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Q&A with Geoff: How do I protect my son from his manipulative father?

q&a with geoff Sep 28, 2022

Question

After my ex-husband and I had a bad divorce, I’m now a single mom.

My husband, who was emotionally and physically abusive, used to play a lot of mind games with me. For example, he used to call me a liar on the regular, like every day. Then I found out when I left him that he was the liar who was cheating and so on.

Unfortunately, the courts don’t see this type of abuse so clearly, so it was impossible for me to get full custody. He is the classic narcissist and I wanted to protect my son as best I could; however, the courts don’t recognize this as abuse.

He plays a lot of games with my son and his emotions. When my son is with him every other weekend, he tells him to not answer his phone if his grandmother calls. If I call, he tells him to keep it short. My ex-husband gave my son the responsibility of calling him every night when he is with me. My son just turned 9.

He has school, soccer and Boy Scouts and his schedule is very busy. He usually forgets to call and, this week, forgot to call every night. The last time this happened, his dad made him feel terrible and guilty. He called him a liar and said he doesn’t care about him.

I think it is unfair to put all this burden on a child. If he wants to speak to him, he can call his son’s phone directly or he can always call my phone. I feel he is messing with his mind the way he did to me. I see him controlling him by making him feel bad. How can I handle it without my ex-husband becoming defensive and mean?

Answer

I’m glad you’re advocating for your son and helping protect his childhood from the harmful dynamics that surround him. It’s easy to get caught up in a push/pull relationship with an ex-spouse, so you’re wise to do everything you can to prevent your son from being in the middle of this parental tug of war. 

First, you can speak directly to your ex-husband and let him know he doesn’t get to dictate what your son does when he’s with you. You can invite him to have a co-parenting discussion about how to best support your son. You might emphasize that he can call if he’d like to speak with your son, but it’s not OK to require your son to call him when he’s with you.

You can’t control the outcome of your ex-husband’s behaviors. You must recognize that he may be mean and defensive. He may never agree with how you do things. Please don’t let his potential or actual reactions to you change what’s best for your son when he’s with you. 

If your ex-husband won’t engage with you in a mature parenting discussion, then carry on with creating an environment in your home for your son that supports his emotional health. Since it’s unlikely there’s much you can do to influence your ex-husband directly, I encourage you to focus on how you can best support your son as he figures out his relationship with his dad. 

It’s important that you don’t allow your frustrations with your ex-husband color your interactions with your son. This is easier said than done but having it as a priority will help guide the choices you make. For example, when your son shares something painful said by his dad, keep the focus on your son’s experience instead of reacting strongly and putting your son in the middle.

He will have mixed feelings about his relationship with his father. You don’t have the same kind of loyalty split your son has with his dad.

Here are some phrases you can use to keep the focus on your son instead of making it about your irritation with his dad:

  • “What’s it like for you when your dad says ____________?”
  • “It seems like that’s hard for you when your dad ___________.” 
  • “How would you like to respond when your dad ___________?”
  • “You get to decide when you want to speak to your dad.”

Your son will need to learn how to manage his own relationship with his dad for the rest of his life. This is a great time to start as you help him make sense of what feels good and what feels wrong. Honor his choices around how he manages his relationship with his dad.

Of course, if there are legal requirements in your divorce decree that require certain types of contact, you’ll have to work those challenges with your legal support. However, if it’s just personal preference, then I recommend you allow your son to figure out what feels right to him based on the type of relationship he wants with his dad. 

Your son will continue to develop the ability to discern between truth and error. In fact, your influence will help him make sense of his competing feelings. You can trust that your son will discern what feels bad inside and what feels good. His dad will have great moments with him, and he’ll also have selfish moments where he’ll do things that don’t feel great to your son.

Be careful to not over-interpret these experiences based on your own feelings. You may be right that the harmful patterns are being passed on to your son. But your son will internalize them more effectively if he can do the work himself with your support. 

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