Dear Chump Lady,
Looking for words of wisdom from you and Chump Nation about my relationship with my son. I split custody 50-50 with ex. It was my choice — he’s not a bad Dad despite his long history of serial cheating on his partners. (I didn’t know when I married him). Son is 10. We’ve been divorced nearly a year and I left 2-1/2 years ago, following 9 months of fake reconciliation following the first of many rapid-fire D-Days. My son knows I left because his Dad broke a promise not to have girlfriends. For the first year or so, I was the preferred parent. Dad was angry and sad, while my life with son went on as normal — the two of us were busy doing fun things every weekend he was with me because that’s what we always did.
But now Dad is on to a new life with a new, younger live-in girl (the same girl I didn’t tell about what I found on Match.com). Everything is happy, happy, happy and life’s easy and good over there — nightly dinner as a family, parties, friends, etc. While I’m happy and much more content now, the vibe at my house is more quiet. I’m lucky to get an edible meal on the table. I’m don’t have a live-in boyfriend and I am more of a quiet, night-in kind of girl. I still do lots of fun stuff with my son and his friends (and often their moms), but I’m still recovering from 12 years of non-stop lies. I wouldn’t say I’m bitter, but I’m digging deep and doing a lot of work on myself, which is emotionally taxing, but right.
Back to my son…he is extremely bothered that his Dad and I are not friends. We’re as NC as possible, but even child care arrangements are fraught with pokes and jabs from him. I’m proud of how I don’t bite anymore, but it hurts. His Dad is wily — he saves his venom for email. I let jabs at ex slip from time to time (not daily, but probably once a week). My son reacts strongly when I do this. I know it’s wrong and I feel such shame (my hallmark) after a slip. Sometimes, I’m compelled to explain myself to my son, which just makes it worse (God, I’m a chump). Anyway, I’ve told my son that I can’t be friends with his Dad because he hurt me. I tell him that I don’t hate his Dad, or wish him ill. I just can’t be friends with him. Just like I wouldn’t expect him to be friends with someone who was unkind to him.
While I know that I’m Mom and no one can take that away from us, I’ve had two counselors tell me that — in their teen years especially — kids get sick of shuttling back and forth between houses and they usually choose one; especially for boys, it’s the house with less drama. Although I’m not a big “drama” person, my son blames me that his Dad and I aren’t friends. Has anyone seen this scenario play out? I know I’m not unique in this.
I blame Gwyneth Paltrow. Perhaps you didn’t see the news that the celebrity, carb-eschewing waif who brought us “GOOP” is divorcing her rock star husband. Oh hang on, “divorce” is such a common word. No, sorry, she’s “consciously uncoupling.” It’s like divorce only smugger, without the gluten.
See, unlike the divorces that you lowly, unenlightened people have, Gwyenth’s divorce is evolved and “conscious.” Utterly devoid of baser emotions like anger, grief, and spite.
From her statement:
“…while we love each other very much we will remain separate. We are, however, and always will be a family, and in many ways we are closer than we have ever been. We are parents first and foremost, to two incredibly wonderful children…”
This is divorce the way fabulous people do divorce. In this sort of aspirational non-relationship relationship, you’re still a family! Closer than you’ve ever been before! … but just living separately. Because nothing makes people closer than living apart, right? And the important thing here, that binds Gwyneth in ever-lasting love to her consciously uncoupled husband is their children. No, sorry, their “incredibly wonderful” children. (Your children may be simply wonderful or perhaps incredible, but they are not incredibly wonderful children like Gwyneth’s children.)
This crap is part of our zeitgeist. That any of life’s unpleasantness can be sanitized and rebranded. That imagery trumps reality. Divorce means your family breaks up, but in Orwellian Gwyneth-speak, no divorce means you’re still family! Just without all the real world shit like sharing a life together.
GAH! Gwyneth! Words have MEANING! (And food has pleasure and substance, but that’s another Gwyneth rant.) Divorce HURTS LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER. People don’t couple and uncouple like trains, willy nilly, for no reason other than… huh, I’ve always wanted to go to Chicago. No! They uncouple FOR A REASON! Painful reasons! We separate NOT because we want to be “closer than ever before” but because we WANT TO GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THE PERSON WHO IS HURTING US!
SummerGirl, it is totally healthy and authentic of you to reject friendship with your cheating ex. Tell your 10 year old that friendship has MEANING. You give the best parts of yourself to the people who deserve you, who have your back. And that once betrayed, you can never be friends with someone again because you can never feel safe with that person. Friendship implies intimacy, connection, and shared values. You do not have that with his father.
Polite acquaintance? Yes, that you can aspire to. Not taking jabs at him in front of the boy? Yes, you can (and should) refrain from that. But be very clear with your son that you are divorced for a reason. It’s wrong to pretend to be friends with people we’re not really friends with — that kind of superficiality is confusing and painful. You never want to mistake an acquaintance for a friend. And as he grows up, he should understand the difference between real connection and a veneer of social pleasantry.
Ten year olds want all sorts of impossible things, unlimited video games, a year of snow days, cookies for dinner — and your job as Responsible Adult is to impose life’s realities. Homework before video games. Go to school, don’t stay in bed. Eat your vegetables, and dessert later. Son wants you to be friends with dad — the answer is, no, we’re not family. But you can be his family.
As he gets older, yes, unfortunately, he might gravitate to the fun, party house because there won’t be rules and limitations. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it might. And if that happens, then you realize he gets a front row seat to his father’s serial cheating crazy. My guess is the drama won’t look so appealing after awhile.
All you can do is stay the course on this responsible adult thing. And work hard on “meh” with the ex. My guess is what your son really wants is not friendship so much as to not hear the jabs about his dad. Tell us, not him. Your son doesn’t get it yet. He wants to retain his good opinion of his father, and that’s his right. Sadly, he’ll probably figure out his dad is a schmuck in time, but that’s HIS journey, not yours.
It’s totally not fair that your ex tries to goad you and insult you. But realize that’s just what those people do — it’s kibbles. Every reaction, every time he gets your goat, is kibbles. So stop giving him that centrality.
When your son “blames” you for not being your ex’s friend — don’t get defensive. Say, as straightforwardly as you can, “That’s right, we’re not friends. We’re divorced because your father cheated on me. Life has deal breakers, son.”
Do not minimize the experience of infidelity. Don’t build a shrine to your grievances either, remember the goal is “meh.” But live through example — actions have consequences. Cheating is a deal breaker. Families break up. It’s painful to enforce our boundaries, but necessary for our mental health. He’s not going to get that lesson from Dad… or Gwyneth Paltrow.