Thursday, August 21, 2014

So, you left your abusive husband and got a divorce. Now what?

I’ve often rued the fact that there is no official step-by-step guidebook for divorcing your abusive husband, that you just do it with every ounce and muster of courage and drop of support you can find.  I was lucky to have a strong support network, full of therapy and attorney friends, and including my official therapist and official attorney, along with my extended friends and family.  First of all, it’s hard enough to admit that these terrible things have happened, these things that you’ve hidden from the world, things that no one would ever suspect because he is so kind, so sweet, so intelligent, soft-spoken in the real world.  And that’s the part any sane person would hold onto, out of love, love for the children, love for your commitment and marriage vows, love of being “a family.”  And then the day comes when there is just one explosion too many, or the realization that begin sworn and screamed at for not boiling the spaghetti, that you know it will never get better, and that after the death threats and the ‘bullet through your head,” and the choking of the family dog and breaking of the children’s toys and kicking your daughter in her stomach, it is only getting worse.  So after all the pain and heartache and terrible accusations that you are the crazy person, who is unfit to care for the children, and having it all played out in court for two years, the actual truth prevailed, you are safe, your children no longer have to live with Mr. Hyde, you can move on and build a safer, more positive life in your house.

Except, now you have to co-parent with your abusive ex.  Which requires a completely different step-by-step guidebook, but of course there isn’t one, and likely, it’s because every situation has different nuances and complications, every family variation a complex algebraic equation, for lack of a better phrase.  Divorce Poison is a great resource, and while dispensing sage advice, there is no one-size fits all.  (Which is why I’ve taken to anonymous blogging and reading about others’ personal experiences).

So co-parenting with an ex who continues to emotionally manipulate your children, accuse you of being unsafe, of stealing their items, of demanding to know if you allow your new husband to bathe your children naked (gasp, how else would you bathe the children?  and honestly the girls love taking their showers by themselves anyway, whatever), it is a mistake to think that once the ‘divorce’ is over, you have truly ‘escaped’ and are ‘finished.’  Yes, there’s a huge improvement over living with a mean-spirited, mercurial bully in the house, however, said bully is still joined closely to your world.

First there is the social aspect of entering your new life as a single parent.  Likely, many people have taken sides, regardless of your truth.  There may be a skeptical preschool teacher, who he subpoenaed, because of course she wouldn’t see anything concerning in the classroom at pick ups or drop-offs.  Or others who pretend everything is just fine and what’s the big deal?  Or still others who can’t handle it, because the subject is so clearly depressing, and that’s okay, because by now, after many years, you’ve figured out who you can really trust vs. who you can casually trust, and actually, now that there’s been lots of time under the bridge, you know how to navigate the divorce conversation landscape in civil situations however they end up (meeting your kids' friends' parents, at a birthday party, or when drinking  a glass of wine with your fellow divorcee friends, or with your trusted people). 

You grow a thick skin, so that your ex’s barbs don’t sting (as much), and are not as affected by other people’s assumptions.  Because while it’s true it shouldn’t matter what other people think, sometimes it can hurt, still hurt even after all this time, when you know people in the world may be making judgments about you—that’s human to feel that way.  You have a heart. 

And secondly, there is the fact that even though you divorced your abuser, he will be in your life.  I almost envy my fellow friends who left their abusers, when said abusers disappear in shame or wrongfully laid pride and never come back.  I feel guilty for that and know either way it’s heartbreakingly difficult.  Because I know my ex can be on ‘good’ behavior, and I know the girls adore him, like any child adores their parent, regardless of the flaws.  So I know it’s in their best interests to be around him, as long as he’s not hurting them (but that’s a whole other post--he is capable of acting decent, it’s the subtle manipulation and neediness that has me continually worried.

