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How Regressed Parents Can Hurt Their Children

If we consider that each divorcing adult may have a set of parents, a sibling or two, a group of good friends, uncles, aunts, grandparents and co-workers, we quickly move from two million adults affected by divorce to thirty million feeling the power of divorce.
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Brad & Angelina

Can we benefit from their divorce?

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are getting divorced. Ms. Jolie initiated the divorce, and the children are temporarily in her custody, while visitations with Mr. Pitt are supervised.

This we all know.

So, let's move past the gossip and ask ourselves what we may learn about divorce now that things are unraveling for a couple that had been considered among Hollywood's most secure?

Here are some pointers that arise from this famous case example.

Divorce Statistics:

About two million adults get divorced every year in the United States, with well over a million children affected. If we consider that each divorcing adult may have a set of parents, a sibling or two, a group of good friends, uncles, aunts, grandparents and co-workers, we quickly move from two million adults affected by divorce to thirty million feeling the power of divorce. Then there are the kid's friends. That is a lot of people.

Lesson: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are no different that millions of other couples. You never know what is going on inside another couple's marriage.

Women Asking For Divorce:

On September 26, Angelina Jolie initiated the divorce with Brad Pitt. This brings us to a compelling statistic recently published by Michael Rosenfeld of Stanford University. In his research of over 2000 couples, he found that sixty-nine percent of divorces are initiated by women.

Lesson: With the financial independence of many women, including Ms. Jolie and other factors, women are clearly willing to move on more than men. This has significance in troubled marriages, if a man tells himself that she will never leave. Think again.

I recently looked at divorce rates in China over the last thirty years in order to better understand how divorce is affecting the non-Western world. It turns out that divorce rates are skyrocketing in China with the emancipation of women and the breakdown of traditional life. Women have choices now that did not exist decades ago, and many are voting with their feet.

In the West the advancement of women and increasing financial independence may be putting new strains on the institution of marriage, which is no longer a contract of mutual financial dependency. Clearly, marriage as an institution must adjust and be satisfying to both parties for it to work. Frankly, these trends should bring about a call to action to make marriage a better experience for everyone involved.

Outcomes:

The outcome for the children of divorce is a mixed bag. Most do very well. One researcher noted about twenty five percent of the kids of divorce develop psychological problems, with a number like ten percent in the general population, so a large number of kids are truly at risk. Some become anxious. Others become depressed. Some act out, particular teenagers with poor grades, drug or alcohol abuse or worse. And still others may have problems with relationships when they come of age to be date or marry.

The key for better outcomes is to have an Intelligent Divorce. Not a happy, spiritual or even good divorce. If the children's innocence is protected from parental acting out and bad behavior, they are remarkably resilient and often do very well. Yet if parents use kids as messengers, try to get them to hate their other parent, or share too much about money, legal proceedings or one's own unhappiness, then watch out.

Lesson: Children of divorce are at risk, but most do well. Parents must step up to do their best parenting at the very moment they feel most down and out. Brad and Angelina are best advised to protect their children's innocence and encourage love for both parents, when possible.

Leave-ee & Leave-er:

In most divorces there is a leave-er, the one who is actually leaving and the leave-ee, the one who is being left. In this case Brad Pitt apparently is the leave-ee and Angelina Jolie is the leave-er.

This is important because the leave-er has been grieving a failing marriage for some time, and with the initiation of the divorce, he or she is activated, relieved or simply ready to move on. On the other hand, the leave-ee holds a bag of troubles. He or she may have a huge role to play in the breakup. Yet, when the moment happens there is often a surge of anger, a sense of betrayal, remorse, guilt and many other powerful feelings.

Divorce is a death of sorts, and people going through it are experiencing real grief. Will I ever be loved again? What is going to happen to me? What will people think? How could he do this to me? Will my kids be okay?How can I go on without her?

It is a powerful and unenviable role to play.

Lesson: In the Brad/Angelina story, it is not surprising to hear that a leave-ee has been accused of abusive behavior. Everybody regresses in divorce, some worse than others. The Leave-ee is vulnerable to act out because they are in terrible anguish. The key is to keep things safe, assess whether it's chronic dangerous behavior or a less serious one-time event, then get good treatment making sure destructive behaviors are corrected, if possible.

On the other hand, some people regress and over report abuse because their regression leads to increasing self-centeredness that can lead to allegations as a tactic in a custody battles. Some people are controlling before the divorce and become more so once the divorce commences. Everyone loses when this happens.

