Today’s question is a follow up to last week’s discussion on what to tell the kids about what’s happening in the marriage. However, this week’s question is rooted in one mom’s fear of parental alienation when she separates. This is a very real issue in high conflict relationships and something you must be mindful of it if it is happening to you.
First, you don't want to be guilty of alienating your children against their father. Mothers have sometimes lost custody of their children because they’ve regularly bad-mouthed their dad and their dad has been able to document and prove it.
However, that doesn’t mean that you stay passive if he is badmouthing or alienating your kids from you. By your
Today’s Question:By God's direction, confirmed by several individuals in the know and not in the know of my situation and even by my spouse's own counselor, I will be separating from my husband for at least a year.
My head knows God's got this and obedience is so important here, yet my heart is struggling. I know this will be hard enough on my spouse but how do I explain this to the kids.
My kids are older. The 20 year old has a mild autistic spectrum disorder and emotional or stressful situations are difficult for him to process at all and my husband has pretty much convinced him that I am just crazy, though I have spoken some truth to him recently to try to dent this lie.
When I do, he just looks lost and overwhelmed by it all. I don't know that he will understand and to him it will just confirm my husband’s painting of me as irrational and crazy.
My almost 19 year old and future counselor son sees and is aware of the abuse but still holds on that my husband can be taught and he will be devastated by this separation. He will be angry at first but as I explain how God has walked me through it I have some hope he will see God's plan.
My 16 yr old daddy's girl will hate me. The abuse is normalized to her. When he acted out in such a way that every teen in our small teen group went to their parents because of his abusive words and scary physical behavior, she saw none of it. It’s normal
My greatest struggle if I'm being honest is fear is that they won't understand and I will lose my kids (because I keep grabbing my kids off the alter and re-idolizing them).
I know I have to be willing to accept the loss of my family if that is what obedience to God requires, but if there is any way to help them understand and function in this transition, especially without being ugly about their father, I want to help them. I want them to be okay. Can you help me? I'm desperate for direction as this is approaching faster than I can comprehend.
Answer:I hope you read last week’s blog as this follows up to the information I already provided in that post.
Parental alienation is not uncommon in an abusive marriage. The opportunity for your spouse to alienate your children becomes greater when you have over-functioned as the good Christian wife and mom to create a “happy family” picture of your marriage and family to protect your kids from the truth.
Now that you’ve decided to separate, you fear you will be cast in a negative light. Your husband may tell the kids, “You’re mom’s crazy and making things up.” Or “She’s disobeying God and breaking up our family.” Or “Mom’s always been unforgiving and she must be having an affair.” Or “Your mom doesn’t really love you because she doesn’t care that she’s breaking up our family.”
Right now you’re ready to separate and you don’t think your kids will understand why you’ve made this decision since you’ve “put up with it” or “hidden it” this long. Either way, you fear you will be blamed and lose them at least temporarily. And you might be right.
I’m glad that you’re aware that in the past you’ve made your relationship with your kids an idol. There is nothing wrong with desiring a positive, loving relationship with your kids. But when you have to lie, pretend, and deny reality in order to have one, it’s not healthy for any of you.
So let me first speak more generally and then I will give you some tips on how to navigate your particular situation.
One of the jobs a good parent must do is to teach your child to live in and accept reality (the truth). When we create a false reality of what’s happening at home, we are trying to shield our kids from the ugliness of abuse. Those are good motives for sure, but what ends up happening long term is that when you can no longer do that or don't want to anymore, you get blamed by your abuser as “giving up.” Or “making things up (crazy)” or “being ungodly, unforgiving, or unloving” and “breaking up the family” and your kids hear that.
That’s why it’s so important as I spoke in the last blog to speak factually early in your child’s life about the reality he or she experiences as it is happening. For example, let’s say dad has a rage attack. Don’t ignore that and don’t throw dad under the bus. But you can simply speak the truth. “Yes, daddy does have a temper and it’s scary sometimes.” Or “Yes, daddy and I had a bad fight last night, I’m sorry you had to hear some of it.” You don’t have to tell your child the ugly details and
By always speaking the factual truth to your kids without judging, condemning, or showing contempt towards their father, they will trust you to validate their own perceptions of reality without feeling that they have to hate their father to side with you. Click To Tweet
Let me give you a few more examples of what that sounds like. “Yes, you did see daddy stumble up the stairs last night. He drank too much wine.” Those are the facts. You aren’t covering for him. But you’re not saying to your kids, “Daddy is a drunk and doesn’t care about anything but drinking.” That would be an ugly way of disparaging their father. Or “Yes, dad and I are having marriage problems, but I’m praying and doing all I can do to see if we can get help” rather than saying or pretending, “Everything is fine, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”Or saying “Your father is a jerk, don’t become like him.”
