Shaun, when do I pull the plug on my immature, s***-for-brains, possibly dangerous ex, who – here we go again – is not paying child support, and barely trying to keep his end of the visitation agreement? I know boys need their Dads – my sons sure do totally adore theirs – and I also know my two boys couldn’t and wouldn’t understand why I’d ever keep their Dad from them. So, either I continue to let my ex make my life miserable or, if I go after him and totally cut off contact, my very unhappy kids will make my life miserable. Any ideas?
I’ve dealt with various versions of this situation so many times, it’s all just sad. There’s no sugar-coating that you’re in a bad situation, so bear with me. What gets my attention right away, of course, is “possibly dangerous.”
If he directly threatens you, or you’ve already been hit (even way back in the early days of the marriage), your hand is pretty much forced. It’s not just your obvious right to protect yourself, but you absolutely don’t want your kids to witness some awful scene that could have been prevented. An active history of violence, plus current threats, puts the obligation on you to do what needs to be done legally. Period.
But – let me take a wild guess – your situation is more fuzzy than that, and you’re dealing with someone who hasn’t really ever crossed the line, been violent, but occasionally pushes the “verbal” envelope – especially when he’s had a few. He may even claim honestly (maybe) next day that he doesn’t remember saying the things he did say – which sure felt like threats to you.
So, there’s plenty to take up here, but it boils down to you getting yourself ready for the long haul – being the mother of those children, having and keeping a good, secure home, and having your own life.
And the obvious, honest truth is, only you know what that really should look like. Which is why everyone else could be totally wrong about what’s right for you, including family, friends, divorce lawyers, and people like me. In order to pull everything off you’re going to have to concentrate hard, and be a learner. I sometimes call the process “making better (higher-quality) mistakes.”
Having said that, and now returning to your dilemma, what I’m advocating for is that you be as scrupulously honest with yourself as possible. If you honestly don’t think your ex is really a worse-than-average, dangerous jerk, and the truth is you’re just furious at how irresponsible and emotionally immature he is, then hanging in, keeping the dialogue going, and not turning it into trench warfare will probably benefit you and your family over time.
I bet you’re saying, “But I’ve TRIED being reasonable already.” Maybe so. But, I hardly need to tell you: time passes. Maybe he stops being so bitter, maybe he grows up emotionally a bit. He finds someone else, he gets a better job. Maybe life unfolds in a positive direction for him, and that gets his focus off you, his failed marriage, and his need to win his battles with you. Many, many women have told me that it’s a better kind of problem when the ex wants to see his kids, even if that comes with hassles, than the outright heartache the kids feel when Dad isn’t trying to be there, is nowhere to be found.
You’re right that your kids don’t want their Dad on the other side of some line which permanently reduces their access to him – either in their minds, or in reality. Remember, you’ll always be dealing with him through the kids. They both carry his DNA and, even more importantly, he’s in them in all kinds of ways – mentally, emotionally. So it’s easy to predict they’ll be coming at you with all kinds of attitude, intensity, and opposition that, at least partly, comes from their need to love him. Be ready.
Most women look back at being the Mom of young kids as a time when their lives literally weren’t their own – they’re completely taken over by the all the neediness as well as the endless “to do” list. Being a single parent would be brutally hard even if the ex was an affluent saint, or a sensitive New Age male. The culture isn’t helping out the way it used to. You’re more on your own than ever these days. Sorry.
If it’s going to work out somehow, you’ll need to have a series of conversations with him – maybe think of it as one long, ongoing conversation – about co-parenting the kids, the importance (and benefits) of consistency, of keeping to agreements, and of communicating when there’s a problem or any kind of curveball. Yes, he may flick your words aside, because that’s his way of not allowing you to have some sort of moral upper hand. But hang tough. If he can’t help himself and just has to be nasty or uncooperative, end that particular conversation; but keep your cool, and don’t burn any bridges unless he makes it absolutely necessary.
An obvious truism: life works better when the people in each others’ lives refrain from lying and hurting each other, and can trust each other enough to be able to count on basic goodwill and baseline decency. It’s just that it takes time to get there if that’s not someone’s family experience or natural inclination.
This is a tough judgement call. Taking the high road isn’t just something the “goody two-shoes” might do if they had all the time and energy in the world. It’s actually a very pragmatic and effective way of coping and moving forward that also happens to model what you want your kids to see, and believe in. It generates fewer (but not zero) problems for you and your family.
So, one last time: If you think you’re in physical danger, pull the plug. A tie goes to safety. If you’re pretty sure that’s not your situation, and he’s just (yet another) emotionally immature male having trouble coping with what his behavior has reaped – hang in, concentrate on parenting, let time be your ally.
You may never get to a point where you’re totally squared away about being forced to deal with him. But, having weathered constant frustrations and outright provocations, you’ll probably be glad you did, finally, get to something workable in the end. I’m pretty sure your kids will be glad (and maybe even tell you they’re grateful some day) that you managed to keep your ex, their Dad, still moving around “out there” – but also still connected to the family solar system.