by Quinn Pierce
A Confused and Anxious Child
My younger son recently returned home from his father’s house looking visibly distressed and anxious. As we began asking what was wrong, the ever increasing list of possibilities began running through my mind. I could tell these visits were taking a toll on my son, but he is not yet at the point where he can stand up for himself to his father. My older son, however, mastered that skill earlier this year, and it has been a source of contention for my ex-husband ever since.
And so, when my son started to explain what transpired the night before, it was no surprise to the rest of us as we listened. Apparently, someone asked a seemingly innocent question about his brother, and when my son answered, it caused an angry tirade in response from his father, who claimed to have no knowledge what-so-ever of the information.
A Case of Convenient Amnesia
This is a common theme. When my ex-husband wants to maintain his victim role, he withholds information from those around him claiming to have no knowledge of anything that jeopardizes this role. Whenever we have meetings at the school or with the counselors, my ex-husband acts as though he is hearing everything for the first time, even if several of us were present when we discussed the same information at previous meetings. During my marriage, this experience was very unnerving; I would think, “Am I crazy? Didn’t we have this discussion already? What is he talking about?”
And then I would replay all the events in my head trying to determine if things really happened as I remembered, because, honestly, he acted with such sincerity and conviction, he was very believable.
As time went on, however, I recognized the pattern and began calling him out on his lies in front of others. That, I learned, was his second favorite reaction. He loved an opportunity to be on stage and create drama with his wounded indignation.
Eventually, I settled on rolling my eyes and ignoring his words altogether. This has proven to be a very effective technique (although the eye-rolling tends to give me a headache after a while, due to the frequency of use). Usually, he trips himself up somewhere along the way. It’s impossible for anyone, no matter how much experience they have, to remember all their lies for extended periods of time.
A New Audience
But now, my son was the one listening to my ex-husband give an entirely different version of events than what my son thought to be true. He came home confused and upset. Not only did he have to be on the receiving end of his father’s tantrum, but he came home thinking he revealed information that he shouldn’t have. I’m sure he was worried that I was, also, going to be upset with him.
My heart sank picturing my child in this situation. I knew how scary my ex-husband could be when he was putting on such a performance. And truth be told, my ex-husband probably was very angry, because I guarantee he hadn’t told his new wife any of the information my son revealed, and his cover was in danger of being blown.
His goal would have been to convince her that I was keeping information from him about his own son, match her anger about my controlling and manipulative behavior, and reinforce her loyalty to him by demanding sympathy for the mistreatment he has endured. It’s quite an ambitious goal for one performance. I have no doubt it left my son shaking.
I began explaining to my son that his father most certainly did know everything before that moment. I even showed him the emails I sent with the information more than a week earlier, as well as the response back from his father acknowledging the information.
My son looked at me with frustration and anger and asked, “Is everything that comes out of his mouth a lie?”
I hesitated, trying to think of the most comprehensive answer to explain his father’s behavior. After a moment, I simply answered: Yes.
I think it may have been a rhetorical question, but he nodded in understanding. I wasn’t overly concerned with reinforcing what my son already instinctively knew. What I was concerned with, however, was making sure my son understood that I would never put him in that situation.
Attempts at Reassurance
I try very hard to make sure that there are no secrets that need to be kept from my ex-husband when my sons are with him. I know he will try to fish for information and trick them into answering questions that are presented as ‘no big deal’.
I always send a short memo-type email that brings him up to speed on anything happening with the boys that he should know. That does not mean that I act as a go-between for doctors, counselors, or schools; if my ex-husband wants to contact them directly, it is his responsibility to do so. I make sure all health care providers and educators know that they are to communicate with us independently, and I personally compare contact information with my ex-husband so that he cannot say he did not know who to call or how to reach that person.
As the parent with primary placement, I let him know of important events or changes to schedules that he would not otherwise know. Since my older son has not visited his father’s house since last August, it becomes a very tricky line of respecting my son’s privacy and not putting my son or me in a position that would allow my ex-husband to claim he is being alienated.
A Lesson Children Shouldn’t Have to Learn
The co-parenting job is a learn-as-you-go process. I have learned what types of information I have to provide on a legal level, what is in my sons’ and my best interest to provide, and what is harmful to my children if revealed. It is an exhausting dance, especially since my ex-husband does not care what is in the best interest of his sons, he only wants to be able to make use of what he knows, or intentionally doesn’t know, in order to benefit himself.
I tried my best to explain that none of his father’s behaviors were any reflection of my son or anything he said. Instead of focusing on the anger and resentment, since my son will have to continue to spend time with his father until he is strong enough to say otherwise, it was important for me to give him the tools to feel confident and secure while he is there.
I know that learning how to navigate his father’s lies and finding his own ‘eye-roll’ type compromise won’t be easy. Unfortunately, he will probably have plenty of chances to practice.