DESPITE YEARS of practice at divorce, we still don't do it very well. As the latest research shows, too many parents behave badly out of immaturity, mental illness or meanness, forcing their children to take sides, to witness hostility and even violence, to carry messages, to spy, to accept their parents' new love interests too soon.
Too often custodial mothers use a father's visitation rights as an opportunity for revenge; and too often visiting fathers fail to show up, fail to call, fail to pay child support. Furthermore, many parents succumb to a tendency to favor one child over another, sometimes unfairly assigning the rejected child the characteristics of the former spouse.
Neither parent is more culpable than the other; both can act in myriad ways which virtually guarantee that their children will have a difficult time coping with the divorce. Although not every mother uses the occasion of her ex-husband picking up the kids for a visit as an opportunity to smear dog feces on his face (as one of author Judith Wallerstein's subjects did), that particular gesture could serve as a metaphor for a number of destructive behaviors.
"It is clear that divorce is still a major trauma for most people, and for some it is overwhelming," says psychologist Neil Kalter.
There are some parents who don't even tell the kids about the divorce, leaving them to wonder forever why Daddy or Mommy suddenly disappeared. Some burden their children with too many details about the breakup, listing with unrelenting repetition the emotional and sexual shortcomings of the departed spouse, or their own feelings of depression and threats of suicide.
Eighteen months after the separation, one-half of the mothers continued make hostile remarks about the fathers, Wallerstein and co-author Joan Berlin Kelly reported, and one-third of the fathers did the same. At the fifth year follow-up, 29 percent of the children were still regularly exposed to intense parental bitterness; and 31 percent of the men and 42 percent of the women had not achieved "psychological or social stability." (For some, obviously, divorce alone did not cause the problems.)
In the first 18 months after the separation, one-fifth of the mothers actively sabotaged their children's visits with their fathers by making scenes, demanding unrealistic restrictions on the visit, lying to the father that the child was sick or making appointments for the same time the father was supposed to see the child and then telling the child that the father had stood him up. Not surprisingly, some children deal with this stress by developing stomach aches or acting cranky on the visit: Behavior the mother then uses to buttress her claim that the father's visits are having a bad effect -- which in turn places even more stress on the child.