A little over five years ago, I found out that my husband was having an affair with our neighbor. She was relentless in her pursuits and my children (ages 12-17 at the time) were used to facilitate meetings since our three kids are the same ages as her three. Fast forward to today when two divorces are final and the two offenders maintain separate households on paper but live together when both sets of children are with the other parent.
Two of my boys (now 17 and 19) have no contact with their dad because they no longer feel comfortable around him and they want nothing to do with our former neighbor and her kids. As things have progressed, my former husband is in the process of converting to her religion.
How do I explain to my children that people change, that the values their father taught them growing up are no longer part of his beliefs?
Our households are only 3 miles apart. We shop at the same stores, unplanned meetings seem to be plentiful and, with our kids all being the same ages, my boys hear about all the trips and outings her kids get to experience with their “new dad.” This is a hard one because for the last two years my former husband has made the choice to parent by text. So, when he does decide to attempt contact, we all struggle to maintain balance.
Even though your former husband is building a new life apart from your children, you are not powerless to help them see what is happening. I’m sure you’ve worked hard to protect them from the details of his decisions that have wounded you and the family, but it’s impossible to hide the truth from them, especially when his path veers away from the direction your children are headed. Let’s talk about what you can do to help everyone stay centered.
It appears that your children already see what is happening. This is why they’re not spending time with their father anymore. Yes, both your former husband and the neighbor used your children to facilitate their affair, but your children aren’t allowing that anymore. There is a steep price to pay for manipulating and using them in these ways.
Now that your children are entering adulthood, you don’t have to worry as much about how their father’s new value system clashes with what he taught them in their youth. Continue to hold strong to the values you taught them and trust that your children will be able to sort out what they want to believe. His choices are wrapped up in secrecy and deception, which doesn’t feel right to your sons. You don’t need to go on the offensive explaining what you’re choosing. If they have questions about the discrepancies in values, then emphasize that they get to ultimately choose what they want to believe. They have the same right as your former husband to choose their course and they have to choose for themselves what feels right for them. You can be a great support to them as they work to tell the difference between truth and error.
Your former husband may never be honest with himself or his family about how his choices have affected everyone. If this is the case, your children can still be honest with themselves about how they feel and identify what they need. They will need your permission and support to learn what feels true and right for them in their relationships with him. As children, they will have a different type of attachment to him than you will have; stay close to them so they can sort through the roller coaster of emotions as they cope with these conflicted loyalties.
When your children are struggling with comparisons to the life their father is creating with your former neighbor’s children, show your children sincere compassion. You don’t need to tear the other family down to make your children feel better. Your children need your emotional support as this will be a painful experience to see their father investing in these other children. Do everything you can to understand while working to create lots of meaningful connections yourself with your children. This isn’t a competition but rather a reminder that your children will need your extra care around this painful reality.
When your former husband inserts himself into your lives and throws everyone off balance, give yourselves permission to have limits with him so you can get your bearings. For example, he may suddenly show up unannounced and want to do something with the children. It’s okay to encourage your children to take their time to decide where they want to spend their time and energy. They may want to carry forward with their schedule even if it hurts his feelings. Or, they may give him a chance to spend time with them. They will maintain better balance in their lives if they give themselves permission to decide where to give their attention. You can help them slow down and sort out what they’re feeling.
As you provide a loving home full of connection, your children will have a safe harbor where they can prepare to launch into the world. Your former husband’s choices and new life are a painful reality that will coexist with your reality for years to come. However, as your children begin to set up their own lives and families, you can give them a place where they can be seen, heard, understood and guided. They will need this and you’re perfectly positioned to provide it to them.
Sadly, your former husband appears to have nothing for them and this reality will likely become more apparent as time marches forward.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.
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