FULL TRANSCRIPT – SEASON 3 – EPISODE 6
Jessica: Are you worried about how your kids are handling your divorce? Or are you concerned at all about them potentially being in a healthy relationship later themselves? These are just some of the things we’re going to talk about today in season three of the Divorce etc… podcast. We are the exEXPERTS, Jessica and T.H., and we focus on helping you navigate your divorce and successfully move on with your life. Please follow us on all social media at exEXPERTS and check out www.exexperts.com for tons of free divorce related resources. Let’s bring in today’s guest.
T.H.: Welcome Amy Armstrong from the Center for Family Resolution. Amy is a fantastic co-parent coach. She helps the parents and the kids, and brokers good communication skills and so much more. Welcome to our show today.
Amy: Thank you.
T.H.: We are thrilled to have you here. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about why you’re in this and how becoming a co-parent coach has been important to you?
Amy: Sure, sure thing. I started off in parent education, just basic quality parenting, and loved it. But so many parents would want me to stay after class and talk about how whatever topic we had covered applied in a specific situation. Of course, that is where the fun comes in, right, is seeing how people’s lives can actually change with new information. I eventually got a couple credentials as a coach, and actually now even run a program myself, because I’m literally obsessed with coaching. Once word got out that I was doing coaching, specifically for co-parenting, let me back up just a little bit to say that what I noticed so many times when people wanted extra support, it’s because even if parents have got a great idea about something they wanted to do in their family, if the parents weren’t on the same page, it added so much turmoil. I started working specifically doing a lot of co-parenting work. Eventually, someone from the local courts asked me to do a class specifically for separating and divorcing parents. Then when I got into coaching those folks, I started actually getting court orders to do coaching for co-parents. And actually, most of my business is court ordered now. A lot of it’s not, but it’s just that the courts are recognizing now that parents need help.
Jessica: They do.
Amy: I will say that so many parents want to do the right thing. They know they shouldn’t be hostile, they know they shouldn’t speak poorly about the other parent, but it’s the how, right?
Jessica: What are some of those biggest challenges that you see people struggling with when it comes to co-parenting? Is it the communication in and of itself?
Amy: Yes and no. I think it’s the communication, but at the root of the communication, it’s that people are not doing well themselves. It’s the stress. It’s the uncertainty. It’s the fear. I mean, neuroscience tells us our brains erupt into blame when we’re upset. And so that ends up creating so much of the hostility between co-parents, is they get into blaming one another for whatever is going on in the family.
Jessica: How do you coach them through that?
Amy: Mm-hmm. It’s actually good news. Just the awareness that it’s normal to blame, that we all do it all the time, really helps. And so we can practice when we’re not in the heat of the moment just noticing. Okay, can I take a breath or two or three? Can I set a boundary instead of lashing out in some kind of loud voice, or some kind of yelling, or something critical?
T.H.: Well, also you end up snapping at your kids or snapping at anybody because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like, too bad for you. I’m heading into a shitstorm right now, and you’re in my way.
Amy: The nearest person is the most likely target.
Amy: Right? And so our job in learning to communicate better is to self manage, to self regulate. What I teach in my groups is that we need to do self care ahead of time. There’s no way you can recover in the heat of the moment. If you’re at a nine out of 10 on the stress scale, that is not the time to practice self care. We’ve got to keep ourselves ahead of it by having our fantastic self care practices every day. It can even be literally scheduled throughout the day so that we stay ahead of it so these difficult stressors don’t get the best of us.
T.H.: Okay, so let’s start from the beginning of a divorce now and incorporate what you’re saying. We’re getting a divorce. I don’t know if I want to leave my family and really do this because of my kids. I think we should stay for the kids. So you hear that a lot.
Amy: All the time.
T.H.: And let’s bust this myth now, please.
Amy: The only time that it really is good to stay for the kids is if you’re truly growing as people, and you’re able to self-manage, and you can feel good about yourself in the relationship. I’ll tell a story. I’ve got a mom and dad that I’m working with right now. They’re staying together for now. Their kids are very young. They have so much to work on that they’re getting themselves in good shape to separate, if that makes any sense.
Jessica: That does make sense, actually. I think that’s really responsible.
T.H.: And impressive.
