I am going to hit a touchy spot with so many, as usual. But as most of you know, that seems to be what I do best.
I have coached numerous people through an array of transitions in their life, but the most common transition we are all familiar with is divorce. It has either touched us directly, or touched a loved one. Two people choosing to no longer be in covenant is messy and painful, but then you throw children into the mix there is another twist that can make the transition catastrophic for many. And that is really what I want to talk about – the children of divorced parents – freedom vs control.
Our current system is painfully flawed, but they are doing the best they can with the tools they have. It is a system trying to mediate between two people that could not mediate themselves, and then the system is left trying to legislate relationship with the children. It really doesn’t work. What I want to do in this post is challenge everyone to consider what legislating relationship actually does to an individual, particularly a child. And hopefully encourage you to do what it takes to extend love.
The idea of legislating relationship is actually quite absurd. Have you ever told someone to NOT fall in love? or that they HAD to fall in love with an individual? How about those of you that have seen marriage counselors and are given a checklist of things they needed to do to improve their marriage, and they tried it but it didn’t work – it is because relationship can not be legislated. I could go on and on with examples, but you get the idea. Relationship has to be chosen. Relationship is not an outward control mechanism that causes an inward connection. It is the inward connection, the heart, that causes an outward manifestation. And this can’t be the responsibility of an individual, it is mutual covenant of all parties connected. But in a parent-child relationship the burden to create true connection, to build relationship, to build trust, is the responsibility of the individual parent. Simply because this little human has your DNA, you fathered it or gave birth to it does not mean they have to automatically love and respect you, because love can’t be controlled, forced, legislated, etc. Love is developed, it grows, it is earned.
So, let’s talk about the parent-child connection. When ‘adults’ think and talk about this connection they talk about this incredible ‘love’ they have for their child. They talk about how they would do anything and lay down their life for their child. But I rarely actually see the manifestation of those words, even in well-meaning ‘healthy’ marriages. What I typically see is conditional love, easy love, and control – I will explain in a bit. Very few parents are willing to do the hard stuff, to DO what love really is. And, in the context of divorce with a system legislating relationship, what I find is that ‘love’ is being legislated, and it doesn’t work. To top it off, the system tries to make it the custodial parent’s responsibility to further see to it the child’s relationship with each parent is legislated according to how they have determined is in the best interest of the child.
Seriously? When is legislating love EVER in the best interest of anyone? And when is trying to force another parent to legislate the other parent’s relationship EVER a good idea? They couldn’t even manage the relationship when they were married!
Actually, what needs to happen is the responsibility to build a relationship, to build trust, to do the hard stuff called love – not the love based on a ‘feeling’ of endorphins released or not – should simply fall on each parent individually. The sad part of this, the challenge, is that parents that have an issue with control are the ones that can’t do this – so the system has to intervene. And let me just be plain here – if you have control issues – you don’t have love….. period. Because at the very foundation of love is the freedom of choice. (of course choice is extended to the individual based on their ability, i.e. we are not going to ask a 5 year old to choose if they want to pay with real guns or toy guns – duh)
Whether you are a bible believer or not, there is a scripture that defines what love is beautifully and it is relevant across all cultures.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Unfortunately, I don’t typically see this kind of love played out. I see parents extremely impatient with their children and the various challenges that come with raising them the right way. I see harsh words and overtly strict ‘rulerships’, or total neglect and allowing the child to do whatever and get whatever they want. I see parents envying the other’s relationship with the child instead of embracing their own unique dynamic. I see parents threatened and angered by the other’s relationship. I see parents manipulating their children for past choices. I hear parents saying things like “I hope you have a child just like you someday” and things similar – finding joy in wishing their child a later hardship in life simply because they didn’t know how to love their child through the challenges. I see parents not protecting the long term health of their child and feeding them ‘what they want or will eat’, trying to please them instead of doing the hard work of feeding them what is good for them. I see parents that don’t trust their children because they don’t trust themselves. I see parents raise their children through the lens of fear instead of the lens of faith and hope. And I see parents that don’t have it in them to persevere through loving, and so they pick up control instead. And then you add divorce on to this, and it exponentially multiplies.
I have been through a divorce with children, my own and my husband’s. It was painful, scary, and messy. I won’t pretend like I did everything the right way, but I will say that I always tried to do the hard part of love throughout the process. It wasn’t always what the system liked – but my hope wasn’t rooted in the system. It wasn’t always what the easy thing would be to do – matter of a fact it was rarely the easy thing to do. I learned a lot through the process, and continue to learn about the parent-child relationship to this day, even though two of them are now adults.
I will admit, in the beginning of my divorce I took on the false burden of trying to legislate my children’s relationship with their father. I think most loving parents pick up that burden because they want to see their children happy and fulfilled. But what I had to learn is that no matter how hard I tried I could not force a healthy relationship, and what I actually did was force an unhealthy relationship that put them in harm’s way, which created a whole other mess to clean up. Then, when I stepped out of the role of legislating relationship and giving the children choice, things got messy because the system is about legislation and control, not choice, not love. This is when I had to choose to lay down my life for my children no matter what I had to go through, or how much it cost. I stepped out of legislating relationship and gave the children, and their father, ‘choice’ – to be responsible for their own relationship. I placed the burden of relationship on their father – which was his responsibility to begin with, not mine. Because of this I could then focus my energy on my own relationship responsibilities and to this day my sons and I have an amazing connection that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The years of sacrifice, the years of doing the hard stuff, the years of giving everyone choice is paying off in more ways than I could have ever dreamed.
I’m sure most of you are wondering, what about their relationship with their father? Well, that is not really my story to tell. And to be honest, it doesn’t involve me so I actually know very little. He hasn’t made an effort to travel here to stay connected, but I know they have visited with him on occasion when we go to California. I don’t hear about him, and they don’t really talk about him. I know they are friends on Facebook and various social media platforms – but that is really the extent of my knowledge. So, for those of you that operate in fear and have convinced yourselves that this kind of love, this kind of freedom, this kind of choice given will screw up your kids, let me bring you the Truth. If you really love them, you will make sure that love is founded in freedom and not control. My children are top students in their field, biomedical engineers, graphic designers, protectors, hard workers, deep thinkers, life-livers and lovers, relational, and have their own spiritual maturity that has developed. They are healthier, stronger, and more mature than most of their peers. I couldn’t be more proud of them, and I couldn’t have more hope for their lives.