What steps can a couple consider to minimize the acrimony and potential trauma inflicted on the family through a separation or divorce? Can the impact on a child or children be managed to help lessen the blow when a family structure and relationships unravel, and co-parenting becomes a new normal?
Karen S. Bonnell provides support to guide couples through the difficult emotions and feelings associated with separation, divorce, co-parenting and step-parenting.
For more than 40 years, Bonnell, worked as a psychotherapist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner. For that last 10+ years, she has applied that knowledge and her own lived experience as a co-parenting consultant and an author. A divorced mother of two, Bonnell believes it is possible to “divorce well, co-parent strong and step wise” — as stated on her website.
Bonnell, who is based near Seattle, Washington, spoke to Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk about how couples going through a family restructuring can better navigate the turmoil often associated with divorce.
Here is an excerpt of the interview with Where Parents Talk.
The shape and structure of the family has gone through massive change in the 12 years you have been a consultant and divorce coach.
What are some of the trends that you’ve noticed in this space that strike you most?
It’s very much a rapidly changing environment. And one of the things that’s really notable is how many of our young couples who are having children are choosing not to legally marry. So let’s just start with that substantive change — how many children are being born to parents or being brought into a family, two parents who are not choosing legal marriage. The other thing is the most rapidly growing group who are divorcing are actually grey families, our 50-year-old plus group.
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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a consultant and a coach. She helps parents experiencing separation, divorce, co parenting and step parenting. Karen Bonnell also spent more than 40 years as a psychotherapist, and a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She is the author of the co parenting handbook and the step family handbook. She’s also a mother of two, and a grandmother of three. Karen Bunnell joins us today from Kirkland, Washington. Thank you so much for being here.
Oh, again, it is my pleasure. And thank you for having me and this opportunity to talk about a subject that impacts all so many of us, right? It really does.
And I have to say that the depth of experience and expertise you bring to the subjects of divorce, of co parenting of raising stepchildren is really quite profound and phenomenal. I want to start by asking you, you’ve been doing this now in terms of the coaching and consulting piece for about 12 years. And it’s safe to say that the family structure and shape and society, particularly in that time has gone through massive change. What would you say? Are some of the trends that you’ve noticed as it relates to separation divorce, for example, that really strikes you?
Well, that’s a great question. And it’s one that is so rapidly, I mean, you pointed this out, it’s very much a rapidly changing environment. And one of the things that’s really notable is how many of our young couples who are having children are choosing not to legally marry. So let’s just start with that substantive change how many children are being born to parents or being brought into a family, two parents who are not choosing legal marriage. The other thing is the most rapidly growing group who are divorcing are actually are gray families, our 50 year old plus group, and maybe there’s a obvious correlation between the two, if you’re not legally married, you’re not legally divorcing. And of course, people 50 Plus, for the most part, had made that decision years ago to raise family. So we also have just a wide variety of types of family, right? We’ve got now that at least here in the States, it’s legal for same sex couples to marry and to bring children into a family. So that’s been new, relatively new, if you will. And we also are facing poly families facing or, or actually beginning to work with adults who have polyamorous relationships that also include children. So it’s a gamut of change. And it has been changing rapidly. And we’re, you know, working at our absolute best to understand at the end of the day, what do adults need? What they need?
Absolutely. Now, if we’re looking at current statistics in the United States, 50% of unions end in separation or divorce. In the United States and Canada, the number the trend actually is on a downward trend in terms of the number of of couples getting divorced, which is interesting in and of itself. But if we’re talking about divorce for a minute, you consult and coach couples to divorce. Well, what does that entail?
To forcing well, is really appreciating that what is changing is our intimate partnership. That takes skill, that takes maturity, that state ID that takes my ability to self manage my emotional space to do that. Well, oftentimes, when we’re thinking about separating and divorcing, the old technology would be to run out and hire a litigation attorney, who by the way, knows the law, but has no training in family systems, or the impact that a litigation process is likely to have both on the emotional and nervous system of the adults, let alone the children. So divorcing Well, from my point of view is consulting with a family systems person, someone who is going to be able to hold you in this most stressful, distressing time, potentially, right? Where there may be harm and hurt and betrayal and all kinds of other pieces of emotion that are in the field so that we don’t escalate those, so that we don’t take those add gasoline, strike a match and make things even worse. So for me divorcing well is consulting with a family systems person who’s really going to support the adults to do that as skillfully as possible with the integrity of a good parenting plan and all that goes into that, absolutely. But looking at the least, adversarial process possible.
