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Co-Parenting Challenges: 7 Ways To Make Your Feelings Work For You

02/05/2016 03:50 EST | Updated 02/22/2017 03:30 EST
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Feelings are great, when they're positive. We smile and high-five to share our exuberance. As co-parents after divorce, we're more in the negative territory at first -- anger, sadness, longing. Who wants to feel those? Easier to ignore them, or distract ourselves with a glass of wine or a movie until the feelings go away.

The problem is that over time, if we don't register our feelings and actually let them into our experience, they don't subside. They stay within and start to impact our actions or our health. Like a sliver of wood or metal deep in our bodies, feelings can cause significant harm. Ulcers and high blood pressure are some of the ways feelings affect our health.

As co-parents, we are challenged to work effectively with our ex-partner when feelings of anger, loss or hurt hang between us.

Years ago, my then-boyfriend and I visited my brother and his family. During our stay my boyfriend showed his charm and intelligence but wasn't stepping up to pay for any of our expenses. I didn't realize this was bothering me until the four of us finished eating lunch in a restaurant. The waitress arrived with the cheque and he said, "I'll get this." "Good!" erupted from my mouth. I flushed crimson, wanting to vanish through the floor. Can you relate?

My blindness to my feelings in the restaurant simply meant I embarrassed myself. As co-parents, we are challenged to work effectively with our ex-partner when feelings of anger, loss or hurt hang between us. Trying to ignore our feelings can result in shouting, leaning inappropriately on our children for support, or making rash decisions. Our children's well-being and our own require skillful handling of our emotions.

Here's how to get your feelings to work for you.

1. Accept them. Those painful feelings are there and you need to let them in. As in birthing a child, the only way out is through. Know that the feelings will have an end to them -- they won't last forever. If you worry about seeming odd to others, take heart. In going through divorce you have lots of company with your grief or anger or shame. No one will be surprised that you have such feelings and few will judge you.

2. Register the emotions in your body. Slow down and ask where is the hurt, anger . . . in my body? Is it in my throat, my stomach, my chest, my shoulders? Don't try to banish it. Instead be as curious as you can. When you have located it, take a few breaths and try to put words on the sensation. Tight? Heavy? Nauseous? What is the sensation saying to you? "No, this shouldn't be happening!" "How could she!" "How can he not love me now!" "I've failed." Don't flee, listen. This takes courage, and you may need practice. Take deep breaths if you need help to stay with what comes up.

3. Find ways to express the emotions, once you have experienced them. (Without breaking laws would be good.) Write it down - use big sheets of paper and scrawl all over. Don't go near your Twitter account. Social media is never the place for this release. Go running, play squash or another game where you get to hit something, hard. While driving in a car by yourself, roar! (This is my favourite.) As long as the windows are closed no one will hear you. Scrub the bathtub till your arm gets tired. Let those painful feelings escape from your body, over and over again. Know that this won't be instant release. Research shows that intense emotions cause changes in our cells and nerve fibres, which only slowly respond to our actions.

4. Don't express the feelings in front of your children. They don't need to be part of that. This is your own work. If you know your feelings are seeping out in spite of yourself, say, "I'm feeling sad/mad right now. I'll be okay in awhile, it's nothing to do with you." If it's hard to get time to yourself right then, scribble a few sentences in a notebook to drain off the intensity.

5. Reach for support. Feeling and expressing such harrowing emotions is difficult, and may be new territory. Find a counsellor or coach, or a group of others in transition. There are countless sources to choose from. Asking for help doesn't mean you are weak -- anything but. It means you are smart enough to know that you don't have to invent your way through this alone, and that support will make it easier. No one I know who has sought help has regretted it.

6. Look for the lessons as the strong feelings subside. What have you learned about yourself? About how you impact others and what you need from others? About what nourishes you? Don't let the chance for major learning pass by unnoticed.

7. Is there energy in your feelings to get you moving? Anger, in particular, can fuel action. Some mothers and fathers, for example, have channelled their anger about their own unfair treatment in their divorce into businesses which help other parents avoid similar pitfalls. See if your feelings point to constructive next steps.

It's not an all-or-nothing skill you are learning, but a direction to grow in. I still can't easily register my feelings in daily living, but I have improved. This helped both me and my children. Wouldn't you rather be parented by someone who knows what they're feeling?

Further Reading:

The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

Becoming Real by David Irvine

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

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