Good title for an article, and I hoped to find in it some wisdom with which to share with my clients, who, not surprisingly, frequently ask me this question.
I was actually looking for an answer to the question of what to say when the ex is bad- mouthing someone in general terms – Mommy is stupid, takes all the money I give her and spends it on going out with her friends so that she can’t buy you good food, Daddy doesn’t watch you properly when he takes to the beach and you might drown if you are with him, he cares more about his job than he cares about you, buys jewellery for his girlfriend and then won’t give me money to help pay your dentist bills.
And that is on a good day. From here it descends into – Mommy is actually mentally ill but it able to hide it, Daddy tells Grandma not to give you birthday presents, – I’m suspect anyone out there reading this knows the drill.
Instead, the article went in a different direction:
On one of his weekend visits with his father, Duane tells him: “Hey Dad, Mom says you and her got a divorce because you used to get real mad all the time, and that you were really mean to her. She says if it weren’t for the way that you treated her, you’d still be married.”
Anyone who is divorced knows there’s nothing that creates such passion as when your ex twists the story and casts you as the villain. They are telling the history. But to you it is a history built of lies.
Duane’s father fumes to himself, “I can’t believe she’s feeding him this poison. She’s so insecure, she takes every chance to put me down. The truth is it was exactly the opposite. She was impossible. She was the one who had these constant tantrums. I can’t let Duane have this totally distorted view of what went on. I have to set the record straight.”
What the author is discussing is not really the kind of bad-mouthing I described at the beginning of this post, but rather, whose narrative about the divorce does the child hear and believe, and how does he or she hear it?
The author, psychologist Anthony Wolf, goes on to say:
This is where any parent reading my advice who has been in this situation will go berserk: “But you have to say something. You can’t let Duane go forward with this totally wrong opinion.”
Actually, your teen will be happy that you’re not getting into it. It will be a relief.
“The truth is I don’t want to hear anybody’s side. It just make me crazy.”
There is a distinct advantage to staying above the fray, but this benefit will only become apparent over time. The thing is, as kids get older, they get more distance and perspective from what went on. They come to see the world through more sophisticated eyes. What transpired when they were kids often looks very different in hindsight.
There is certainly an advantage – to the parent and to the child – to staying above the fray and not getting into a counterproductive “he-said/she-said” dance. With the exception of well, some exceptional people, most former spouses tend to cast the other side in the role of the villain. It’s a tough nut to swallow, but in the long run, the vilified spouse really does need to take the high moral ground. I concur with Wolf that later on, the kids will figure things out and left to their own devices, will generally come to an understanding as to the strengths and weaknesses of each parent. Does that mean they shouldn’t know why their parents got divorced? According to Wolf:
For example, if we were to ask Duane six years from now whether he thought that it was important that he knew the true story of his parents’ divorce we might well get the following response:
“Not really. I didn’t care whose fault it was. And I don’t care now. What I wanted was not to hear about it. What I wanted was to have as good a relationship with each of them as I could. I certainly didn’t want to have to take sides about whose fault the divorce was. Mom always said how Dad would lose his temper about everything and that he was impossible to live with. But when I would say anything to him about it, he really didn’t say anything or defend himself. I always felt that with Mom it was always that she wanted something from me. Thinking back, I definitely liked Dad’s approach better. He was way more mature about it. I still love Mom and all. But I do think that her telling me all that stuff was more about her needs, rather than anything that was best for me. Because it wasn’t. It just messed with my head.”
This is how the great majority of children of divorce think.
At the same time, what Wolf doesn’t get into, are two other, critical issues.
First, what happens when the other parents narrative takes on characteristics of brainwashing in which the other parent is being vilified? Generally, this is a good indicator the parental alienation will be evident in a very short time. I’m not going to develop this further in this post, except to say that when there is that kind of vilification, a professional should be consulted immediately, and it may be necessary to involve the courts with all due speed.
Second, I think that there is a bigger question involved, which involves every parent of divorce. That is, what is the story the children are told with regard to their parents’ divorce? Other than the generic, reassuring “It’s not your fault, mommy and daddy still love you, we’ll always be your parents….”
Wolf’s parting piece of advice:
My advice: Don’t get into it. Don’t set the record straight. But I recognize that this is really, really hard advice to follow.
My question is, is it always the correct advice to follow?
A psychologist with a great deal of experience with children of divorce is actually of the opinion that the children have a right to hear the story of the parents’ divorce, obviously, without this narrative deteriorating into a bashing of the former spouse. In his position, this story is a part of their story, and thus should not be kept from them.
In the words of another psychologist I once heard lecture: “In the battle between loving your child, wanting to protect them, and the need for them to hear the truth, choose the truth.”
All of this is easier said than done, and clearly, the parameters of that truth need to be suited to fit the needs of the children in question. It seems to me that the difficulty of this path has to do with putting burdens on the children. I have known people who married only later in life, as they knew what their one of their parents had done to the other, and feared that they were destined to repeat the same behaviours in their own marriage. If my parent was physically and/or emotionally abusive, am I destined to do the same? If my parent was unfaithful, can I maintain fidelity to my spouse?
Would it have been better for these people not to have known the history of their own parents’ marital breakdown? Or, despite the burden they carry, are they at least freed up by not having to imagine scenarios that are even worse than the true story in order to make sense of their lives?
As I said, all easier said than done, and I don’t have the answers. I would suggest that motives have a great deal to teach us however. When the parent telling the story is expecting a child to take sides and establish alliances as the parents set up separate lives, then giving over the narrative is about the needs of the parent, not the child. If the parent is, as my psychologist friend says, giving the child a part of his or her own life story, and not taking care of ego needs or the need for vengeance, then the information can be healing. If it is about ego and revenge, it can only destroy.
In the days heading up to Rosh Hashana, a time of introspection, we know that grappling with our true motives in any human interaction is a difficult task. When our children’s well-being is at stake, the incentive to do this internal housekeeping with no compromise is critical.