Parental Unity, In and Out of the Marriage

Reader’s Question

After 20 years of marriage that produced two daughters, now aged 18 and 16, I am a recently divorced husband and father. The reasons my ex-wife divorced me are not that complex but were reasons that tested her patience. However, I didn’t want and still don’t want the divorce.

Early on I became aware that I suffered from either depression or Borderline Personality Disorder, and my ex did suggest potential remedies, but at the time I probably was in denial. I finally got the correct treatment, am now on a stabilizing drug, and suffer no more, as I previously did. No doubt the condition caused erratic behavior on my part that was aggravating to my family and difficult to accept.

However, I was never unfaithful, never did drugs or alcohol, was never financially irresponsible, etc. — and the biggest “never” of all was that I never desired or had a selfish avocation. As a family, we were fortunate to travel extensively, overseas and across the USA, enjoying a variety of pursuits.

But this letter is not about the divorce, but about a decision my ex made about three years ago. At that time, our oldest daughter, then 15, started to abuse me verbally and to show disrespect in other ways. I then appealed to my ex to join me in a united parental front in order to attempt to show our daughter her destructive behavior. I was astonished to hear her say that she would in no way get involved and that since I “created” the problems, I was on my own on remedying same. I took into account that our daughter, like her mother, has a fiery temper and a short fuse. Needless to say, her abuse of me got progressively worse because she then knew she could behave negatively with impunity — so much so that a dear son from a previous marriage stopped visiting, because he couldn’t tolerate the abuse heaped on me. Mind you, when our daughter wanted something, like a gas card, butter wouldn’t have melted in her mouth. The breaking point came when after some vile and wicked taunts, I snapped and tried to push her back to her room. The police were called, seven cops came, and I was evicted. My ex has any number of superior qualities, but she would rather die first, than acknowledge or admit she made a mistake on anything. I never saw her bull-headedness before the divorce, but it has surprised me since.

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So on the subject of parental unity, in or out of the marriage, I ask what the conventional wisdom on this subject and hope to hear from experts.

Psychologist’s Reply

Parental unity — the ability to operate and cooperate as a team when approaching family issues — should be a major goal for all parents, despite the status of the marriage or the age of the children. It’s easy to understand the importance of parenting as a team, with both agreeing on a parenting approach or solution, when young children are involved. When the children become teenagers, it’s even more important because those teenagers become more socially skilled and even manipulative. Following a divorce, parents continue to need a sense of unity to work with their adult children — not unity as a couple each time, but unity as problem-solvers. Divorced parents of adult children often enjoy cooperating during happy times with their children such as marriage, childbirth, grandchildren, etc. but also with difficult times experienced by those adult children.

From your description, you’re in a situation where parental unity is not likely to occur. Your description of “recently divorced” suggests you’re trying to obtain cooperation from your ex-wife as you deal with your oppositional daughter. Divorces are extremely stressful, and it’s very possible that your ex-wife will not be interested in parental unity, parental cooperation, etc. at this time. Her lack of interest in cooperation may be related to several things:

  • Divorce typically includes very strong and uncomfortable feelings that create intense Emotional Memories. Most of these uncomfortable memories are directly related to the spouse and for that reason, exes try to keep their distance from their ex-spouse when possible. Your presence makes her uncomfortable — even when your topic is trying to work with the daughter.
  • You make it clear that you didn’t want the divorce, and I assume you’ve made that clear to your ex-wife. In this situation, she will look at every conversation regarding “parental unity” as your attempt to pressure her toward reconciliation.
  • You describe testing her patience. Attempting to discuss and obtain parental unity will also test her patience — no matter what the experts say. I have a sense that you don’t fully understand your wife’s situation, so I would not recommend asking for discussions on parental unity. Issues that will need parental unity will surface over time, at which point discussions can be held.

More important than parental unity from your side is the need to establish new relationships with your children. Each child must now form an independent and different relationship with you both as a parent and as an adult. Your daughter is exploring the limits of that relationship at this time. You need to define the relationship and establish boundaries — what behavior is permitted, what is unacceptable, etc. If you don’t, the verbal abuse and using you like an ATM will continue because you tolerate both. In some situations with teenage children following a divorce, a new relationship must be established later on an adult-to-adult basis. I’d concentrate on reorganizing your relationship with your children and hope that you and your ex will be able to cooperate as future concerns surface with your children.

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