Marriage breakups are hard on everyone, often leaving a residue of bad feelings. When children are part of the breakup, the situation becomes even more complicated.
Breakups happen for a reason, or reasons—often after years of unresolved conflict. Unresolved bitterness and resentment leads to contempt, which is usually the final straw in breaking a relationship.
What if the breakup involves children? What if you were married, had two or three children, and then had an acrimonious divorce? While you’re caught in a swirl of difficult emotions, and the death of a dream, imagine the impact on the children. Too often they are harmed watching their parents struggle with their marriage, and then see it dissolve.
Ending a marriage is often very painful, requiring years of recovery. The situation is made worse if the children get caught in their parent’s animosity toward one another. Such is the case of a man who wrote to me recently.
Dear Dr. David. My wife and I are trying to cope with what we believe is a situation of Parental Alienation Syndrome where my grown-up daughters, raised by their mother, have been cordial toward me over the years but have made it clear they don't like my wife. We all live in the same area. My oldest daughter has made it plain to my youngest daughter that she doesn't want anything to do with me any longer. My youngest daughter has told me that she is willing to try and have a "normal" relationship with me but has indicated that this new relationship must include exposure to my ex-wife at birthdays, holidays, etc. This I refuse to do. I have forgiven my ex-wife in my heart but that doesn't mean I like her nor even want to be around her. My wife and I believe that my oldest daughter is suffering from severe PAS since we know by what my daughters have said over the years that my ex-wife has lied about me/us and probably tried to program my daughter to dislike/hate me. I would like to try and establish a relationship with my youngest daughter through Christian counseling, and if my daughter is agreeable to try, should I bring up the idea of PAS to the counselor right away or even at all but let the counselor figure it out based upon our sessions?
Your note certainly reinforces the fact that divorce is painful, hurting everyone involved. The issue now is how to interact with your children; how to end the war which apparently has taken place between you and your ex.
Let’s first take a step back and consider your situation.
First, it is natural for divorcing people to let their feelings leak out with their children. We all want to feel like the breakup is not our fault, so it’s only natural to defend our actions to anyone who will listen, and this often includes the children. While this is clearly inappropriate, and very harmful on the children, it doesn’t necessarily mean your ex is purposely trying to get your children to dislike you.
Second, you seem to be ignoring your animosity toward your ex. Again, while it is completely natural for you not to want to be around your ex, this often cannot be avoided in family gatherings, and were you to stay with that decision, your children would be the innocent victims. Remember, they love both of you and probably already feel a tug of loyalty in their minds. Reconsider your decision to never be around your ex—reflecting upon the impact that will have on your daughters.
Third, consider why your oldest daughter doesn’t want anything to do with you. Can you talk to her and ask very carefully how she feels about you and your wife? It will be important that your daughters feel free to share their true feelings, and that you not become overly defensive when hearing this information. You need to know what they’re thinking. Your wife also needs to know how they feel toward her, and do what she can to build a relationship with them.
Fourth, do what you can to renew your relationship with them. Your youngest daughter is willing to try to have a relationship with you and this certainly is a good place to start. She is requesting that your ex be part of that relationship and this is something you must carefully consider. The price to refuse her request may be high.
Seek a relationship with your oldest daughter by inviting her to an outing which she would enjoy. Go slowly. She is at a stage in life when a relationship with you may not be a high priority. Don’t take it personally. Make time for her and see if she will make time for you.
Fifth, don’t get hooked by bad information you hear from your kids. Yes, I know this is a tall order, but you must do your part to not add to the embroiled nature of these interactions. Take the higher road, and simply let your daughters know they are loved by you and their mother. Let them know that the struggle you have with their mother has nothing to do with them. You must do your part to keep them out of the middle.
Finally, your wife will be part of this new larger family, along with your daughters and your ex’s new husband. Is this going to be an awkward mix, at least at first? Absolutely. But, this larger family is reality. You didn’t choose your ex’s husband, she didn’t choose your wife, and your children didn’t choose any of it. Everyone will need to stretch to make this work—but you must make it work.
Anyone who’s been part of a blended family can relate to this man’s feelings. I’d like to hear from others about what to do when there is animosity with your ex, and how to handle it when you know they are sharing some of their bad feelings with your children. I’d also like to hear from some children. What is it like for you to be caught in the middle of these kinds of messes? Let us hear from you.