QUESTION: A friend of mine has separated
from her husband, some 8 months now, with no intentions of getting
back again. Her husband is a "total control freak", literally speaking.
There are 4 children, 11, 9, 6 & 3. The mother was passive but is
finding it hard to cope when her eldest daughter is now taking on
the role of the "father" of the family. It is a bitter struggle for
her as she is trying to do right and not resolve to violence against
the kids. Domestic violence was the cause of the break up and has
happened many times before and she took it in. the length of the marriage
was 11 years. Every time she confronts or even politely tries to resolve
or becomes the mother in the situation the eldest daughter says, "
You can't tell me what to do because grandfather, grandmother and
Dad says I can do whatever I want!"
At one stage, the daughter was in favour of
mum's opinions but now it seems that the grandparents are siding their
son and getting the eldest daughter involved so that she believes
someone other than her mother. What should we do?
ANSWER: The eldest daughter is trying
to stabilize the family in the only way she knows how. She is attempting
to take Dad's place in the family! This is a very volatile period,
as the organization this family has known for 11 years has been unbalanced.
The eldest daughter may be drafting herself into the missing place
in a misguided effort to stabilize the family system. She is also
no doubt experiencing a sense of responsibility as the eldest, and
fighting with her mother continues the marital battle, which was likely
the one thing the family organized itself around for the past 11 years.
She is offering herself as a replacement object for the family to
continue to organize in the manner they are accustomed.
Because her mother did not show the strength to leave
the situation earlier or in some other way stop the abuse in the family,
the daughter may also distrust the mother's ability to navigate the
family through the upheaval of the divorce. The only show of "strength"
she has learned in the family may be the destructive behavior of her
father. It is a call for the mother to take leadership of the family
and succeed with her 11 year old daughter in realigning the family
with Mom in charge. There is a void left by the father's absence and
Mom is the one who must fill it!
It is tempting at this time to draft some other person
into this place, such as the maternal grandmother or some other adult.
However, it may only further delay or block the possibility of Mom
taking charge of the family which is the real answer. A single parent
family needs to be a self-sufficiently organized system to run well
and provide the stability children need to grow and develop. This
does not mean that support isn't important in a single parent family.
It is!!!! But the parent should be the one making the decisions. The
mother is, by her position in the family, the leader. All efforts
should be oriented towards supporting her in this role.
Granted, this can be quite a stretch for a wife and
mother who for more than a decade has adapted a passive role to an
abusive spouse. She will need support to take charge. And support
to not return to the abusive relationship. Groups for battered women
have shown to be the most effective in strengthening a woman's resolve
to refuse to tolerate abuse and work through feelings of attachment
and behaviors which are self-destructive in relationship. Developing
a sense of herself as an individual, her likes, her dislikes, her
interests and talents will be new. Her identity as a woman must change
to incorporate not only single motherhood but possibly a new work
identity, too. Her sense of personal power will grow with achieving
goals she sets for herself which are attainable and practical. Meeting
these goals will build self-esteem and the ability to make decisions
in the best interest of herself and her children.
The eldest daughter will respond to her mother's insistence,
backed by action, that she is in charge, not the daughter. And that
she will be making the decisions in the family. She can offer a listening
ear to her daughter's ideas, but she should not accept verbal abuse
from her. Sanctions, such as losing privileges for watching television,
visiting friends or other consequences should be decided upon and
acted upon when rules are broken. And broken they will be, until it
is clear that the mother is the winner. And if Mom wins, they all
The mother should expect that she will need to act
on the sanctions for her daughter to know she is serious. But after
several times or so, the need for consequences will decrease. Rules
will be broken again, verbal abuse may flair at various times, but
decrease continually as the daughter develops trust in her mother's
ability to handle her!
Family therapy aimed at supporting the mother's position
as the leader in the family, while giving a forum for discussion of
the new rules, consequences for not following rules and feelings about
the abuse that went on in the past is strongly recommended. This family
has the opportunity to develop the kind of family they want to be.
This includes discussing why things that went on in the past are no
longer OK now. And it includes forming a vision of what kind of family
they are going to become. What rituals they will make happen in their
new family form.
Verbal abuse and physical abuse should no longer be
tolerated. But these are big changes after 11 years! And so they need
safe discussion and a format for making this change possible. Multi-family
therapy groups can also provide invaluable support for families making
these changes together.
A child custody evaluation may also be necessary in
this case, if the children are at any time in the care of their father
without supervision and he has a history of domestic violence. A history
of previous physical abuse may be considered a counterindication to
joint custody. Getting appropriate legal advice about this situation
may also decrease the daughter's triangulation in the marital conflict
and may be a step towards the mother's empowerment. Family therapy
or mediation might also be recommended if not required by the court
if the daughter continues to be caught in the middle of the marital
You can empathize with your friend and encourage her
to take steps towards securing and maintaining her leadership of the
family. Be patient and non reactive to her struggles. You are a valuable
resource to her on the road to change. But she is the one who will
have to make those changes!
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