We all know someone who got married, created a family, and then blamed the other spouse when their marriage fell apart. My mother is one of these people. The depth of her hatred for my father is unparalleled by anything I’ve ever seen. They divorced when I was in kindergarten. Twenty-seven years later, mom still rants about my father every time I see her. This type of behavior does long-term damage.
Growing up hearing the mother I loved and looked up to rage against the father I loved, missed and adored had a deep and lasting effect on my siblings and me. Nothing tears a family apart like anger and blame. Spouses may feel shallow satisfaction at hurting each other, but that satisfaction comes at the price of the children’s well-being.
When mom allowed it, I visited my dad on his farm in Southwest Nebraska. I loved it there. I got to drive a tractor, run through the canyons pretending to be chased by Indians, play with baby animals and help dad feed the world. He taught me how to drive, use power tools, fish in the river and give the best hugs. For those few, fleeting weekends I got the childhood every kid dreamed of. The memories of those rare visits kept me going during my darkest times.
Dad tried to keep my mom from popping up in conversations, especially when my step-mother was present, but it never failed that she came up in conversation over the dinner table. I couldn’t discuss my mother with him without feeling a horribly heavy guilt. I felt like I was betraying my mother by telling him what she’d said about him.
When I returned to my mother’s house, she would do her best to pry information out of me. Throughout the inquisition I was tense, nauseous and afraid. I was tense because it’s incredibly uncomfortable to “report” on my dad to my mom. I was nauseous because I knew that no matter what I said she would get angry and make me feel horrible because I had a good time with him. I was afraid because when she got angry I didn’t get to see my dad again for at least a year.
In time I became an outwardly timid, inwardly angry child with a heavy burden of guilt. I told mom what I thought she wanted to hear so she’d leave me alone. I didn’t understand why mom hated dad so much. I didn’t understand why I found years’ worth of birthday cards in her room, still sealed and full of my dad’s hard earned money. I didn’t understand how she could let her anger spill over to my brothers and sister and I. I didn’t understand much, but I did understand that my love for my father made my mother hate that part of me. She punished me well for it too.
Here’s something that divorced parents don’t get about their kids: they love both mom and dad. You shouldn’t ever withhold visitation and love from a child, especially when they’re living in a broken home. Kids need both of their parents. They aren’t equipped to discuss adult problems in your marriages and they’re deathly afraid of making parents angry. Kids don’t want to hear about how horrible one parent or the other is.
Kids want to make their parents happy. They will lie, hide things and act out in an attempt to get their parents to lay off. They want and need you to be happy and loving, and you need to be happy in order to raise healthy, happy children. Hatred doesn’t belong in healthy households. What kind of example does that set for your own children and how are they supposed to learn how to love, marry and raise a family? Therapy doesn’t usually extend that far.
A lot of kids feel like their parents’ divorces are their fault. Compound those emotions when the topic of the absent parent is brought up on a daily basis. Kids in this situation often feel like they can’t do anything right, so why should they try? They go downhill pretty quickly. That situation alone is enough to put kids in therapy well into their 40s.
If you are dealing with a nasty divorce or are still obsessively angry with your ex-spouse, go get professional help. Don’t lay the responsibility of making you feel better on your children’s shoulders. They’re not your sounding boards. Don’t put your children on an emotional roller coaster. It isn’t fair to them! When your ex pops up in conversation, bite your tongue. Encourage your kids to be happy and they will be. Teach them about love so that they too can experience how wonderful it can be.