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My husband and I are in the process of a divorce. I’ve spent the past nine years looking past the abusive behavior he displayed toward me, and, on rare occasions, our four children. The abuse was mostly verbal and mental, but there were several times where it turned physical, yet still I turned a blind eye toward it and convinced myself that he would change, or that I was strong enough to handle it. His rages left me broken and terrified of the future. I braced myself for the pain that would come from becoming a single mom, but surprisingly I only felt relief. I felt a huge burden lifted and to my surprise, I’ve begun to thrive! The Lord has given me numerous blessings in ways that I didn’t realize I needed or deserved.
While I’m doing better, my children have suffered so much. After all, this was their father. Lately, my two oldest have been asking questions like, “Why can’t you and Dad get back together?” or “Can you and Dad just talk to each other and have Dad move back in with us?” Our marriage is over, and I have no desire to go back to that toxic environment. I know that my kids need a father, and I never want to bad mouth him in front of them or tarnish their relationship or opinion of him in any way. I don’t want to tell them their dad was abusive, although they witnessed it many times. That’s a heavy burden for young kids to bear. My question is how do I talk to my kids about this situation in a healthy way that won’t leave scars or poor opinions of their father?
It’s terrifying to live with someone who is verbally and physically abusive, especially when children are involved. I’m relieved to hear that you have taken measures to protect you and your children. It’s often hard to see clearly when you’re in the middle of the abusive cycle. As you know, these patterns of abuse followed by periods of remorse and promises can extend out for years.
Your children have been abused both directly and indirectly. Has your husband’s abusive behavior toward his children been reported to the police? Is he even safe to be around your children? Are they scared to be with him? He might be their biological father, but he should lose his right to be with them unsupervised (or at all, for that matter) if he abuses them. Please make sure you do everything you can to make sure there is appropriate accountability for his actions toward the children. Even abusing you in front of the children is grounds to have his privileges modified or removed.
You are worried about negatively impacting your children’s opinions about their father. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as worried about what his children think of him. His behavior reminds me of the lamentation delivered by the prophet Jacob when he said, “Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them.”[i] Your ex-husband’s example has already broken hearts. You can’t protect them from that reality.
If he has legal consequences or limitations in how he’s able to visit with the children, let them know why. They can understand the simple truth that when you hit other people, you have to go to time out. Don’t tell them their father loves them or doesn’t love them. Instead, help them know that what happened to you and to them wasn’t okay and that’s why you left. They know what they saw and felt. Ignoring it or minimizing it will only confuse them. Again, you can’t protect them from what they’ve already seen and experienced.
Your children are already carrying the heavy burden of living with an abusive father. Naming it as abuse and letting them know that this kind of behavior has consequences restores the social order they need to function in a family and in society. If their dad wants to elevate their opinion of him, then he can do that through accountability, remorse, and changing his treatment of his family members. Your children need a father, but they don’t need an unaccountable abusive father.
Your children are asking difficult questions. They are innocent and are wiling to forgive so they don’t lose their father. They don’t fully understand how toxic abuse really is to bodies and spirits. You can weep with them as they struggle with the loss of their father. You can comfort them by staying with them in their pain and letting them know that you will always be there for them. Your presence and compassion is more powerful than you realize.
Their father always has a chance to repair the damage he’s created. He will have to pay a difficult price if he wants to fully heal the damage he’s caused his children. He may never be married to you again, but he will always be their father. He has a daily responsibility to decide what kind of father he wants to be.
Your job is to create a safe environment for you and your children so you can all heal from the effects of the abuse. Validate what your children have experienced and continue to immerse them in the joy of childhood. You’ve worked hard to get all of you to this point of safety and security.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Jacob 2:35