Amy: Yeah, they both have behaviors that the other person finds unacceptable, but they know they can’t afford to separate. They know that separating would cause so much chaos for them that we’re spending probably three or four months first getting them ready and settled enough to separate.
Amy: Interestingly enough, I had another client once that decided to stay for a while, because her husband was so disregulated. He was using drugs. She was so scared of separating and having him spend time with the children unsupervised. So she had some work to do before they could safely separate.
Jessica: So for people who want to safely separate, though, and they say, okay, we’re going to stay together for the kids, they meet with you, and you let them know it’s not really healthy for kids to watch a relationship that’s not working. What are the best ways to be able to actually talk to your kids about the fact that you’re getting divorced? I feel everybody’s afraid of that. We’re all doing it wrong. Nobody knows what to say. You say it once, they seem okay, and you don’t want to bring it up again because you don’t want to keep reminding them. What are we doing about it?
Amy: Right. I think a lot of parents err when they get permission to be honest. Nothing against honesty, it’s just that kids really don’t need to know. I mean, think of how confusing it is for the parents. The kids do not need for you to unpack your adult relationship for them. They don’t need that. What they need, there’s two things parents need to know before they can talk to the kids at all. That is, how often they’re going to be seeing each parent, and where the parent is going to be who’s leaving the household.
Jessica: But what if you’re not even that far along? I mean, if you’ve just decided to get divorced, and you’re going to be going through this whole process, you don’t know where–
Amy: You don’t get to tell the kids yet. So there are three things that really undo children that lead to really poor outcomes when parents divorce. One of those is uncertainty. Kids need security, and they can only get security from their parents. They don’t have control of their own lives. They need their parents to provide their security. We cannot go telling kids, “Oh, by the way, we’re splitting up and we have no idea when you’re going to see us or where.” We don’t get to do that to our kids. We’ve got to get a little bit of a handle on it before we talk to the kids.
T.H.: Jessica, did you do that? Your kids were four and two.
Jessica: And it was totally fine because I had a very amicable divorce. That was a piece of cake for us to be able to say what the custody situation was. I don’t think we brought that up again. Like T.H. said, my kids were two and four. I think our conversation was more like, “We’re not going to be living together anymore, but we’re still a family and we both love you and you’re going to still see us all the time.” It was more broad like that. But I definitely know people who go through custody battles that take a long time and they aren’t living together. Because I’m just trying to figure out for someone who is in a very acrimonious situation where they are not living together, you can’t hide from the kids the fact that one parent isn’t there.
Amy: No, no, no. If they’re already not living together, then you know where both parents are.
Jessica: You don’t know what the end game is going to be with regards to custody.
Amy: Oh, no, no, no. You don’t need the end game. You don’t need the end game. You need today.
T.H.: So when we told our kids, we went to my therapist to get some coaching on what to say, remind them that we each love them, and just because we’ve decided not to be married anymore doesn’t change the fact that we both each love you, and we’re going to be with you and spend time with you. But we did not say, “You’re going with Dad Wednesday and every other weekend. You’re living with me full time.” We didn’t say anything else, but now that you’re talking about this, I’m feeling like we used the word “divorce”. My eight my oldest was eight, and so what the hell does that mean? Divorce, what is that? Now who am I? And a whole flood of things. My other kids were six and four, so they were kind of looking to her like, should we be scared? Should we be happy? Should we cry? What should we do? I’m thinking about that right now. But then what we did, what I did, and I give myself a lot of credit for this, but I’m not sure it was necessary, we took the dog and went to town, all of us, and got ice cream so that we could show them that we could be…
Jessica: A family.
T.H.: A family. But that was the last time that happened until I had to show up for one of the kid’s birthday parties, because I chose to, with him. You know, to share it. But we did not set the truth for them by doing that. It’s coming to me now as we’re talking about this.
Amy: So there’s a lot of ways that parents can demonstrate safety, security, certainty. One of the big things is that the parents are calm enough that as long as parents can demonstrate their wellbeing, if the parents are okay, it’s going to really help the kids be okay. But we don’t want to just throw something out for the kids without putting a little framework around it for them. The “divorce” word doesn’t really mean anything to kids. What the children’s experience is, is that their parents aren’t going to live together anymore, and that they’re going to see their parents in two separate homes. Whether you use the D word or not, the point is that one of us–I mean, some people do nesting–
T.H.: Right, what does that mean for your family?
