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Splitting Heirs

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Divorce seems to be here to stay. Both as a practicing psychotherapist and on a personal level, I’ve been privy to the pain, anger, hurt, and grief surrounding the dissolution of too many marriages.

It’s a calamity that particularly afflicts members of my generation, the baby boomers. According to the Census Bureau, more than two-thirds

of couples married in the 1950s celebrated their 25th anniversary together, while those who married in the 1970s had only about a 50/50 chance of making it that far. As for those who took their vows in the 1990s, we’ll just have to see.

In any case, it’s the children who pay most dearly. They must deal not only with the breaking apart of their birth family, but often with the ache of loss, betrayal, and deprivation that comes from having been shanghaied into a new blended family.

With so much divorce going around, you’re more likely than ever to encounter situations where parents and their children are acting out the pain of old wounds. Here are some ways you can use time, patience, and therapeutic assistance to help keep a break-up from breaking hearts.

Q: My clients’ four children were planning a surprise 25th anniversary party when the parents announced that they were getting a divorce. All of the kids were hit hard by this unfortunate timing. The youngest girl, who’s 18, says she’s going to Nepal with the funds they’d put in a custodial account for her college tuition. Her parents are beside themselves. Should they try to get counseling for her?

A: When a couple in an essentially dead relationship have put their kids’ needs first, it’s not uncommon for the marriage to fold up as soon as their last child leaves the nest. And no matter how much strife or disconnection the children may have witnessed while they were growing up, they’re likely to be shocked, angered, and deeply upset by the divorce.

So it’s not surprising that their youngest daughter wants to run as far away as possible from this painful ripping-apart of her family home. She may be trying to punish both parents by using their money to distress and undermine them. Or the overwhelming impact of the divorce may have simply blown away any idea of buckling down to her studies as a college student.

If she is willing to see a counselor or therapist, of course it’s a good idea. Being able to tell her story to a patient, compassionate trained professional may help her decide if jumping on a plane to Katmandu is really the best option. The parents may also want to consider a few sessions with her, either individually or as a couple.

Whatever form this therapy takes, counseling from someone not enmeshed in the family situation can help this young woman slow down and reconsider her probably panicked decision about what to do next. Involving the entire family will calm the intensity of everyone’s feelings, allowing choices to be made more thoughtfully. I hope this troubled teen can get to a place where she’ll see what is truly best for her.

Q: A retired entrepreneur I advise is threatening to write his oldest grandson out of his will. The grandson is about to get married for the fourth time, and my client is fed up with waiting for him to “settle down.” The thing is, he himself was divorced twice, and the young man’s father and mother are also divorced. Is there a way I can help keep Grandpa from alienating his grandson?

A: The first step, I think, is to listen to this client’s feelings of frustration, anger, and perhaps betrayal concerning his grandson’s marital messes. Then, depending on how comfortable you feel talking to him about his own life, values, hopes, and dreams, you might gently probe a little further.

Is it just the grandson’s lack of marital stability that rankles him? Does he feel any guilt about his own divorces, or his children’s? (It could well be that he would profit from therapy to explore his powerful and complicated feelings, but he may resist any suggestion that he has a problem making peace with his own past.)

I would also explore what he hopes to accomplish by cutting his grandson off. If the intended message is “You screwed up once too often, and I’m giving up on you,” ask if anyone ever gave up on him, and how he handled this rejection.

By helping him think more calmly about the effect of his proposed action, you may be able to segue into discussing his broader legacy. What constructive life lessons would he like to pass on to his grandson?

Last, I would remind him that a carrot usually motivates people better than a stick. If there are other areas in which the grandson excels, maybe you and your client can brainstorm a way to entice the young man to change, rather than punishing him for behavior that Grandpa doesn’t like.

Q: After splitting up two years ago, my client and his wife were awarded joint custody of their daughter, now 9. The problem is that they’re increasingly at loggerheads about raising her. For example, the mom, an organic vegetarian, wants her daughter to eat nothing but healthy food. She goes ballistic whenever he takes the child to McDonald’s. The poor girl is caught in the middle of their disputes. I feel that I should speak up, but what can I suggest?

