I LOVE U (Inquire, Listen, Observe, Volunteer, Empathize, and Understand): How to Teach Children to Overcome Family Splitting, Triangulation, Learn, & Employ Emotional Regulation & Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills Post Divorce
You have made the choice to go through with it. You have sought legal counsel and are now ready to file for divorce. It may have been the easiest decision you have ever made in your life; or, it could have been the hardest, depending on the circumstances you faced during marriage. Nevertheless, after you took those first steps to leave your marriage, you now find yourself forced to make an even more difficult decision: What to do with the child you both love?
As a family, you and your spouse set up both individual and collective family values. These values were the driving force behind your children’s psychological, spiritual, moral, and emotional development. Even though conflict may have existed in your marriage, you and your spouse acted as a team, which is the exact way your children perceived their pre-divorce family environment. Even if conflict was heightened between you and your spouse during marriage, the family dynamics of two parents being in the home was the only orientation your child had grown within during their formative years. This orientation formed a parental dyad, the two foundation points of a family triangle, with your child forming the third cardinal point, which as a geometric shape, the triangle constitutes the strongest shape known in nature.Your marital co-parenting efforts offered your children a safe environment that cared for and nurtured their growth. However, with the division of the family unit, your child will be forced to adapt within new and unknown family systems, which can lead to both interpersonal and psychological dysregulation to occur.
It is common for children to undergo an adjustment period post divorce. The adjustment to their new family environments can take 6 to 12 months dependent on the amount and the severity of conflict present. While their adjustment can be relatively easy, in some circumstances, if the adjustment difficulties are left unchecked, it can lead to maladaptive psychological and relational behaviors in the future. While the adjustment period is an unfortunate consequence of divorce, and can be wrought with various emotional, psychological, and moral stresses immediately following the separation, it is through these very dynamics that your child will ultimately adjust to and grow within the post-divorce dynamics of their new family structures.
In this article, I explore splitting, triangulation, the good, the bad, and the ugly of post divorce dynamics that you and your children may face in the immediate term following your divorce. By knowing what to expect, you can then plan to make the necessary adjustments to help yourself and your children adapt to and mitigate the damages caused by your separation and the subsequent adjustment period to the new family structure your children will grow within.
What is Splitting?
At face value, the nature of divorce is a split within the family environment and dynamics that children are raised within. As the strength of the family triangle crumbles in the wake of legal battles that ensue after divorce, it is the parties to the action that are left picking up the pieces. While the marriage may have been divided in a relatively calm and unemotional manner, it is ultimately left to the parties to grieve, plan, and move on from the failed relationship. While divorce was a decision based on one or two parties inability to cooperate within the marriage, your child will face a more difficult grieving process, due primarily to the inability they have to choose their relational and legal fate.
While the nature of post-divorce family dynamics presents a physical split in the family triangle, the concept of splitting goes much deeper than the physical split of the marriage between both parents. At the psychological level, the idea of splitting was first explored within psychoanalytic theory as an intrapsychic, unconscious process that “actively separates contradictory feelings, self-representations, or object representations from one another” (Gabbard, 2000). While Sigmund Freud (1927/1961, 1940/1964) alluded to the idea of splitting in his numerous writings, it was Melanie Klein (1946/1975) who developed the idea that this psychological phenomenon stands as a cornerstone for emotional development and physiological survival during the first few months of life. For Klein psychological splitting allowed the infant to separate good and bad feelings, pleasure and events that are not so pleasurable, love and hateful feelings. It is our psyche’s capacity to form opinions about good and bad, love and hate, and other paradoxes ultimately forms the foundation from which conscious thought arises. While complex and multivariate in meaning, as it relates to divorce reaction, the capacity your child has to form those good or bad, loving or hateful opinions associated with your divorce will ultimately create the foundation from which they will re-construct their post-divorce world and adapt within their new family environments.
