I have been planning a blog on divorce for several weeks because of the many, many clinical experiences I have had with kids of divorced parents – and working with divorced parents as well. As I have expanded this here, I want to address the issue of divorce through the lens of a child, but also conflict between parents – divorced, married or otherwise – and the impact on kids. Hopefully this will reach someone who needs to know this information!
For part one of this two-part divorce posts (the second to be posted in a couple of days), I wanted to talk about resentment and forgiveness. I have lived my fair share of parental conflicts and have seen time and again the problems that kids experience because of parental resentment and lack of forgiveness.
Let’s talk about resentment.
According to the google dictionary, resentment is “bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly”. Ugh. That sounds nasty! And many of us would like to believe we have never held resentment toward anyone. But what I find in my clinical practice is that we allow little things to build – tiny, everyday things – that then lead to resentment. Let me share an example.
I had a *client many years ago whose parents were often in arguments about what my client (their 13-year-old son) perceived as “small things.” He would share how they would fight about who had to pick him up from practice or pay for his athletic gear. He said they wouldn’t be big blow-out fights (although they had those too), but just passive aggressive comments like, “Oh it’s fine…I’ll take care of it…again! Just like I always do. Because I’m the only one who cares about what is best for OUR SON.”
Comments like these, in our frustration with our spouse, are noted and remembered by our kids. They can sense our irritation. They see our eyes rolling. They feel the bitterness.
Instead, we need to model conflict resolution and emotional expression. Even if it doesn’t work all of the time (in other words, even if we don’t get the result we want from our partner), it is still important for them to see we have tried. So in this instance, it would be fair to disagree, and even argue, in front of the son. Instead, we need to share how we are feeling and provide a strategy for a solution, rather than just being passive aggressive. For instance, “UGH. I am so irritated right now. If feels like you are continuing to make this just MY responsibility, when it is OURS to carry together. Can you please help me by ordering his jersey, while I contact the coach about pickup?” Again – this may not work every time. But if we are continuing to stay clear in our communication, it is likely to plant seeds over time in your child.
Resentment, left unaddressed, can lead to contempt
The most well-known couples researcher, Dr. John Gottman, has published over and over and over about the four key things that healthy couples do (and don’t do). He has also shared the most predictive factors in couples ending in divorce – see here for more info. One of those four factors is contempt. Contempt is deadly in relationships because it sets an aura that one of us is better than the other and it blinds us from the many facets of our partner that are positive. If we allow resentment to grow, and it turns into contempt, we are in big trouble! And so are our kids.
Forgiveness is key
Forgiveness is a huge part of any relationship, but especially in the parental relationship because WE ARE THE MODEL of all future relationships for our kids. Let me say that again (I say this A LOT to parents!) – WE are the model of relationships for our kids. Think about that. And then think about raising kids who have never been modeled how to forgive another person.
For our kids, we have to model forgiveness. They have to hear from us “I forgive you” – a lot! They apologize a lot and we should be using the words “I forgive you” a lot.
What if forgiveness is hard?
But what about when we are so badly hurt by our partner that it doesn’t feel like we WANT to forgive them?? I get that. I don’t know exactly what that feels like. But I have heard this statement from one parent about another parent many times before. “But Beth, I don’t WANT him to think it is okay. I can’t forgive him. Then my kids will think it is okay.”
Let me first say to the mom or dad, man or woman who feels this way. I see you. I honor that hurt. What happened was not okay. AND forgiveness does NOT mean you are saying that it is okay. Instead, forgiveness is saying – I will not allow the hurt to keep me silent (or down, or afraid, or whatever goes in that blank for you) any longer. Forgiveness is releasing the negative feelings toward that person for your own betterment. It is standing up after being knocked down. And saying, I won’t be held back anymore.
Now – think about being able to model THAT for your kids?!? Doesn’t that sound amazing?
So how do we do that?
One of my favorite books on divorce is written by Judge Michele Lowrance called The Good Karma Divorce. The reason I love this book is because it has practical strategies for moving toward healing. She encourages readers to write, reflect, share with others, etc. For anyone going through a divorce – or having ANY tiny moments of resentment from a previous divorce, I think the book is a great investment!
Beyond the book, I encourage many parents to seek a pastor or counselor to walk them through the negative feelings associated with divorce. This allows space to share openly, but also to figure out exactly how to model new feelings for your child. Remember, the biggest part is to realize our kids are watching. So with each piece of resentment we move forward from and each aspect of forgiveness we allow, our kids will see the weight of that transformation in us.
As always, encourage and allow the space for discussion about resentment and forgiveness with your kids. Share your struggle and your journey with them (as appropriate!).
*Note: demographic variables and details have been altered to maintain confidentiality.