“How Could He Do This To Me”

Recently I struck up a conversation with a stranger. The topic migrated to kids graduating high-school and the woman shared with me that her son had worn shorts to his graduation ceremony. This caused her great stress as she had to race to the mall to purchase a pair of pants for him. She ended the story by saying, “how could he do this to me.”

I don’t know this woman. We were strangers passing. But her comment caused me to reflect on why her son would have made the choice to wear shorts on a day when others were wearing suits and dresses. Clearly he wanted to make a statement. He wanted to express his individuality. And maybe some of that teenage rebellion was a direct response to his mother. Maybe he felt she pushed him too hard to conform. But my guess is that his choice was only partially motivated by his relationship with his mother. My guess is that his choice was more about him than her.

Yet his mother took it personally enough to say “how could he do this to me.” She made it about her. And in doing so she may have pushed her rebelling son just a little further away. As parents, we should always remember that after we give our children life, they are separate human beings. We can teach them. Mentor them. Share our knowledge, wisdom and values. But ultimately, they are distinct individuals and the choices they make are more about themselves, than about their moms and dads.

Who knows what was going through this boy’s mind when he put on those shorts. It was a small statement; harmless in the scheme of things. But his mother would have drawn closer to her son had she asked him why he made the choice to wear shorts, than had she made it about her.

The Halloween Impasse

Recently I heard a family court judge speak about divorced parents who had litigated about which Halloween vessel their child would use. One parent wanted the child to carry a plastic pumpkin and the other wanted the child to carry a pillowcase. The judge mentioned this argument to illustrate the foolishness that occurs in divorce court. The judge’s point was these parents should not spend time and money fighting over such small matters.

While on the surface this appears to be a silly issue, in my experience as a high-conflict divorce consultant, the presenting issue is rarely the real issue. It is stressful, time consuming, and expensive to go to court. Even without an attorney, a parent must take time off of work and prepare for the court hearing, an uncomfortable and intimidating experience at best. To believe that parents take on this daunting fight just to argue about plastic or linen, misses the point.

Parents don’t often pursue litigation unless the issue is representative of something more substantive, such as the child’s health. Perhaps the child is diabetic or has difficulty managing his or her eating habits. Perhaps one parent practices a religion that doesn’t celebrate Halloween and, while relenting to the child’s wishes to go trick-or-treating, is unwilling to support overindulgence. Judges don’t delve too deeply into why parents argue. They have neither the time nor the training to understand all of the underlying motivations. But recognizing the limitations of their perspective, judges should give parents the benefit of the doubt that there is more at stake than meets the eye.

I have seen parents willingly sacrifices the health and well-being of their child simply to provoke their ex-spouse. I have seen parents emotionally damage their children in service to their own hatred of their ex-spouse. And I have seen parents initiate legal battles simply to aggravate their ex-spouse. These are all forms of domestic violence, prevalent in high-conflict cases. Often the most effective weapon one parent uses against another is, sadly, the child. An argument about a plastic pumpkin is rarely about a plastic pumpkin.

 

The Conflict Between Parents and Court

Parenting is about process. It doesn’t help a child to tell him the result you want without telling him how to get there. Telling him to “hit the ball” in Little League or to “get an A on the test” without teaching him how to swing a bat or how to study, makes your child vulnerable to failure.

The family court system is not designed to make parenting decisions and most people would agree that a judge should not do so. Yet when parents divorce and cannot agree on a parenting issue they often seek support from the court. One parent might file a motion asking the judge to change the parenting plan, for example, seeking the ten year old boy’s return to that parent’s home on Sunday at 5:00 p.m. instead of Sunday 8:00 p.m. To a judge, magistrate or referee, this may seem like a miniscule difference and not worthy of judicial intervention. The court personnel, overworked and underpaid, may subconsciously feel that the parents are being childish themselves. After all, in the scheme of things, three hours every other week won’t make a big difference in a child’s life.

And yet, there may be numerous reasons that justify the change. Perhaps the child has difficulty unwinding at the end of a busy weekend. Perhaps the child sleeps better in his own bed. Perhaps the child doesn’t get his homework done during the weekend and needs more time on Sunday night to complete it. Perhaps the child is uncomfortable at his other parent’s home and often returns over stimulated or moderately depressed. Whatever the reason the parent files the motion, it is usually about parenting. It is about providing the child with whatever that parent believes the child needs.

The other parent resists because he or she either disagrees with the parenting choices of the ex-spouse, or because he believes he is providing the child with what is needed. Regardless, it is a parenting choice about process; the end-goal being to raise a child to adulthood.

