Competitive Feelings in Divorcing Parents

divorcing torn familyHeadline: Parents Put Aside Differences and Communicate about Their Child. This news flash is music to a child’s ears! Children love the sound of their separated parents having a cordial conversation. The absence of tension and a congenial give and take is all the child yearns for. Unfortunately, too many children often find themselves at odds with their parents, daydreaming and frustrated. Their grades may start slipping, or they may get involved in risky behaviors at school.

Can you blame them? Their parents are so busy stressing over the separation or divorce, and who is getting more time with the child, they hardly have time to listen to the child they are fighting over. What about their children’s complaints?

The post-separation parents’ competitive feelings are exacerbated when they enroll in counseling and monitored visitation services. For example, the visiting parent is most excited to see the children and feels that other clients may be getting in line in front of their case. This desperate parent laments that the contact with the kids isn’t happening fast enough, and that they have been waiting so long to see their children. They are sure staff is on the “side” of the custodial parent and being influenced by that parent’s comments, etc.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the custodial parent may be voicing cooperation while having difficulty letting the children go to visit the other parent. The pain the marriage and separation caused has transformed this parent into a reluctant participant. Bringing the children to visits with the “offending” parent is the last thing on their to-do list.

They may fear for the child’s safety and wonder whether the parent/child visit will indeed be safe. These parents also believe staff is siding with the visiting parent, trying hard to accommodate that parent while snubbing the custodial parent. And so the story gets repeated, family after family.

What is noticeable is that neither parent stops to the think what the other parent is feeling—or even more importantly, what the child might be feeling—as the child is being bounced back and forth between fearful, angry parents.

Now enters the concept of cooperation. The C-word is the difficult task of therapists as they carefully navigate the warring sides. They attempt to introduce a cooperative spirit to parents who at this point in their separation cannot see even communication, let alone cooperation.

The key to this problem is empathy with the feeling. Each parent must receive a large dose of empathy for their particular pain. The visiting parent, for the agony of not seeing their child, and the custodial parent for the injuries endured, and the fear they feel when their child must see that parent. Both parents can be comforted, but for different reasons. Until the parents know that we care, and care deeply, they will still hang on to the competitive feeling that “You care more for that parent than me.”

During summer, though, parents can be more convinced to let the competitions cease and pick up the picnic basket.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mary O'Connor, MFT

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Natasha

    June 7th, 2014 at 12:20 PM

    I rarely think that the feelings of the children are taken into account when you have parents who are divorcing and the situation is already acrimonious. The only things that they are likely thinking are how can I hurt this other person before he hurts me or more than he has hurt me. Those are the things going through their mind and not how can I make this easier on my child. In many cases it is like the roles become reversed and the children ahve to referee and act like the adults when the supposed adults can’t find a way to do that with each other anymore.

  • Jonathan

    June 9th, 2014 at 4:27 AM

    Since when did being a parent become all about competing with one another?
    But it is like that in even a lot of homes where the parents are not divorced, who can get the most love and affection from the kids.
    I am sure that when the parents are divorced the temptation can be even greater to compete for the love of the child, to try to buy it or whatever they think that they need to do to one up the other parent.

  • Mary O'Connor

    June 9th, 2014 at 12:03 PM

    You are right, Jonathan. Parenting brings up feelings of inadequacy and parents wonder if they are really doing the right thing, so they go to the kids for validation, “you are such a great mom or dad”. But its not a popularity contest, this parenting job, its focusing on bringing up good kids with good values, and sometimes that isn’t popular!

  • BettyJo

    June 9th, 2014 at 5:34 PM

    I remember when my ex and I got a divorce, he was the one who had always worked while I stayed at home with the kids, so when he left I quite literally had nothing of my own. I felt very insecure about that because the kids were at an age where it was important to them to wear the right clothes and to have the right things but these were all things that I couldn’t give to them on my salary once I went back to work. I think that for a long time I really worried that they would love him more because he could give them more, not thinking about how they knew all of the things that I gave them had nothing to do with maaterial goods. They knew I loved them and thankfully they were smart enough to recognize that sometimes love counts for a whole lot more than stuff. he gave them what he could and I gave them what I could and all in all their needs and wants were all covered.

