Character assassination is a real thing, as I’m sure many of us here know, as we’ve been at the receiving end of our ex-spouse’s justifications for affairs and their rewrites of marital history. It’s painful, it makes a person feel powerless and full of inchoate rage. It’s not enough to be cheated on, now you have to endure the insult that you were a bad partner, parent, housekeeper, lay…
It puts the chump in an awkward position of wanting very much to defend oneself, but knowing that doing so makes you come across as defensive and the very essence of the batshit crazy person you’ve been cast as. So, you eat the shit sandwich known as the High Road. Just live your life with integrity and know that for the people that really matter, this is enough. And for those who aren’t persuaded? Fuck ’em.
I advise people on Chump Lady to speak their truth — don’t wear the shame of infidelity. It happened to you, you didn’t cause it. Maintain your dignity. It’s a balancing act, of course, of who you tell what, and how much of the sordid history you want to get into.
But nowhere is this balancing act more precarious than with our children. Some people maintain the cheater spouse’s image for the kids, and don’t tell them of the infidelity, for not wanting to damage the relationship. Many quarters advise this. I do not. I think children deserve to know why their family broke up. I think they deserve the truth — in age appropriate ways. And they deserve to hear it without editorializing (i.e., “Mom is a whore.”) Otherwise, children grow up with this nebulous sense that people “fall out of love” — versus the truth that life has deal breakers and consequences, and bad actions equal bad results.
Children still love their cheating parent. And the chump is put in this difficult role of accepting that relationship, and not feeling hurt by a sense of disloyalty. (Don’t you know what they DID to ME?) If the cheating parent is truly narcissistic and disordered, however, you also want quite desperately to protect your children from that hopeless, unrequited painful love of the narcissist. You don’t want your kids to suffer as you’ve suffered. The pick me dance. The mindfuckery. The devaluing.
Maybe, you tell yourself, it will be different with them. And of course, the cheater usually says things to this effect — “I divorced you. I didn’t divorce my children.” But then you watch as this person goes on to manipulate and devalue your kids, just as they manipulated and devalued you. And what do you do?
Well, if you listen to any of the parenting-through-divorce advise out there, you say to your children things like “we both love you” and “just because mommy hurt daddy and lives with the OM now, doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.” And you get the message that it is of paramount importance that you never speak ill of the other parent and you do everything in your power to facilitate that relationship.
And if you’re like a lot of chumps, you do that even as the other partner is engaging in that very sort of character assassination of you. Which really can be more of an incentive to take the high road. I’m not going to fuck up my kids like the cheater did. I’ll let them figure out their parent in their own way in their own time. And you try, try, try to let go.
I don’t have any answers on this, I just have a lot of hugs for all of you going through it. It’s incredibly painful. But I do believe kids figure it out in time, who the fucked up parent is, and which parent really has their backs. You might endure years of Disney parenting and bribery, and mindfuckery to arrive at that point, but I do think you’ll get there.
But meanwhile, I’m wondering about the statement “We both love you.” I think it might do more harm than good. I don’t think the chump has an obligation to tell their children that the cheating parent loves them. I think we need to back off and let our children draw their own conclusions.
I’m guilty of this. I told my son for years that “we both love you.” I didn’t have infidelity with that marriage, I had mental illness. And while I explained to my son in age appropriate ways about his father’s mental illness and how it limits his father, I always maintained that his father “loved” him. And maybe he does. I don’t know.
What I do know is this — he neglected his son, refused to make him a priority, canceled on him, failed to show up for significant events, harassed his school teachers and administrators, didn’t pay his medical bills, had to have his wages docked to pay child support, fought about that, sued multiple times, didn’t call on birthdays, or Christmas, withheld affection and encouragement — bringing us to this year, when he canceled on a summer visit with less than 24 hours notice with an email that simply stated “It’s not a good time.”
How could it not confuse my son that I said this person “loved” him? This is how love behaves?
How do you reconcile “love” with such unloving acts? Did I raise a chump? Someone who is going to spackle over bad behavior with the notion that it doesn’t really matter because above all he is Loved?
I think it’s better to say — this is bad behavior. This is what it looks like. You deserve better. You didn’t cause your parent to behave this way. This isn’t on you. I’m so sorry you’re hurting. I know you must be disappointed.
I do NOT think you should connect the dots for them “Your parent doesn’t love you.” But I don’t think you should lie either and speak of some mythical love that is rarely demonstrated.
If you’re divorced, it’s time to stop speaking with the royal “we.” You don’t advocate for the other parent any more. Instead of “we both love you” — try “I love you.” And then show it, as word matches deed. I bet your children can tell the difference.