It is extremely difficult to distill all the reasons for a proposed change and then express it in a way that court personnel can hear. Beyond the initial resistance a parent might meet from the overworked public servant, that person has neither the time nor the desire to delve into the nuances of parenting. The process of Sunday night parenting and the specific needs of each unique child, are too much for court personnel to digest in the few minutes they meet with you. Nor do they really want to be in the role of judging which parenting decision is better.

The family court system is designed to reach outcomes; specifically, how much time a child will spend with each parent. Some parenting matters are taken into account, but they are viewed with broad strokes. Is a parent physically abusive? Then that parent has less time. But if a parent thinks it is okay for a ten year old boy to be with him until 8:00 on Sunday night, that is a decision about the parenting processes that the court is unable or unwilling to make.

The court system may farm out these issues to mediators and parent coordinators, but even they resist immersing themselves into the details of parenting. What then, is a divorced parent to do? There are options, but most involve re-evaluating your own parenting process and not relying on the court system to support your parenting choice.

Resisting the Urge to Explain

We all want our family to understand us. We assume they love us and want to know who we are – our inner selves. But one of the most difficult realities to accept is that we have family members who simply do not care.
Recently, a young man received a gift from his mother. The gift was also from his stepfather and he was urged to offer thanks directly. But the older man could not – or would not – accept the gesture. Instead, he made a “joke” that he surly knew was offensive. After all, he’d been the boy’s stepfather for twelve years.

The young man, sensitive and idealistic, could not let the troublesome remark go. Later he pulled his stepfather aside and explained why the joke was offensive. He expected an apology, having been taught that acknowledging mistakes was necessary for healthy relationships. It should have been a simple thing.

He should have known it was not. He should have known that the older man would not accept any blame for any wrongdoing. That he would explode, scream and yell and reverse things to cast the blame on the boy. The stepson was clearly at fault. Not only for causing his stepfather’s explosion, but for being ungrateful and spoiled. But that was not the end of it. The boy’s mother and aunt blamed him too. Both called him out – accusing him of selfishly disturbing the family gathering. The boy was entirely at fault.

Had the mother known that this was the likely scenario that would play out when she sent her son to her husband? They had been married for twelve years. Surely she knew her husband was volatile? Surely, this was not his first outburst. More importantly, didn’t she know, after twenty years, that her son was sensitive and mild mannered? The answer could only be yes. And yet the mother set her son up – telling him to wake the proverbial sleeping bear – and then blaming him for the bear’s rage.

Why? There are many reasons, but for this article, the short answer is that mom (and aunt) knew that the young man would tolerate the blame and that they would escape the older man’s wrath if they sided with him. But the young man – what did he expect? He expected his family to care – despite all evidence to the contrary.

They’ve told him they love him ~ and love means caring. Our culture, books and movies, even his mother, describe love as being interested and concerned about another. It is only logical for the young man to assume his mother and stepfather, a man she repeatedly claimed to love him, are interested and concerned about his feelings. Accepting the reality that they are not, that they will willingly sacrifice him to preserve their own egos, is a difficult lesson to absorb. And yet, the truth is self-evident. They simply do not care about his feelings. This young man will have to accept that explaining himself to these people who profess to love him, will only cause him pain.

Parents Who Hate Their Children: The Truth No One Wants to Admit

I watched The Graduate with my children the other night. (We are working our way through classic films). It was painfully obvious to me that Mrs. Robinson despised her daughter Elaine.

She seduced the person her daughter had feelings for (in her daughter’s bedroom!) and then denied her daughter that very relationship she stole. Later in the movie we learn that Mrs. Robinson (a woman without a first name and therefore without an individual identity) was forced to leave college and marry after she became pregnant with Elaine. Elaine, now at college, has all the opportunities her mother lost. So mother, in her anger and hatred, took something from her daughter.

This is classic passive aggression. Sadly, I see it often. Parents deny their children things that are reasonable and easy to give, simply because they can. Of course there are seemingly legitimate excuses, but the real motivation is control; and worse, to squash their child’s spirit. One young man I knew wanted his bar mitzvah party at a particular restaurant. It was not expensive and he was confident his dad would agree (his parents were divorced). In fact, I overheard him assure his brother that their dad would not host the party at an ethnic restaurant that the father liked because, the boy said confidently, “Dad knows I don’t like that place.” The party was, of course, at the ethnic restaurant.

