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"Our lawyers suggested we try to resolve our differences"; divorce in the family.

"Our lawyers suggested we try to resolve our differences."

Divorce in the Family

"Our lawyers suggested that we try to resolve our differences with psychological help before we tried to settle them legally. My lawyer recommended you. Although typically my wife was reluctant to accept any suggestions from me, she agreed to come and use you." Mr. Drew, a large, heavyset man in his late 30s, spoke quickly while glancing at his wife.

"I'm not sure whether anyone can help us. The current crisis started at a school meeting about our son John, who is 12. Even though we are divorced, we participate together when there are major school conterences about our son. That's what I find bewildering. Judy always complains that I'm not interested enough; that I don't spend enough time with the nitty-gritty work about John. But whenever I do join with her about some decision, it always ends in a battle.

The school meeting was rather typical of our relationship, even before we divorced. We were there to discuss the next year's educational plan for John. Judy couldn't wait to hear what any teacher was going to say or suggest. She was continuously interrupting. No matter what any teacher recommended, Judy would insist on more. As time went by, I became more and more uncomfortable as the next person spoke. Finally I couldn't take it anymore. I said, `Would you mind listening before you speak. I came here to try to understand what they think about John.'

If she doesn't let them talk, then it becomes a dialogue between two people and I feel like an outsider. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything, because after I spoke, she does what she usually does -- she said, `Shut up,' and `You don't know enough to make decisions.'

I've been hearing things like this ever since John was born. Judy is somebody that has everything planned in advance. If things don't turn out the way she wants, she doesn't pay much attention and keeps moving in her direction.

John was not an easy baby. He had difficulty sleeping; he seemed to be cranky all the time. She had a whole agenda of who could touch him, when they could touch him, when he was supposed to eat, and when he was supposed to sleep. The more difficult he became, the more she insisted on everybody conforming to her expectations of what a mother should be like, what a baby should be like, what a father should be like. I found that nothing much I would say could help, and I began to back off. It was a lot easier to stay away than to challenge her.

But sooner or later, her demands would become so uncomfortable I would try to say something or fight back. This went on about everything: when he should be toilet trained, when he should walk, when he should talk, when he should speak in full sentences. John was always a little bit behind. The further behind he became, or at least to my wife, the more demands she made on him and on everybody around us.

I think she would agree that we got less and less pleasure out of staying together; either I would withdraw or we would fight. Finally when he entered school, I decided it was time to move out of the house. There were lots of reasons. I am committed to John and his future. I really wish the best for Judy even though she doesn't see or believe what I have just told you.

When John went back to school a full day, Judy was able to go back to work. She's a superwoman. She can do things that most people can't do. She has energy beyond belief. Her expectations of herself are always very high. I just felt that they were too high for me, and I still worry about whether they are too much for John.

I remain involved with John to the extent I can be. I try to make all the major meetings about John, I try to go to school activities where he's involved. My wife does have him involved in regular sports activities like Little League in spring and summer. No matter how much time I spend, my wife really says that I'm uninvolved, or I do the easy stuff.

Of course things became more difficult when I got remarried three years ago. Last year my wife and I had a baby, and that does change the amount of time and energy I have available. I understand that. I still would like to be able to figure out how to discuss programs for John with my ex-wife sensibly so we both come to the best decisions for John that we can. At this point I see myself as fighting a rear guard action. Sometimes I know how well she does things -- he certainly has grown up -- but sometimes I feel he needs somebody to protect him."

"I don't know where to begin." Judy Drew, a tall dark-haired woman, spoke angrily. "Whenever I'm going to meet with Andy, I say to myself, `I know what he's good at, I know what he can't do and I know what he can do, and I'm going to have a rational, grown-up discussion with him.' But somehow, whenever we get together, the same old things come up, and sooner or later it's easier to just tell him to keep quiet. He's great at presenting himself as an interested, concerned father, but he is not.

I think that he did not spend a lot of time with John when we lived together. It's easy now to say that it was because of me that he stayed away; that he found it easier for me to do it rather than to fight. But there were lots of times that he knows I would have been delighted if at the end of a day he did anything with John -- played with him, talked to him, put him to bed -- anything. It was when I asked him to get involved that he began to say he had bowling night, or he had poker night, or he had to work that night. He would be so exasperating that finally I would say, `Well, do something!'

He has never been asked to do hard things. John was a difficult baby, and we knew that something was wrong. We were not sure of the extent of it. Our families responded quite differently. My parents were asking what they could do to help us, to give us relief, to give us help, to give us advice. Andy's family: all they could say was `Poor Andy,' and why was it his misfortune, as if we weren't in it together, and they weren't as interested in their grandchild or me.

And sure, he's involved in these meetings. I demanded it as part of the divorce agreement. Prior to the divorce, I would go to these meetings, I'd come back, and he would ask what happened. Then when I would tell him, he would them tell me all the things I did wrong. Mainly, that I expected too much.

You know, sometimes, I wonder whether I do expect too much. My goal is to make sure that John does live up to whatever he can do. Whether Andy believes it or not, school and community people have doubts about what youngsters like John can perform. And if I'm not there trying to make sure that he is given a chance, he's given a full opportunity, very little would happen.

I know there's a lot of pressure on John from me. And I know it's a lot easier when he visits his father. He doesn't visit that often, but I know when he gets there he's indulged. It's a lot easier for Andy to placate him and to try to make him happy than to try to get him to work on things he needs to work on or practice. I'm always the bad guy, whether he is at home, or with Andy, or at school.

