Compartmentalization is the psychological curtain that slides closed when our feelings get too messy, uncomfortable, or inconvenient. Find compartmentalization and you will often find judgment--for the CEO who delivers inspirational speeches to shareholders from whom he is bilking millions. For the spouse who kisses her unsuspecting husband goodnight before heading downstairs to check the Tinder account. It’s easy to judge compartmentalization when it is used to facilitate subpar behavior.
But every card has two sides.
When used appropriately, compartmentalization can help divorcing spouses build and maintain a constructive co-parenting relationship.
Figuring out how to divide time with children, financial resources, and possessions can be a Herculean task, especially when one person neither asked for nor wanted the divorce. It's common for exes to become triggers or targets for anger--sometimes even rage.
Anger, like all dark emotions, serves a specific purpose.
In divorce, anger can help us forge the distance needed to heal the wounds of loss. Furthermore, when channeled appropriately, anger can fuel the rocket ship that propels us toward a new, post-divorce life.
But here’s where things get tricky.
The most reliable predictor of children’s post-divorce adjustment is how well they are (and continue to be) protected from adult feelings and conflicts.
In other words, the anger we need to feel in order to heal is the very emotion we must filter away from our children and out of our co-parenting relationship. Here's where compartmentalization comes in handy.
When adults can appropriately contain their acrimony, kids are freer to work through their own divorce-related feelings, without worrying about burdened by ours.
If this sounds confusing or difficult, that's because it is. To help divorcing spouses better understand healthy compartmentalization, I use the following metaphor. Imagine your brain is like Hogwarts, where each thought and feeling must be sorted into three empty boxes: the marital box, the parenting box, and the in-between box.
What follows is a description of all three boxes, along with a few tips for how to create them.
The Marital Box. Negative sentiments about the relationship, the divorce, and/or your ex belong in the marital box. This box should be stored high on a shelf where only you (not your ex or your children) can access it.
In the early stages of separation, it is likely your marital box will be quite full--even overflowing. This is completely normal.
Set a goal to reduce the size of your marital box by carefully working through its contents. Do this on your own, with a therapist, or with other trusted adults in your life. Reassure yourself that, with time and appropriate resourcing, the size of this box will eventually shrink (It will. I promise).
Helpful hint: Tempting though it may be, avoid sorting through your marital box with your ex. Your former spouse cannot help you get over him or her. Conversely, should your ex attempt to enlist you in sorting through his or her martial box, it’s okay to respectfully disengage. A brief “I’m sorry I cannot help you.” will suffice.
Trust that, if you and your former spouse could resolve your differences, you would have by now. That time has come and gone.
The Parenting Box. You and your ex share this box. Unlike the marital box, the parenting box should be void of emotion. It contains only information pertinent to raising healthy kids smoothly in two households (i.e., residential schedules, school events, extracurricular activities, medical appointments, etc.). Any text, email, or phone call between you and your ex should be brief and pertain only to the business of raising your children.
Growing up, my father used to say, “Never wrestle with a pig. You’ll just get dirty...and the pig likes it.” This was his colorful, Southern way of saying that acting out of anger isn't productive.
Insight and anger are inversely correlated. When one runs high the other runs low. The angrier we are, the easier it is to get the marital and parenting boxes mixed up.
Helpful hint: It's normal to get worked up on occasion. Keep yourself out of the mud by taking the time needed to calm yourself before engaging with or responding to your ex. Additionally, before responding, I recommend sending emails and texts to a neutral third party (e.g., trusted friend, divorce coach, etc.) to make sure they are 'washed clean' of negative emotion.
Helpful hint: It's always better to lead by example than to get in a mud-slinging contest with your ex. If your ex lashes out at you, resist all urges to fight back or defend yourself. Staying within the confines of the parenting box does not make you a pushover. It makes you an example of the mature, stable co-parent your child needs you to be.
Helpful hint: Determine ahead of time your goal for any communication with your ex. Include in your communication only the facts that serve this goal. For instance, if you are hoping to swap weekends, with sufficient notice (which should be stipulated by your parenting plan), provide in writing the dates you would like to swap. Your ex does not need to know the reason for the swap. Just the dates in question will suffice.
The In-between Box. The in-between box is a place for neutral-positive sentiments related to your fellow co-parent. This box is meant to be shared freely with your child and, on occasion, with your ex in front of your child.
Here are a few examples. Let’s say your ex is a fabulous cook and your child expresses interest in learning to cook. This is a great time to say, “You know, your Mom is an excellent chef. How lucky you are to learn from the best!”
Perhaps your ex is a musician and your child has taken up an instrument. Upon leaving a school concert together, in front of your child, it's okay to say to your fellow co-parent something like, “I can see Tim has inherited your musical abilities. It’s great to see him share his love of music with you.”
I cannot overemphasize how much this means to your kiddos.
Your child’s developing ego cannot easily distinguish itself from others. Thus, when you say positive things about and to the other parent, you are actively bolstering your child's self-esteem.
Helpful hints: If you are struggling to fill your in-between box, it may be useful to remind yourself that no one is either all good or all bad. To assume the latter about your marriage or your ex is to discount the positive attributes that brought you together, the most important of which was the fate of becoming your children's parents. Even if your marital box is overflowing, look for ways to encourage your child to have a positive relationship with his or her other parent.
Even when it is the right decision, divorce is rarely easy. The clarity needed to compartmentalize feelings appropriately can elude us when we are in pain. Let this be your motivation to seek support from others. Find people who have successfully weathered divorce. Ask them for tips about what worked, what didn’t, etc. Find a therapist in your area who specializes in working with divorcing co-parents. No one should have to do this alone.
Finally, remember that, while pain is temporary, parenting is forever. Committing the time and energy it takes to build and maintain a constructive co-parenting relationship with your ex is one of the best investments you can make--for yourself and, most importantly, for your children.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers divorce consultation, co-parenting support, grief therapy, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. If you need help sorting through divorce-related feelings, schedule a free consultation to see how divorce counseling and co-parent support can help you create the co-parenting relationship your children deserve.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.