Why do parents make choices like this? Mrs. Robinson hated Elaine for what her daughter took from her (the opportunity to finish college) and for the opportunities Elaine had (to graduate college and to marry a man she liked, Ben). Elaine also represented the accumulated years of disappointment that characterized Mrs. Robinson’s married life. Some parents hate their children because they are the embodiment of everything the parent is unhappy about with his or her life. Some parents hate their children for who they are not – the fulfillment of all the dreams that child represented when he or she was just a baby. And some parents hate their children for who they are – more capable, more charismatic, smarter, or simply different.

When pushed by Ben, Mrs. Robinson admitted that she didn’t want Ben to date Elaine because Ben wasn’t good enough for her daughter, and that is partly true. She sullied Ben and if Ben and Elaine were to hook up, his presence in her daughter’s life would be a constant reminder of her own despicable behavior. His presence would further reflect her self-hatred and she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from directing that hatred at Elaine and Ben.

Children can be a parent’s lightening rod – absorbing all the parent’s anger and self-hatred. Whatever love the parent feels for her child is marred by the negativity as well as the guilt associated with such socially-unacceptable feelings. The “I love you” is accompanied by a sharp blade that no one is willing to admit exists and the children, who sense that something isn’t quite right, don’t begin to understand until they break away.
Elaine’s escape on the bus with Ben is only the beginning of her journey to understanding. She will either endure years of analysis (professional or not) to make sense of her relationship with her mother. Or she’ll repeat the same mistake her mother made, and marry Ben for all the wrong reasons.

The Joy Cannot Be Manufactered

The Joy Cannot Be Manufactured

 

When parents divorce, issues of custody and parenting time must be resolved. Most courts base their decisions on a “best interests of the child” standard. It is generally believed that it is in the best interests of the children for divorced parents to co-parent. They should make decisions regarding the children together. Even though they are no longer living together, they should still parent in the same way they parented their children when they were still married. But that idealizes that intact family.

Even parents in the most functional families don’t make daily parenting decisions together. Certainly the stay-at-home mom or dad is more likely to decide which extracurricular activity the  children participate in. The other parent doesn’t usually get involved unless there are major health, social or scheduling concerns. Married parents may disagree about major issues too, such as how a child handles being bullied. And even the most functional families often have to juggle time spent with both sides of the extended family.

Birthday parties are a great example. Extended families do not always celebrate children’s birthdays together. Schedules are complicated. Grandparents, aunts and uncles don’t always live nearby. Perhaps there are personality conflicts. Maybe her mother doesn’t like his mother or sisters-in-law don’t get along. The reality is that children in intact families might have more than one birthday party. One with their friends and perhaps one with each side of the extended family.

Being intact doesn’t always mean everyone gets together and gets along for every celebratory event. So why do court personnel expect this when a couple divorces? It is because they have an idealized notion of how an intact family interacts, and how the divorced couple should interact. The word “should” can be very dangerous in a divorce, especially if the divorce is high-conflict. It is a word that denies reality.

In high-conflict divorces, the reality is that the parents do not get along. They fight and the conflict is ongoing. That is, it may continue for years. This feud impacts the extended family as well, since parents and siblings take sides to support their blood-relative. No one gets along so why should the objective be that they all celebrate a child’s birthday together? Even if they are polite to one another, the undertones of hostility reverberate and the children notice. Studies show that even infants are sensitive to the moods of their caretakers. The radar of toddlers and teens is even stronger.

The goal of having parents in high-conflict divorces co-parent and celebrate their child’s birthday together, is misguided. There will be no genuine happiness and the children will know. They will feel uncomfortable at best; confused, ashamed, angry or depressed at worst. And encouraging hostile adults to celebrate together risks generating even more hostility, because the more opportunities angry parents have to interact, the more opportunities they have to generate conflict.

It is not in the best interests of a child to force his angry parents to plan a party or to celebrate together, even if those parents are polite and non-confrontational at the time. If they don’t want to be together, the joy cannot be manufactured. And even if they were still married, there is no guarantee everyone would have been celebrating together anyway.

It is better for a child to experience genuine happiness separately with mom and dad, than to force him to endure the undercurrents of hostility. And what child would say “no” to two parties anyway?

 

You should never say “should”

We each have a sense of right and wrong. We have a moral code that is similar to those of others in our culture and society, developed from childhood and shaped by our parents, our religious beliefs, and our experiences. When marrying, many of us chose partners who share our moral code. Or who profess to.
Sadly, some people discover that their chosen partner lives by a code very different from what they had claimed. He may have claimed that having a close family is important to him, but then fail to come home for dinner every night. She may assert that her children mean everything to her, but then spend hours every day on the computer while her children sit in front of the t.v.