Amy: I do nesting agreements too, but what I see is that the children are going to feel more secure when they know what their experience is going to be, that they’re going to be seeing their parents in two different places.
T.H.: And then things are going to change.
Amy: Yeah, but that they’re going to see both parents and that both parents are okay. If parents aren’t okay, we need to let the children know how the parents are going to make sure they are okay. For example, when I was going through my divorce, I had plenty of days that I was a total wreck. I had this friend Carol, and I taught my kids to literally say, “Mom, have you and Carol been for a walk lately?” They knew that she was my person to go to when I was a wreck. I could say, “You know what? I’m having a really bad day. I’m going to go to bed early. I’m going to go call Carol. I’m going to go out with Carol.” And so it was this sense that I get to be a real human being, but I have support other than my children. It’s not on them to make me feel better.
T.H.: Okay, we are just going to take a quick pause. Because we know it’s hard to get honest and reliable information about your divorce, so we’ve done the work for you. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get exEXPERTS in your inbox and join virtual Open House events where you can ask questions to top experts that we have put together for you. It’s a rare opportunity for you to interact with them. And sign up for private sessions with us, Jessica and T.H., so you can move forward and thrive. We’ve lived it, so we get it. You can sign up at www.exexperts.com. Now back to the show.
Jessica: So Amy, I mean, I think that it would be really good if you can–I know you just gave that example, but a little bit of clarity for someone, you’re not saying they have to be able to actually have the custody situation worked out?
Jessica: I think what I’m stuck on is the idea that sometimes when people separate, the visitation looks like one thing, and then when the divorce is finalized and the settlement is finalized, that visitation changes. That is potentially okay you’re saying–
Jessica: –because you can talk to them about that later. It’s not like, “This is what the custody is going to be forever.” It’s just that we’re not living together right now. And you’re still going to see both of us. It doesn’t have to be, “Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights here. Thursday nights, Friday nights there.”
Amy: Very short term.
T.H.: But the thing is, it could be very jarring, like it was for us. There’s no plan, but there’s no way I’m living with him anymore. He’s got to go. And that’s just the reality of the situation. So as long as we were both seeing the kids, like I kind of had to muddle through every day, but I wasn’t ever going to be prepared for that. I feel even though a lot of people know their marriages aren’t working out and it’s heading down that road towards divorce, the day you realize it, it’s like you’re in overdrive. There’s no way to be in a good place to–I mean, I think it’s amazing, that family that you talked about. They must have really good communication, even though they know it’s not working out.
Amy: They don’t.
T.H.: But that’s also a big problem in a lot of marriages is no communication. That was one of the problems in my marriage and I know in Jessica’s. We weren’t talking about what was going on. And so when you tell your kids, how do you know what you’re doing is not going to have long term effects, and you’re the worst parent in the world? And it’s not your fault that you got a divorce.
Amy: Let’s go back to this idea of being honest. Here’s what we can be honest about. You can be honest saying it’s hard. You can be honest about saying we have a lot of things to figure out. You can be honest saying we really don’t know how this is going to look. But here’s what we do know, “Mommy’s going to be staying over at Grandma’s for the next couple of weeks. She’s going to come and pick you up on Saturday and spend all weekend with you. And then you’re going to come back here on Monday and Dad will take you to school.”
Jessica: Okay, so it’s really just giving them enough of the short term so in their head they’re like, okay, I get what’s happening over the next couple of days over the next week, etc.
Amy: We just don’t want a parent to disappear and not have enough of a plan of when they’re going to be seeing each parent. Assuming they were attached to both parents in the first place.
T.H.: The other thing that I looked back and I did do, and as your kids grow, new questions come up and they realize different things, and so I did, on my end, tell my kids any questions you have, feel free to ask me. I don’t know if I’m going to have the answer. And I’ll tell you if I do or I don’t.
T.H.: And if I don’t, then I’ll say, “As soon as I have an answer for you, I’ll let you know.” And of course, I don’t give them all the down and dirty if I have the answer. It’s the kid version.
Amy: Right, exactly.
T.H.: And the other thing that I would like you to address is my older daughter, eight years old, was kind of looking for other parents she could go to. She’s like, “Okay, but Elise and Jeff are still good, right? And Wendy is okay with her husband, right?” These are our closest family friends. And so okay, if you two are a mess, where can I go, that they’re not a mess, who’s like family to me? And that was like–
T.H.: And now, by the way–
Jessica: They’re all divorced!