However, even after cocooning yourself up with your blended family on a vacation far away from the drama, you do have to return to regular life, and you do have to navigate the same accusatory, controlling crap that comes from your ex.  So here’s some guidelines I thought to share that have helped me, and maybe can help someone out there in the world in a similar situation:
  1. You cannot change how your ex behaves, even if your children come home crying and saying he got in a fight with their grandma.  He will say, do, act in his way, always has and always will (unless there is some kind of therapeutic miracle, which I wish for, but know better than to expect).  So, unless your kids are coming home and sharing information that directly impacts them (he was yelling at me, he was hurting me), then you can’t do anything about it.  (Tell the play therapist, if you have one, about what you’ve heard from your kids re: family life at the ex’s, and let the therapist deal with the information and trust him or her to work with it—see #5).
  2. No matter how s4!++y the emails/accusations are about your parenting and decisions, do not rise to the bait of such petty nonsense.  This was a skill that took a long time to navigate, and part of it has to do with breaking old patterns.  No, you do not have to placate him.  No, you don’t have to defend yourself, because there’s nothing to defend.  No, he is not entitled to the private details of your personal life.  Let him rant and rave, like a child temper tantrum vomited up in single-spaced long emails.  In the rants and rave, pick out what exactly needs to be addressed, and address it with as few words as possible.  Does he have questions about pick-ups, drop-offs, healthcare, childcare, education, extracurricular activities?  Then filter out the garbage—it’s white noise on a broken TV.  Note:  The less you react, the more he may try and bait you, but disengage as much as you can.  His words do not matter any more.  (think Labyrinth and the Goblin King, shout out to Liv,—“You have no power over me…”)  If you are unfortunately subjected to phone calls and texts, simply respond, “I’ll be happy to talk to you when we can discuss this in a more civil tone.”  Then, hang up.  If in person, do not let him to continue to berate you--walk away.  Disengage. 
  3. Stay upbeat and positive when the children share stories about fun things they may have done with dad.  It’s great they are having fun—and in my case, I know he has a good side (it’s the scary side for which I stay vigilant).  Stay neutral and never say anything denigrating or negative about their dad, even if you’re driven to distraction by the latest crappity crap things he’s said to you behind closed doors, and even though you remember and know first hand what he’s capable of.  If he’s not acting badly right now—that is GOOD for the kids.  On the other hand, upbeat and positive does not mean overly cheerful and affected.  I.e. “did you have fun at dad’s house?” puts an expectation of “fun” in the children’s head.  You know your ex-husband, things might not be ‘fun,’ especially if he’s busy bullying his mother or brother in front of them.  Instead you can say, “how was dad’s house?” and if they respond happily, then you can smile and be supportive.
  4. And yet, DO address negative things the children may share that dad has said about you or your husband.  Out of fear of being “neutral,” I have tread very carefully on this one, but here’s an example,  “daddy says you have to do this mommy.”  Respond, “you know, it’s not daddy’s job to say what mommy should do, honey, it’s mommy’s job to decide what to do.”  When your child looks at you a bit wide eyed, you can follow up, “do you ever hear mommy tell you what daddy should do?”  And when your child shakes their head with knowledge that this is, indeed true, due to #3 on this list, you can follow up with, “don’t worry if daddy says things about mommy honey, it’s not your job to worry about that.  Daddy loves you and is happy just to have you near him, you don’t have to do anything more to make him happy.”
  5. Any concerns that you have about dad’s behavior and stories the children report—take to a neutral third party.  If there is a co-parenting mediator involved, a play therapist, and you trust those people, take it to them.  Nothing YOU can say or do will make him change, nor will it help the situation.  If you attempt to address it directly yourself, it will only invite vitriol and defensiveness from him.  (Remember when you tried and asked and maybe begged him to do something different--to save the marriage way back when?  Well, the same response holds true now--he will not change unless HE wants to change.)  Also, if you DON’T trust the neutral third parties in your case, find a new one.  Because ultimately, this is about the kids, not about you or your abusive ex.  It’s about working with a shitty situation that you unfortunately got yourself into, and courageously got yourself out of, but it sure can feel like you’re still “in” it when your kids tell you concerning stories, and you need to trust the people involved with your case.
  6. Get into therapy to help you get strong to deal with these things.  It’s emotionally draining, the barrage after barrage of crap.  The one constant in all of this is—he will not change.  The only thing you can change then, is how you respond.  Do your best to let go of “he might be thinking” or “he might be doing,”  even though your worries are based in valid concerns—address only what is right in front of you.  Otherwise, you will drive yourself crazy.  And therapy is a great way to help you release stress and build up your strength.  People go to the gym to make their muscles strong, or run or lift weights or take up the stairmaster or swim and bike to train for triathlons and marathons and the like.  Therapy is training for your mind and heart.  It helps you build your mental energy to protect yourself and it also has a gentler side to it--to help you accept and love yourself when you may have felt like nothing. 
  7. Lastly, it’s okay to totally mess up everything on this list once in a while.  You are human.  You have a heart.  You are strong, but even the strongest person will be worn down and that’s okay.  The important part is to not beat yourself up from your mistakes and also learn from them.  Each day will make you stronger and more able to handle the b.s.  Strength comes in waves, some days you will feel wildly confident in all the decisions you’ve made, others, not so much.  Reach out for support on the down days, and know that the good ones will return.
I wish I could say with 100% guarantee, all returns accepted, that it will get better.  I believe it will get better one day, and I hope more than anything that it does.  In the meantime, last night, I made messy s’mores with the girls, eyeing the microwave with keen eyes as the marshmallows grew into large, sticky globs, then ate them while giggling.  So that makes me happy and for just a moment, I knew with certainty that despite the storms and rages of someone who used to live with us, our life is definitely better, and it will continue to improve, because we are growing and becoming stronger, too.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Another day, another e-maul

