Dear Carolyn: I am divorcing my husband of 10 years. We have an 8-year-old son. There are issues of emotional and verbal abuse, and I have finally gotten to the point where I am strong enough to end this relationship.
My husband and I are trying to be civil through this process for the sake of our son. My father has stated that my husband will always be a part of the family and will be invited to all family functions at their home, and I will just have to deal with it. Right now, I feel I can handle it; however, my husband is going to start dating, even though we still live in the same home (he is working out where he is going to live). Sex has always been very important to him, so I can see him hooking up with the first woman to come along, without regard to how this person will relate to our son.
My father has stated that my husband’s “lady friend” will also be invited to the family gatherings. I don’t want my son to grow up stressing about special occasions, but I don’t think I will be comfortable having my husband’s future girlfriend there — at least not for a while. My father’s response: “Too bad.” Other members of the family have told my dad that the girlfriend should not be invited until I’m ready, but my dad told them it’s his house and he makes the rules. I have talked to my husband about this, but he said, “You’re the one who tore our family apart, so you’re going to have to live with the consequences. If you get hurt, that’s on you.”
I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place. I want to be an example to my son, showing him how to behave in difficult situations, but this might be too much for me, and I don’t just want to avoid the family gatherings — we have a big family so there are a couple each month — because this is my family. What do I do? — Back Off, Dad!
Rock and a hard place? Try abuser and an abusive place.
The best example you can set for your son is one that teaches him neither to act like his dad and granddad, nor defer to people who do.
No decision you make about this situation will set that example unless it grows from a fundamental understanding that your abusive father poured your emotional foundation, and your abusive husband built on it.
You chose to divorce your husband knowing, no doubt, that he’d punish you for it; that took significant strength.
But your hardest work is still ahead of you. That’s because standing up to your father is next. It’s no coincidence — his siding with your husband. That “my house, my rules” tantrum has absolutely nothing to do with the new girlfriend(s) and everything to do with flexing his power to keep you in your place.
He’s as invested as your husband is, if not more so, in your submissiveness. “You’re the one who tore our family apart” and “Too bad” are the same message dressed in different words.
Accordingly, the best example you can set for your son lies in deciding — and demonstrating — that to people who don’t have your best interests at heart, you owe nothing. Nothing beyond the baseline civility you’d owe anyone, that is, and the post-split parental civility you owe your child.
You might be at a point where you see your best options clearly. This is often where a good therapist fits in, however, to help you trace the origin of any bad emotional habits, locate your triggers, develop a customized strategy for neutralizing those triggers, and put new, more productive responses in their place. When it’s time to form good relationship habits, many people who picked up unhealthy ones in childhood find it tough to know where to start.
The situation you describe here, for example, is fairly clear-cut: Your father and husband are showing zero respect for your son’s feelings or yours, so, hey, Dad and ex-to-be deserve each other; you can skip the next few family events at his house without guilt. Surely plenty of the 24 family events per year take place in other homes? Surely those family members who had your back will support this choice?
Different situations, though, will likely present subtler challenges — say, when your father hosts a gathering on a weekend when your husband has your son. For these, at least at first, it’s good to have a steady, veteran hand to help you stay on a productive track — and off the track that leads you to another man like your dad.