Parenting after Separating from Your Abusive Ex — by Dr George Simon Jr
Parents who’ve managed to extricate themselves from an abusive relationship often wonder what they need to do to ensure that their children will survive the ordeal in an emotionally healthy manner and not go on to repeat the irresponsible behaviors and abusive conduct they witnessed growing up. And while there’s no simple, reliable “formula” for preventing the things we fear most from happening, it’s crucial that abuse survivors come to a firm understanding and acceptance about the kinds of things over which they do and don’t have influence or power.
Very early in my work with survivors of relational abuse I learned some things that shed welcome new light on all the research findings on depression. And when I published my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing [*Affiliate link], I made sure to include what I had come to believe was the behavioral “formula” for depression. Focusing attention and investing time and energy where you don’t have power, I realized, is a sure pathway to frustration, anger, feelings of helplessness, and eventually, depression. Contrarily, focusing on what you have power over — namely, your own decisions and actions — and investing your time and energy in those things is the “formula” for personal empowerment and joy. Doing so also requires that you “let go” of the possible outcomes of your actions, and of people, places, and things you can’t possibly control. How crucial this realization would prove to be became all too clear in the many subsequent years I worked to help empower abuse survivors.
No one functions effectively when depressed. So, when it comes to parenting, especially the task of guiding those who’ve already experienced more than their fair share of trauma toward a better way of living, it’s absolutely essential to invest all your energy only where you have power. Naturally, you’ll be tempted to focus on your ex-spouse and his/her possible retaliatory actions, manipulations, etc. And out of concern for your children you’ll be tempted to try and control every outcome with respect to their behavior. But it’s absolutely crucial that you take to heart and accept these fundamental principles:
You ultimately have the most power over your own choices and behavior. You might be awash in what appears a sea of powerlessness, but you always retain the power to choose. This even includes power over the kinds of thoughts you entertain. And when you get right down to it, your thoughts can only be of two basic types: secure and insecure. While it might be really difficult at times, you always have the power to choose the secure thought over an insecure one. So, when you find yourself thinking such things as “I’ll never make it on my own, “ or “My kids will never be the same,” or “My ex will turn them all against me,” you can change those thoughts to secure ones like “I am a person of worth and capability,” and “I still have the power to influence and nurture relationships with my children.” Even if you can’t make yourself believe the more secure things you tell yourself in your heart, you still have the power to change your thoughts. And in time, thinking more securely will come more naturally and sincerely (as the old saying goes, you can “fake it until you make it”).
Because you always have the power to act, the most important aspect of empowering your life is to do something — anything differently from what you might have done before out of fear or insecurity. Take action, that’s the key. And don’t take action in anticipation of the outcome. You don’t have power over outcomes — that’s in God’s hands. But you always have the power to do. And when you afford appropriate recognition to your choices and act in good faith and in accordance with your principles, and most importantly of all, when you reinforce yourself (give yourself an internal pat-on-the-back for doing the right thing), you become steadily stronger. Only a strong, confident, principled person, can parent a child looking for direction effectively.
Although you can’t possibly have power over outcomes, or over other people, places, and things, you have an incredible power to influence. You have not only the power but also the duty to exemplify and model healthy, appropriate, principled behavior to your children. Whether you think your example is having an effect or not, make no mistake, your children will be watching and observing your conduct. That doesn’t mean your children will always be in a mental or emotional place to fully attend to and take to heart the example you set before them, or that they’re using the lessons you try to teach them to shape their own character, but they’re watching nonetheless and taking mental notes. You don’t have the responsibility nor do you have the power to affect the outcomes you desire. Still, you’re obliged to set the example and to advance the principles in which you truly believe. God, in his own time, takes care of the rest.
You also have the power, right and responsibility to set reasonable expectations for the kinds of behaviors you desire from others. In other words, it’s up to you to set and enforce the minimum character standards a person must display to have an intimate relationship with you. And the character standards you expect of them should be the same ones you’re willing and determined to exemplify yourself. You also have the power to provide encouragement and reinforcement when such standards are upheld and to show disapproval and withdraw support when the standards are not upheld.
You have the right and responsibility to establish and enforce reasonable limits and boundaries, especially when it comes to the behavior of your children and your ex. And it’s important to make sure that when it comes to issues of discipline with those you love, that it’s never about them or your regard for them, but purely about their behavior and what’s acceptable or not acceptable in the eyes of the Lord. There’s a real “art” to doing this well. Being kind, loving, open to forgiveness, etc., while firmly standing on principle and making behavioral guidelines clear is a real challenge that requires both tact and practice to eventually become a skill.
Remember that you have no power over the nature and quality of the relationship your children will have with your ex. And it’s extremely counterproductive to carry out a covert war against your abusive ex through your children. It will only demonize you in their eyes and invite them to over-idealize their character-deficient other parent. Instead, focus intently on the nature of your own relationship with them. As they grow and mature, God willing, they’ll come to increased awareness about the differences in your character and your ex’s, as well as the difference such character qualities make in a relationship. Should they come to truly appreciate those differences, you will likely gain a level of quality in your relationship with them that you never had before. And if, for some reasons pertaining to their own character issues, they never come to such awareness, you will have lost very little.
I once counseled a woman who’d suffered for years in an emotionally abusive relationship. She had two teenage daughters, the older of whom had always been fairly close to her father and shared several of his personality traits. This woman was incensed that neither of her daughters could see their father for the defective character she knew he really was. She also was deeply hurt that they didn’t seem to appreciate her or the hell she went through during the marriage, trying to hold things together and mostly on their behalf. She was determined to make them realize that she was the good person, worthy of their love and respect, and that he was the bad guy, whom they should have nothing to do with. And she seized every opportunity to point out his shortcomings, failures, and antics. She even gave the girls a copy of my book Character Disturbance [*Affiliate link], having underlined all the portions she believed applied to her ex. The girls’ father, on the other hand, was a charmer. So it wasn’t long before both girls came to see their mother as a vindictive, bitter woman and started increasingly distancing themselves from her.
This woman was not very happy when I challenged her to let the issues that existed between her and her ex remain between them alone and to focus both her attention and her passion on nurturing a more positive and intimate relationship with her daughters. Nor was she happy with the thought that she could only control her part in the process. She was always complaining: “I did what you suggested but it didn’t change anything.” She was definitely not comfortable of doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing and not because it comes with a guarantee of the results you desire. But somehow she made the leap of faith and found the courage to persist. And gradually, she and her younger daughter got to know each other better than they ever had. It took longer for a healthy relationship to develop with the older daughter. But in time, both girls came not only to see their parents but also the principles upon which they operated with much clearer eyes. And the woman found herself having the kind of family she’d always yearned for but which had long eluded her. She also learned some interesting things about herself along the way and what made her vulnerable to making some poor decisions with respect to relationships. And in the end, she came to a much healthier sense of self – a self that would never again enter or stay in a relationship devoid of mutual respect.
For a list of Dr Simon’s other posts on this blog and his books and other internet writings, click here.