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.

Influencing Neutral, Third Party Persons involved with your family:  It’s hard to swallow this one at first, but there’s not much you can do about someone who is negative campaigning about you.  In my case, there was a pre school teacher involved who seemed sympathetic to my situation (the school had to be notified about the TRO), and very supportive, but in the end, she was called as a witness for my ex-husband in court.  The thing is--my ex husband would never dare act violently in public, so the school would never have a concerning thing to say about him.  All of his actions happened in secret, behind closed doors, so no one would see except for us, and on occasions, his brother and mother.  And for years I went along with it, because I was too embarrassed, and also didn’t want to believe any of it was happening in the first place.  I was both in denial and desperate to hold onto the “good” times of our family, wishing with all my heart the terrorizing times would disappear.  After a year of litigation, this same pre school teacher turned cold with me, one of my witnesses saw her joking and laughing with my ex-husband and his family at the court house, and the high profile, wealthy family that also goes to preschool with my DD2, and for whom this same pre-school teacher works for, began giving me the cold shoulder at every school/social event, i.e. prior to this pre school teacher’s involvement with my ex—this family was generous with invitations to their birthday/Christmas parties, etc. etc., and then following the trial, barely a civil hello.  Could it be related?  That he negative campaigned against me enough that this affected my relationship with the preschool teacher and this family?  Perhaps.  Is there anything I can do about it?  Nope.

Here is advice that I found helpful and took me a long time to get used to:  you know your truth.  You know what you lived through.  The people who matter, will believe you.  Everyone else, well, they are just random comets passing through your solar system, and you hope they will pass you and leave you alone.  Build your own shields to protect you from cold looks, thoughtless comments, and don’t engage.  A thick skin goes a long way—because the truth is, with people who may be judging you along the lines of your ex, you cannot convince them otherwise.  And nor should you have to.  Just be you.  Take care of your kids.  Love them.  Take care of yourself and love yourself.  And of course it stings at first—we are all social human beings, we want people to understand us, even like us, and when they don’t…it can sting.

If there are professionals involved with your case, i.e. the play therapist or a mediator or co-parenting counselor, continue to stick to the facts, remain truthful, be a broken record if you have to.  You know the truth.  Your ex may be saying all kinds of things about you, and you may learn more of what he says in these forums, but only you know yourself and your children the best—and only you can be the one to protect your kids.  No one else will advocate for your children, only you.  These professionals will believe you, or not.  They are trained to stay neutral.  In domestic violence cases especially, be mindful of who has training around the cycle of violence and who does not.  As long as you, your children, your privacy, your health and safety and that of your kids are protected, all else is just noise.   And if it turns out that a professional shows bias in any matter against you, do yourself the biggest favor by advocating for someone who can be neutral.

Commentary directed entirely to you:  How to handle needling, accusatory commentary took the longest for me to learn.  Having PTSD around the abuse, I am so thankful that he cannot come to my house, call me on the phone, talk to me directly in private.  Instead, he is relegated to email and/or text messages.  I have heard from other single parents and have experienced it myself, however, that “emails” quickly turn into “e-mauls” and are designed (intentionally?  Unintentionally? It doesn’t matter, effect is the same) to break you down, make you feel small, put you on the defensive, because it is the only way the person who used to dominate you attempt to regain dominance.  My attorney and my therapist have determined that he still wishes to ‘engage’ in a relationship with me, which is why I would get pages of single-spaced diatribes in my inbox.

And this may sound counterintuitive, but no matter what accusatory crap may be in an email, do everything you can not to respond.  Just don’t do it.  At first, it’s so difficult, he is saying that you are putting the children in harm’s way!  That you neglected to tell him why the children got a bump on their knee at school, so it must be your fault!  That the youngest one is now sick after being at your house all week, it’s also your fault!  That you failed to return the girls’ panties (seriously?) you are purposely withholding items from him! 

But responding to petty crap like this has no bearing on the health and welfare of your children.  Does any of the e-maul have to do with pick ups or drop offs?  Medical appointments?  Then do not respond.

One of the lessons I’ve learned is to scan through the e-mauls, and challenge myself to respond in the fewest words as possible, that will address and relay needed information.  i.e.  To a two paragraph single spaced description about how the children’s coughing has increased since being at your home, when you know the children were fine the entire time with you—a simple response of “Girls have been in good health.”  To a paragraph diatribe demanding that you not call the children’s grandmother’s house when she is watching your sick child while you were working (because he is attempting to control how and when you communicate to anyone related to him), you can respond, “I do not agree and am allowed to check on my sick child directly.” Etc.

It took about a year before the longer diatribes stopped.  In fact, up to less than a year ago, and when he heard about my now-fiance, I did get inappropriate commentary and questioning that were deemed invasions of my privacy.  Again—pick up? Drop-offs? Health?  Then, no, maintain a good boundary and preserve your privacy.  Give the minimal response you can that maintains coparenting, and everything else falls by the way side.

Truthfully, I still get a pang of terror when I see his name in the inbox, but it’s getting better.  Because by not engaging, his accusations and communications have become more brief.  I’ve also learned to not respond and get upset by his petty comments.  And now, there’s something I’m kind of (okay, *really*) proud of.  He is no longer a danger to us in our house.  Through years of grit and determination and times where I thought I’d simply die, seriously, die from the pain:  I have created a sanctuary that is just ours, the girls and me.  I have kept my heart in tact and my soul, too, and now my sanctuary will soon include my sweetheart, loving, dashing, understanding, kind, fiance-very-soon-to-be-husband.

My ex-husband is no longer the Wizard of Oz who reigns terror and control and anger in the household.  Through three years of litigation, therapy, and court orders, he has been relegated to the small, petty  man behind the curtain. 

And I am so happy that we are ready for our new life, and that I have the tools to deal with whatever comes at me, through painstaking hard work, trial by fire, the support of my famly, my friends through it all.  Through all of this, I managed to become luckier than I ever could have imagined.  <3

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