So tired of the crap—this time a long, lengthy complaint that DD1 attended a sleepover the day before she went to dad’s.  This was a last minute sleepover invite to stay with her besties, and the following day was a holiday.  He got all up in arms about my not notifying him (…?  let him know the night before, as it was an impromptu invitation), and how in the future I must not schedule when it affects his time and to schedule only on my week ends.  Le sigh.  Wait…the night was not his custodial night…and…why is he all up in arms?

So I double-checked with my therapy and attorney friends to confirm my reaction:  No, he is not to dictate what happens on my custodial time, yes, he must be supportive of the children’s social activities.

How I wish he could think:  gee, my daughter is out there in the world having great, positive experiences with her friends, in a familiar and safe environment.  She is a little girl for goodness’ sake, and branching out and having fun with friends (whose parents I adore, which is definitely a plus!) is part of growing up happy and healthy.  Versus, this is all about ME and MY time, and you instigated this on PURPOSE to ruin MY time.  Seriously?  Please stop—how I wish I had magic wand to change his attitude.

Ah well.  I know I can’t change him or his attitude or his manipulation or his attempts to control.  All I can do is formulate a two sentence response.  Disengage, disengage, disengage.  Zen warrior pants to the ready.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming, Or How to keep you head above water

I love Dori from Finding Nemo--her in the moment, zen nature and positive thinking, how I wish I could be like her all the time.  And…how I used to be like her, more often than not, but I’ve noticed that life’s harder edges took some of that away from me.  I am loathe to admit it—but I have become more cynical and less trusting of life and of people generally in the world.  And that sucks.

So today, I’m making a little vow to myself to concentrate on the good things that keep me going, despite the arguing with my loving new husband about how to deal with my manipulative ex-husband.  Despite feeling like I’m fighting on all fronts sometimes, fielding barbs from Exie, shielding myself, my girls, our family’s privacy, raising the girls and getting us through a hurricane warning (thank goodness all of that blew over, the Big Island’s mountains were not going to let some hurricane get us down!  And that while the Big Island still has lost 10% of their power, there were no casualties and we are all safe), and defending my “disengage and ignore” tactics with A. 

Actually, life isn’t bad, and even if I’m cynical about certain things, like trusting “love” will conquer life’s ills (thanks, 80s Disney movies and rom-coms, whatEVER), it’s pretty damn good in many places.  So please let me be thankful for this:

