QUESTION: I am a 44-year-old professional
male who, after 15 years of marriage, was informed by my spouse that
she "needed to take her life in another direction." She said that
she had emotional issues that could only be resolved by a divorce.
We have a wonderful son, age 13, who lives with me, by his choice.
His mother lives about 10 minutes away and greets him each day after
school. I am very concerned because of the rapid deterioration of
their relationship. His mother thinks I am causing his anger. Should
a child be "forced" to spend time with a parent, despite his feelings?
ANSWER: Your situation reflects a sudden,
unexpected change that may have left you (and your son) with both
angry and hurt feelings. But this is no reason to fail to support
a teenager in maintaining his relationship with his mother and working
through his anger instead of "running away." It is your job to protect
your child from "taking sides" or acting in a manner that precludes
an ongoing relationship with your ex-spouse. A passive stance on your
part may send the message that he, too, should "divorce" his mother.
Cutting off from his mother at this age would likely only prove damaging.
Thirteen is a very vulnerable age to lose a mother,
even temporarily. The anger your son feels will have little opportunity
for resolution if he is allowed to cut off his relationship with his
Mom. The only reason to support withdrawal from a parental relationship
is when neglect, abuse or serious mental illness makes this the only
sane or healthy decision. Your son is only at the beginning of his
adolescence. His development through this period of change, while
simultaneously adjusting to the divorce requires your unwavering guidance.
This is a tall order, in the face of your own pain, but your son's
well-being is at stake!
Separate your son's loss from your own. Your wife
is divorcing you, not your son. Be clear with him that though you
may feel that your wife has abandoned you, she has by no means left
him. Your son may, in part, identify with you as the "male victim"
of your wife's departure from the marriage. Condoning his withdrawal
from his mother runs the danger of a self- fulfilling sense of abandonment
that could permeate his later adult relationships. Do not allow him
to create a negative self-fulfilling prophecy by cutting his mother
out of his life. It may be difficult for him to recover the relationship
in the future. It is critical to his adjustment that you let him know
that you believe his mother is an important person in his life. And
that even though his parents have separated, you both love him and
want the best for him. The best for him includes maintaining a relationship
with both of the parents that love him.
It is also likely that your ex-wife's guilt about
the pain your son is undergoing in this adjustment is contributing
to her inability to listen to his anger. It is essential that she
stop attributing your son's anger to you, as this only places him
in the middle of your conflict. He is no doubt hurt and angry that
his family unit has been shaken. She should expect and accept his
anger as a natural part off this transition. But it is also wise to
consider if there are any ways you may be fueling his flame due to
your own hurt over your wife's actions.
Consider the fact that you seem to be "taken by surprise"
by your wife's decision to leave the marriage. You describe being
"informed" which suggests great emotional distance. It is likely that
the two of you have been out of touch with each other for some time
in your relationship. If so, take responsibility for your lack of
awareness regarding your wife's pain. The decision to dissolve a 15
year marriage does not take place "overnight". It is probable that
there were warning signs that you may have missed or ignored for one
reason or another. Resolve your own sense of "victimization" in the
marriage. Accepting your part of the failure in your relationship
will allow you to move on without repeating the mistakes which led
to such an extreme breakdown in communication.
Be aware that years of suppressed, unresolved marital
conflict may also leave your son vulnerable to being "elected" by
both you and your ex-wife to express the unspoken rage between the
two of you. Protect your child from becoming the lightning rod between
you and your ex-spouse for unresolved feelings in the marriage relationship.
If necessary, secure the help of a professional counselor/mediator
to keep your son out of the middle of your conflict. Develop a parental
team approach to act in your son's best interests.
It is possible that your son is replicating a dysfunctional
coping style that has existed in your marriage. Perhaps your son learned
to express anger by avoiding. He may be seeking to express his anger
and resolve his pain by "cutting off" from a relationship that has
sustained his development. It is not a matter of "forcing" or "not
forcing" contact between your son and his mother. It is a matter of
teaching your son the value of working through conflict instead of
running away from it.
Patterns of conflict avoidance or emotional cutoff
may have spelled the demise of your marriage, but do not allow this
destructive coping style to destroy your son's relationship with his
mother. It is likely that with your genuine support, he will continue
to work through his feelings without losing the parent-child relationship.
Do not neglect yourself. You are experiencing great
loss. Take time to recover and understand what has occurred. Obtain
help to work through your own anger and sorrow during this very difficult
period. Doing so is your best insurance that you will not pass this
pain onto the next generation.