When a Child’s Best Interests Become ‘Expendable’

As a believer, I always want to have hope that two people – particularly Christians – can work out their differences in the wake of a divorce and get along with each other, assuming both parties are willing to do so. Sadly, what I find most often is that one party is seeking to live faithfully while the other (regardless of what he or she might say) very obviously does not give a rip about what the Word of God says, let alone the laws of the State of Missouri.

What I will share below should not be misconstrued to say that all divorced couples must necessarily have conflict; it is merely my attempt at a Christian response to the fallen nature of our souls and the all-too-common behaviors that we see in shattered families everywhere. More than that, I pray, it represents a call to personal holiness in the most unholy of circumstances.

Just last week, I was called upon once again to have That Dreaded Conversation with yet another divorced parent being emotionally tortured by the manipulations, schemes and God-dishonoring behavior being forced upon one’s own child all for the sake of “getting revenge on an ex-spouse.” It never ceases to amaze me how horribly people can behave – even those who claim to be Christians – when it comes to what is euphemistically called “co-parenting.” And I am sorrowful beyond words at some of the ways in which I myself have contributed to this huge societal problem.

In theory, the idea of co-parenting sounds like a good one. Though divorced, the biological parents of a young child agree to regularly consult with each other on matters pertinent to the schooling, health, well-being and safety of the human beings that they have together brought into this world. As a previously-divorced parent myself, I have been forced to sit through court-mandated “training videos” wherein actors portray some level of post-divorce interpersonal conflict in Segment One, only to somehow “come to their senses” and see the value of cooperating with each other by the time we arrive at the end of Segment Two. While I realize that the producers of these videos mean well, I have yet to see any co-parenting arrangement consistently work out this way in real life.

A couple who divorce without having had any children (biological, adopted or otherwise) have a decent shot at going their separate ways forever. Divorced parents, however, get to deal with each other for the rest of their lives. And this remains true even after their kids have grown! (Think weddings, births of grandchildren, graduations, anniversaries, grandchildren’s birthdays, etc. etc. etc.) It is the height of mythical thinking to believe that two people who couldn’t get along or work things out while they were married will somehow – post-divorce – set aside their differences and successfully cooperate with each other simply because they have a child. We want to believe that those of us who claim to have a relationship with Christ will in fact be able to consistently cooperate with our ex-spouse in the interest of our children, but that’s very often not true.

So the question comes up rather often: “How do I, as a Christian, raise my children in the midst of this sort of never-ending conflict?” At this point, I should probably disclose that I have personally lived through an extremely antagonistic “co-parenting” relationship, and I can attest to the truth of every piece of advice that follows not because I have watched the “KidCare” segment of the DivorceCare curriculum at least ten times, but because I made every single mistake that I could have made in the wake of the end of my first marriage. Yes, I saw the videos. Yes, I’ve read plenty of books. The information I list below sticks with me, though, primarily because it is blood-bought.

So, with apologies for this rather grim subject matter, I’d like to humbly offer up a list of Things I Wish I Knew back in the late 1990’s, before I put much stock in Christian parenting or had any desire to own my part in the death of my first marriage. Much of what you read below is lifted directly from both the DivorceCare curriculum and what I have seen play out in my own life and the lives of dozens of others.

