Can Divorced Parents Sustain a Parenting Union?

When a relationship ends the sorrow of the rejected individual is sometimes described as “unbearable”. Very often both partners experience a multitude of complex emotions that leave them pained and befuddled. Does this parting inevitably create a lifelong bitterness and permanent alienation?


The emotional suffering of a rejected mate is often heartbreaking. In their attempt to help the abandoned partner, some friends and well-wishers denigrate the spouse who terminated the union, reassure the sufferer that this pain will pass and that he/she will ultimately be better off in the future. Others opine that the union had not been as solid as the sufferer deserved. These and other well-intended messages further exacerbate the pain of the distraught mate.


The emotions associated with unwanted termination of a relationship are often akin to the grieving of the death of a loved one. The pain of rejection is reported by some to be even more acutely devastating because the loss was initiated by the beloved’s change of heart – not caused by a tragic life event.


Assistant Professor Ethan Cross of the University of Michigan and Marc Berman of Columbia University conducted studies of 40 individuals who experienced an unwanted relationship breakup. They used fMRI scans and found that “Powerfully induced feelings of social rejection activated regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensations, rarely occurring in neuroimaging studies of emotions.”


With time, the physical and emotional pains subside and the cost of keeping a former mate on the “enemy list” no longer serves the needs of many divorced individuals. Time heals the acute pain of rejection, abandonment, unfairness, and injustice they had previously felt. The unforgivable words and “egregious acts” of the former mate no longer matter. Healing begins to set in.


For many parents, considering their children’s best interests compels them to create and maintain at least a cordial relationship with their estranged spouse. Some former mates remarry and their new status helps reaffirm their worthiness as desirable partners, which facilitates their ability to abandon their grieving and focus their attention on the best interests of their children.


The quest for modeling healthy family unity for their youngsters may be one of the most compelling motivators for some former spouses in restoring their connection and exhibiting kindness toward each other for the wellbeing of their children.


Parents who choose to associate with their former mate in parenting decisions, act in a respectful and cordial way and even agree to celebrate holidays together model for their children that human love, decency and family unity supersede individual needs and that love is a healing force.

Divorced parents:

  • Understand that the experience of rejection, abandonment or even betrayal is not a reflection of your essence, worthiness or partnership skills.
  • Abandon your instinct to shame, attack or hold grudges against your former mate.
  • Teach your children that respectful bonds, loyalty and courtesy can enable one to overcome personal pain, embrace forgiveness and maintain a cordial relationship.




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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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