I often read your column and have found many of your thoughts and observations to be applicable to my life and outlook. You write often about achieving selfhood and the happiness and contentment that can come as a result of working to achieve this goal. That thought is particularly interesting to me. In your column, published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Feb. 5, you spoke about unions that are "inherently pathological." Your brief description fit my marriage to a T. My ex and I are, what I would describe as toxic as a couple but "normal, sane, well-educated, uprightly moral" apart. Your words that so perfectly described my marriage made me think about the effect that inherently pathological couples have on their children.
My twin 15-year-old boys are not only struggling with the usual adolescent angst but have the burden of the fallout that comes from the complete dysfunction between their father and me. Our cross should not be theirs to bear, and as their parent I feel that it’s my job to help them cope. I’m not sure what course to follow and would welcome any insight. I’m considering counseling for the three of us, but I need to find someone who has experience with adolescents and their family issues. Any suggestions? — M.K., Las Vegas
First I have to notice something. I notice what your strategy is not.
You didn’t say that it was high time to sit down with your ex and say, "Hey, if for no other reason than to stop confusing and damaging our children, you and I need to sit down together or with a counselor and, at minimum, negotiate a truce, allowing for common courtesy and teamwork as we rear these children."
Now, perhaps you have very good reasons not to consider this option. If the pain and antagonism between you and your ex make being a functional child-rearing team nigh impossible, or if history has demonstrated that it would only be more provocative to attempt to garner his willing participation in post-marital child-rearing, then I understand.
How long have you been divorced? What is the custody arrangement? Does the ex live here, and if so, does he have joint or regular participation in the boys’ lives? Apart from the toxicity of the marriage, are there particular issues they are dealing with in their relationship with either of you? None of us parents is perfect, but I’m asking if they are dealing with any particularly egregious events with their parents? Is either boy struggling to relate to the father now?
Next, are the boys asking to be in counseling? That would be uncommon at their age, but it does happen. Or is it that you see some particular symptoms in them that tell you they need some help and support (failing grades, agitation, signs of depression, etc.)? Or — and this is important, M.K. — is it more that you are feeling the weight and anxiety, perhaps guilt of the consequences of the unhealthy marriage and now divorce for the children?
It would be utterly normal for you to be feeling these things.
My encouragement to you, however, is to be cautious about how you proceed. Often divorced/divorcing parents bring children to family counseling primarily motivated by this weight, anxiety, guilt. The thing is, your children might be doing fine. And, if they are doing fine, bringing them to family therapy tends to conscript them more into the work of their parents’ healing, which we’d like to avoid. I urge you to spend some time sorting out — distinguishing — between your healing, your right accountability and their abilities to sort through the pain and loss of their parents’ divorcing.
Here’s another place to start. You could make an individual appointment. You could talk through your own experience of the marriage, the regrets/fears you have of how and to what degree it confused or hurt your children. I know I would then ask you if, apart from your feelings, you actually were observing behavior that points to your boys’ need for therapeutic intervention. If not, I like the idea of starting individually. You could then include the boys for family sessions if you and your counselor decided they and the new post-marital family (single mother with two teens) would benefit.
Children, given half a chance, are always more resilient than we give them credit.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or email@example.com.