The final straw for me was four years ago when my husband chased me out of our rented Maui condo and down an open-air hallway right after calling me a “twat.” We were on vacation over Thanksgiving with our toddlers.
A minor thing suddenly exploded into a major thing, as it often did, and I found myself furiously angry and needing to get away. As I grabbed the only set of car keys from the countertop, I heard him coming from the other room to stop me. That’s when I ran as fast I could out the door. I didn’t look back, but I heard him behind me. I was headed to the parking garage to a getaway rental car. I can still see the two elderly ladies on their balcony across the complex tracing my path with their fingers as they watched in disbelief. I mean, if you can’t get along on holiday in Maui, then there really is no hope left.
As soon as we got back home, I called an attorney, and I’ve been dealing with attorneys ever since. In the last four years, we’ve been embroiled in battle after battle over the simplest things: winter coats, joint calendars, extracurricular activities, and milk money.
I didn’t know then, but I know now that this is how it is with controlling and abusive people: Nothing is ever simple. Some people call this behavior narcissism. Personally, I think it’s indicative of spoiled, selfish, entitled misogynists, but I am not a psychologist and I cannot diagnose. I do know that my ex isn’t typical. Many therapists have confirmed that “normal” people eventually move on from conflict. It takes a lot of energy to stay angry and stoke the fires of hatred for four years, but this is precisely what classic narcissists do. In fact, they enjoy it.
It has taken a long, long time to learn to keep my wits about me living like this, and I admit, I don’t always succeed. Just a few weeks ago I let his girlfriend get to me when she texted me about my “latest legal antics.” Bish, you don’t even know! Stop texting me!
But, for the most part, I am happy. I have great friends, hobbies I enjoy, a career I love, and life is mostly sweet. With the help (read: necessity) of attorneys, therapists, parenting coaches, strict boundaries, and creative subterfuge, I am mostly free from his reign. This is, however, costly. I am forced to have a legal budget, and I’m aware not everyone has this luxury. In fact, most do not. Lots of men and women cannot afford to pay $300 per hour to maintain their distance and sanity from their abusive exes. I do not judge anyone for what they have had to do to protect themselves. There is no price too high for personal freedom.
But — and here’s where the poo meets the porcelain — my children are still stuck in the middle. They are the losers between two parents who can’t even be in the same room together. Ever. Not even for a 30-minute parent/teacher conference once a year.
My son and daughter are still young, 6 and 8, and as much as I try to shield them from conflict, they are fully aware that Daddy hates Mommy. The reality of my situation is a quote from our first parenting coach: “He cares more about hurting you than he does about what is best for the kids.”
Let me say this: No amount of sugar makes that pill any easier to swallow.
Over the years, I have fielded dozens of emails, read books, and talked with many professionals about how to manage this toxic relationship with my children’s father, and as of now, my relationship with my children is wonderful. We are extremely close. They have lots of friends, are well liked by teachers, and get good grades in school. That’s not to say this situation does not take its toll. It does.
But I make sure that when they are with me, they feel safe and free to express themselves however they choose. And these are the things I have found that help us all cope:
1. I am extremely honest with them.
I do not hide the fact that our situation 1) sucks and 2) isn’t normal. I do not speak ill of their father, but I do reinforce the obvious reality that he doesn’t like me, and he has mental issues that won’t allow him to forgive and move on. I am matter-of-fact about this information and show no emotion. As much as possible, I prepare them for his negative reactions to situations where I am involved. They are rarely surprised by his innuendos that I’m a bad parent. Knowing this has helped them to avoid land mines and control what they do and don’t say in his presence. They would know this whether I told them or not. And I think it’s more important to support their reality than pretend these things aren’t the truth. Sometimes we pray for Daddy to get better.
2. I make sure they know I support their relationship and love of their father.
The effects his personality will have on them will be something they will have to parse out on their own. They will be different from the effects it had on me, and my biased influence or negative feedback will only make it worse.
3. I give them access to therapy and art.
Just recently, my oldest expressed interest in talking to a therapist. And so it shall be done. Therapy is good for everyone. For me, art is therapy. I volunteer to teach art classes at their school. I have an entire closet full of art supplies. I praise their artistic endeavors each and every time because art saved me, it can save anyone, and it will help to save them too.
4. Whenever they come to me with a confusing situation or conversation, I try not to react.
I pause and turn it around back on them. I ask, “How did that make you feel?” or “What do you think about that?” Whatever it is they feel or think — even if the answer is that I’m doing something wrong — I confirm their reality (if their reality is based in fact). I support their instincts and teach them to trust them. From my 13 years of living with a professional gaslighter, I know that part of controlling someone is supplanting your reality with an alternative one. This is possible because while you’re being fed an alternative reality, you’re also being told that you’re loved. I reinforce my children’s instincts as much as possible and urge them to trust their gut feelings. Teaching them to trust their internal guidance system is the most valuable gift I can give them — one that will serve them for the rest of their lives in all situations.
And this brings me back to those two elderly ladies from the balcony in Maui that day, the day I said I was done. Had they not seen me, had they not thrown their arms up in disbelief, I might still believe that what happened was my fault. I might have gone on believing that I’d deserved it because I was so angry, like he used to tell me. I lost my own internal compass for many years. And my job now is to make sure my children don’t lose theirs. Together we pray for better tomorrows.