All is fair in love and war? Not when your kids become casualties!
Divorce changes everything — especially your feelings about your ex. Far from the love you felt on your wedding day, now you probably feel something closer to frustration, anger, or even downright hate.
Hostile feelings during divorce are common but we all know NOT to expose our children to that toxic resentment, right?
In my experience working with divorced families, most divorced parents claim they’re all about their kids. They pat themselves on the back endlessly, thinking that they ALWAYS put the kids first and would never do ANYTHING that might harm or distress their children. But in practice, that altruism is rarely present.
Are parents saying these things to convince themselves or others? I’m not sure. All I know is, those declarations of “my love for my children comes first” are rarely true.
And I challenge you to reflect on your own behavior to see whether you hate your ex more than you love your children!
What do I mean? I mean that when it comes to making choices about your reactions or behavior, your anger for your ex poisons your decisions — you just can’t hold your tongue, or resist sliding in that passive-aggressive potshot. Hating your ex is one of your favorite pastimes. And I get it, our exes are often infuriating.
It’s just too bad the energy you pour into chronicling every evil detail about your ex isn’t being poured into loving, supporting, and focusing on your kids (like you say you want to). Your kids crave a home full of ease and joy, not your unrelenting resentment. But, of course, it’s all your ex’s fault, right? They “make” you act this way.
Wrong! You choose your responses. And your responses currently are hurting your children. Children see the world as revolving around them. They believe your actions (and inactions) are because of them. And all the time you’re stewing about your ex, your children wish loving them was enough to keep you happy and focused on them.
So, is this you? Do you hate your ex more than you love your children? Here are nine behaviors that indicate the war with your ex is your top priority and your kids are becoming causalities of that war:
1. You withhold child visitation to punish your ex.
Don’t like that your ex is dating again or resent an email he sent? Suddenly your kids can’t go to dad’s house. Your kids love both of their parents. Denying your children time spent with the other parent hurts your KIDS. You’re ultimately punishing them! And what did your children do to deserve such severe punishment? Nothing. They aren’t pawns to dangle and withhold.
2. You skip child support payments.
It’s astounding how many parents do not grasp that child support is for your children, not money you’re giving to your ex. Your children need to eat, a safe place to live, suitable clothes to wear, and maybe even enjoy a treat or adventure now and again. Your children interpret your refusal to pay child support (a.k.a. lack of financial care) as them not being worthy of being cared for. How horrible for them to feel that way!
3. You belittle your ex within earshot of the children.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with talking in private about how you feel about your ex. We all need a place to vent. But, there is definitely something wrong with letting your kids hear it — even by accident.
Your children love their other parent (even if you don’t). When you put down your ex, your kids start to wonder if you secretly feel the same about them. They feel forced to take your side when they’re with you because they don’t want you to stop loving them, too. And I call that emotional blackmail (and it’s cruel)!
4. You gripe about your ex’s family.
Just like your child loves their other parent, they also love their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on your side and your ex’s. Being part of both extended families helps children feel safe and loved. Maybe you’re glad to never see your ex mother-in-law again, but your children still love their grandma.
Do you really want to take that away from them by talking poorly about people who love them?
5. You compare your child to your ex unfavorably.
“You sound just like your mother!” or “Your father never keeps his word either.” Your child isn’t stupid. They know that comparing them to the other parent you clearly hate is an insult to them. This hurts them on so many levels but most they fear they’re at risk of you hating them, too.
6. You grill your kids about the other parent’s actions.
Your kids are not your personal spy. Putting them in that position forces them to take your side when they’re with you and taking their other parent’s side when they’re away from you. It’s a no-win situation for your child that teaches them your love for them is conditional on giving you info that fuels your beloved hatred of your ex.
7. You guilt trip your kids when they enjoy life with your ex.
If you really love your kids, you want their genuine happiness … and that includes wanting them to enjoy time spent with their other parent, too.
But when you make snide comments about that trip to theme park or new toy or fun vacation (“Well, I’m sure it’s nice for your dad to afford such things when his child support payments are so low.”) your child feels guilty. The same occurs when you change the subject, or even ignore your child, when they innocently share with you the fun afternoon they had with their other parent.
Every single time you do this, you undermine your child’s joy. Instead, you’re sending the message that their happiness is a betrayal to you, that they can’t be real with you, that they can’t love their other parent, and that you won’t love them if they do.
8. You “forget” to call or spend time with your kids to avoid your ex.
So, you bail on your kids because you don’t want to deal with your ex? Seriously? Talk about putting the war with your ex BEFORE your kids (and your responsibilities of being the best parent you can)! Nothing hurts a child’s self-esteem more than believing their parent doesn’t find them worth the effort.
Look, getting (and being) divorced is not easy. I know that. The toxic anger divorce stirs up is extreme and feels all-consuming sometimes. Maybe you’ve never considered how your behavior impacts your kids before now, but now that you know the harm it causes … it’s time to change this pattern.
Your first responsibility (and amazing gift) is loving and nurturing each of your children to the best of your ability. The value of that trumps your annoying ex any day!
But, breaking the “I hate my ex” obsession isn’t easy. And if you catch yourself focusing on your anger more than your love for your kids, just remind yourself (regularly) just how precious your kids are and do your divorce recovery work. Your kids (and you) are worth it … and, you know what they say: “Living well is the best revenge.”
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce coach and advisor helping people just like you who are dealing with the stress and pain of divorce. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. If you’re interested in taking the first step toward working with me, you can schedule an introductory private coaching session.
This article originally appeared on YourTango.