It is such an important point because it completely changes the approach that you’re going to take during this turbulent emotional time, as you describe. So when you’re talking about going to a consultant, or a coach, or a family systems person, as you described, could you give us a sense of what that approach entails? Overall? What does that strategy really look like for a family going through separation or divorce?
You bet. The first is really helping them find a place to stand. Uh, sometimes the emotions are so high, and the seas are so rocky emotionally, that the first step is just how do I help you ground? How do I help you stand? You actually go through an exercise with my parents, where I help them future pace. And then I’ll say to them, you know, imagine it’s 1520 25 years from now, whatever is appropriate, depending on the age of their children. And your little one Madeline is getting let’s just make up a story. She’s getting her PhD in psychology, you know, how wonderful would that be right? For most parents, whatever their Epitome is, I try to bring that into the room for their children. And then they walk them through and I say a melon begins to roast you like all young adults, do the parents, by the way, make fun of you, right? But you’re both there. And she’s roasting you and then things get poignant. And she says, you know, Mom and Dad are you know, mom and mom, when you two decided to separate? I was really scared. But in fact, what happened was, and then have the parents go on and list. What do they want this child’s experience to be of the rest of their growing up years? You communicated? Well, you made things as easy as possible for possible for me, you decided to live close enough to my school that I could do my activities. What are the things in this moment as parents, not as intimate partners is intimate partners. If we didn’t have a child? I might never speak to you again, Leanne. But because we share Madeline. That’s till death do us part. So I’m going to help those parents find their flooding, I’m going to help them separate out. What am I mad at you about is an intimate partner how you’ve messed with my head or my heart for both? From the fact that I would do anything for Madeline, including figuring out how to co parent well, with you co parent strong. So that’s the platform for divorcing? Well.
You know, it’s there’s just so much to unpack there, in terms of, you know, the impact of a failing relationship, a failing marriage and where that could lead when you have children? Can you give us a sense of how do parents in that situation strive to make their child the focal point, as everything else is potentially falling apart? Could you share some tips on to as to how that can happen?
You bet. So first, I have to give them an architecture. Because, you know, we can do things when we come to understand how it works. And so for many parents, not all, but for many parents that came together as two adults who maybe fell in love, right? Or ideally, they fell in love. And I I talk about that as adults just when you fell in love. And at some point, you may have made an intentional decision to have a child together. Okay, so these two adults who are in an intimate partnership became parents. And in our world, we often take this intimate partnership, and this decision to become parents, and we bring them together. So in other words, when I was married to my children’s father, I was a wife and mother 67. So we use that language, I was a wife and mother, and he was a husband and father as if they were one. And oftentimes in terms of identity, we experience it as one and reality. We had a relationship that involved the husband and wife and we had a relationship that involved the skills and abilities to be good parents together, whether we’re living together or living apart. We worked in tandem we coordinated, right. Does that make sense? So we help ice healthy adults recognize There’s a ton of stuff going up around here on the intimate partnership level, what I call spouse mind, for those who are legally married or spouses or how you think about that, spouse, mind, intimate partner mind. And then there are the things that we would never compromise on the parenting level, I know for sure, and I’ll say this to parents, you would never intentionally do something harmful to your child. In fact, I know that if you had to jump in front of a bus to save your child, you would likely do that. So when I asked you to figure out how to co parent together to figure out how to create a responsible and respectful relationship, in the service of parenting, this child while living apart, that’s easier, that’s easier than jumping in front of a bus. So let’s get started. Let’s remember, all this stuff up here belongs up here, that goes to your therapist, that goes to your best friend, whoever makes sense to help you resolve that. Down here, we’re really strengthening the skill set for parenting your kidlet or kidlets, while living apart. Now, I want to just mention one thing, failed relationship. That’s often how it’s experienced, right? It’s even often how we talk about it, I failed at marriage, because I couldn’t keep it going. Right. And I want to just clarify that the failure in any relationship is not to be in integrity with what’s really going on. In other words, I don’t ever want parents to stay together in an unhealthy or distressing relationship, because that actually negatively impacts children as much or more than going in a skillful way through divorce. Right. So I usually talk about your intimate partnership has come to a close, there could be many reasons for that. But it is ending and maybe for only one of you maybe only one of you, and said This relationship has ended for me. But together, you have to bring it to a close. Right? Does that make sense?
