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by Ron L. Deal, President, Smart Stepfamilies

This past week I attended a workshop by Elizabeth Marquardt at the national Smart Marriages conference in Atlanta on the inner lives of children after divorce. It reminded me of a consultation with a young woman, Emily, who struggled throughout her life to balance the needs of both her parents only to feel like a failure.

Emily is a bright, intelligent, and ambitious young woman who can talk to her parents about anything in her life—except the other parent. As soon as the topic comes up, she begins calculating what to say so it won’t set off the parent she’s speaking to. A simple question from a parent to this young professional like, “Where do you plan to spend Thanksgiving this year?” floods her with anxiety and guilt. She wonders how to give an answer without implying a preference for one home or the other and how to modify her response so it doesn’t convey the wrong message? Perhaps, for example, she can sound discouraged about “having to be at dad’s house” so mom won’t feel threatened. Or perhaps she could criticize mom or her husband so as to send the reassuring message that dad needs to hear.

Yet despite her calculations and attempts to satisfy everyone so as to not distance herself from anyone, experience tells Emily that she will likely—in the end—feel guilty. For even if her contrived criticism and exaggerated emotional performance abates the anger and hurt of her parents, she herself will feel that she’s failed, somehow. Just how do you make everyone happy—including yourself?

I’m convinced that most parents, unless they themselves grew up in separate homes, are not aware of the many calculations children make as they try to make sense of their parents’ differences, value preferences, and life styles. I also believe that parents aren’t aware of how the experience of living between parental worlds leaves children feeling lonely and unable to talk openly with either parent about their search for moral and spiritual clarity. This is not, of course, because parents don’t care; they do. It’s just difficult to imagine the inner debate their children go through.

So what is a parent to do? Practice the art of speaking to the child’s inner world. Wonder with the child what their internal dialogue must be like and communicate your awareness of the stuckness they feel. For example, a parent might say, “You know it seems to me that you are frequently caught between the different values/preferences/beliefs of your two homes. That’s a sticky place to be, I know. I also know it feels like a no-win situation. Other kids seem to feel quite alone as they try to figure out how to please both sides without implying a preference for either; I wonder if you do too. I certainly wouldn’t be angry with you for calculating what you say to me about the other home; I know you don’t want to fuel our fire. I just want you to know that I realize this is hard for you sometimes. If you want to talk about my part in this, feel free. I don’t expect you to talk about the other home unless you are comfortable doing so.” Hopefully this process of “wondering out loud” helps a child break through their isolation and discuss what ails them about their relationship with you.

Finally, parents who really want to explore what their child might be experiencing are encouraged to read Elizabeth Marquardt’s book Between Two Worlds (Crown Publishing Group, 2005)