Terry wrote me and said, "My husband, Larry, was emotionally and verbally abusive our entire marriage, and after 8 years of it, I finally had enough and divorced him. Unfortunately, my daughter, Heather, was a victim of all the conflict and the lack of love. I feel bad about that, and it's hard to watch her continue to feel unloved by her father. He didn't spend much time with her while we were married, and in the past year that we've been divorced, he's done even less. He didn't even ATTEND the custody hearing, and he calls her like once a month. It's pretty awful to watch."
My response to Terry and many parents like her:
We have a tendency to condemn the despicable behavior of others, but that's almost always a waste of time. Or we sympathize with those who are hurt, which appears to be loving, but that's a waste of time too, even hurtful. How? If you paint Heather as a victim, she'll grow up feeling victimized by almost everything unfair, inconvenient, and unkind. You'll train her to feel like a victim, and that's a terrible way to live. "It is not what happens to us that hurts us most but our feelings about what happens to us."
So if it doesn't help to condemn Larry or defend Heather, what's the solution? Condemning and defending are both Getting and Protecting Behaviors. When we use them, we're on the field of death, and then we always lose, no matter what "points" we seem to be winning.
Solution? Stay off the Field of Death. Simply tell the truth. Describe to Heather what Real Love looks like, and tell her that as children you and Larry never had it. Tell her that THAT is why your marriage fell apart, for one thing. Your divorce had everything to do with the love neither of you had, while it had NOTHING to do with Heather. That's an important concept to teach, because Heather would otherwise tend to blame herself for much or all of the divorce.
Give Heather some examples of how YOU have failed to love her. She's not looking for an apology, just understanding.
And now the truth about Larry's love for Heather. That can be more difficult and frightening to address. We tend to say things like, "Oh, your daddy still loves you," or "Your daddy loves you. He just doesn't know how to show it." But these are both lies, and children are not stupid. Somehow—without being able to articulate it—they know something is wrong with your explanation, and if in these situations you teach them what is not true, they'll tend not to trust you about anything else either. Moreover, if you successfully teach such false principles, Heather will have a distorted—even disastrous—concept of love for the rest of her life, and it will have unforeseen, often terrible, effects on her future relationships.
You don't need to be ugly about Larry in any way. Just truthful. For example, Heather is old enough to understand the drowning metaphor (click here to read it, along with an addition to the story we seldom hear).
Several weeks after our email exchange above, Terry wrote me and said that Heather had just discussed with her the fact that her father hardly ever called. "He's just drowning, isn't he, Mom?" Heather asked.
When Terry nodded, Heather teared up and said, "I know he's doing his best. I feel sad for him. He must feel very lonely."
"I think he does," Terry said, deeply moved by both the understanding and compassion of her nine-year-old daughter.
Life can be pretty confusing for little children, especially when surrounded by the insane behavior of adults. You can help a lot. When situations are difficult for children, love them. And teach them the truth. And you'll help them build a foundation upon which they can stand firmly, happily, and without confusion all their lives.
Want to learn more?
Help your child build a foundation they can stand on.