  1. The co-parenting counselor completely surprised me by handling the latest email diatribe.  She is being so helpful that I don’t even have to respond to the latest shenanigans.  No, Exie does not get to unilaterally decide when or where DD1 takes an extracurricular activity when it impacts both of our days.  No, Exie cannot demand to withhold medical copays because DD2 lost her lunch tupperware at school.  Yes, Exie has to show up with the children at a well-lit place at the next parent-to-parent exchange.  Wow.
  2. DD1, while still feeling a bit conflicted because of Exie’s manipulations, has been coming out of her shell a little bit more since our trip to see our families.  She’s been asking A to help him cook, seeking him out to play cards, generally, just seeking his attention and cuddles and love.  It’s been very sweet.  We even overheard her referring to him as her “stepdad” to her little neighbor BFF, when she didn’t think anyone could hear her.  <3 span="">
  3. DD1 has now ventured into 3rd grade and already loves her teacher, is reading voraciously, loves playing with her friends.  We found a new ballet school that DD1 is going to try and see if she likes—it helps her school BFF also takes lessons there, and we won’t have to worry about interference from dad because the classes do not fall on his days.  Also, DD1 discovered a new friend at summer day camp, who happens to live just up the street, and they’ve been inseparable over the last few weeks.  So sweet!
  4. DD2 is happily adjusting to a new preschool year, and I will now have to start thinking about kindergarten.  Exie has agreed to apply DD2 to the same place DD1 went to kindergarten and thrived.  I’m thinking it’s a great start to school for DD2, and then we can transfer her to DD1’s school who is just down the road.  DD2 is bubbly, happy, and loving, her energetic self never failing her to show up anywhere with hugs and laughter galore.
  5. My loving husband, while arguing about how to handle my ex, has helped me hire a nanny to assist with getting DD1 to all of her extracurriculars and finish her homework.  I seriously couldn’t be luckier.  I used to scrape bottom to find help, and it’s extremely lucky to have an extra pair of eyes and ears (the nanny also grew up in a blended family) looking after the girls on occasion.
  6. Yesterday, while in a silent stand-off about dealing with Exie, A needed “alone time” after work so he missed dinner.  But, he showed up with a new blanket for our bed.  And other handy things we needed.  So his “alone time” translated into helping us with stuff around the house.  That’s pretty darn sweet. 

I’m thinking that I ought to be in a “count-your-blessings” mode.  For the moment, Exie has been dealt with, and while likely to bring sh!+ up again in the not-too-distant future, my girls and me, we are okay.  We are safer than we ever were before. 

A and I have a lot to work on about dealing with stress and anxiety.  I have some ideas on how to handle that, and I’m hoping he is thinking of some, too.  He usually is.  I think together we can overcome this.  I think it’s difficult for A—and his loving, alpha male, no one messes with my family mentality, to see that disengaging and refusing to react to my ex-husband’s manipulations is actually a proactive way to protect our privacy and self-respect.  I wish I could wave a magic wand and help him see that.  It took me a long time to ignore the negative, too.  (I wish there was a handbook for step-parents coming into high conflict, or post abusive relationships.  Is there one?)

So I’m sending a little prayer out there into the universe—thanking the heavens for our bright and better days and future, and also asking for some patience and perseverance as we keep swimming forward.  Just keep swimming.  Swimming, swimming.

Monday, August 4, 2014

How do I heal?

Some days, I feel strong, confident, patting myself on the back, proud that I managed to “get out” of a terrible situation.  Other days, absolutely not.  Instead, I’m wracked with guilt, anxiety, fear and worry. 

How do you manage these feelings?  Yes, I’m in therapy.  On a logical level, I know I have to transform my thinking that everything will be okay, that I don’t need to worry like I did before. 
And yet, I do worry, because there are worrisome things that come up.  The trigger, the person who hurt me and my children for so long, is still around, still present, doing what he can to needle me and to influence our children (not all in good ways), and in the face of that, sometimes  my positive outlook and love and hope—any bit of strength, is sapped down to zero.  I become anxious, numb, afraid.  I tell myself, he is no longer in my house, he no longer can come to my house, actually, he is gone, he cannot hurt us like he used to, but…he still hurts us.  Little by little.

He sends emotional blackmail messages to our children, interfering (especially with DD1) with their bonding with our blended family.  Turning them into his emotional caretakers (daddy is sad, daddy is so poor).  Sending nitpicky, accusatory, messages about how I may have jeopardized my children’s safety by allowing them to ride horseback on my brother’s farm, or that I absconded with the children’s belonging.  I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, and I get angry at myself for letting it send me into a whirlwind of fear.  His words do not have merit—he crafts them mildly on the surface, the undertones exist, and I need to learn to disengage, to not let the undertones get to me, but they do. 

My mantra since divorcing and ‘winning’ custody:  I cannot control what he says or thinks, I can only control what I say or do.  Some days I’m strong and those words are my wonder woman invisible force field, other days, all the mantras in the world can’t stop my worries.

