Parents on the receiving end of a high-conflict, trash talking ex have an incredibly difficult job. Making space for a child to love a former partner who seems bent on destroying you is a Herculean task.
A friend from work and I met for coffee recently because she was frustrated by her ex-husband’s behavior.
“Our daughter told me her dad says negative things about my husband and me, even when she asks him to stop,” my friend confided. “It’s not just our sweet little girl. He talks trash about me all over town. I’m furious. How can I make him see what he’s doing to our daughter? How can I make him stop? What should I do?”
I pause. In my work as a divorced and blended family coach and author, I see this issue more often than I’d like. I’m tempted to remind my friend she’s not alone.
I’m tempted to tell her about the stepmom who had her sweet stepson snuggle up to her and shyly ask if she minded staying home from his school play because "mom told me that when she sees you she thinks about how happy she would be if you died, and I get so sad I almost cry."
I want to share the story the father whose ex was so vindictive she crossed soccer fields and cocktail parties, seeking out people he had professional connections with and told them false stories about the end of their marriage in an attempt to derail his career.
I consider telling her about the man who after his divorce spent the next 20 years as the villain in his ex-wife's story. His children grew up in the cross-hairs of fights about money and time and his new wife.
But I don’t. Because the truth is, she knows she’s not alone. Trash talk is everywhere. We are surrounded by vindictive exes, gossip at cocktail parties and on soccer fields, arguments where little ones suffer.
My response to my friend's question, “The simple answer to your question is, there is no way to make your ex understand he should love his children more than he hates you and your new husband. I wish there were,” I say.
“I can tell you how to help your daughters, though. Continue to be the hero in their story.”
My friend gives me a puzzled look, and I continue.
“What your daughter confided is a window into how she feels. She trusts you enough to tell you an unflattering truth about another person she loves deeply. She trusts you to hold space for that feeling for her, to not get tangled up in your own stuff, and to keep her safe. She trusts you not to do what her dad is doing.”
I remind my coworker children trapped in high-conflict situations don’t need one parent to fix the other. They don't need loud arguments or tense mediation sessions. They don’t need more lawyers and courtrooms and agreement rewrites.
“Your daughter needs you to make space for her tough feelings about her dad. She needs to know that you will keep that information safe: not sharing it with him and creating more drama, not using it to drive her further from him, not making this story about you, but keeping the focus on her,” I tell her gently.
Parents should focus on the end of the story they want for their children. In this case, my friend wants her daughter to grow into a healthy, whole woman who understands that she is not responsible for other adults' feelings. A woman who knows how to turn away from conflict and gossip and negativity and turn toward joy and love.
“In the near term, remind your girls that Daddy, like everyone, has a right to his feelings, but that does not mean they must also carry that burden. Give them the support of other neutral adults; a counselor can help. Continue to make space for their feelings; give them a soft place to land,” I continue.
Parents on the receiving end of a high-conflict ex have an incredibly difficult job. Making space for a child to love a former partner who seems bent on destroying you is a Herculean task. I remind my clients to take care of themselves. Acknowledge pain privately, with a spouse and within a small support system is healthy. Don't add to the talk around town. Continue to keep your home free of any negativity about your ex. Be an example of joy and love in action.
I share with my coworker a story that I witnessed years ago, the story of the man whose ex-wife made him a villain.
The man’s ex spent years attacking and criticizing him to anyone who would listen, including his now-adult children. He was forced to move his business because of the lies she spread. He was nearly bankrupted by the constant court battles. He and his new wife sold their home and rented an apartment to afford to send his children to college. He is still working in his 70's because he can't afford to retire.
I know these details because the man’s daughter is a childhood friend of mine. My friend knows the details of this story because her mother, the vindictive ex, told her everything.
She now sees her childhood clearly. Her mother viewed any love for her father as a betrayal. She railed and raged against him regularly. My friend soon stopped talking about her life at dads with mom. It wasn't safe.
Her father encouraged her love for her mother, listened when she struggled with loyalty binds, and kept her safe, even as her mother was doing everything in her power to ruin his life. He stayed quiet and kept the focus on his children.
Today, my childhood friend limits interaction with her mom. Her dad and stepmom (not at all wicked, as it turns out) are the grandparents to her children. They are at the table for every birthday and holiday. They are invited to the beach and asked first to babysit.
I remind my coworker that her she can only control her behavior. She can protect her children, keeping them safe from the storm even when she herself bears the brunt of it. When the skies clear, her grown children will form their own opinions of what is happening today.
"I get that," she says slowly. "But it feels so hard. How can I remember not to engage when I hear something that sends me spinning?"
I grin. "Remember heroes don't wrestle pigs. and keep focused on the future you want for your daughter."