Before separation, you and your spouse formed the foundation that fostered your children’s development. While it is ultimately you and your spouses choice to engage in contested or collaborative divorce, co-parenting, parallel parenting, or other custody / parenting arrangements, from your child’s perspective, they developed within the safety net offered by their intact family. In divorce, the parental foundation that promoted their psychological, emotional, spiritual, and moral development was split, which, if left unchecked, can cause psychological distress to occur in accordance with their capacity to learn the new rules, rituals, and expectations within each new family household.
The splitting nature of their family structure is not just an external stressor for the child. It oftentimes affects their psychological wellbeing as well as their capacity to interpersonally relate to and communicate with others. This can and often does include broken patterns of communication with those they love and are most dependent upon. These difficulties may or may not affect you or the members of your immediate family. However, it is imperative that you continue to talk with your children and help them to work through their emotions in the period immediately preceding your separation as you and your spouse will remain the primary teachers of healthy emotional regulation and interpersonal communication skills. By opening the doors to emotional communication, you and your spouse will teach healthy interpersonal communication skills outside of the conflict the pre-divorce dynamics have caused, which in turn will help your child find some sense of equilibrium within their new family structures. By being persistent in learning how to communicate with your children, you will all benefit from forming new family bonds outside of the split family triad. However, this does not negate the effects that family splitting can have on your child’s psychological development, as well as the intrapsychic and interpersonal symptomatic behaviors that can arise if maladaptive forms of emotional regulation and / or poor social communication skills are shown within the context of your divorce and/or child custody conflict.
It is best to attempt and find middle ground between you and your spouse as it relates to the rearing of your children. However, in cases where there is constant conflict, and the split is even more divisive, it is best to keep your children sheltered at all costs from this toxic form of family dynamics. This is because it can cause the split within their psyche to encompass even more divisive psychological symptoms. This occurs primarily because the division of a marriage divides the family triad that fostered your child’s individual development. When the nurturing environment splits, the child is ultimately left to assign the choice of where to place fault, whom to blame, where to assign the roles of love / hate, perpetrator / the victim, who was right and who was wrong within the context of the split family. Their mind is naturally built to do this in order to make sense of the psychological anguish they feel, and it is up to you as parents to help them stabilize within their internal and external environments. To find stable ground, they must work through the conflicting messages they have internally, and not have these added upon from parents wishing to prove “their” point. It is in the best interests of the child to adapt to both family environments as soon as possible so as to avoid further emotional and / or psychological damage, because it is through the child’s capacity to find psychological equilibrium within their new family structures that he or she can begin to mend the intrapsychic split a divorce reaction creates within their psyche, thus allowing them to create new family experiences with each parent individually.
Psychoanalysts have long viewed splitting as a “re-creation of conflicts with one’s parents” (Gabbard, 2000). This is no different from the conflict present in the post-divorce environment. While viewed as a normal psychological defense reaction within the context of psychoanalytic treatment, during a divorce or child custody conflict, it is the child that most oftentimes assumes the unwanted characterics that plagued the marital conflict. When this occurs, a child assumes the status of the “identified patient” within the family triad, and acts as the container for the unwanted, split-off, and unacceptable behaviors one or both parents may have projected within the marital conflict. This is especially true during the initial stages of parental separation, where childhood acting out is a common triangulating pattern used to bring the parents back together. Lets explore the concept of triangulation further.
What is Triangulation?
In psychoanalytic theory, triangulation is seen as a psychological defense that occurs when a person attempts to manipulate their environment as a means to attain a wanted desire or to avoid unwanted and displeasurable feelings or consequences. As a manipulation tactic, triangulation occurs when one party acts as an intermediary of communication between two other parties that may or may not communicate with one another. In day to day family interactions, this form of psychological defense is most notably seen when a child will ask mom for something, be told no, and then go immediately to dad or another caregiver in order to attain that which he or she wants. While infantile in its origin, triangulation is easily employed by children of all ages, especially within the split dynamics present between parents who have or are actively undergoing divorce.