T.H.: –half of them are divorced.
Amy: Oh, gosh.
T.H.: But it was really like she was looking for like a substitute dad.
Amy: She was looking for certainty – what is going to stay the same in my life?
Jessica: Well, what can we do in those conversations, though? I joke a lot. I’m like, I’m never going to know how fucked up my kids are until they’re adults in therapy themselves. But T.H. and I now have young adults. My kids who were two and four are now 16 and 18, and T.H.’s oldest is now 22. We talk sometimes about how we’re worried what will our children’s adult relationships look like? Because they were in situations where their dads cheated, and our divorces were totally different, but I don’t want my son to grow up and think that it’s okay to cheat on whoever he’s with at the time. Nor do I want my daughter to grow up feeling like that’s okay, or that’s inevitable, or that happens all the time. What do we do in the conversations with our kids? Or is there anything we can do to help make sure that they’re going to have healthy relationships later?
Amy: The good news for that is how much you can influence them by how you handle it. So number one is taking impeccable care of ourselves so that we’re not trying to have conversations where we’re confused between our experience and our child’s experience. We want to own our stuff, not talk to our children when we’re triggered. We want to say, “I’m having a hard time right now. I love your question. I need to go for a walk. Or I need to take care of myself. We’ll talk about it this weekend.” So we have to make sure that we’re not getting our needs met by trying to get our children, right? If our children are okay, we’re okay? No, it’s the opposite. If we’re okay, our children are going to be okay.
T.H.: I also remember falling apart once. I think it was just really the stress of the divorce. Because the truth is I was thrilled to be out of my marriage, but it was the stress of everything because it was really contentious. Four years, three judges, every expert, mediation, money, money, money, money, money. We were on vacation in Florida with my parents, and I was crying, and my daughters came in and they were so scared. I said to them, “It’s hard. You know you guys cry sometimes when you get really upset?” I go, “I’m just human. And I’m upset. And it’s a whole bunch of stuff. And I’d just really love a hug.” And so you show your vulnerability to your kids. I didn’t plan that, but they were in room.
Jessica: But that doesn’t solve whether or not later their idea or definition of a relationship is going to be–
Amy: Well, let’s address that. So the second part of it besides taking care of ourselves, and yes, T.H., completely being able to allow ourselves to be human and share our humanness and our emotions with our children without making it their responsibility to fix us, right? But the second part of this is that how we handle our own empowerment is what’s going to help inspire our children to be empowered. So if we’re blaming, if we’re shut down in our communication, then that’s the tone and the culture we’re setting for our children. If we’re demonstrating that we own our choices, and we talk to them about our lives, and here’s what I’ve chosen, here’s what I want to try, here’s what I’m doing now, this is something I’m really excited about, or this is something that hasn’t worked out really well, here’s what I’m going to do differently, if we’re using a lot of really empowered language with them, and if they see us link our empowerment with our happiness, then that’s the message they’re getting. We’re not playing victim. It’s playing victim that is much more likely to repeat a generational pattern.
Jessica: a) I totally agree with you, but I think what I wonder for myself, and because I agree with you, that’s a huge part of why I was like, I’ve got to get out of this marriage. I need to set an example for my kids that I’m an independent person, and you don’t have to rely on somebody else. You can be successful on your own. I sometimes wonder if the fact that their dad and I are as close as we are now, I’ve been married again, he’s in a long term relationship, he’s had other kids, we’ve totally moved on, but I sometimes wonder if the fact that we are as close, and I’m sure the way my kids see it is that I’ve forgiven him. My kids and I’ve never had that conversation, per se. But I’ve chosen to rise above, and I’ve chosen to have a really good relationship with him for the benefit of the kids so that there is no tension when we hang out. We all hang out together, it’s all fine, but then do they think that then it’s not really a big deal that any of that happened because we’ve moved on and we’re friends?
Amy: Like you’re condoning it because you still get on?
Jessica: I wonder sometimes. I think to myself, well, the impact, the punishment, so to speak, was he didn’t get to be married to me anymore.
Jessica: But do my kids see it that way? Because now it’s like, well, he did all of these things that some people are like, “It’s so bad,” but we’re friends anyway.