Conflict will always arise if you continue believing that you share a moral code with an ex-spouse. If you do not accept the reality that your ex-partner’s values are not the same as yours, your denial will cause you tremendous stress.

Most people, for example, believe that their children’s father or mother should pay child support. It is both a legal and moral obligation. Yet your ex does not. You become angry and frustrated when he stands in court and demands more time with the children he claims to love. You believe if he loves them then he “should” pay. And no one disagrees with you. Not your family. Not your friends. Not even the law. And yet he always finds ways not to pay. No matter what legal maneuver you and your attorney try, your ex always manages to escape his obligations and still look “good” ~ like he’s a caring parent.

In reality, he does not care. By accepting that, the stress you feel because you believe he “should” pay, lessens. A parent who really love his children will pay. A parent who does not, won’t. That he refuses to pay reveals his true values. Accepting this will reduce your stress and anxiety.

This does not mean giving up. By all means, continue pursuing that delinquent parent for unpaid child support. But by starting from the premise that “he won’t pay” rather than “he should pay” you approach your situation as a business negotiation rather than as a moral quest. And without those emotional underpinnings coloring your approach, you may be more successful. You may even get him to pay something. But if not, you haven’t lost anything, other than a whole lot of stress.

The Narcissist: The Leading Actor in His Life and Yours

When describing a narcissist, most people think of that person’s enhanced sense of self. They describe an arrogant, conceited, braggart; a person who believes he is better than everyone else and lets the world know it. But not all narcissists are so overt. The defining characteristic of a narcissist is that he believes he is the only person of worth. Your sole value is in serving him. He is the Leading Actor and you are the Supporting Actor in the “movie” that is his life. And to manipulate you into willingly assuming that role, the narcissist understands he cannot always act “larger than life.” He must be craftier.

How does the narcissist convince you to relinquish your role as “Leading Actor” in your own life and be the “Sidekick” in his? One way is to exploit your compassion. The narcissist understands that most people believe in fairness. If the narcissist is a victim of unfairness, you are likely to come to his aid. You will help fight his battle, or perhaps fight it for him. One woman I know was always a “victim of sexism.” She was the only female engineer at the chemical company where she worked, and she would confide in her new daughter-in-law about how sexist her male bosses were and how poorly they treated her. The young woman was overjoyed that her mother-in-law confided in her. She was naturally sympathetic to the older woman’s plight and they bonded over the narrow-mindedness of men in the workplace. This young woman gave up hours of her time listening to her mother-in-law, offering support and advice, and even at times, helping her draft letters of protest. She once missed an entire day of work waiting at her mother-in-law’s house for a delivery, agreeing it was “fairer” for her to miss a day at her own job because her mother-in-law’s employers were “crueler” than hers. By being compassionate to her narcissist mother-in-law’s “plight,” the daughter-in-law subordinated her own needs for her mother-in-law’s.

Another way the narcissist snares you is by playing “dumb.” The narcissist will purposely do something he knows will anger you, but cover it up by acting as if he simply didn’t understand. Suppose, for example, you are divorced and have a court order requiring your ex-husband to provide you with an itinerary when he takes the children on vacation. Your narcissist ex-husband arrives at the door having “forgotten,” or “not understanding,” what he was supposed to do. “Sorry,” he says and looks bashful so that you feel silly demanding that he follow the rules. Or perhaps he gives you only partial information. Maybe the flight number or the name of the hotel is missing. Should you complain, he derides you. He might say that you have his cell phone number (even though he never answers your call) or that you could “look it up yourself.” He will not be angry, but will act as if he simply “made a mistake” and you are being intolerant. “That’s what’s wrong with you,” he might say. “You always have to be perfect.”

Even more calculating is the narcissist who asks you to explain. You willingly help him understand you, hoping he will become more considerate. But that is not his true motive. Instead, he is looking for a vulnerable place to attack. I know one man who tried scheduling a family event with his brother. This man had children involved in multiple activities, whereas the brother was single. Before they spoke, the man and his wife went through the family calendar to identify possible dates. When he presented the dates to his brother, the brother tentatively agreed to one despite its “inconvenience,” and then began asking about the unavailable dates. “Why won’t this one work?” and “Why won’t that one work?” he demanded. The man painstakingly explained each scheduling conflict as the brother’s questions became more focused and hostile. Eventually, the brother accused the man of “thinking only of himself,” repeating a lifelong grudge and reinforcing his view of the world that he was the “good brother” and the man was the “selfish brother.”

