Can one woman’s view of her parents’ divorce open the door to a different perspective?
Lannie* is a bright and charming young woman. At 21, she is out on her own working part time, going to school part time at the local community college, and trying to find her way in the world. She and her family have been through some tough times. Her parents divorced when she was nine, which started the seemingly endless back-and-forth living between two different homes and trying to make sense out of a life that was spiraling out of her control.
She hadn’t known her parents’ marriage was in trouble. She doesn’t remember them arguing about anything in particular. In fact, she mainly remembers volleyball games with both parents cheering her on from the stands, birthday parties where they often embarrassed her with their crazy antics and speeches about when she was born, sleepovers with mom making s’mores in the fireplace, and working on math homework with her dad. Like so many kids, when her parents told her they were getting a divorce, she didn’t really understand.
She loved both of her parents and couldn’t imagine life without either of them. She was scared and didn’t want to choose sides. And luckily, neither of them tried to make her choose. So when they told her she was going to live with both of them part of the time, she was glad. She understood that she would have a room of her own at both places—she was actually excited about decorating it! Mature beyond her years, she could see clearly that this was a fair and probably best solution for everybody.
The problem was … it wasn’t. That first year after the divorce was the worst. Dad kept the house in which she had spent most of her childhood, and mom moved across town to be closer to her family. Still reeling from the loss of life as she had known it, Lannie enjoyed seeing both parents and spending more time with her grandparents. She relished the love and emotional support. Both mom and dad were moving through the grief and beginning their lives anew. And they both remained committed to staying involved with all of Lannie’s activities. By all outward appearances, things settled in as well as could be expected.
But after that first year, when the intense pain of the divorce had been replaced by a dull ache in her heart, Lannie began to change. Volleyball was the first noticeable casualty. She told everyone “it just wasn’t fun anymore;” what she didn’t say was that it was too much trouble juggling practices and games with her back-and-forth traveling schedule between mom’s and dad’s houses. What she didn’t say was that the girls she had spent much of her life with were different now. She said she wanted to pursue something else. And both parents agreed that she had the right to make that choice. So she quit the team and didn’t look back.
She didn’t end up pursuing anything else, however—though she did spend time focused on school and keeping her grades up. She also spent more and more time in her room listening to music or online, and much less time with friends. Sleepovers were a thing of the past. Even birthday parties changed from large gatherings of friends to just a few family members. Over the next few years, she became more isolated and lost interest in most social activities altogether. She was uncomfortable and nervous around people now. And though she didn’t seem particularly unhappy according to her parents, she had changed so much that they wanted to know why and what might be wrong.
That’s when I met Lannie. Her parents—both of them—brought her to see me for the isolation, nervousness, and worry they had begun to notice. They seemed to have a good relationship with each other, and they clearly had a great love for their only child.
When I first spoke with her, she was polite and very soft-spoken. She sat in a very rigid posture at the front of the overstuffed sofa, with both feet planted firmly on the floor and her hands clasped together on her knees. It looked as if she wanted to be able to get away quickly if needed. It was clear to me that trust was a huge issue, so I worked hard to earn her trust and confidence.
Over the next year or so of our work together, Lannie and I covered a lot of territory. But no matter what we discussed, it always came back to trust. And though she fought for a long time the notion that she didn’t trust anybody, she ultimately realized there was some truth to it. She had quit the activities and begun isolating herself because at the very core, she was afraid of being hurt by someone she loved and trusted.
Many times when therapists meet someone who has a hard time trusting, we look for signs of trauma. But Lannie insisted, as did her parents, that she had not experienced any trauma. She had never been abused, physical or otherwise. She had never been the victim of or witness to sexual trauma. She had never been bullied. In fact, the only upheaval in her life anyone could speak of was her parents’ divorce. And she had handled this well by all accounts.
So we started there and talked at length about the divorce. She expressed that her parents had handled it well, and that both of them had remained friends. She had been worried for a while about how sad they were, but then they seemed to get better, which made her feel better, too.
She talked about how much she enjoyed spending time with both of them, about how much they each needed her, and that she was glad to have her time split between them. In fact, when they asked her at 14 if she’d rather live with one more than the other, she’d said no. She talked about spending time with both of them more than anything else. It was a near-constant topic of conversation for us. And even though she did not speak of their living arrangement in negative terms, I had a hunch there was more going on there.
I asked if she felt responsible for their happiness in any way. She thought a long time, and finally said no. She did everything she could to make them happy, but she knew it was ultimately up to them. When I asked about what she did to make them happy, she practically shouted that she spent as much time with each of them as possible, because she knew that’s what they wanted and needed. When she realized she had basically given up what she wanted or needed—such as friends, volleyball, etc.—to be there for her parents, she cried. And cried. And cried.
I probably don’t have to say much about our work from there. We focused on Lannie’s learning to recognize and work on her own needs, her own happiness. On letting her parents be responsible for themselves. It was difficult work, to be sure. But worth it.
In one of the many conversations I had with Lannie, she said something I hadn’t heard before. She had spoken so often about how much she cherished spending equal time with both parents. And while I know this was true, I also know that she likely had some feelings about it that weren’t quite so positive. One day, she looked me straight in the eye and said she hated going back and forth all the time.
It had nothing to do with how she felt about her parents. She has insisted from day one how much she valued her time with both of them. It was the physical toll of traveling, of not being sure who would pick her up after school, of being away from her friends—and their subsequent moving on to new friends simply because she wasn’t there.
And that’s when it really hit me. I had worked with so many children, couples, and families going through divorce at that point. And I had heard both horror stories and happy stories about how they dealt with the aftermath. Before Lannie, I had not seen such a positive example of shared-parenting.
But as much as shared custody and equal time with the kids may make sense in a courtroom, the reality of splitting time between parents is tough on the kids. Though the courts often work hard to ensure the “best interests of the children” are being upheld, the irony is that what they are often focusing on is the best interest of the parents. And that’s exactly what Lannie had done.
It’s not that I think shared-parenting arrangements are inherently bad. And children do need to spend quality time with both parents—assuming “quality-time” is an accurate descriptor. But parents also need to understand that the logistical and physical demands of going back and forth take their toll. Even in the best-case scenarios. Children get tired. They get confused. They often become sad or angry. They sometimes stop doing the things that used to be important to them. They sometimes act out in ways that are surprising. They miss their friends. And they lose their friends.
All of these things are the unintended consequences of what seems like a good and fair solution for many families. Divorce is devastating for everyone involved, even when it seems like everyone is handling it well. I would ask parents to be cognizant of that fact. To watch their children for changes that could mean distress. And to help them get through it.
Kelly P. Crossing is a licensed professional counselor in the Dallas/Ft Worth area and founder of Link Learning Center, a premiere provider of continuing education to counselors and therapists—and to individuals, couples, and families.
*Lannie is not her real name, and some details have been changed to protect her anonymity.