  • candi

    June 10th, 2014 at 4:29 AM

    When my parents got a divorce, and mind you that this was many years ago when it was still not that widely acceptable for women to file for divorce, I was so fortunate that they made things normal as they could be for me and my brothers. It didn’t always feel like one or the other was pulling us in a million different directions. They were always very good at allowing us to make our choices about when to visit and where to live and they were good and accepting of whatever the choices were. I think that they knew even before the knowledge was out there that we all needed to feel like we had a voice or a little bit of say so in the matter since we had no control over the marriage staying together. I think that the grandparents disapproved on numerous levels but I applaud mom and dad for sticking to what they still believed were the right choices for us even when that wasn’t that easy on them.

  • Mary O'Connor

    June 10th, 2014 at 10:28 AM

    Your parents were courageous to be mature enough to keep their differences to themselves. The key issue was allowing you some choices in a situation that you wouldn’t have picked. They are wise people!

  • Amberly

    June 12th, 2014 at 3:21 PM

    I guess my parents didn’t win the parents of the year award when it came to their divorce lol. I would ahve died to see them get along but it was always fussing and fighting with my sisters and I caught forever in the middle. It made it so that when I got to be old enough I just stopped having anything to do with either of them for a very long time because I was sick of being used and put in the middle of their pettiness. It hurt all of us, them included, and I think that it did damage to our relationships with each other. My sisters and I stuck together because I guess we felt like we didn’t have anyone but each other.

  • Jack P

    June 13th, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    If you really know deep inside that you have been a good parent to your kids then there is nothing that you should have to worry about or feel competitive about. They might not see it now but have faith that one day they will and they will understand that everything that they did that you did it for them. It sounds cliche but through all of the giving and the taking I think that children have a pretty firm grasp of who loves them just because and who is doing things to get back at the other parent. I think that they have pretty good instincts like that and so you don’t always have to feel that this is about winning as long as you are loving your kid wholeheartedly.

  • cecile

    June 14th, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    No matter what you have done to each other to get to this point it still gives you no right to keep the kids in the middle of the battle

  • Melissa

    October 6th, 2016 at 6:53 AM

    My husband left and shacked up with someone straight away and with the first month my son was staying with this stranger his father had met. Basically I had to deal with so much emotionally and try to get myself in order and it was hard. What was hard is it wasn’t my choice to have someone else all of a sudden raise my child, that was not my choice and that choice was taken away from me. Its easier to say put your children first and pick up the peices when they get home. But you feel more helpless when its beyond your control. I try my hardest to be kind to his dad (even after everything) trying make the relationship good in my sons eyes but his dad within now 18 months of leaving has made quick choices. He is getting married, they got matching tattoos after 3 months of knowing each other, pregnant after 5 months and engaged 2 months before the divorce was finalised. She has a daughter and all of a sudden my son is now a brother to 2 siblings. Its been hell for me and my son knows how it must make me feel because he feels it too. We talk about our feelings and build ways to get around them together and he calls me his hero. The kids know, they see and we can only love them and help them deal with their feelings in the right way. Ultimately one persons choice to walk away and make bad decisions for his own selfish reasons vs the person left behind who used the opportunity to grow and teach her child strength and integrity in the face of adversity i think will teach my son good values and at the end of the day we both love him. There’s more to everyones story and divorce regardless will always hurt children. Its how we can teach them to deal with it, not pretend that the adults are fine with the obvious sh*tstorm. As I said though everyone has a story and this is mine.

  • Mary O

    October 10th, 2016 at 1:41 PM

    You are absolutely right, Melissa. This reaction you have been having is like being hit by a truck and still having to move through the day is very very difficult. So beautiful that you son sees you as his hero. You are! Managing your way through the resentment and anger to a situation you never in a million years would have chosen is the heroism of being a divorced parent. I am so sorry you are feeling so unsupported, and hopefully you will find a wonderful support group, therapist or group of friends to hold you up during this extremely difficult process. In my book Parenting Solo- A Guidebook for Busy Single Parents, there are many chapters about managing your way through the day while trying to mend a broken heart. The hell you are experiencing is one that many parents have felt when one partner decides to up and leave an intact family and suddenly created a new one! One thing for sure, they don’t run over with casseroles when a marriage dies, but they should.

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