Why Aren’t You And Daddy Married Anymore?
“Mommy, why can’t you and Daddy be together anymore?” “Why did you leave Daddy?”
All of us survivors who have kids have been, or know we will soon be, faced with these questions. So how should we handle that? Many experts on divorce say you should never say anything bad about the other parent, because it’s damaging to the children and puts them in the middle of the adult problems. But then, these experts aren’t actually referring to cases of abuse when they say that.
Others advise to tell the kids the truth. They need to know. Covering for their Daddy will only perpetuate the abuse and confirm in the kids that they are really to blame when Daddy treats them like he treated you. Telling them the truth stops the enabling and puts the blame squarely where it belongs…on the abuser.
So, with all this conflicting advice, what are we supposed to do? What in the world should we say to our kids? We have to tell them something. Sooner or later, “the big questions” will come up. That’s not avoidable.
I think, the best approach is somewhere in the middle.
You should not denigrate the children’s father because you are angry with him, or want to get back at him for what he did to you (and / or the kids). He is still their father and they will have feelings for him.
They are going to eventually have to understand what their father has done and/or is doing and that will be very hard for them to reconcile within themselves. How can they love him and fear him at the same time? It is a seriously confusing situation for a child and speaking badly of their father can confuse them and shut them off even further from you. They don’t want to betray their dad, because they love him, but here is mom, telling them he is no good. What are they to believe?
This is a decision we can’t make for our kids. It’s a decision they have to make on their own. But, we CAN help them wade through the muck along the way. What we do need to do is be honest with them, in a way they can understand, but is not degrading to their father. We can then teach them what manipulation is. We can teach them what blame shifting is. We can call it out when we see it and help them learn to do the same. We can teach them how to treat others and help guide their character development along, as they grow.
They will begin to see the tactics, and then see their father is using these tactics and when they discover this reality on their own, they internalize the truth much deeper than if we were to simply impose it on them.
When my kids first asked me this, I told them something along the lines of: “Daddy was doing things that hurt mommy a lot and he would not stop and would not be sorry or try to change what he was doing. I wished he would stop and I prayed that he would, but he wouldn’t. So, I had to leave, because it’s not ok to let someone keep doing things that hurt you.” They asked their follow up questions. “Why did he hurt you? Why didn’t he stop?” And I told them, “I think it’s because daddy thought he could make me do what he wanted me to, by hurting me if I didn’t. But you can’t make people do things. You can’t force them to do things you want them to do or not do things you don’t want them to do.” I also told them that I prayed for Daddy. I prayed that God would show daddy that he needed to change and make better choices about how he treats people. I told them mommy leaving was not their fault. The divorce was not their fault. They were not to blame in any way.
I tried my best to tell my kids the truth, without resorting to tearing their dad to pieces in the process. I had to respect their feelings toward him, while at the same time, try to protect them from the abusive deceptions he piles on them. It’s a fine line to walk, but I believe, a necessary one.
What I would add, is to use the phrase ‘I believe..’, before telling them what daddy has done. I didn’t do that, but I think it is wise to phrase it as your opinion, rather than cold, hard fact. It distances them from it a little, which safeguards them if they end up going back to daddy and telling him what you have said. If they say, “You were mean to mommy”, they could be punished for that. But if they say, “Mommy says she believes you were mean to her”, then it is your opinion they are relaying and not as likely to get them in trouble. It’s safer for them.
Their own opinions will come in time, with education on what abuse is and what it looks like, and with their observations of those behaviors from their father. Your job is to teach and guide them, not form their opinions for them. It is a hard thing to tell your kids the truth. But it is a necessary step, for them, and for you.
Those of you who have been there, how did you tell your kids? How did they react? Those of you who haven’t yet, we know this is a hard thing to do, and we are praying for wisdom for you, in what you will say.
The ultimate key is to be honest and fair. Don’t hide or cover up what has been done, but don’t use it to beat your abuser with either. It won’t do your kids or you, any good.