At its foundation, triangulation is important for infant development as it helps them to make the break from the primary caregiver to another person. This assures the child’s capacity to explore their external world unimpeded by a third party. In its initial form, triangulation helps sever the symbiotic bond between the mother and child, assisting the child to experience the world within their own capacity (Abelin, 1971). However, as it relates to the post-divorce world of the child, the capacity a child has to triangulate and split their post-divorce family environment is dependent on the level, form, and effectiveness of communication present between both parents. Within conflictual custody arrangements, triangulation can become a nightmare, allowing the child to control, manipulate, and set divisional boundaries between parents no child should be left to control. Within positive parenting alternatives, the child is left to try and manipulate the boundaries their parents uphold, presenting a unified theme for parenting that the child will eventually begin to adapt within. Lets explore three competing post-divorce parenting styles.
In co-parenting scenarios, both spouses communicate in a manner that fosters the best interest of the child. Even though the marriage may not have worked, the communication between the parental dyad remains strong, which fosters a solid foundation from which the child can and will learn his or her parents values, moral basis, rules, and expectations. While each parent may have their own rule sets, these are reinforced by the other parent, even if not fully agreed upon or implemented in their house, as the parents main focus remains on the larger goal of getting their child to realize the goals they set: Whatever that goal may be. It is imperative to note, that each individual household can have its own independently operating rules, just as long as the main focus is helping the child to adapt to those independent rules from all parties.
Co-parenting negates the capacity a child has to triangulate (eg. play mom from dad, vice-versa, parent from parent) because it forms a solid foundation of parental communication needed to raise a child into adult life. Even though a child will continue to employ splitting tactics as part of their normal psychological development, and may attempt to play one party from the other, because of the effectiveness of communication between the divorced parents, there is a solid foundation to the boundaries the child meets, thus setting expectations from the outset.
While co-parenting is beneficial as it relates to forming a solid foundation by which to engage child-rearing both within and outside of marriage, in many cases, the split dynamics present between two parents that are unable to get along negates the capacity one or both parties may have to engage in co-parenting practices in the time period immediately following the divorce.
In cases where co-parenting is not conducive to the relationship you have with your spouse post separation, such as in circumstances where domestic violence, child abuse by one or both parties are present, or in circumstances where one party is simply putting their immediate needs over that of their children (vindication type scenarios), one of two parenting scenarios are employable. However, both of these parenting methods allow children much easier capacity to triangulate and split between the parents due to the lack of communication present between both parents.
Parallel parenting is a method that allows both parents to engage their children separately and with their own individual sets morals, values, social, educational, and ethical expectations without interfering with the rights the other parent has to do the same. In highly contested situations, where parent’s cannot get along, but have their children’s best interest in mind, and can agree to disagree, this parenting solution offers a second level intervention that allows the child to take part in the good and bad experiences both parents can offer and employ them as a foundation for their developmental journey. While not as stable as a co-parenting scenario, in cases of heated divorce and custody disputes, the child is better off forming independent relationships with both parent’s outside of the splitting present between the two arguing parties so that they may assure healthy ego development in the future.
In its essence, parallel parenting disengages the triangle. It allows a child to form completely individualized and separate relationships with both parents. It’s uniqueness comes in the aspect that a child simply assumes a direct line of communication between him or herself and the mother, him or herself and the father, and does not engage in triangulating or splitting mechanisms shown between one or both parents. While theoretically sound as a post divorce parenting plan, because children will be children, they oftentimes intentionally set up the triangulating pattern as a means to get their immediate needs and / or wishes met. This is oftentimes seen in a child’s willingness to leave one parent to live with another, especially during adolescent development.
