Divided Loyalties When Parents Divorce

Rafi lived in Jerusalem with his parents, Yigal and Dafna, and three sisters. His parents split up when he was 11, and his father then moved to Eilat to work as a water-sports instructor. Divorce often changes the dynamic of the parent child relationship. Consequently, children feel they have to choose between their parents and may experience divided loyalties.

Dad is living a real life! He’s working really hard and I’m going to be exactly like him.

Because of the distance, Rafi and his sisters didn’t see their father too often. When they visited Yigal in Eilat during school vacations, Rafi spent as much time as he could in the water. He especially loved windsurfing. When he returned after these trips to land-locked Jerusalem he felt claustrophobic and resentful.

He asked his mother repeatedly why they couldn’t all move to Eilat as well. Rafi’s mother never responded well to these appeals. “I’m glad you had fun with your father”, she’d say, “but that isn’t real life. I have to work to support you, and your job is to go to school, not spend all your time on a beach.” Rafi would shout back, “Dad is living a real life! He’s working really hard and I’m going to be exactly like him. Not like you in some miserable office.”

Mom! Don’t even think about moving us anywhere! All my friends are here!

Sometimes, Rafi’s twin sister Ortal would join in the fight. “Mom! Don’t even think about moving us anywhere! All my friends are here! I hate Eilat! It’s hot, I hate getting wet and there’s nothing else to do there. I’ll chain myself to my bed if I have to!” Rafi would scream- “then I’ll get chain cutters and drag you with us!” Their mother would roll her eyes and just repeat, “there’s no need for any drama, we are staying in Jerusalem and that is final!”

Divided Loyalties

As time went by, it seemed like everybody in the family was getting angrier and angrier. Sometimes, some of the girls would refuse to go visit their father, and he would then have a screaming match on the phone with their mother about it. “You’re poisoning our daughters against me!” he’d yell. “It’s not my fault they’re not interested!” his ex would yell back. “ Maybe if you made an effort with them instead of watching soccer on TV all the time when they’re with you they’d want to come back!”

Other times, Dafna would call Yigal in a rage, asking why he thought it appropriate to insult her when speaking to their children. “I didn’t insult you- I just said that you can’t help being so on edge. It’s not their fault you’re so tense all the time, they should know you have a problem and it’s nothing to do with them.” “You try raising four children by yourself for 49 weeks a year and you’ll see how hard it is to relax!” The yelling could be heard across the apartment.

 Conflicted emotions

It wasn’t only Dafna and Yigal who were angry. Rafi got into trouble at school all the time. He graffitied obscene slogans on the school walls. He got into fights with other kids. Rafi never came in on time and was always behind with his assignments.

Ortal didn’t have the same reputation as a trouble-maker, until the day came when it was discovered that she was the leader of an 8th grade bullying ring. Nevertheless, the school dealt with it very effectively and things calmed down. It was Rafi who seemed to be withdrawing from everyone, and in the most urgent need of extra support. So when Dafna picked up the phone to Kav L’Noar, it was for Rafi.

Finally, someone is interested in what I have to say!

Rafi was glad to have the chance to talk to a Kav L’Noar therapist. “Finally, someone is interested in what I have to say!”

When the therapist asked him to explain, he said, “I live with my mom and three sisters. I’m the only boy in the house. They are not interested in my feelings. No one cares about what I need, what I want. No one takes me seriously. If I say anything I just get shouted down. I can’t relate to my mom at all- she doesn’t value the same things as I do. She doesn’t get that I mean it when I say I need to live near the sea. She doesn’t understand that the only time I feel normal is when I’m sitting in a synagogue in Eilat next to my father. I want to be  just like every other boy, instead of by myself in Jerusalem knowing that everyone is pitying me.”

Bridging the gap

Rafi’s therapist spent the next series of sessions working with Rafi on how to assert himself without aggression. The therapist helped him feel like he had an equal place within the family and was heard. Rafi also said that he wanted to be closer to his mother, like when he was younger.  The therapist worked with him to help him find ways to bridge the gap and reconnect. Rafi kept emphasising that he felt trapped in Jerusalem without any real opportunities to advance his skills in water sports and that was the only thing that made him feel good about himself.

Balancing Divided Loyalties

Dafna came for her own sessions with the therapist, which explored her relationship with Rafi.  The therapist helped Dafna to understand and how she and Rafi could strengthen their bond and reduce tensions. Dafna said that she would apply some of what they worked on to her relationship with Ortal and her other daughters as well. They also spoke about how important it was for Rafi to have a strong relationship with his father, especially at this stage in adolescence.

Riding The Waves 

Together, Rafi and his therapist created a plan that would work for everyone, involving a commitment from Dafna to let Rafi take regular windsurfing lessons at a boys’ surf club in Ashdod which was only an hour or so away by bus. Furthermore, the plan also featured scheduled times for Dafna to speak to Yigal about Rafi and for regular private video calls between Rafi and his father.  As a result, it enabled Yigal to be more of an involved father to Rafi, even from afar.

To summarize, Rafi is back on track at school. He still looks forward to being with his father in Eilat more than anything else, but enjoys being able to show off his new water skills when he gets there.  He hopes to join the Israeli Navy one day.

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*All names and identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality. Picture is for illustrative purposes only.

#parenting #dividedloyalties #divorce #conflict #angerissues

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