddy too.” Her reply was simply a smile that could melt glaciers, and then… she sighed.
Yes, my two year old actually sighed with happiness.
That’s when I had a thought. Or maybe, not so much a thought, but an epiphany. An idea that came barrelling through my Hallmark moment like a wrecking ball, smacking me upside the head. You see, I have often wondered why it is that so many of us children of divorce end up emotionally detached from our parents. I’ve considered that it might be due to our trust issues. Our sense of betrayal. I’ve wondered if it was the collateral damage of us simply shutting down emotionally, a well used protective mechanism of divorced kids. But you know, I think it may be more fundamental than that. I think it may be the result of the misalignment of love.
Mutual affection creates bonds. And not insignificant ones. Mutual affection can create the foundation of friendships, romances and even marriages. It can keep relationships going; making them endure. We tend to gravitate towards people who like the same things as we do. Who love what we love. And do you know why that is? Because in a relationship, affection towards something outside of each other gives us something tangible that confirms we are alike, that we belong, that we are…kindred.
Think about it. When you start raving about a book or a movie or a song that you love only to have someone proclaim their distaste for whatever you’ve been gushing about, leaves a sour taste in your mouth, doesn’t it? It makes you wonder why you don’t have that in common. And even if that person follows up their proclamation up with a declaration that your feelings are acceptable, that difference between you represents a bond you do not share.
Children of divorce feel very much like this sometimes. They love their parents. Both of them. But they are acutely aware that those same people no longer love each other. It becomes a bond they no longer share.
Now imagine that same someone from the previous scenario told you they didn’t want to hear about that book/movie/song anymore? I guess they really wouldn’t have to; knowing they didn’t share your affection would preclude you from sharing any more of your true feelings. What if they completely tuned you out when you showed any interest? What if they pointed out every negative thing they could find or shared every negative tidbit others had shared? The situation could create a fissure in the relationship. A fissure that could easily grow into an abyss. Do you notice the parallels?
Parental love is fundamental. It is woven right into the fabric of our souls. And the dissolution of that bond of mutual affection between our parents puts us children of divorce in an awfully awkward position. The thought of losing that bond with both parents can sometimes feel too overwhelming, often resulting in us aligning ourselves with one parent while dispelling the other. And if you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand how important it is for a child to feel analogous to a parent. To feel like they belong.
Because, what’s the alternative?
The alternative, is what the bulk of us do. Accept the loss of such a significant bond with both of our parents. That loss brings a sense of isolation. To correct it, we may try out some masks, putting on a different facade with each parent. And with that we risk losing ourselves. Many of us find the answer in indifference. But the love we feel for our parents is no less than the love they feel for us and pushing it away via our indifference comes with severe consequences. With indifference to our parents, comes indifference to ourselves. Apathy swirls us back into isolation and of course, our self esteem suffers.
As a parent of divorce, it is integral to your relationship with your child that you carry even a hint of that bond of mutual affection for your ex. And I don’t mean that you have to be physically affectionate or chat like girlfriends or vacation together. You don’t even have to show any actual affection to your ex, you only have to show it to your child. Show your child that you’re sad if you hear that something negative happened to your ex and show happiness if you hear something positive. Tell your child what you admire about their other parent or what qualities you are glad to see in them that remind you of your ex. Be engaged when you are being graced with stories about their visits and also be engaged in their plans to go. Simple things that pay great rewards with very little effort from you.
Simple things that will not only benefit your relationship with your child but will also benefit their relationship with themselves.
Aren’t those two relationships worth working on?