As the parents who engage in parallel parenting traditionally do not engage in direct communication with one another due to continued and oftentimes highly charged emotional and / or physical conflicts, this ultimately sets the stage for children to split and triangulate between them. While parallel parenting offers a possible parenting scenario that encourages the child to form healthy bonds with each parent in their home setting, because the split is still present between the parental dyad, the child can easily fill the void through triangulation without constant failsafe’s being put into place to check the efficacy of your parenting plan. While more stable than unilateral parenting, this form of a parenting plan does not offer the same stability as co-parenting, and should only be used with the goal of getting over the heated conflicts that cause the need for parallel parenting in the first place, so that co-parenting tactics can be engaged.
Unilateral parenting occurs when the contested nature of the custody conflict causes one parent to attempt and fully severe the relationship the child has with the other parent. In custody disputes, this is called alienation, and can have severe legal consequences, including the loss of one’s physical and / or legal custody orders.
While the scope of this article is not to examine the effectiveness of single parents, as this is a phenomenon where one party willingly removes themselves from the life of their child, thus leaving the other parent responsible for the duties both would have assumed within the context of a traditional family, it is important to note that the dynamics of unilateral parenting serves to alienate a child from the willing love and involvement a second parent can offer their child.
The tradition of dividing the child in legal parameters is not a recent phenomenon. The New American Standard (1977) edition of the bible reads:
And the king said, “Get me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. 25And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26Then the woman whose child was the living one spoke to the king, for she was deeply stirred over her son and said, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him!” 27Then the king answered and said, “Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him. She is his mother.” 28When all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had handed down, they feared the king; for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice. (1Kings 3:24-28)
As you can see, the tradition of justice has long served the legal rights of the adult who must care for their child. While it is our current court system’s obligation to take into account the Best Interests of the Child (FAMILY.CODE SECTION 3040-3048) , oftentimes it is the child that ultimately is sacrificed to his or her parent’s legal rights in cases where parents will willingly engage in behaviors that places their child as a pawn in their continued relational conflict.
The king in this scenario shows wisdom, granting the decision to the woman who nevertheless showed greater empathy for the child at stake. In today’s family law court setting, the judge serves the best interest of the child in custody disputes, deciding the fate of the child. While meritorious in its effort, when a third party is forced to make a decision between two waring parties, it ultimately places the child into the vicarious position of being a pawn to be manipulated between the two combatants. This occurs in part, because adults have protected legal rights that their children do not, as they are legally dependent on their parent’s as caregivers. While the court can make determination about the physical and legal custody of a child, they ultimately cannot control the behaviors of one and/or both parents that would engage in the ultimate act of splitting and / or triangulation. While the alienating parent may delude themselves into thinking they have their children’s best interest in mind, because that parent successfully usurped the relationship the child has with their other parent, the child is now forced into an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship with the alienating parent that is engaged the divisive behaviors.
While unilateral parenting is unavoidable in the case of single parent households, it is imperative to understand that when a parent is willing to be involved with his or her child, they are better off having both sets of parental values present in their lives rather than one. The only exception to this case is when one parent is abusive towards the child. A child’s safety must override the abusive parent’s legal rights for access to what is his or her victim. While cases of substantiated child abuse would warrant unilateral parenting, this is not to be used as a ploy to triangulate and alienate the child from one parent, as is the case in many heated and contested custody disputes, where it is common to see unwarranted and downright false allegations of child abuse arise.
If your are currently engaged in a highly conflictual divorce or custody disagreement, for the sake you your children, put their needs above your own, and realize that a set of parents, even if they do not necessarily get along, is much better than a single parent approach. Your child is the product of you and your significant other, and you will be attending your child’s birthdays, weddings, special occasions, funerals, etc. with the other parent throughout the rest of your life. You might as well start off on a good note and try to find some middle ground between the two of you, or face the possibility of much greater emotional and psychological consequences to come.
Signs to Look For
While triangulation and splitting are naturally occurring dynamics during the divorce process, there are signs to look out for as it relates to your child’s post divorce reaction.
