The Wizard of Oz: or How to protect yourself from the machinations of a controlling (or abusive, or a PITA ex)

One thing that has taken me years to learn is to “disengage” from my former spouse—which is harder to do when co-parenting and there has to be some regular form of communication.  Especially when dealing with someone who likes to have “control,” and I can only really speak to my own experience of having been married to someone who is product of a cycle of domestic violence, an adult child of an alcoholic, and while we are the masters of our destinies in some ways (I know people who have come from violent households and do not repeat the violence in their own nuclear families), in my case, he did not heal from it.

So I learned that when the “control” is lost—through divorce, protections from the courts, clear and concise and detailed directions from the judge—the person who used to have so much control, will take steps, in whatever venue he or she has available to them.  Sometimes it will be through small, targeted, mean-spirited comments with the children; this is when I found it necessary to have a play therapist involved, especially because my girls are small.  Other times, it will be exerting influence with neutral, third party people involved with your family, convincing them that you (I) are the liar, manipulator, mean person.  And sometimes, it will be targeted directly to you, with biting commentary, accusatory comments, insinuating that you have done something wrong.

Here is what I learned:

Negative Commentary, directly or indirectly about you to the children:  in the instances with negative commentary to my children from my ex, I can address the commentary, but in very basic terms, and without engaging in a power struggle.  i.e. my oldest child told me:  “Daddy says he’s poor, because he gives all his money to you.”  Rather than say, “that’s not true!” (because the kids love both parents, it just confuses them and engages in a power struggle of what’s true or not), I’ve learned to reply, “I’m sorry daddy said that to you,” or “I’m sorry daddy feels like he doesn’t make enough money.”  Inside you may be thinking:  what a crock of horse-sh*+!  He drives around in his fancy truck, he spends money on all of this or that, I spend way more money on taking care of the kids—but do your best to halt that internal commentary.  It doesn’t matter.  You can’t control what your ex will say to the kids, period.  Even if I could tell him to stop it, he wouldn’t listen to me.  So, we can only help our children deal with it in the terms of how to be supportive and listening, and yet disengage and gently reassure them.  i.e. saying “I’m sorry daddy feels that way,” validates our children’s feelings, that they are worried about their dad, and at the same time, does not put them in the middle.  (i.e. if you say, no he doesn’t!  then they are left wondering—who is telling me the truth?)  They will grow up and figure it out.  And honestly, small children do not need to be worrying about money.

Along those lines, it is not my children’s responsibility to “take care” of my ex, or of course, me.  Should they be worrying about dad’s money?  Furthermore, should they be worrying about mine?  Or any “adult” problem at the moment?  Most likely not—they should be concerning themselves with figuring out who they are, learning at school, playing with their friends, etc. etc.  I am speaking of my own girls, DD1 is in elementary school, DD2 is in preschool, so thinking age appropriate awareness of “adult” issues is less at this age than middle school and high school.  Anyway, re: this particular commentary to my kids and how to handle it—I got this great advice from our play therapist.  Because of the nature of our divorce (abusive behavior), having a play therapist who understands the cycle of domestic violence, and also understands that children love their parents, pretty much regardless of what they do, has been immensely helpful.  I am so fortunate that currently, my kids are doing well and we got out early enough that I do not see lasting scars, no PTSD for them, thank goodness, and I know some families aren’t so lucky.  And at the same time, I feel comforted that there is an extra set of eyes and ears for my children, that if something ever did come up from dad’s house (please, no!), it would hopefully show up and then be addressed in play therapy.

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