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Monday, October 1, 2018

It's a Messy World


With all the talk and arguments here in the U.S. over the border with Mexico and what should be permitted and what should not, it occurs to me there are other boundaries that exist in divorce where the lines of demarcation are not always so clear, and sometimes that can create real difficulties.

In Hollywood, the modus operandi is to show couples post-divorce talking together about the children, covering child care for one another in a pinch, and being happy for the other person when they “find someone.”  

Oh, not always is it depicted this way.  

Often one partner is shown to still be struggling while the other moves on.  But it is always so clean cut.  In real life Hollywood, however, we hear quite a different story, for the news is filled with high profile divorces battling it out over mansions, access to children, and whether or not a spouse can survive on a mere $1 million a month!  It isn’t nearly as pretty as the fictional depictions.

Although the fictional depictions are just that, certainly they contain some good things to aspire to post-divorce.  Things like moving on with life, or wishing the best for the other, or becoming friends who can work together for the children.  All of these are good and noble things, and things to aspire to or work toward, but they aren’t the practice quite so often. 

More often than not, one partner has moved on in such a way that he or she really does not want to continue to be entangled in the concerns and life of the other partner.  That distancing may come from a sense of guilt, as the partner who left the marriage may wrestle with a conscience that reminds him/her that the desperate situation the ex is in stems from the divorce, and wouldn’t be that way if only he/she had stayed to work things out.  Sometimes the distancing can come from trying to get disentangled from an overly-needy spouse from a highly dysfunctional relationship…in an effort to regain some sense of self and sanity.  Regardless of the reasons, or the situation, once a divorce is finalized, there seem to be endless questions about healthy boundaries (especially if there are children) that simply have to be sorted out.  

For instance, is it appropriate for an ex to have a key and walk unannounced into their former home to plop down on the couch and ask, “what’s up?” 

It happens, believe it or not.  

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some who seek to inflict pain on their ex, by finding trivial things for which to call the police in on them, or by making their financial world more difficult than it need be as they refuse to make court ordered payments.  

Sometimes, an individual may seek a divorce and long for independence…until something around the house needs to be dealt with that used to be the job of the ex…balance the checkbook or fixing the garbage disposal for example. That individual may call the ex, and ask if they would be willing to come take care of the problem for them.  

Is going to help out a sign of a good friendly relationship that sets a good example for the kids?  

Or is it getting sucked back into the dysfunction? 

Is refusing to help being mean?  

Or is it setting appropriate boundaries?  

Or is it allowing the individual to experience the consequences of the choices made when he/she sought a divorce? 

Actually, it could be all of the above.

In some ways, these seem like such stupid questions.  But they are questions that can make a lot of difference in whether the parties are able to accept the realities of the divorce, to move on in life and to heal.  I have known of individuals who have been willing to help out with problems in the old house because they felt that it was impacting the well being of their children. I have known others who were willing to help out, because they hoped that the call was a sign that their ex was finally realizing that they needed their spouse and the divorce was a mistake. 

It can be so messy!  Messy, because there are not hard and fast rules to follow, no clear steps that fit every situation.  Each person in each relationship has to sort out what works best for their situation.  All too often, however, they make those choices out of hurt, anger, revenge or even fear.  It could sound like this:

“If I don’t help her and it turns into a mess, it serves her right…she wanted the divorce in the first place!”

“I know I can’t do this by myself, but there’s no way I’m ever letting HIM step his foot into this house ever again!”

“If I help him this time, it will give me a chance to see what’s really going on in that house, and then I will have more evidence to use in my court battle for custody!”

“I’m not going over there, I know exactly what’s wrong with that disposal, I had the same problem for years, and it only takes resetting that little button on the bottom.  But I’m not going to tell HER that!  Let her suffer!”

“If I don’t respond to the request this time, how will he react? Will he blow his top and make things worse?  Will he try to break into my house some night to trash it or worse?  Having never stood up to him before, do I really dare to do so now that I’m on my own and in such a precarious situation?”

The process of establishing new boundaries, a new home, the start of a new direction of life, is a very challenging one in the best of circumstances.  Depending on the emotional state of yourself and your ex, that process can be a healthy and useful experience, or it can be one filled with confusion, anger, frustration and pain.  You have to determine based on your own situation what will work for where you are in that process.  For those of you struggling with these questions, I would offer a few suggestions.

1)     Respect.  Do your best to maintain a sense of respect for your ex’s right to make their   own choices and for the boundaries they establish on their side of the relationship. Without respect, nothing else is going to get very far.

2)   False impressions.  Be very careful that as you set boundaries, or allow those boundaries to be crossed, that you are not sending false signals (ie, the example above of the individual hoping the need means the ex realizes they made a mistake).  State clearly your expectations and what your intentions are.

3)   Avoid entangling behaviors. Assess each boundary question with an eye to whether the choice you are making is leading to a dysfunctional enmeshing that is counterproductive to your own stability and health.  Divorce sets you on a path of your own.  Bouncing back and forth between that new path and the old only creates confusion and instability.  If the disposal needs fixed, call the plumber, or develop friendships with others who may be able to provide assistance when you need it.

4)   Avoid making decisions based on anger, hostility and revenge.  Feeding anger’s appetite only creates a bigger anger, and starts another cycle of battle.  Step away and gain control before making decisions that you may regret in days to come.

5)   Aim for civility.  Choose to do your best to take the high ground in any decision.  That may or may not mean you go help balance the checkbook, but it may impact how you say, “no” and the alternative suggestions you might make.  

6)   Lastly, develop some transparency with a wise friend who has some degree of impartiality, or even better, with a qualified counselor who can help you sort out the best boundaries for your situation.  

It’s a messy world, creating the next chapter after a divorce. You may not always get it right, but you can at least be heading in the right direction.

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