A: See if you can inspire this couple to give their marriage a proper burial, for their daughter’s sake. Good “divorce therapy” could help them learn to respect their differences and negotiate toward a compromise.

If they’re not willing to try this or it hasn’t succeeded, they might consider turning to a parenting coordinator. Family court judges and lawyers are increasingly recommending this solution to divorcing couples who can’t resolve parenting disputes and differences.

A parenting coordinator will first try teaching the parents better conflict resolution and communication skills. These professionals, who usually come from a background in mental health, law, or mediation, are trained to help resolve disputes. They will step in and make decisions on the parents’ behalf only if both parties remain unable to communicate respectfully and cannot find ways to meet in the middle.

I’ve personally advocated divorce therapy for years, especially if children are involved. When the hostility and polarization are so intense that parents are batting their kids back and forth like ping-pong balls to punish each other and assert their own world-view, a parenting coordinator can be a very effective resource.

Try to help these sparring exes see the importance of hammering out their differences. It will make life more pleasant for their daughter now–and show her the possibility of forging workable intimate relationships when she is older.

Q: My client, a young doctor in general practice, has never forgiven his father for leaving his mother. The dad has gone downhill, and recently was picked up for a second DUI. When he phoned to ask for money to enter rehab, my client said no. He (my client) now has mixed feelings about this decision. Although he still has a lot of medical school debt, he could take money out of an IRA to give his father. Should I advise him to do it, if it would ease his conscience?

A: You should tell your client not to rush any decision.

The first and most essential thing is to encourage your client to initiate honest and open discussions with his father about their history. This doesn’t have to be a long-term process; it could take the form of a few letters, phone calls, or e-mails. Any progress may help him decide how best to help his dad.

At the same time, your client might consider individual therapy to resolve their relationship on a deeper level. Looking at the roots of the father’s alcoholic behavior may reveal that it was exacerbated by his guilt over the failed marriage. Or he may have had a longtime drinking problem that contributed to the breakup. Whatever the case, the son can gain self-esteem and inner security from making peace with his dad while the older man is still alive.

Assuming there are no other family members or friends who are better able to help with the rehab fees, you can brainstorm with your client about alternative ways to come up with the money. But the larger issue of whether to bail Dad out is one that a therapist is better prepared to help the son address. How do the financial repercussions of saying yes compare to the emotional repercussions of saying no? Will he feel doubly wounded and betrayed if he gives his father the money but the dad doesn’t succeed at rehab?

Obviously, this is not a quick and easy decision. I advise you to help the son explore ways to reconnect with his dad instead of rushing into a decision to either deny him or bail him out. Slowing down the process may lead to a solution that neither of them has foreseen.

Q: I’m trying to deal with a triangle, though not of the romantic type. A client couple of mine are the mother and stepfather of a 15-year-old girl whose rebelliousness is abetted by her birth father. He gives her money, buys her expensive gifts, and sides with her in any dispute. Just recently he took her to get her learner’s permit, even though my clients think she isn’t mature enough to drive. They’re frustrated and concerned about the lessons the girl is learning. Is there anything I can do?

A: Oh, my. When it comes to the psychological expertise necessary to help these folks reconcile their different parenting styles, you may be in over your head. The birth father sounds like the kind of overindulgent parent who probably tells himself that he is loving and accepting, in contrast to what he sees as the overly punitive, rigid and/or withholding mother and her new husband.

You might ask your client if she can sit down with her ex-husband and suggest to him, without being critical or judgmental, that their daughter may be confused and conflicted by their different parenting styles. If the mom acknowledges his generosity and desire to help the girl get a good start in life, he may be willing to come to a few counseling sessions to learn about combining healthy limits with supportive nurturing.

If he won’t consent to this, there may be no alternative but to seek mediation from a parenting coordinator. It would certainly be irresponsible to let this situation continue any longer. Good luck in helping your clients resolve this difficult situation!

When parents and children are involved in divorce-related issues, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to recommend financial strategies if they are still nursing unresolved wounds, anger, feelings of betrayal, or a thirst for revenge. By doing all you can to normalize the situation and providing resources to help them cope, you’ll make it easier for them to restore more harmonious relationships with each other and, in the long run, to heal.


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