Grief: The Impact of Grief on Successful Co-Parenting

Grief: The Impact of Grief on Successful Co-Parenting

Most parents want to co-parent successfully and strive to conduct themselves in ways that would include them in the first two post-divorce relationship categories. What gets in the way?

The Grieving Process

Just as with death, when a relationship ends there is a grieving process. This natural response to loss often contributes significantly to difficulties in co-parenting. It takes no less than two years to bring the grieving process regarding the break up of the relationship to a resolution. This timeline is founded on the notion that a person needs to live through the first year after the break up with all its holidays and occasions, as he or she moves away from the established patterns of the marital relationship. The second year permits the creation of new patterns. It should not be assumed that a new relationship cannot be established during the grieving period. It is just that unresolved issues from the prior relationship often interfere with the new relationship. Ghosts of the previous relationship frequently intrude, unconsciously, into the dynamics of a new relationship and often contribute to its problems. Frequently, the grief process takes much longer than two years. One theory suggests that the grieving process can take as long as one- third to one-half the length of the relationship that just ended.

The grieving process has many theoretical models. One stage-theory that is very useful was developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.[10] The first stage is the stage of denial – the disbelief that this is actually happening. The second stage is the stage of anger. This can take many forms, which include conflict, rage, acting out and redefining the former partner in as negative a light as possible.

Johnston[11] has termed this tendency the “negative reconstruction of the spousal identity.” In this phenomenon, all the attributes that initially attracted one to the former partner are now attributes that are repulsive. It is a way for a spouse to emotionally disengage. As examples: “He is such a good provider,” becomes “He is such a workaholic.” “She is such a free spirit,” becomes “She is such a flake.” “He is so well informed,” becomes, “He is so opinionated.” Sound familiar?

The third stage, of grieving, according to Kubler-Ross, involves remorse or bargaining. In this stage, one is frightened about really losing the other. Promises and deals are made that positive changes will happen if only they can get back together.

The fourth stage is the phase of depression. There is deep pain and sadness about the loss of the dreams, fantasies, expectations, and hopes.

Finally, the last stage, acceptance, is one which involves moving on in life. It has been our experience that you know you have reached the acceptance stage when someone, inquiring about your relationship, asks, “What happened?” And, your response, given in less than ten seconds and void of emotional charge, is “We just went our separate ways.”

Impact on Relationship Dynamics

It is often the case that one parent is at a more functional level than is the other with regard to co-parenting. If this is the situation, then it is more effective for the parent who is at the more functional level to remain rational and empathic toward the other parent. If the more functional parent is drawn to a lower level of functionality, there will be more chaos and disruption, not only for that parent, but, more importantly, for the child. The higher functioning parent would be better off learning effective negotiating skills for dealing with an individual who prefers to be in a competitive rather than collaborative negotiating arena. Do not expect the separation or divorce to magically change the pattern of the other party from how it was during the marriage to being more effective in resolving problems. Without active new learning, it is unusual for such patterns to change on its own. Individual counselling and classes in communication skills are productive resources for the higher functioning parent.

Impact on The Individual’s Ability To “Move On” 

There is yet another concept to address that impacts the ability to co-parent. The emotional process of divorce for one partner is not generally on the same timeline as it is for the other partner. Typically, one of the partners becomes aware of being unhappy in the relationship. That individual may request the other to attend marital counselling in hopes of getting the other partner to change and make the relationship “right.” The other partner may respond with something like, “I don’t have a problem. You have a problem. You go to counselling. I am very happy just the way things are.”

The person attempting to seek professional help is already well into the process of emotional detachment. The less effort exerted by the other partner, the more such detachment occurs. The interesting aspect here is that the first party experiences interactions with the spouse as a constant, daily reality check regarding the unhappy experience. This validates the perception that the relationship is no longer functional. Typically, this internal process of detachment goes on for about a year or two before the decision to separate is made. Once the decision is made to leave the relationship, there typically is little or no chance of reclaiming the relationship. And, on the day that the first partner announces that the relationship is over, the grieving process for the second party begins. It is this timeline disparity that creates turmoil between the couple.

At that point, the person who is being left says, “Okay, let’s go to counselling and fix this!” Frequently, the intent of such a request is to have the counsellor tell the leaving party that he or she is in error and should stay and work it out. When this does not happen as hoped, the partner who is left begins the emotional process of divorce. Once separated, the grieving process of the person who was left is somewhat different and more difficult than that of the one who left. Now, the only base of perception is the memory of the relationship, not the reality of the day-to-day experience. And, those memories can rapidly become grossly distorted. Once again, individual counselling for the person being left can be of tremendous help in providing support, and can be a reality check for clearer thinking and more appropriate planning.


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