Is There Room for Empathy in Divorce?

Empathy is a popular topic these days...
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Empathy is a popular topic these days. Depending on who you read or listen to, empathy can sooth relationships, calm hostility, and, even on a global scale, prevent wars. Using divorce or separation as an opportunity to practice empathy is contrary to a life experience generally associated with a scorched earth approach. Most parents are inclined to separate with a vengeance, and extending tenderness with strength is contrary to existing social norms. Not only do the parents suffer as they express debilitating anger at former spouses, their children also suffer in the environments where these expressions occur.

I propose empathy as a new way to help families manage separation.

A young father I know went ballistic every time he received a hostile email from his ex-wife and the mother of his three little boys. His solution was to divert all those emails to his best friend, and to use the friend as a filter to determine which emails were necessary to read. Not only did his emotions calm down, he became more insightful and empathetic toward his ex-wife who was very frightened about the losses associated with the breakup of the marriage. This was a perfect example of empathy reducing conflict - the number one cause of problems for children in separating families.

Empathy is appreciating the inner state of others - walking in the shoes of others. If separating parents are unable to extend empathy to their ex-partner, shifting their focus to their children might be easier. Parents who let their emotions get out of control contribute to scary, frightening and sometimes dangerous situations for children. Walking in the shoes of children and appreciating their inner state during family reorganization can help shift adults back to their parenting duties and toward the well-being of their kids.

In our workshops we ask the children to write an anonymous newsletter to their parents stating how the parental separation makes them feel. The children report feeling, scared, sad and anxious. They hate it when the parents fight, and they hate being put in the middle of their parents arguments. And they hate it when parents bad-mouth each other.

Parents who walk into our programs saying their kids are doing just fine are moved to tears when they read what the children have written. They recognize they have been so overwhelmed with their own circumstances their ability to empathize with their children has diminished and even disappeared. Helping separating parents empathize with their kids is critical for family stability and for children to feel safe and loved.

A secondary benefit to demonstrating empathy to children encourages their capacity to copy the behavior. Recent research has affirmed most toddlers practice empathy naturally by the age of two. If the skill isn't encouraged, it can be lost forever. Helping youngsters feel the pain of others is critical in helping them learn how and when to offer comfort. Moms and dads who want to raise empathetic children can start by teaching it through their own behavior - especially in tough situations when it may not come naturally.

Now that I've introduced the topic, the next blog will offer how-to's for separating families to learn and practice empathy.

Popular in the Community


HuffPost Shopping’s Best Finds