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A little over five years ago, I found out that my husband was having an affair with our neighbor. She was relentless in her pursuits and my children (ages 12-17 at the time) were used to facilitate meetings since our three kids are the same ages as her three. Fast forward to today where two divorces are final and the two offenders maintain separate households on paper, but are living together when both sets of children are with the other parent.
Two of my boys (now 17 and 19) have no contact with their dad because they no longer feel comfortable around him and they want nothing to do with our former neighbor and her kids. And as things have progressed, my former husband is in the process of converting to her religion. How do I explain to my boys, who are preparing for missions, that people change, that the values their father taught them growing up are no longer part of his beliefs?
Our households are only 3 miles apart. We shop at the same stores, unplanned meetings seem to be plentiful, and with our kids all being the same ages, my boys hear about all the trips and outings her kids get to experience with their “new dad”. This is a hard one because for the last two years my former husband has made the choice to parent by text. So, when he does decide to attempt contact, we all struggle to maintain balance.
Even though your former husband is building a new life apart from your children, you are not powerless to help them see “things as they really are.”[i] I’m sure you’ve worked hard to protect them from the details of his decisions that have wounded you and the family, but it’s impossible to hide the truth from them, especially when your ex-husband’s path veers away from the direction your children are headed. Let’s talk about what you can do to help everyone stay centered.
Your children already see what’s happening. This is why they’re not spending time with their father anymore. Yes, both your ex-husband and the neighbor used your children to facilitate their affair, but your children aren’t allowing that anymore. There is a steep price to pay for manipulating and using them in these ways.
Now that your children are entering adulthood, you don’t have to worry as much about how their father’s new value system clashes with what he taught them in their youth. Continue to hold strong to the values you hold dear and trust that your children will feel the difference between light and dark. His choices are wrapped up in secrecy and deception, which doesn’t feel right to your sons. You don’t need to go on the offensive explaining what you’re choosing. If they have questions about the discrepancies in values, then emphasize the role of choice and agency. They have the same agency as your ex-husband and they have to choose for themselves what feels true. You can be a great support to them as they work to tell the difference between truth and error.
Your former husband may never be honest with himself or his family about how his choices have affected everyone. If this is the case, your children can still be honest with themselves about how they feel and identify what they need. They will need your permission and support to learn what feels true and right for them in their relationships with him. As children, they will have a different type of attachment to him than you will, stay close to them so they can sort through the roller coaster of emotions as they cope with these conflicted loyalties.
When they’re struggling with the comparisons of the life he’s creating with her children, show your children sincere compassion. You don’t need to tear the other family down to make your children feel better. Your children need your emotional support, as this will be a painful experience to see their father investing in other children. Do everything you can to understand while working to create lots of meaningful connections with your children. This isn’t a competition, but rather, a reminder that your children will need your extra care around this painful reality.
When he inserts himself into your lives and throws everyone off balance, give yourselves permission to have limits with him so you can get your bearings. For example, he may suddenly show up unannounced and want to do something with the children. It’s okay to encourage your children to take their time to decide where they want to spend their time and energy. They may want to carry forward with their schedule, even if it hurts his feelings. Or, they may give him a chance to spend time with them. They will maintain better balance in their lives if they give themselves permission to decide where to give their attention. You can help them slow down and sort out what they’re feeling.
As you provide a loving home full of connection and goodness, your children will have a safe harbor to help prepare them to launch into the world. Your ex-husband’s choices and new life are a painful reality that will co-exist with your reality for years to come. However, as your children begin to set up their own lives and families, you can give them a place where they can be seen, heard, understood, and guided. They will need this and you’re perfectly positioned to provide it to them. Sadly, your former husband appears to have nothing for them and this reality will become more apparent as time marches forward.
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.geoffsteurer.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 4:13