  1. Take full ownership for the part you played in bringing chaos into the life of your child. Even if most rational folks would quickly give your ex the lion’s share of credit for the destruction of your marriage, anyone who claims to be 100% blameless is kidding themselves. As author Lou Priolo has so well said, “Even if you were only responsible for 2% of the problems in your failed marriage, you need to take 100% responsibility for that 2%.” To that, I would simply add that acknowledging your failures to God and at least one other trustworthy Christian can help free you to forgive yourself and move forward. (I often encourage divorced folks to write out long, extremely-detailed letters of apology to their exes as well. But be careful! The exercise is primarily designed to help you acknowledge specific sins and reconcile with God; it is often not appropriate to deliver those letters, particularly when the divorce is still recent.)
  2. Seek to live out God-honoring biblical singleness; endeavor to live your post-divorce life above reproach. Most divorced people love to talk at length about the ways in which their ex is dishonoring God and violating the visitation agreement, but they are typically less forthcoming with details about how they are doing the exact same thing! Allow other Christians to speak bluntly into your life, without fear of your anger. Seek God in all circumstances, especially those that are very obviously unfair. Most importantly, live out a biblical approach to sexuality. Parents who engage in bed-hopping should not be the least bit surprised to find that they have zero credibility with their adolescent children as they too begin to push the boundaries of what is deemed “acceptable” by their parents.
  3. Do not be drawn into conflict with your ex if it can easily be avoided. The book of Proverbs is filled with wisdom on how to deal with enemies and “fools.” One of the more memorable verses simply states that to enter into a conversation with a fool is itself folly; the battle is lost at once. (Proverbs 9:6-8; 26:4; 29:9) Make note of the ways in which your ex has learned to “play you” simply by having lived with you for any number of years. For many newly-divorced parents, a consistent opportunity for volatile interactions is at Exchange Time, that tension-filled moment when the child goes from being in the custody of one parent to the other. One practical tip that I have found to be very beneficial is to take a trustworthy Christian brother or sister along with you to drop off or pick up the kids. Having a disinterested – but fearless and faithful! – third party will primarily serve as a means of keeping you in check; it will often do much the same for the ex, though not always. Allow the third party to make observations about the way in which you conducted yourself at Exchange Time.
  4. Decide at the outset not to over-compensate for your failed marriage by allowing any child to have too much control and/or providing too little discipline. Children need boundaries and inflexible guidelines. They must learn to accept a parent’s firm-but-loving “No.” If, as so often happens, a child is able to “read” the parenting styles of both Mom and Dad, that child will be tempted to leverage the weaknesses of both to maximum effect, i.e. “play one against the other.” Kids do this in intact marriages, how much more so in the wake of divorce! So the temptation is huge to “spoil” your kids in the wake of divorce; for your child’s own good, do not give in to it. If you hand the reins of life over to an eight-year-old, you should prepare yourself for at least ten more years of that child asserting that power selfishly and inappropriately.
  5. Do not attempt in any way to “control” your ex-spouse’s environment. This is one of the more difficult realities of divorce involving children; unless your ex – or your ex’s new love interest – is doing something that is demonstrably dangerous to the health and well-being of the child – think “meth lab in the basement” kind of dangerous – you need to accept the reality that you have zero control over what your ex does with his or her life. In fact, you may find that calling poor parenting and ungodly behavior to your ex’s attention only makes it worse. By expressing moral outrage that your ten-year-old is allowed at your former spouse’s house to stay up until midnight sending text messages – with the cell phone that you don’t think he should have in the first place – you have effectively exposed an “emotional sore spot” and should not be surprised to find that what was once allowed on weekends has now become an everyday occurrence. Rather than focusing on the rollercoaster of life at the other house, focus instead on providing stability and consistency in your own home. Over the long haul, by God’s grace, children will someday be able to look back and see the differences in how the two houses were run.
  6. You must accept that your ex is no longer your ally. This is by far the single hardest reality for divorced couples to accept. Divorced men and women continue (even in antagonistic divorces) to treat each other like “de facto spouses,” helping each other out with various hardships “for the good of the kids.” Please believe me when I say that confusion is never in the best interest of the kids. If there is no hope for reconciliation, then both parties should maintain appropriate/civil boundaries. The most common mistake? Spending holidays and/or birthdays together. Doing so only reinforces the mythical thinking already present in the child, anyway: “Maybe someday soon Mommy and Daddy will be married again.”
  7. Keep up your end of the deal. Even if your ex is not abiding by the terms of your divorce decree, you should seek to be “blameless” for the way in which you show honor to the authorities of the court of this state (Romans 13:1-7). Again, though perhaps in the far-off future, your child will one day compare and contrast the ways in which his or her parents conducted themselves after the marriage fell apart. This is where trusting God becomes so critical to the Christian; we have to live honorably (even – or especially – in the face of unfairness and outrage) with the full expectation that the Lord will judge between us (1 Samuel 24:15). Behaving honorably is not first and foremost about providing your kids with ultimate hope in the midst of turmoil. It is about that, to be sure, but it is primarily about believing God and being obedient to Him.
  8. Never speak disparagingly about your former spouse to your children. Even if your ex-spouse is consistently bashing you to the kids when they are with him or her, your response cannot be to do the same. As you seek to destroy your former spouse’s credibility, you also end up destroying your own. This situation puts the children in the middle and makes them feel as if they now need to judge between and side with one of two people they love. No matter how much you are maligned, it is not fair to put your child in the middle. Do your best, when directly confronted with evidence that this is happening – for example, if your child tells you that Mommy told him you ran out on her – to answer your child’s question without tearing down your spouse. Unemotional, factual and short statements are the place to go, such as “I’m sorry you had to hear that.” Again, living above reproach and not engaging in ungodly behavior, however tempting, will bring more healing to your child than defending yourself by attacking your ex.
  9. Do not use your children as messengers, couriers or spies. You are the adult in the situation, and you need to communicate directly with the other adult at all times. If your attempts at communication usually end up in an argument, find another way of communicating that takes the emotion out of it. E-mail can be a useful tool if tensions are high; it gives you the opportunity to write a note, then walk away and delay sending it until you can read it with less emotion later on. Even better, ask a friend to proofread your communications to help you identify (and edit out) any remotely-inflammatory comments. Do whatever you can to minimize opportunities for conflict while still keeping communication direct. Giving your children checks or messages to deliver to their other parent may seem like a good option that keeps you two from arguing, but it puts the kids in the middle, as does asking your kids multiple questions about what they did, where they went and who they did it with when they return to you after spending time with their other parent.
  10. Go deep with God and His church. Do not attempt to do it all on your own! You will burn out in no time. Gather other faithful believers around you, and use the now-empty spaces in your weekly schedule to go deep into Bible study and prayer. God will meet you in your loneliness, and your frustration. What you want first and foremost is to be at peace with God, not your ex (or even your children). You will know that you have traveled several miles with Jesus when you find that you can obey Him and pray for those that persecute you…and really mean it.

Some books and resources that we have found invaluable in the struggle:

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