My fourteen year old client, Hannah*, sat opposite me yesterday, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Why can’t they just do the right thing?” Hannah asked of me. “The right thing” in her mind, was that her mother, who had been separated from her father for a year, should not be ostracized by her father’s family. Despite the time that had passed, Hannah is still having a difficult time coming to terms with the changes in her life. She is especially feeling torn between her mother, to whom she feels a strong loyalty, and her father’s sister and parents who no longer call to chat with her mother, even though they maintained close contact when her parents were married.
To help Hannah better understand the situation, I asked her to think about what she might do if her sister, only a year older than her, had fought with a mutual friend and then asked Hannah to no longer have anything to do with that friend. We talked about how Hannah might feel torn – wanting to be loyal to both her sister and their mutual friend but feeling a stronger loyalty towards her sister. We talked about how Hannah’s sister might feel if Hannah were to continue being friends with the other girl. I said that her sister would likely feel betrayed. Despite understanding the loyalty split, my young client still insisted that she would try to mediate a dialogue between her sister and their friend. Hannah went on to say that if nothing worked, that she would still do the “right” thing by not abandoning their friend “just because” her sister had.
I acknowledged that in an ideal world, Hannah’s mother and father would not ask anyone to take sides. I validated that Hannah’s feelings towards her aunt and grandparents were normal – feeling angry and disappointed in them for not maintaining a connection to her mother made Hannah feel that she no longer wanted to spend time with them either. I hope that in time, as Hannah grows and has more life experience, she will better understand that life is not always ideal and that emotions often overrule logic. At this time, I know that the best I can do is help Hannah deal with her conflicted emotions. I can also help Hannah find a way of being able to share what she is feeling – either with her family, with me, or both – to keep the lines of communication open with everyone.
Whether or not extended family members of an ex-spouse maintain ties with their ex-sister, brother, son or daughter-in-law is generally dictated by whether or not their sibling or child gives them permission to do so. Knowing this, my goal is to guide Hannah in being able to talk to her dad about how she is feeling. I am hoping that Hannah’s father may see that if he is directing his family to cut off all ties from his ex-spouse, that he is upsetting his child and ultimately their relationship as father and daughter.
When couples divorce, there is a huge domino effect. It is never just the couple that feels the impact of being apart. Children have to deal with the many changes in their lives too. And aside from the children, extended family and friends often feel that they need to support one person over the other and may even be asked to take sides. As much as possible, while still validating the loss and anguish that one’s sibling, child or friend is going through, it is important to try to remain as neutral as possible while not getting caught up in the separated couple’s issues.
*please note that names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals
Sara Dimerman, C.Psych.Assoc. is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario as a provider of counselling to children, adolescents, adults, couples and families. Sara is the Founder/Director of the Parent Education Resource Centre and offers psychological services out of her private practice in Thornhill, Ontario. Sara is the author of Am I a Normal Parent? (Hatherleigh Press, USA, 2008) and is regularly featured in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television across North America. After 22 years, Sara and her husband are still driving in the same lane (even though he can’t stand her back seat driving) and are proud parents of two daughters, aged nine and seventeen. In her circle of married siblings, Sara is the only remaining quarter. All of her three sisters are separated or divorced. Sara tries not to be an interfering sister or aunt, but often has a hard time not doing what comes naturally to her- offering opinion or advice. Visit Sara’s website at www.helpmesara.com