When I decided to get a divorce, I resolved early on to take the high road. Whenever my children are in earshot, I am careful to refer to my ex in only positive terms. I stick to blame-free explanations for why my marriage ended, and keep my venting phone chats with my sister, late at night, when the kids are asleep. It hasn’t been easy, and no I’m not perfect. I’ve slipped here and there, but overall, I’ve protected my children from the fallout of my feelings. Last weekend, though, my daughter returned from her mother’s house and said, “I know why you and Mommy divorced. It’s because you lied to her!” Guess what? It’s not the first time. I’ve spoken to her about it, and she only defends her behavior; I don’t think she’ll ever change. Now what?
(Answer, continued from last week)
When faced with your ex’s bad behavior, you must be sure that your child understands the following:
• You are responding to your child’s feelings, not to those of your ex.
• Sometimes people – even parents – behave in ways that are inappropriate. You can be trusted with your child’s feelings and confidence; you will not fly off the handle and confront your ex.
• You will help your child find better ways to deal with these painful situations in the future.
• So how can you accomplish this without breaking the golden divorce rule of don’t criticize your ex? You stick with how your child feels about your ex’s comments instead of dealing with the comments themselves. In your case, your ex told your child that the divorce ended because you lied. How do you think your daughter felt to be told that her world fell apart because of your lying? You don’t want to say to your child equally venomous words like, “How dare she! You want to talk about lying. She should look in the mirror. You know your mother….” Why would your child ever come to you with similar issues in the future, if she knows that she’ll get more poison? But she is not seeking only answers, but someone who can help her resolve how incredibly awful it feels to hear a parent attempt to destroy her relationship with her other parent. Simply respond to her by telling her that you can imagine how she must have felt under those circumstances – “Wow, you must’ve felt somewhat sad to hear Mom say stuff like that.” This tells your daughter you really hear her “heart,” not just her words.
This opens up a conversation about how your daughter can manage her feelings, and perhaps talk to her mother about the way she speaks about you, or simply for the two of you to be able to talk about this stuff in the future. Your daughter will be relieved to know that you truly understand what it’s like for her to be in that position. Give her the chance to respond, and don’t feel the need to “counter” her mother’s attack, if she says something like – “Well, yeah; I mean she’s always saying how you weren’t there for us and stuff.”
Understand, when just dealing with your child’s feelings, you allow her to open the conversation about many other things she’d never feel comfortable discussing, had you just responded by countering her mother’s statement. So what do you finally say about Mom’s critical points?
Be gracious. Explain to your daughter that in general, it takes “two to tango” and of course, you made certain mistakes…telling her, for instance, “And when people are divorced they often go back – in their minds – and blame the other, so it’s not so unusual for one parent to pin it all on the other. But as you know, any relationship is so much more complicated than that. Imagine a simple argument you have with your brother. Both of you are convinced the other one is wrong, and the truth is generally that both of you could have done things to avoid the whole problem.”
With this type of understanding, your daughter will breathe a sigh of relief and continue to talk to you about her innermost thoughts for many years in the future.