I make no judgments on the current case.

Regression:

So, what is regression? This is a psychological state in which a person drops down in functioning due to stress. A sad person may become depressed. A selfish person may become narcissistic. An angry person may become abusive. A suspicious person can be come paranoid, and so on.

In my Intelligent Divorce work, I encourage parents to deal with the reality of regression. One can read about it in my book, The Intelligent Divorce, or take an online course at www.TheIntelligentDivorce.net, where you can see parents (actors) make mistakes that are preventable.

Lesson: Both Angelina and Brad are probably anxious and worried. Stress can cause regression. It is helpful to get therapy to deal with one's grief, anger and hurt. And children benefit from therapy because they have a neutral person to talk to which can keep them from having to take sides.

Intergenerational Boundaries:

As parents, we owe our children one sacred thing; we must protect their innocence. The world is cold enough. Kids need many years where they feel special, loved and safe from adult worries. This is done by respecting the boundary between the adult generation and the child generation. It is called the intergenerational boundary. It can be violated by a parent sharing too much with a child. It can be violated by exposing the children to ongoing fighting. It can be violated by trying to turn a child against their other parent. And, it can be violated when parents make decisions based on their needs and not those of the child.

Lesson: In a case of such famous parents, I would be concerned with the children's loss of privacy. The Pitt/Jolie children deserve as normal a life as possible. After all, they didn't ask for this divorce. That applies across the board.

Community:

It is critical to tell your children about the divorce before they hear it from another source. If you tell your best friend, and she discusses it with her child overhearing it, you may have a problem with your kids first hearing about the divorce at school. That being said, community is critical in divorce. Children need their routines and their friends.

The major change of divorce and the breakup of their family can be softened a bit by keeping their friendships, school, and room and schedules consistent with what was going on pre-divorce.

Lesson: Ms. Jolie, according to reports, has taken the children to a new rental. They are being home schooled, with supervised access to their father. This disruption from their normal way of life (seeing their dad and enjoying their home) may be disorienting. It is important in cases like these that they have access to old friends, who can be with them without bringing gossip that they might be hearing from their own parents. And, it will be important to re-establish a relationship with Mr. Pitt, when it is deemed safe to do so.

Safety First - Then Communication:

There is a role in making sure things are safe in divorce. Stalking, kidnapping, violence, abuse and parental alienation are not common, but do happen. Some people leave a marriage because of abuse. Protection is a priority under these circumstances. And, some people regress so badly that they become a danger. There is a role for Child & Family Services, therapists, lawyers, judges and the police.

Only after safety is assured can a divorcing couple deal with each other constructively. In my experience, most of the danger of divorce happens in the first year and wanes as people move on.

Lesson: In the Pitt/Jolie case, an investigation of allegedly abusive behavior was initiated, and Mr. Pitt appears to be cleared. Child Services and forensic psychiatrists help many problematic divorces move forward. There is a need for outside objectivity and sometimes limit setting.

It is difficult work, and like all human endeavors, quite imperfect.

Psychotherapy:

According to People Magazine (October 17, 2016), Ms. Jolie, Mr. Pitt and the children are in therapy. This is wise in most divorces. The power of regression is immense and adults commonly make impulsive mistakes that they can't take back. They forget the next day, and their kids remember for years to come.

Lesson: Therapy introduces a neutral party into a volatile situation. For the children, they have someone to talk to openly, without fear of retribution or having to take sides. For the parents, an experienced therapist will remind them that more is at stake than the best financial settlement or winning because you feel wronged. You have children, and their needs trump all else.

Psychotherapy may help keep the divorce from spiraling into a incredibly expensive and hurtful process. On the other hand, if a patient is dealing with a narcissistic ex or a malignant ex spouse, a competent therapist may aid in being more protective. You cannot negotiate with someone who is bent on hurting or undermining you.

The Intelligent Divorce:

In the end, a divorce is the end of the family as children know it. But, with the right intention, good communication (often with the help of therapy) and time, the children will have two loving parents, who no longer love each other, but can collaborate in raising them together.

Parents can end up with well adjusted, great kids despite a divorce. But, it has to be done intelligently. That takes the best kind of work; the work of love.

Mark Banschick, MD is the author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

His online course can be found at www.FreeBookonDivorce.com or www.TheIntelligentDivorce.net.

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