Amy: I don’t know your kids, but I don’t think that’s what kids care about. Kids do not care about fault and blame. They want to love and enjoy both their parents. This is an absolute trap where we think we have to teach our children the moral lessons by, and I’m going to exaggerate for effect here, but by punishing their other parent. All that does is make them see us as still carrying around a grudge. I mean, forgiveness is a beautiful thing. It shows that no one has power over you. That’s what you’re modeling to your children by being friends with their dad, is that he doesn’t have any power over you. You’re happy without him. He doesn’t have a negative effect on you anymore because you own your own life.
Jessica: I like that. I think I just worry that what I’m showing them in a sense is it is okay to behave badly and do all of these things wrong because you’ll get away with it, and you’ll be able to be friends with them and be okay anyway, and there are no ramifications or no consequences.
Amy: I appreciate where you are with it, that it’s still nagging at you what lesson they’re getting from you being friends with their dad. But I really doubt that’s their priority right now. Their priority is that they get to relax.
Jessica: I think I’m worried about it or that it’s nagging at me because I’m not sure what my son’s relationships will look like. That’s more of what I’m concerned about. A lot of his friends have had girlfriends. He’s in college now, and the girl that he had dated before, he was always in denial about her being a girlfriend. It’s almost I worry that he’s not ready to commit because once he commits, then he’s boxed in, which I think to some degree is probably what his dad felt. I don’t know. It just worries me of what do healthy relationships look like from children of divorce if we don’t have the right conversations with them.
Amy: I think the much more powerful lesson is the breakthrough that you’ve had, that you’ve demonstrated that you’re a choice maker, and that his dad is someone you would never be married to again because of his infidelity.
T.H.: We definitely worry, as I’m sure in your life you do too. I mean, one of my daughters was in a very serious relationship literally since middle school. I was just kind of watching the relationship go along. It was not a good relationship in my mind, but I kept my mouth shut, and I was super supportive of her. She’s very young, so the future wasn’t right now. All I could do was be really supportive of her and answer her questions. In the end, they broke up, and I was thrilled.
Amy: So that was a model that you trusted her to learn and grow and make the decision, as hard as that is.
T.H.: I did, but I had been in relationships before the one I’m in now that didn’t work, that I kept him hanging around. He wasn’t a bad man; he just was not the right man for me. And so I guess it is really just for any relationship we’re in, right? I mean, with our friends, with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you’re modeling a relationship of sorts. So is it true that because Jessica and I are such great friends, and we’re there for each other and all these great things, that’s just as good as modeling a relationship with another man or another–I mean, you want to set an example.
Amy: It all matters. What they’re looking at is what makes people happy. I think we really make a mistake when we try to impose any feelings that they might have on what they’ve seen with their parents, or even what they’re seeing in their own relationship. I mean, all three of my children are grown and married now. I watched them choose their partners and see what was important to them and their partners. Loyalty is really important for all three of them now, even though they didn’t see any of that from their parents. I just believe that the best thing we can do for our children is to elevate our own wellbeing as loving, supportive, strong, confident, independent human beings that do not let other people dictate how we feel. When we can model healthy emotional independence, where we’re very connected to people, where we care deeply, where people are very important, but they don’t get to own us, they don’t get to make us feel a certain way, that is to me absolute freedom. Once you’ve tasted that, you’re never going to be with someone that restricts your growth and your freedom like our first spouses did.
Jessica: It’s words of wisdom. I mean, we are going to have to definitely continue this conversation another time. But it’s really great advice. I hope that everybody listening got as much out of it as we did. I feel it was like a personal therapy session.
Amy: Always. I love this work so much, because as much as I don’t like divorce and the pain that goes along with it, I see every person I work with as at a pivot point where they get to start a new chapter. We get to define it. You know as much as I do how exhilarating it is to watch people grow and not have to repeat the same bad experiences ever again.
Jessica: For sure. Well, thank you so much Amy.
Amy: You’re welcome.
Jessica: We really appreciate you taking your time.
Amy: I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Jessica: And if you guys enjoyed this episode of the Divorce etc… podcast with the exEXPERTS today, can you help a girl out, or two girls, really? When you subscribe, rate, and review, it helps us get the word out so we can support more people like you going through divorce and beyond. And of course, share with anyone you know who can benefit from listening. Have a great day.