Lessons From Hatfields & McCoy – Perpetuating the Fight

Divorce negotiations, mediations, and trials are often influenced by people who are in the background, trying to help, or hurt, but usually causing trouble. The behavior of step-parents, significant others, family members, and friends can profoundly impact the welfare of children. (The original title to this post was “Step-Parents, Significant Others, and Well Meaning Idiots” If you ever have to play one of these rules, please consider what I have to say below. You can do some good or great harm. j.b.h. 3-4-2012)

These folks are often afflicted with a form of tribal insanity that adds to the chaos and dooms the negotiations to failure even when the parties emerge with an agreement. At other times, the only way the party can have a successful agreement is to “whip these people into shape”.

This is a subject that deserves a book of its own, and has one in the form of  “The Happy Step Mothers” by Rachel Katz. Her website is www.stepsforstepmothers.com. I listened to an interview of the author on National Public Radio. She and her callers made good sense. I haven’t read that book yet, or visited her site, so the views herein are solely mine.

I am no psychologist or counselor, but I play one on TV…. I mean, I work with lots of mental health professionals and have formed an idea of what makes the good ones good. That is a subject for future posts. Below are some of my practical observations of this aspect of “the human comedy”, and my suggestions of how improved behavior of the adults can help the children.

Let’s start with the “significant other”, who often becomes a step-parent.  We all detest the classic predators/scavengers who are happy to become involved with a married person in an intact relationship. They use sexual attraction, or the loneliness or unhappiness of the married person, to engage in an affair that destroys the marriage and causes immense pain.

Truth is, such marriages are often in trouble already, but the paramour, who I call “the bimbo”, commits a moral wrong that should earn him/her an especially warm spot in hell. These people seek out short term sexual pleasure, or financial security, to steal someone else’s spouse, and “damn the consequences”.

The “kissin cousin” to the overt paramour is the opportunist who comes along at the very end of a broken marriage, or arrives, for a sexual fling, shortly after the parties separate. These opportunists sometimes date the spouse who has been dumped or betrayed.

Of course, the betrayed spouse should say, “The children need me now, and I need to focus on them, my emotional health, and my sources of income”. Instead, she often says to herself, “That bastard deserted me; I deserve some fun now too!” Now the children have two parents acting irresponsibly and risking intervention by the WVDHHR Department of Child Protective Services!

These opportunists and retaliators also commit wrongs, albeit more morally ambivalent than the spouse stealers.

The paramour’s decision to have a short term, casual, sexual relationship with a vulnerable, or needy, married parent draws that parent away from the very things he or she should be focusing on.

These things include:

a. Maintaining the delicate balance of a budget that must now support separate households;

b. Planning and negotiating the dissolution of the marital partnership, and;

c. Nurturing the shell shocked, traumatized, children.

The people involved in extra-marital affairs engage in powerful rationalizations to justify unjustifiable behavior. A key element is often the demonization of the other spouse. “That bitch” drove him to his immoral behavior. “That abusive bastard deserved to be abandoned!”, and,” All I did was be there when she needed me.”

These excuses often have a grain of truth, but the children are almost always caught in the crossfire.

Say what you will about “Dr. Laura” (Schlesinger), but she is “dead on right” the way she deals with people who engage in this irresponsible behavior. It is exactly the WRONG behavior for those people at that time. Very few people have the emotional and physical energy to start a new, meaningful, and potentially long term relationship when their world is falling down around them.

My advice to a client in such a situation is that having sex with someone new, regardless of the short term pleasures, enrages and hurts the other parent of your children. This happens at the very time when the client would benefit by their remaining calm and rational. I have seen such behavior lead to suicide and homicide.

I admit, sometimes it helps me get paid when the new “sugar daddy” or “sugar momma” arrives with “deep pockets. It helps my client pay me and meet basic expenses. They get what they want and pay for it.

Sadly, “the sugar person” may be someone who has loved the litigant for years, hoping they would become available. In those cases, I suspect that my client is using that other person for her/his own ends. I sometimes issue gentle warnings, but they go unheeded.

One valuable lesson taught at the court mandated “parenting education class” is that you should not introduce your children to a “significant other” during the marriage or shortly after the breakup. How could there be more sensible advice? Children usually love each parent. Their lives are being turned upside down. They do not need more confusion and uncertainty.

The children are feeling rejected, and often Mommy or Daddy is telling them that the other parent has “abandoned us” and “does not love us any more”.

More often than not, the offending parent reinforces those accusations by introducing the children to the person with whom he/she is replacing Mommy or Daddy.

These meetings with the significant other are often in the park, a restaurant, or during a picnic. The stunned children are expected to meet the “new mommy or daddy”, form a bond, play with that person’s children, and somehow accept it all.

When they get home, they must then endure the interrogation, and overhear the accusations of the offended parent, to friends, or family, or them.

My best advice is do not become involved in such relationships, but, if you do, please do not try to pull your children into that relationship too soon. If it becomes a stable relationship, think long and hard how to bring the children into it.

And, do not sneak around your estranged spouse. If she is “going to freak”, then it is clearly too early.

In rare instances, but more likely if you have permitted a discrete amount of time to pass, you can introduce your spouse to this person and involve your spouse, and even a counselor, in a plan that puts the children first.

Do not be like the husband who recently attended parenting class with my client and announced to the whole class, “I will expose my children to anyone I damn well please!” He is lucky it is not a graded class!

I also suggest to my clients that they take stock of their whole life. If there are health or addiction issues, obesity, or depression, or severe financial stressors, tackle those problems as best you can. Do NOT overlay these problems with the challenge of a new relationship.

Dr. Laura speaks sternly to the woman who has never developed a “whole personality”, but depended on “her man” to define her. She suggests, and I agree, that woman must learn to become an independent, assertive, mature, person with goals and passions of her own. “Settling” for the next warm body that comes along will not lead to happiness.

To my male clients, I add to this that a man must assess why he was not able to have a happy wife. Sure, it might have been “her fault”, but usually there is a lot more to it.

The curse of “control” is usually present. A controlling person has great difficulty learning how to stop this behavior.

I have written blog articles, “Being a Good Husband”, June 21, 2010, and “How to Be a Good Wife” July 6, 2010, based on my own 42 year marriage, and 3000 or so family law cases. The blessings of having a superlative spouse, or being one, are incalculable. There is a ripple effect, to your children, your family and in laws, and those who follow.

There is also a ripple effect to parties and their families, who involve the children, introduce them to the significant other too soon, neglect the children, fail to communicate, and focus on themselves instead of the children.

I SUGGEST THAT YOU commit to putting the children first, in the highest and most mature sense. Learn how to be a good parent, especially if you have been lacking before. DO NOT attempt to control or punish the other parent. And stop the profane and obscene language! Learn this, and you may not even need a divorce!

DO NOT BE AFRAID to wait months, or years, before you are ready to integrate a new sexual partner into your family and life.  Read books, check out the Web, and take it a day at a time. You will be glad you did. In the meantimie, take care of yourself and your children.

Your life, and your children’s, will be better for it.

This post was written by Burton Hunter

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