Q&A with Geoff: How can I teach my kids that their father’s behavior is wrong?Oct 27, 2021
My marriage was originally damaged by my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s struggle with addiction and pornography. I spent years trying to help and support him in his recovery, dealing with setback after setback and trying to work on my own issues and healing. I stayed for 10 years hoping to save our family, but it ultimately ended when he gave up trying to work on the marriage.
Not long after, I discovered he had been having a relationship outside the marriage with a recently divorced person who I thought was my friend. It has not been technically sexual, but there has been sharing of hugs and intimate confidences before the divorce was even decided upon. In fact, she even helped him move out of our home into his new apartment.
I’ve had to be civil since I may have to share my children with her in the future, but it has been difficult at best. The thing is, I know she is a porn addict as well, and though they’ve both tried overcoming it, I feel like their actions have been inappropriate.
I don’t want to cause contention, because again, I still must deal with these people, but I also do not want my kids to think this is acceptable behavior in any way. How do I keep the peace, but also let my kids know that what they’ve done – and continue to do — is wrong?
It takes tremendous courage and maturity to continue interacting respectfully with not only your husband but also with your close friend who betrayed your trust. I respect your desire to not cause further drama in your family. At the same time, I can see how you’d naturally want your children to see what you see and know what you know.
All of this is terribly unfair, and it’s got to be difficult to watch them move forward without any visible consequences. Let’s talk about how you can respond to this painful development in a healthy way.
I’ve once heard it said that when you’re bitten by a rattlesnake, you can either chase the snake to kill it or you can stop and suck out the venom. Their actions have the potential to fill you with the bitter poison of resentment and contempt. They’ve caused tremendous pain and loss in your life. Your ability to have a secure marriage was taken from you.
It’s tempting to keep your focus on the source of the pain, but I don’t believe this will give you or your children the stability you’re seeking.
Instead, I recommend you direct your focus on what you need so you can stay emotionally balanced. If you’re tempted to expose him and his mistakes to your children, remember that this will only put them in the middle and damage your relationship with them.
Even though he’s always been responsible for his relationship with each of his children, divorce presents him with an opportunity to evaluate how he wants to show up in their lives. If you keep your focus on him, you’ll miss your own responsibility to build meaningful relationships with your own children.
It’s also an important opportunity to fix your focus on inviting more goodness and positivity into the lives of your children. Let’s talk about what this can look like in your situation.
You want your children to know the truth about right and wrong. Instead of focusing on exposing their father’s mistakes, you can continue teaching them directly about right and wrong so they can develop their own internal compasses. Do you trust that your children can discern between truth and error?
Sometimes we become so fearful of our children experiencing the same pain we’ve felt that we mistrust their ability to choose for themselves.
Now, I recognize that their father is carrying on with his life as if he didn’t just dismantle his own family. This can leave you feeling crazy like you’re the only one who sees what’s happening. He might even assign equal blame to you and lead the children to believe things about you and your marriage and aren’t true.
Once again, continue living with integrity to your values and clarify any questions that are presented to you. Make sure your answers stay developmentally appropriate and only address what’s asked. It’s tempting to provide more context or details than what’s asked.
If you need to clarify anything directly with him or his new girlfriend, then it’s perfectly healthy to advocate for yourself and request cooperation. However, trying to passive aggressively punish them through the children or seeking to learn more about them through your kids will only backfire and keep you stuck. You might worry that they’re not suffering any consequences for their actions.
Remember that it’s not your job to hold him accountable beyond what you’ve already done. You couldn’t stay married to him because of his betrayals, so you’ve created the accountability you needed to preserve your safety and dignity.
Your husband and his new girlfriend will work through their own process in ways that make sense to them. You won’t be privy to their process and will be tempted to fixate on what they’re doing – or not doing. You may believe that this will somehow help you vindicate yourself in the eyes of your children as you comment on what their father has done.
If he continues to live a life full of addictive behaviors, it’s likely your children will have questions and discover discrepancies. Again, you don’t have to minimize what has happened in your family, but you can allow your children to lead with their questions and curiosity when they’re ready.
Continue forward with your life and look for the ways you’re being carried and supported right this very moment. Fix your focus on what’s working in your life. You will have grief and loss to contend with throughout this journey, so allow yourself to move with the unpredictable rhythm of healing and recovery. You don’t have to hide your sadness and emotional struggles from your children.
Just make sure you don’t turn them into emotional confidants and require them to emotionally caretake you. Make room for the inevitable surprises and frustrations with your husband’s choices. Your children will learn about and experience goodness and positivity in your home. Trust that they will develop discerning hearts and minds that will guide them as they build their individual lives.
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