Whatever tactic the narcissist chooses, the goal is to keep you in servitude. You are constantly trying to prove that you are not selfish, not intolerant, or that you are helpful and supportive. You give up your time, perhaps your children’s soccer game, or even your concern about where your children might be traveling, to make your point, believing that you are building a relationship. But in reality you are being manipulated into once again into acting as the expendable side-kick in the movie staring the Narcissist.

The Chosen Child

A father is abusive to his child. The mother wants to restrict his parenting time. Her attorney asks if the father is abusive to his other son and the mother says he is not. Then, the attorney says, the mother is not likely to win her case because the judge would not accept that the father is abusive to only one son.
Neither the attorney nor the judge understand Narcissistic Personality Disorder. They do not understand that a narcissistic parent often “chooses” one child. That chosen child, the narcissistic parent believes, “is just like me.” The other children, seen as different from the narcissistic parent, are not special and therefore may be saved from abuse.

Why might the “chosen” child be abused? A narcissist parent identifies with this child. He sees in his son everything he believes himself to be. To him, his young son reflects the public persona that the narcissist believes is his true self. The narcissist then expects this chosen child to behave as the narcissist believes he would behave. The narcissist parent expects his chosen child to do his bidding, the same as he expects his arm to move when he commands it. But the child is an independent person and he may or may not do what his parent expects. This refusal to comply can enrage a narcissist parent who may then physically or emotionally abuse that child. The narcissist parent both adores and despises his chosen child. He adores the fantasy and despises the reality. Their relationship is a cycle of “I love you” and “I hate you.”

This child will grow up doubting himself and his ability to process the world around him. As a young child, he witnesses the public, friends and neighbors, responding to his narcissistic parent‘s charm; accepting his “public” persona as real. But behind closed doors this child is exposed to his narcissist parent’s rage and ridicule. How can this young child understand that his parent has two personalities? If other people think his parent is nice, then he too should believe his parent is nice, and therefore his fear or anger must be wrong.

As this confused young child grows into adolescence, where it is developmentally appropriate for him to begin questioning his parents, the narcissistic parent’s anger grows even stronger. While having been raised not to believe in himself, this adolescent child fights hard to find his own identity. He struggles to separate from the parent who sees him as “just like me.” The “I love you ~ I hate you” cycle becomes weighted towards the anger and hate as the narcissist parents fights to remain in control of both the child and the fantasy. It is then that the chosen child is most at risk for abuse, while the other children, disregarded, remain safe.

The Value of Being Two-Faced

The Urban Dictionary defines “two faced” as a person who acts a certain way in one place but then acts differently in another. Or when someone is nice to you in person but talks trash behind your back. As children we are taught to be genuine and sincere. It makes sense that you cannot have meaningful relationships if you are dishonest about who you are and what you feel. When looking for friends or potential mates, we look for a person who understands or shares our innermost feelings. We look for a connection.

When you divorce, it is highly likely that connection has been broken. Or perhaps it was never there. Some people pretend to be who they are not. They pretend to share your values and feelings when you are dating and marrying, but later, after you’ve been married for a while, they cannot sustain the charade. You begin to see your partner for who he or she really is.

Why do people pretend to be someone they are not? There are many reasons. Perhaps they are insecure and fear they’ll never marry unless they pretend to be someone else. Perhaps they don’t really know who they are. Perhaps they don’t even know they are doing it!

Whatever the reason, when you married that person you thought you shared something with him or her. You accepted the version of themselves they presented to you. You bought into their persona. When you divorce, you divorce the real person. Often, you are angry and want the world to understand that you’ve been duped. You want validation of your truth. But if you and your ex-spouse have children together, you will need to have an ongoing relationship with him or her. At some point you and your ex-spouse will need to resolve issues together. The problem is that if you try communicating with the real person, you have less chance of success. Your anger or your need for validation will seep through your emails and your tone of voice. This will cause your ex-spouse to react angrily because he does not want your truth to be thrown in his face. Like you, your ex-spouse wants validation of his truth. He wants you to continue believing he is the person you married.

If then, you pretend to accept the persona your ex-spouse presents, he is more likely to respond positively. If you act as if you accept his façade, as you did when you dated, he may revert back to that charming persona. It is more comfortable for him to pretend he is still charming rather than have to face your anger and insistence that he is really an ugly person.

There is value in being two-faced. There is value in pretending to be nice to your ex-spouse when you have issues to discuss, even if you despise him. You will have a better chance of success if you act as if you accept the lies he believes about himself. Pretend to discuss the issues with the person you dated, even if in your heart you know are negotiating with the person you divorced.