In my heart of hearts, I still believe if I didn't make demands on John and others for him, that John would ultimately suffer. And I think John knows it. If you ask him who's dependable, I'm the one that's dependable. If I make a promise to John, I keep it. And if I tell him I'm going to try to do something for him, I do it.

With Andy, he loves to make promises. But he can say all he wants that he has a wife and another child; but if something comes up, then he will call John and say he can't make it. He has no idea how John is disappointed.

Right now, twice a year, we meet to discuss Andy's school future. Whatever I want, he always says it's too much, and sooner or later he tells me to listen and I tell him essentially to keep quiet. Even when he was talking, I found myself restraining myself so that I wouldn't interfere and present my case before he finished.

Andy will tell me in private that I feel cheated by him. You know, sometimes I do. Sometimes I feel life is not fair, that when anything goes wrong, the mother has to pick up the pieces. He's gone on to live a fuller life, and I've really got to try to sort out when I'm going to find enough time for John and for myself. I'm beginning to think about having a fuller social life for myself. I don't want to go along with these battles, and part of me wishes that we could settle them legally -- that is, end Andy's rights in decision making. Because sooner or later I have the responsibility for everything anyhow.

I think whenever we make a decision about John that Andy says he finds pushy, sooner or later it means that he's going to have to spend more money than he wanted to. That's where it's at. I'd like to do it better, and at times I think we can, but I don't think we can do it alone."


The Drews came at the advice of their lawyers. They had been to a school planning meeting for their 12 year-old son John. They had not been able to agree about planning for their son before their divorce six years earlier. After the recent meeting, Mrs. Drew went to her lawyer to get sole decision-making power. Her lawyer suggested that she and Mr. Drew try to resolve their difficulties through counseling. Mr. Drew's lawyer had made a similar suggestion. Both parents came with the wish that this be done but with little optimism that it was possible.

Parents often have different views about the care and raising of their children. Parents come to a marriage with different styles of living and learning, and different expectations about raising children. Generally, within the framework of marriage, the parents find ways of resolving or overlooking the differences. These problems are exacerbated when the child has special problems in mastering issues involved in growing up. When there is difficulty, parents and professionals search for issues that get in the way. Disagreements and beliefs that one style is better than another often come into focus and demand resolution when parents need to make intelligent decisions on behalf of their children. This problem is further highlighted when the parents get divorced. We also know that for many families, the inability to work together and the stresses brought about by the birth of a child with a disability have led to divorce.

When any parents must make decisions of a critical nature in the life of their child, old unresolved issues -- ways of getting along, beliefs -- often come into focus. In the life of parents who are divorced, all of the past wounds and disagreements are part of the context in which educational planning meetings take place.

It was clear that both parents believed that their son John ultimately created a situation in which they could no longer live together. Mr. Drew felt that Mrs. Drew's expectations and demands of other people and of her son were so high that she could not accept or work with reasonable programs for her son. Mrs. Drew argued that this was a typical evasion by Mr. Drew. In her mind, he had not wanted to do anything that was difficult. She felt that working to understand their son and make sure people made an effort on his behalf ordinarily led to Mr. Drew's withdrawal. In their last meeting with the school personnel, their bickering became so intense that Mrs. Drew left the meeting before its completion. Mr. Drew was upset at what he felt was his ex-wife's typical behavior.

It can be difficult to get couples who have been divorced to effectively participate in any activity that requires a joint decision. The more painful or important the topic area, the more difficult the resolution. At times, both parents have a strong investment in some area, such as children, so that they can set aside their animosity or their problems long enough to try to work together.

Mr. Drew had faithfully attended the annual school planning meetings on behalf of his son without any coercion or prompting. Mrs. Drew, although troubled about her husband's behavior, always was surprised and pleased. It was possible to share with them their mutual view of joint participation and suggest that this was a beginning basis to try to work on how to function effectively on behalf of their son. The way difficult situations are solved is to be able to anticipate them and rehearse what needs to be done. Accordingly, it was unrealistic to believe that any parent, divorced or not, could effectively participate in a school meeting without having seriously and systematically reviewed the information together and discussed it together before a meeting.

The Drews were able to review the anticipated events in the life of their son for the next year. These ranged from summer vacations to school activities. The Drews were also reminded that changes in their own lives, as well as changes in their son, would bring changing issues to the fore and remind them of issues that they may have not liked about themselves or their relationship, or in which they had fond past memories. For example, the remarriage of Mr. Drew and the birth of a new child were bound to revive old feelings of disappointment in Mrs. Drew. Without a place to acknowledge or discuss these feelings, they could interfere with discussing any issue with her ex-husband.

They agreed to begin to work together on the process of working together on behalf of their son. It was suggested that we meet together one month before the school year opened to discuss whatever could be anticipated or looked for that might require their joint support in John's life.

Mr. and Mrs. Drew met four other times during the course of the year: right after the first report card, shortly before the Christmas break, shortly before the spring break, and a month before the school planning meeting for the following year. Mr. and Mrs. Drew also agreed that part of the process should include their son, particularly now that he was twelve.

Although Mr. and Mrs. Drew continued some of their past arguments and recriminations during the course of this year, they found that the educational planning meetings, particularly at the end of the year, were much more effective.
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Author:Schleifer, Maxwell J.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Previous Article:Beyond separate education: quality education for all.
Next Article:The 11th Annual Report to Congress of the Education of the Handicapped Act.

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