Kids are pretty perceptive and when we lie about what they already perceive, they learn not to trust their own perceptions, which hurts them later on. I wonder if that’s what’s going on with your 16-year old daughter. She witnessed her dad have a rage attack that scared her friends so badly that they told their parents. Yet she didn’t see it? She didn’t notice dad was out of control? I wonder if that’s because when he’s been out of control before, you never said, “Dad is out of control right now with his anger. Go to your room until he stops.” You didn’t define his behavior as sinful, wrong, or abusive. Now it feels normal to her.
Here’s what I suggest you do to see if you can have an honest conversation with your children about what’s going to happen. First, I think it would be best to have this conversation with them individually as they all will have different needs and different questions.
Second, it’s important that you are calm and confident in your decision and clear in your communication. You may want to write out what you want to say and practice it with a good friend. Your children are almost adults but they will still feel your anxiety or pick up on any doubts you have about the rightness of your decision to separate right now. You must be confident with God that it is the right thing to do, even if they disagree or don’t understand. You don’t want to give their father any leverage in calling you unstable, crazy, or ungodly because you did not prepare well enough for this conversation.
Third, if it’s true that you’ve covered up for their father’s behavior most of the time, begin by sharing that. You can say something like, “I thought that my role was to make sure our home was as safe and peaceful as possible but in doing that I haven’t always been honest with you about everything that’s been going on between dad and me. But now I have to be more honest with you, and with dad.”And then fill in some of the facts – the reason you have decided to separate for a year.
Then you can say, “I know this may be hard for you to understand but I have a sense of peace from God that this is my next step to take. My hope is that dad will want to get help for his (whatever behaviors are unacceptable to you) so that our family can be reconciled.” (This will help your son who believes his dad can change, but it doesn’t put the responsibility on you to “make” him change or put up with his abusive behaviors until he does).
When your daughter expresses negative feelings like “I hate you”, stay calm and loving. Reframe her words to see if that might be more of what she’s feeling. For example, you can say “I don’t think you hate me, and I certainly don’t hate you. But you hate what’s happening right now as I do. I hate that dad scared your friends at your party, so much so that every single one of them told their parents what happened and they spoke with me. I hate that Dad hasn’t been willing to get any help for his anger or change the way he treats me. I don’t think God wants a husband to treat his wife that way or for a dad to act that way in our home. I’m separating from him to give myself a break from his rages and to give your dad a chance to see if he wants to work on that and change so that our marriage and family can get better.” (It might not only be his temper but that’s all you put in your question – so add what’s appropriate).
If any of your children say, “It’s your fault he acts that way Mom.” You need to stop…and press pause. Take a deep breath and respond calmly. Here’s an example of what you can say. “I agree with you that I need to work on me just like Dad needs to work on himself. But it’s not true that he acts that way because of me. Dad acts that way at home because he chooses to, not because I make him. I can’t make Dad act that way any more than you can make me act that way. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, even when another person makes us angry or hurts our feelings or disappoints us. Dad upsets me a lot of times too but I don’t scream or curse or threaten him. Not because I don’t feel angry, but that’s not how I want to handle my anger. I have no power to control Dad’s words, his body, or his angry feelings. That’s his job. But what I have decided is that I can’t live like this anymore and so I’m going to separate. I will do my work to be a godly woman even while we are separated and I hope Dad sees that he has some work to do on his own ___________rages. But I can’t do Dad’s work for him.”
Continue to reassure your children of your love for them, your desire for healing and reconciliation as well as your ability to know your mind and discern God’s will to handle the situation with truth and grace. That will fly in the face of your husband’s accusations that you are crazy as well as help to calm the anxiety that your children will have over the upcoming changes that are going to happen.
Friends, what have you found helpful when you feared that your husband’s alienation tactics might work and that you could lose your relationship with your kids?