Hi Chump Lady,
Here’s my situation: I was married thirteen years to a tax attorney who lived a double life. To all of us he appeared like a devoted family man committed to his Catholic faith. In reality he had multiple affairs and lied about our finances. This all came out after our divorce when this then ex-girlfriend called me out of spite and told me what she uncovered about my ex (mind you she’s a lawyer too). Yes, I was stunned. And I’m not an idiot. Let me repeat: I was stunned. So was my family, neighbors, etc.
So this is today’s problem: my husband and I have five children from the ages of 13 to 6 yrs. I’m the primary caregiver and was rewarded the house. I’m currently finishing my PhD and my finances are all in order. By no small miracle our kids are doing exceptionally well emotionally, academically, and spiritually. Their days are basically filled with kids activities—play dates, sports, etc. I’m very proud of our post-divorce life as I worked hard to maintain “normalcy” and thankfully have an extraordinary support system of smart, kind folks helping us out (and we’re helping them too). As for my ex and kids visitation with him, well, it’s a nightmare. He’s basically trying to maintain the holier-than thou, I am a perfect dad in front of the kids and the larger community and it ain’t cutting it. In fact, he’s full of anxiety and as a result excessively punishing the kids and making their lives miserable every-other weekend.
My approach is to be straight-up with the kids about their dad’s hypocrisy and to not “sugar coat” his lies. This was advice I got from a clinical psychologist who met my kids and their dad and said he was a hopeless case and would never change. The psychologist’s advice was always to tell the kids’ the truth about their dad—no matter how ugly—as it would empower them and they would know they could ultimately trust me as a truth-teller.
Up until this point, I’ve done this but lately my 13 year old has taken it upon himself to tell his dad he knows the truth about him and this has caused my ex to become more and more violent with him. This worries me considerably and I’ve asked our son not to agitate so much, but he argues that he must in order to fight against his father’s hypocrisy and lies. In fact I think our son is getting stronger, more self-assured each time he confronts his dad and nails him to the wall.
Would you agree? I ask because I obviously have no perspective here. But with the limited information I gave you would you agree that a child of a cheater can find it restorative to confront their father for his past—and current–betrayals or is this simply wishful thinking? My perception is that my son is getting stronger and more confident. Granted he’s an honor student and a star athlete in his own right, but my gut feeling is this confrontation is good and healthy for him—whereas for me conformation with my ex is pointless and never an option. I’ve run like heck from my ex and count my blessings every day I don’t have to see or deal with him.
No. I don’t think it’s a good thing for your son to confront his father at age 13. He may as well try shaming a door post. Only a door post wouldn’t get violent with him. These encounters are not “restorative” — they are abusive.
He’s 13. I know from teenage boys. (We’ve had a few here at Che Chump.) They love nothing better than to sniff out hypocrisy and speak truth to power. Only generally speaking it’s along the lines of “Well YOU didn’t like chemistry EITHER, did YOU?!” or rebelling against the oppressive expectations of Finished Homework and Clean Bedrooms.
Generally teenagers rebel because they want a different answer than the one they’re getting. Yes, suck it up Buttercup, you have to take AP chemistry. Sorry kid, the room must be clean before you go out. Your son, IMO, is rebelling against his father because he doesn’t trust that he sucks. He wants his father to explain himself. And then when he tries his holier than thou shit, your son wants to pounce on that with the facts. EXPLAIN THIS THEN!
We chumps have all been there. It’s a form of untangling the skein of fuckupedness. Engaging with the cheater, demanding accountability. It’s utterly pointless. And very painful.
You’ve gone no contact with the ex. Sounds like the kids don’t have that luxury. Although I would argue as a teenagers, they don’t have to see him. They’re old enough to decide for themselves. And if your ex wants to enforce visitation, your son simply has to tell a judge what happens when he visits his father — his father gets violent with him. I would document what’s happening and consult a lawyer, frankly. The younger kids are probably not at the age of consent (I think it varies from state to state). But if by violent you mean physically violent, hell YES I’d get the courts involved.
I would worry too that your son may feel at some level that he’s fighting by proxy, for you. You’ve gone no contact, but a fight with his dad is still a relationship, even if it’s an antagonistic one. He tells you about the fights, puts a spin on them (or you do) that they increase his confidence and make him stronger. You bond over it, he feels like your protector. Let him know you’re OKAY. You don’t need this from him.
You say these encounters make him feel stronger. Maybe they do. I’m not your son. But I know that my fights with a double-life-leading narcissist wing nut were EXHAUSTING. Enraging. Painful. They didn’t make me feel stronger, they gave me the shakes. I got stress illnesses, ground my teeth at night, broke out in weird rashes, had nightmares. There’s no way I would subject a kid to that level of abusive mindfuckery. Your son is 13. Your ex has had years to perfect his disordered raging. Your son is a kid. It’s David and Golliath. No child should have to enter that arena.
My son has a mentally ill father. This is what I tell him — this is not your fault. The way he behaves toward you is not your fault. You didn’t make him this way. You can’t control it and not only is it not your job to fix him, it’s impossible. You’re setting yourself up for sorrow if you hope otherwise. I’m sorry you don’t get to have the sort of relationship other young men have with their fathers, that is close and supportive. Grieve that. But there are other people in your life who love you deeply and can be there for you in those ways.
He’ll have to figure this relationship out for himself. It may be that he can take his dad in small doses. It may be that they can enjoy — truly enjoy — small, superficial activities together. A ball game. A discussion about history. A hike outdoors. But realize that may be as deep as it goes. Don’t get broadsided and expect more. This may be all the narcissist is capable of.
It may be that he goes no contact on his father. Because any interaction will result in emotional or physical abuse. I’d get your son therapy on how to draw those boundaries.
This is all very sad, but the upside is he is learning these skills early — how not to be a chump. One of the first rules of not being a chump is don’t tangle with the skein. Stop confronting. Stop demanding an explanation. Stop giving your power to this person. Start focusing on yourself. Fortunately, adolescence is a pretty narcissistic age developmentally. Your son’s life will fill in and crowd out the centrality of his father and his father’s problems.
Be there for him. But don’t let him stay in a situation where this man hits him or rages at him. Get your son the therapy he needs to learn that this is who is father IS. When he accepts that, there’s nothing to say and nothing to fight about. And it’s your son’s choice if he wants to stick around and be provoked.