I'm not very good at ending relationships. Most of us aren't. I know what it is to feel deeply hurt, disappointed, broken-hearted, emotionally bruised, what it's like to have my innermost hopes, my self-esteem and my sense of justice trampled on. I know that both parties will usually feel equally overpowering emotions. I also know how easily these feelings translate into a red-hot, uncontrolled boil-over when you see each other.
Well, red-hot rage might be thoroughly understandable in those circumstances, but when there are children in the line of fire be very careful. It's so tempting to mentally enlist them into your army, based only on your own anger and hurt. It's way too easy to misinterpret what they say and do on the home battlefield when you have a personal agenda.
Let me tell you a true story from my life. Call it a cautionary tale.
I am one of those people with a very long fuse. Patient to a fault, but god help you if you don't put the fire out before it reaches the end of the wick, because then there's an almighty bang. The father of my son also had a fiery temper. When our relationship exploded, the shrapnel flew with considerable verbal violence every time we had to meet.
At less than 2 years old, my son had amazing communication skills- and thank heavens for that. If he hadn't been able to tell me what was going on for him in the middle of Armageddon, I might have done more damage. And thanks to his ability to communicate at a very young age, I am able to pass on some insights into what it's like to be a small child in the middle of a marital war zone.
My wake-up call came a few minutes before my ex-partner was to pick up my son for his weekly visit. My son was becoming more and more upset as I packed his clothes and talked to him about going to stay with Daddy. Soon he was sobbing broken-heartedly, and by the time the car pulled up outside, he was literally screaming at me 'I don't want daddy to come!'
Have you been there? How would you interpret a statement like that from your child?
We're egotistical beasts, we humans. It's very easy for us to decide that a sobbing child at custody changeover time is a vote for us. He doesn't want to see daddy. He wants to be with us. How our brain does run on, along emotionally warped tracks... He knows daddy has been bad to mummy... he doesn't have fun at daddy's place... maybe daddy doesn't give him any time, or attention... maybe he doesn't like daddy's new partner... or maybe daddy does something nasty to him... oh, the vicious unsubstantiated fantasies can fly when you're enraged. Especially if your child makes a statement like that- wow, the accusations you can hang onto a few words when you're in that zone.
But that is YOU talking, not your child. I was lucky- I didn't get a chance to fly off into a self-centred fantasy, because he went on and said something else after that. Unlike most little kids, my child was able to explain to me why he was crying.
As a result of what he said next, I was able to reflect on what he must have been thinking and feeling leading up to that statement. I knew that my child had an amazing memory for his age, which helped me to interpret what he said and did. This is a rough guide to what the scene looked like to my toddler, step by step, and the body language that accompanied his feelings.
Mummy's packing my bag. I'm going to daddy's house. (eyes widen)
Daddy will come to our house to pick me up. (body stiffens)
When daddy comes to our house, mummy starts to act all weird and I know something bad is going to happen. Her face isn't happy. I can see her getting all strange right now. (whimpering starts)
Every time daddy and mummy are together they shout really loudly. (bigger whimpering)
When daddy comes today they'll shout and say horrible things to each other. (sobbing starts)
Then mummy will cry. It's horrible and I'm scared. Stop it happening! (hysterical crying)
(Hears the car arrive, and screams out loud) 'I don't want daddy to come!'
I guess you're wondering what else he said to me, that enabled me to work out all of that. Not much- but enough to focus my mind on his point of view instead of my own. This little 20-month-old baby actually said 'I don't want daddy to come because you'll have a fight! You ALWAYS have a fight!' before he broke down completely.
It shocked me, coming out of that tiny mouth. This little one wasn't the least interested in the division of property, or who got how much custody, or who was in the wrong from the start, or who said something incredibly cruel on the phone, or who made a terrible threat last week. He just couldn't cope with being in the middle of yet another screaming match, where the two people he loved most said horrible things to each other and made each other angry and sad. Very simple. Children are CHILDREN; even very, very clever children like my son have children's emotions underneath their advanced vocabularies. They have a very different view of what's going on over the top of their heads.
Like I said, I'm NOT good at ending relationships, so don't think I was able to fix it in a flash. I'm no saint. But my baby had given me a huge reality check. So instead of working up my usual level of furious rage and getting ready to throw a heap of abuse at his father for his recent sins, I reassured my son that I'd try not to fight this time. And I did try. It was hard, and I wasn't very good at not fighting. But it went a bit better than usual, because I was consumed with guilt about my own failings instead of full of the usual fury about my partner's.
And later, when I'd calmed my son down enough to get in the car and he'd gone, I worked backwards to translate his body language up to that point and work out what he must have been seeing and thinking.
It was a salutary lesson in the long term. I became a little better at shielding my son from the worst of our conflict. I became VERY aware of the effect it was all having on him. I became VERY pedantic about qualifying anything negative that burst out of my mouth about his father, so he didn't think he had to take sides.
So please, learn from my stuff-up and don't expose your little ones to out-of control emotions. And learn from the words of my 20-month-old child; be very, very careful of putting your own slant on your little one's communications when you're in the middle of a war with your ex. You're almost certainly putting your own bias onto what they say to you.
Try to forget your own agenda for a moment, and walk a mile in their shoes. The view from down there is almost certainly much less complicated, but the damage is still brutal. What is it like to be your child, caught in the crossfire of a parental war?