The latest situation is that he is now formally requesting a meeting with my husband.  This gave me pause.  It gave my attorney pause.  It gave my attorney friends pause.  Yes, any parent has a moral right to meet the person who lives with their children.  Legally, there’s no negative ramification if we refuse.  My attorney and therapist both agree that there needs to be a third party, neutral witness present, if it were to happen.  I also agree that at some point, they need to meet, but not under the guise of my ex-husband’s to “talk about the children.”  Anything that has to do with the children must come through me.  But otherwise, a sighting at a school event, or perhaps present at a non-school pick up might be okay.  (I would want something similar, merely to lay eyes on a would be step-mom, but no need for a 30 minute meeting.  As long as the person didn’t have a criminal background, I’d be fine, because I respect the boundaries, am actually grateful for the boundaries.)  Under normal circumstances, I can see how this would be necessary and warranted.

Except for all of the things the ex has done since our engagement was announced last year and our marriage that followed.  DD1 used to be my husband’s little “buddy” during our courtship, for lack of a better word—wanting to hold his hand, helping him cook, demanding attention, i.e. her turn to read the book with him etc.  Then slowly, little by little, daddy being “sad” about the marriage, and being “uncomfortable” with her having a stepfather, has bled into our family home, has given DD1 inner turmoil and conflict.  We sit by, supporting her with neutrality, with positive messages like, “it’s okay to love all of your family,” or “our hearts are big enough for all of our family,” or “just because you have fun with us, doesn’t mean you love your daddy any less.” 

I note the many times post divorce the Ex has put himself before our children—the children, even with fevers, were going to spend a late night with him to celebrate his birthday, because by golly, it’s his time (rather than agree with a day time visit).  Or his “strategic” request for summer vacation, he started it in the middle of the week, and at the end of its duration, there was so much back and forth due to holidays and ex’s birthday, that the children weren’t allow to settle back home before more transitions.  The play therapist agreed that was very stressful for the girls.

My girls have told me on random occasions that “daddy fights with grandma” and “uncle isn’t allowed to talk to them, because of daddy.”  My ex brother-in-law, the one person in his family who stood up for the children and corroborated the ex’s anger problem, lives with the ex and his mom, and I’ve learned has been told not to talk to my daughters at all. 

So what do I do with this information?  And when I see my Ex acting like the victim, the poor me, but I’m such a great dad because I want to show up at the school and meet the teacher, or I want to sign up DD1 for swim lessons without working together to find a time that can work with both of our week end schedules, it makes me want to barf at the same time also be thankful that he IS on good behavior and not doing other stupid stuff.  Except, I know he’s doing stupid stuff, too.

I don’t know what to do.  I sometimes feel powerless to protect my girls, and to sit by and see his influence on the girls enacted in my home, it makes me sad.  Another example, my ex has often demanded that my daughters talk to him “long on the phone” because they “don’t see daddy all the time,” and to “not talk to mommy as much because they are with mommy all the time.”  I’ve worked on this with the play therapist, who seems to understand the dynamics of divorced dads and daughters similar to what is playing out now, and we have encouraged DD1 to use her voice, and say that when it’s time to go, it’s okay to say it’s time to go.  What I’ve found is that she is using this choice on me, rather than her dad.  It’s not helping her set limits with her dad, it’s helping her please him by cutting off the phone calls with me.  Not that I have ever pushed for long phone calls, but still.  I don’t know what to do.  Is there anything I can do?

Some days I’m a pro at disengagement.  Other days, like today, not.  I get upset at myself for not being stronger, for failing to be “water off a duck’s back.”  I think part of it is because we spend so much time being so careful to support the girls, to be neutral and positive about the girls’ dad in our home, but all we see is that DD1 especially is more affected and conflicted by her dad than ever.  Our play therapist says DD1 will understand in time.  My attorney friends and therapist friends also think the girls will be okay, to keep doing what we’re doing, that we have to be patient.  I’ve learned to be patient over the years, but it’s hard.

And I know at the same time I am truly thankful to have this new life.  I wish it were free from everything that I’m writing about, but I also know it’s 100 times better than what it was before. So I guess I will write a letter to DD1 in my heart, since I can’t think of anything else to do right now to make it better.

Dear DD1,
I hope you know how much you are loved, by both parents, and by your stepdad, too.  Mommy and A want you to be happy and to know that you are loved, that it’s okay to have your feelings, that by loving A, it doesn’t mean you love your daddy less.  We know you love your daddy as every child loves their parents, that’s just how it is and we understand.  We are sorry that your dad says things that make you feel worried about him.  It’s the adults’ jobs to take care of you, not your job to take care of them.  You are smart and funny and loving and caring and there is room in your heart to love everyone in your family.  I love you.
Your mom.