- Look out for a drop in your child’s grades – A drop in grades is to be expected as a child adapts to their post-divorce environment. They are handling a heavy emotional burden, and may be pre-occupied with unresolved feelings. This is especially true as it relates to the monotony present during the day to day school schedule. Because your child may be pre-occupied with their feelings, focus and concentration naturally decrease, which in turn can cause their grades to drop. You can help ameliorate this by informing your child’s teacher of what is happening, so they can help the child adjust during the time period associated with school. Remember, you don’t have to give them all the information, just enough to keep them appraised of what is happening to your child, so they can help them adapt to and succeed within the school setting.
- Preoccupation and Isolation – Be aware of your child’s need for individual space. While isolation is appropriate at times to work on internal problems, continued isolation can lead to self-alienation behaviors and the working through of problems in a manner that is not consistent to overall psychological health. Your child will be pre-occupied with their emotional space, and even though the same may be true of you as you undergo the divorce and custody process, you are the primary role model of, and teacher for emotional identification and regulation skills and it is your responsibility to Inquire, Listen, Observe, Volunteer, Empathize, and Understand (I LOVE U) your child’s emotional response. Remember, they look up to you, and will learn from the way you handle emotional distress.
- Acting Out – It is not uncommon for a child that undergoes divorce reaction to begin to act out in ways completely opposite from the values you and your ex-spouse have taught pre-separation. This is a mending defense, meant to heal the split present within the parental dyad. The idea behind it is one of unity. The child’s goal in this defense mechanism is to align you and your spouse against a common threat, your child’s behaviors, in order to bring you back together. While effective in its scope, if you and your spouse are serious about staying separate, you must reassure them of the news they do not want to hear. Over time, this tendency will decrease and equilibrium will establish itself through consistent routine and boundary expectations.
- Depression and Anxiety – It is natural for your child to undergo periods of anxiety and depression during the post-divorce process. Their world has been shaken, and their family is now broken. Real fears about what is next will be present, and can only be combated through consistency of routine. Over time, this will affect the ability your child has to handle adjustment fears, and will also assist in helping them to deal with the sadness present about the loss of their family. As it relates to depression, remember, feelings of sadness are normal. They are actually the last part of the grieving process, before acceptance and moving on can occur. If you see significant levels of fear or sadness, seek professional assistance. A psychotherapist can assist you and your children to deal with the stress associated with making sense of unwanted emotions.
The divorce and custody process is an emotionally charged series of un-pleasurable events. While you are busy dealing with the loss of your marriage and the division of your marital assets (including that of your children), your children are left in charge to grieve the loss of their family foundation.
In this article, I explored triangulation and splitting from the perspective of being a natural psychological defense and in its more problematic form. While these are common post-divorce reactions to the stresses present from the loss suffered, they are also part of a larger healing process meant to help your child mend the division present in their psyche. While there is no sure path to psychological health post divorce, through learning ways to effectively communicate with one another, as it relates to your child, and employing the techniques of Inquire, Listen, Observe, Volunteer, Empathize, and Understand (I LOVE U), you and your former spouse can at least mitigate the possibility of future damage being done to your child by teaching them effective skills of emotional regulation and interpersonal dynamics. Remember, your children learn how to handle their emotions and relate with others through watching you.
Finally, divorce and child custody cases can be a daunting ordeal. If you find yourself stuck legally, Maples Family Law can help. Also, it is imperative to understand that there is no one simple solution to help your children overcome the effects that divorce and child custody conflict may have caused. If you find yourself engaged in a heated custody dispute, seek psychological help for yourself and children. The Stockton Therapy Network can help you and your children begin the process of adapting to, and healing from your divorce process. By having knowledgeable professionals that care, you can at least begin to mitigate the damages continued conflict can cause your child developmentally at the psychological level, because ultimately, what story do you want your children to tell about their new family and custody arrangement when they get older.
Abelin, Ernst (1971), “The role of the father in the separation-individuation process”, in McDevitt, John B.; Settlage, Calvin F., Separation-individuation: essays in honor of Margaret S. Mahler, New York: International Universities Press, pp. 229–252.
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