Yes. And it’s an important point. And thank you for bringing that up. And I guess, you know, when I use that sort of terminology, it’s kind of what those of us who don’t do what you do, kind of look at it as right, like the failure of a relationship. Let me ask you, Karen, you mentioned it in, in what you just said in terms of your own personal lived experience, right? You did go through a divorce yourself? In what ways did you like what did you learn from that experience that perhaps has informed you and what you do currently?
Perfect question, I will tell you, I went through, I am the one who initiated the divorce process with my kids dad. And you know, he was accepting of that, although not, not, not not wanting that, but accepting that if one person wants it, then that’s what’s going to happen. So that was part of our framework. We had two children at the time, 10 and 13. And what I would say is, like many people of that time in the 90s, we both went to litigation attorneys. We did the thing that today I would say please don’t do that, you know, get information. But please don’t go there. For a family systems change. We’re really talking about restructuring of family. It’s not a legal problem. It’s a family problem, right. And it has legal implications. But legal is not the lead foot anyway, long story short, there weren’t divorce coaches than at least none that I knew of. And even though I’ve been a psychotherapist for 25 years, I was in this role. I was just a human Mama, I was just a human wipe, I was just a being and my information and everything I knew, kind of went out the window. And I often say and I’m more than willing to say I learned best by the school of hard knocks. So a lot of my work is informed by really reflecting and adjusting and understanding the enormity of the mistakes that both the kid’s dad and I made and today we could talk about that right? At the time. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Today, we know a lot about what we didn’t know. And today we can spend Thanksgiving together with our grandchildren and we can be a birthday parties together and a lot of healing has occurred. But that was hard earned.
You bring such an interesting perspective to that question for that exact reason. So let me ask you this. When is the ideal time in your estimation for someone to consider a consultant or a coach that helps families through separation and divorce like yourself?
So most commonly, I hear from people when one or both know that they’re going to bring the relationship to a close. So in other words, I might hear from someone who says, I know I want to get a divorce, I want to handle it skillfully. I’m wondering if you can help. That’s one kind of email that I might receive. Another is my spouse, and I, my partner, and I have decided that we’re going to separate. And we want to know how to do best how to talk to our children about it, how to think about creating a to home family, how to co parent together. So now they have a whole list of questions, how are we going to share our kids? How do we talk to our kids? What are our kids going to need from us, right? Based on their developmental stages, all that good stuff. So those are two common entry points for their work with me. The third common entry point is they’ve gone and consulted with attorneys. And thank goodness, at least in this area, many of those attorneys will say your first stop should be to talk with Karen or someone like Karen, who will give you the family guidance that you’re seeking. And I will sit back and be here for the legal guidance. So we’ve learned to work in a much more cooperative and cohesive way with our family law colleagues, thank goodness, as in an example being the Collaborative Law process, right, which is the non litigation, separation and divorce process.
You mentioned it in your answer there. But I’m wondering if you could describe a bit more, you know, every situation is obviously very different from the next but are you generally a proponent of a single family dwelling? In other words, the the kids would be in one setting after a divorce and the parents are the ones that move? Or are you a proponent of having two homes, the children’s visit?
