At the beginning, separation or divorce is often traumatic. Many people behave irrationally or seem unstable. As time passes, however, most parents regain their balance.
Let’s look more closely at the typical emotional stages parents go through when they separate, and how these stages might affect each parent’s ability to reach an effective, child- focused parenting plan.
The First Few Weeks
Just before and just after the initial separation, you will probably feel confused. It may seem that you have an endless number of decisions to make, each of which appears to be the most important. You will probably ride a roller coaster of emotions. On any given day you may have intense feelings of rage, depression, abandonment, relief, grief, guilt, and excite- ment. In fact, you may decide that ending a relationship, or having one ended for you, has you feeling like you are going crazy.
This is not the time to worry about charting a permanent course for your children’s future. Instead, try to develop one or more short- term agreements that will allow you, the other parent, and your children to settle into the new arrangements gradually. By taking it slowly, you will have time to see what makes the most sense in the long run. The key to success is to separate adult relationship issues from parenting issues and develop a clear, child-centered plan that each parent can easily follow.
At the other end of the spectrum, you or the other parent may still feel angry, sad, powerless, or abandoned, as you did when you first separated. If you try to negotiate a parenting plan during this phase, you may find it extremely difficult to reach agreement on any but the easiest issues. Many parents, nevertheless, negotiate temporary parenting arrangements early on, especially to resolve a particular issue, such as where the children will attend school. These parents can start with the “Basic Elements,” and address only the most pressing issues until they are ready to handle more.
The First Few Months
Several months after the initial separation, your life will probably be a little calmer, but you may find that your relationship with the other parent can still provoke either or both of you in extreme and unexpected ways. Many parents find it hard to distance themselves from each other when they need to stay in contact because they share children. Your children can be a constant reminder of what has gone on (or has gone wrong) and what remains to be done.
One Year Later
A year or more after the initial separation, you may be far more clear-headed about your situation than you were when you first separated. You and the other parent will have firsthand experience with your initial (or temporary) parenting arrangements. You can gauge the effects that these arrangements have had on your life and on your children. At this point, you will probably be ready to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement, and can turn to Chapter 7, “More Parenting Issues,” to add whatever provisions you need.
The Second Year and Beyond
Two years or more following a separation, most families have settled into their first stable parenting arrangement. At about this time, many parents realize that their arrangements need at least a few adjustments to accommodate changes in their own or their children’s lives.
In fact, many mediators report that significant numbers of families renegotiate their first parenting agreements at this two-year point. No matter what stage of the separation you are in, remember that one of the few things you can count on is change. Neither you, the other parent, nor your children can (or should) expect the first agreement to be the last one. You can never anticipate all the decisions you will have to make about your children. Certain parts of your agreement will work for the long term, while others will need to be revised regularly.
One of the most common reasons parents have to revise their first agreement is the presence of a parent’s new partner. Children often have strong opinions about new stepparents, boyfriends, or girlfriends. Additionally, when one parent has a new partner—especially the parent with whom the children primarily live—the other parent may need reassurance that the new partner won’t become a replacement parent.
Other changes that can trigger the need for modification of an existing arrangement include:
- a parent’s desire to move because of a new job
- a parent’s desire to move to be closer to relatives
- a child’s special needs or a change in schools, or
- a child’s desire to live with the other parent.