Texts, emails, web calendars and other electronic communications can be critical for parents as they try to keep their kids' homework, practices, rehearsals and lives straight. Divorced parents can especially benefit from this technology as they try to organize their kids' schedules separately, but a new study found that divorcees sometimes misuse this technology to gain control or to antagonize their exes instead.
Lawrence Ganong and colleagues at the University of Missouri found that ex-spouses who endured bitter breakups often used communications technology as a weapon. Some spouses would selectively ignore texts and emails -- pretending they never received them -- while others cut their exes off from web calendars until they had already scheduled their children's activities.
“Technology makes it easier for divorced couples to get along, and it also makes it easier for them not to get along,” said Ganong, a professor of human development and family studies. “Parents who use technology effectively can make co-parenting easier, which places less stress on the children. Parents who use communication technology to manipulate or withhold information from the other parent can cause pain to the child.”
(Today's blog is part of a "tech week" focus on the pros and cons of electronic communications and devices and how they affect families and relationships.)
Ganong's team based its findings, which were published recently in the journal Family Relations, on in-depth interviews with 49 divorcees. Email appeared to be a double-edged sword. It promoted communication between parents who couldn't stand to talk to one another. On the other hand, it allowed the sender to entirely control the message and amount of communication.
Said one divorced parent of a 12-year-old boy and 8-year-old girl: "As far as scheduling and working together on a schedule and for him to consider others when he's making a schedule, that's been difficult because most of the time I get a teeny ounce of information and it's that “Oh, this sport is starting. We’re gonna practice on Tuesdays nights. Can she play? Can he play? Can Anna come?” I get about not even a fourth of the information, and then two weeks into it … [he leaves a message]: “Here's the schedule. We’re actually gonna practice two nights a week and the games will be the other two nights a week.” So there's plenty of information that is not given when these commitments are asked for … and in some cases I must admit I do think it's manipulative."
Technology certainly wasn't a cure-all. Dysfunctional parents remained dysfunctional. Deadbeat parents remained uninvolved, even when their ex-spouses tried to use e-calendars to get them more aware of their kids' schedules.
Said a mother of four kids, ages 17-10: "[He tells the kids], “I promise I’ll be there. I’ll come to one of your games.” And then I get him a schedule, he loses the schedule. “When's their next game?”… I'm like, “I gave you a schedule.” He has an e-mail address and I’ve sent him a couple of things but he never replies back."
Ganong said divorce counselors must teach ex-spouses how to use technology to improve their co-parenting rather than complicate it. (Beyond child scheduling, there's the equally thorny issue of social media and whether exes discuss their breakups in the semi-public settings of Facebook and Twitter.)
Many states require divorcing couples to attend co-parenting classes, but it is hit and miss whether the courses address electronic communications. In Minnesota, divorcing couples must take up to eight hours of training that, under state law, includes a session about "positive communications."
“Parents who are hostile need to set their feelings aside and understand that they need to communicate effectively in order to protect the emotional well-being of their children,” Ganong said. “Email is a great resource for hostile parents who can’t talk face-to-face. They can communicate essential information while editing what they say to avoid conflict. Also, the parents have a record of what was agreed upon.”