This is a really important question. So it really is a developmental question as well, which is the younger the children, let’s say we have an eight month old, yes, I’m working with lots of parents who have infants who are separating and divorcing, the pandemic has been extraordinarily stressful, and apply the kind of stress on families that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my entire career. So long story short, if we have an eight month old, how Ideal would it be for some period of time, maybe it’s three months, four months, five months, where the parents are letting little one, right little Tyler is going to stay in his pen. And they’re going to come in and out daily, I’m going to give Tyler breakfast and take him to daycare, you’re going to pick them up from daycare and come home and put him to bed, we might do that for some period of time to support his development, until he’s just a little bit more ready for to home family life. More importantly, we’re a little more ready, right? We’re emotionally more ready, physically, the spaces setup all those good things, right. But here’s the story on nesting. Nesting always needs to offer him. And what I mean by that however, well intentioned we are, we have to have our process in place for if one of us needs to pull the finish line. So as soon as someone says we want to nest by say, Okay, let’s talk about that. Let’s give it a trial period, or a length of time. And even in that, we’re gonna create an off ramp, how I come to you and say, Hey, I can’t do this anymore. Okay, the end of the day, parents have to be able to put their own oxygen masks on first in order to adequately parent. Right. So nesting typically, is used during the separation divorce process, while we figure out what our resources are to allocate to two homes, for many, many parents today, especially here in the greater Seattle area. Owning two homes for a family is extraordinary. We need to have both parents have pretty extraordinary jobs in order to afford to do it. And I know that there Vancouver would be similar other places, right? So there may be this window where we don’t know how we’re going to create two homes, and that’s a wonderful time to nest. Right. Beyond that, rarely can parents do nesting effectively beyond about six months. It’s very stressful, frankly. So I hope that answers what you are wondering about.
It does and it leads to my next question. There’s there’s a really powerful quote on your website that’s attributed to yourself and it reads quote, for a child’s sense of family with divorce breaks apart, strong co parenting rebuilds. I wonder Karen, you teach your clients How To co parent from a place of strength. What does it take to be a strong, effective co parent?
Top of the line very top. I remember my parenting skills. One of the things the and that happens for all of us when we’re under stress is we become oftentimes more rigid, reified, or more stressed out or more disengaged or more something, right? Our normative resources are depleting because of that stress. And so during divorce, what we often see parents become more reactive, or they may become more permissive. Right. So the step one is to get back in our saddle is just good parents good, authoritative parents, our warmth, our presence, our structure, our limits, setting our boundaries, right. So that’s number one. If I can get both parents to embody those skills, again, in a competent way, what I call a good enough way, we don’t need to be perfect parents, okay. And parenting is not a competitive sport. If you’re my co parent, and you’re struggling in one area, I’m going to do everything I can to build you up as a parent. Not for me, but for my kids. Right? I want you to be a strong parent for our children. Right? So parenting number one, number two, co parenting is actually a set of skills. And so you need to know what those skills are. And they start with how we communicate about our children, how we coordinate around planning their activities, and making joint decisions around things like health care, education, right? Anything that’s important to them, developmentally, maybe we’re, maybe you and I are potty training a toddler together, it would be useful that we’re approaching that similarly, as our toddler moves back and forth across his two homes. That’s the other thing I always say to parents, let’s let go up. I still didn’t know Ricky was amazing. When she wrote mom’s house dad’s house, it was groundbreaking. That being said, let’s move away from that technology and language now. And let’s remember that our children have a home with their mom, and a home with their mom or their dad. Right? They have two homes, one set of parents living separately, and they have one childhood that they live across those two homes. Okay. So that’s what we’re looking for in co parenting is a set of skills. Sometimes people confuse co parenting with friendship. Friendship is icing on the cake. It has nothing to do with co parenting. co parenting has everything to do with respectful civility. I’m gonna say that, again. It’s respectful civility, right? Layered on communication, joint decision making, the ability to transition our children between us in a loving and peaceful way for our kids, and our need to be in love with you or love you even. But I can create a loving space when I bring Tyler to you. Okay, so those are the kinds of things that we learn about co parenting that support people and co parenting strong.
For families, and certainly parents who choose to enter a blended family situation or become step parents themselves. You also teach those individuals how to what you call step wise, can you give us a couple of top line tips on how they can go about doing that? In you know, now a new structure a new family structure?
That’s exactly right. And key is is a new family structure. Step family has the word family in it. But it is a completely different architecture from a first time family. Okay, so I often say first time family next time family and a first time family, let’s just say that looks a little bit like a three bedroom Rambler, a step family might look more like a colonial or I don’t know what the right you know, a bungalow of some sort. But they’re not the same. They don’t function the same. They don’t feel the same. This is often the place of great disappointment for a step parent, that although they think they’re gaining a family, a step family feels different than an original family. And so we have and have to kind of work through why those differences exist. And how do I adjust my expectations that my stepchildren are not actually our children. They’re just not. Now that doesn’t mean they’re not extremely important. And it does not mean that their parents don’t love their stepkids because they do with an enormous heart the size of Texas I always say, however, the hiss tree together is quite different than the history that a parent has with that child. And the consequence of that is that the relationship is different. So back to step by step to step wise is to go step by step. And to understand the complexity, there are five complexities that are going to emerge as you start to date someone who has children, or as the parent who has children, and they sneak up, they sneak up on you in most unsuspecting ways. Because before I know, we didn’t really know how to name them, but we do now.
