Colm O'Connor: Children are often the casualties of divorce conflict

Children suffer the wounds of hostile disputes between their parents, writes Dr Colm O’Connor, in his weekly column
Colm O'Connor: Children are often the casualties of divorce conflict

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE: When parents are at war against their ‘ex’, they invariably and often unknowingly wound, via ‘friendly fire’, their own child.

THERE is a term used in military warfare called ‘friendly fire’. Friendly fire is an attack on one’s own troops or civilians while attempting to attack the enemy. Examples include misidentifying one’s own people as hostile, killing one’s own in crossfire while engaging an enemy, or long-range inaccurate gunshots.

Use of the term “friendly fire” started during the First World War, often when shells fell short of the targeted enemy. Casualties of this ‘friendly fire’ are “friends” caught between enemies.

Friendly fire arises from the “fog of war” — the confusion inherent in warfare that causes recklessness or incompetence. I often think that children who are caught up in divorce conflicts are casualties of such ‘friendly fire’. They suffer the wounds of hostile disputes between their parents.

Parents who go through a process of separation or divorce unfortunately often end up at war with their ex-partners. Through the process of separating, they develop ever-increasing feelings of hostility, resentment, bitterness, contempt, and even hatred. Notwithstanding cases of physical or emotional abuse, if a parent is at war with the child’s other parent, they invariably injure their own child. In making an enemy out of their child’s other parent they injure and reject a part of their own child. Why is this?

A child’s inner psychological identity includes both parents. A child’s character includes elements of both their mother and father. A child’s emotional life has been shaped and sculpted out of the clay of his or her parents. Children therefore have an elemental and physical attachment to their parents that has little to do with how good or bad that parent is. The traces of that physical bond last a lifetime. To put it simply, every child is one-third mother, one-third father, and one-third themselves.

Therefore, when parents are at war against their ‘ex’, they invariable and often unknowingly wound, via ‘friendly fire’, their own child. When they reject the other parent, they reject the child because that child loves that parent.

It is an unavoidable consequence that the children take the bullets aimed at the other parent.

When you disrespect a child’s parent, you disrespect the child. It is a simple and profound truth. Many parents lose sight of this during times of breakdown, separation, and divorce.

The child is the one that feels the rejection; the child is the one that gets hurt.

Many children grow weary of this situation. They grow weary of having to love someone their parent rejects and, to find some relief from the situation, often withdraw from one of their parents. The inner distress, the friendly fire, created for children becomes too much to bear so they get relief from the situation by choosing one parent over the other.

This pattern is very common. Parents must realise that if they are to have a good relationship with their children, they must find a way to respect the children’s other parent. Unfortunately, it is easier for parents to paint their ‘ex’ as a ‘baddie’ because that lets them off the hook of having to respect them. If they do, they can play the victim, can let go responsibility, can give up trying to improve things, and can justify hurting their own child. For the children, this position becomes so weary and unnecessary.

In many cases of post-separation what is at stake for the resentful parent is pride, ego, retribution, and vengeance. Vengeance ruins the life of the vengeful and it scars the bodies of children. Many parents waste many years ‘bunkered’ up against an enemy that they discover, in the end, is really themselves.

This list of incidents of friendly fire incidents in military history include the downing of a British helicopter by a British warship during the Falklands War, and the shooting of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters by American fighters in 1994 within the ‘Iraqi no-fly zones’.

Parents, at war with their ex, could do worse than asking themselves if achieving some small victory over their ex is worth it when their own children are casualties in the process.

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