I want to say, you know, you’re so clearly passionate about what you do, Karen, and, you know, difficult conversations on certainly challenging difficult topics, lots of emotion, change the turbulence, you know, different ages of kids, etc, etc. But you really approach it with such a positive light. When you talk about divorcing Well, co parenting strong and step wise, can you tell us, you know, what gives you hope? And what makes you so optimistic in the work that you do?
Oh, goodness, thank you for that question. It’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot, which is, you know, it’s really, it’s love. And I think all of us want children, all children to thrive, and to have an environment where that’s possible for them to become who they are. I, of course, also want that for adults. So in my work, it’s an opportunity to love people through the most distressing moments of their life, what I realize is that judgment, and competition, and adversity, only cause further disruption. So to have someone enter your family system at a time when you’re in distress, who brings with that the sense of accompanying guide, and also brings love, like I’m talking about that deepest sense of love right now, romantic love is what is the power of healing it is it is the source of the power of healing. And so that’s what gives me optimism. I see it work every day, I see it happen with every set of parents who, you know, come to me in their vulnerable state of, you know, oh, we’re crazy. And we’re doing all kinds of bad things. And we need help. And it’s like, yeah, you do. So let’s get started. I’m gonna help you it’s gonna get better. And here’s, yeah, here’s the steps I want you to take but
no, I was just going to say and it is such important work that you do.
Karen Bonnell co parent, coach, consultant, author, mediator and author of the co parenting handbook and the step family family handbook. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise with us today.
Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you for having me. Lianne
You consult and coach couples to divorce well. What does that entail?
To divorce well is really appreciating that what is changing is our intimate partnership. That takes skill, that takes maturity, that takes my ability to self-manage my emotional space to do that. Oftentimes, when we’re thinking about separating and divorcing, the old technology would be to run out and hire a litigation attorney, who by the way, knows the law, but has no training in family systems, or the impact that a litigation process is likely to have both on the emotional and nervous system of the adults, let alone the children. So divorcing well, from my point of view is consulting with a family systems person, someone who is going to be able to hold you in this most stressful, distressing time, potentially.
Could you give us a sense of what that approach entails overall? What does that strategy really look like for a family going through separation or divorce?
The first is really helping them find a place to stand. Sometimes the emotions are so high, and the seas are so rocky emotionally, that the first step is just how do I help you ground. How do I help you stand? I actually go through an exercise with my parents, where I help them future pace.
You did go through a divorce yourself. In what ways did you learn from that experience that perhaps has informed you in what you do currently?
I am the one who initiated the divorce process with my kids dad. He was accepting of that, although not wanting that, but accepting that if one person wants it, then that’s what’s going to happen. So that was part of our framework. We had two children at the time, 10 and 13. And what I would say is, like many people of that time in the 90’s, we both went to litigation attorneys. We did the thing that today I would say please don’t do that. For a family systems change, we’re really talking about restructuring of family. It’s not a legal problem. It’s a family problem. And it has legal implications.
I’m more than willing to say I learned best by the school of hard knocks.
When is the ideal time in your estimation for someone to consider a consultant or a coach that helps families through separation and divorce like yourself?
So most commonly, I hear from people when one or both know that they’re going to bring the relationship to a close. So in other words, I might hear from someone who says, I know I want to get a divorce, I want to handle it skillfully. I’m wondering if you can help. That’s one kind of email that I might receive. Another is my spouse and I, my partner, and I have decided that we’re going to separate. And we want to know how to do best how to talk to our children about it, how to think about creating a home, how to co parent together. So now they have a whole list of questions, how are we going to share our kids?
How do we talk to our kids? What are our kids going to need from us, right? Based on their developmental stages, all that good stuff. So those are two common entry points for their work with me. The third common entry point is they’ve gone and consulted with attorneys.