Q: I’ve been divorced for about five years and my young son visits his father every other weekend. I have been remarried for four years and I’m two months pregnant. My ex was abusive and is still very bitter, and he constantly bad-mouths me and my husband to our son. I am concerned about telling my ex and our son about the pregnancy because of the bad reaction my ex will have.
A: You would think divorced parents who bad-mouth each other know it’s wrong, but from working with parents who do it, we know many do not grasp how much damage it does to children. We have been told everything from “It’s no big deal, they will forget” to supposed justifications that children should understand what a miserable louse their father (or mother) really is.
But children don’t forget when their parents bad-mouth each other, and having the sense that your parent is a louse rarely helps a child grow up secure and at peace. Some children think they have to protect the victim of the bad-mouthing and stop wanting to interact with the parent who bad-mouths. Others become alienated just as the bad-mouthing parent had hoped.
Either way, it’s very difficult to overcome the damage. Unless the other parent is severely mentally ill, abusive or active in addiction, a child is rarely better off without him or her.
As for your predicament, we suggest you tell your son about the pregnancy first, but also talk to his father before your son goes for another visit. Explain to Dad that although you’ve had your differences over the years, “our son is greatly affected whenever one of us says something bad about the other in front of him, so for his sake I ask you to consider your words. If you can’t be supportive, please don’t say anything.”
Alienating parents will not stop until they truly understand what they are doing. A great book on this subject is “Divorce Poison,” by Dr. Richard Warshak. Excerpts can be found on the Bonus Families Web site, www.bonusfamilies.com.
Jann Blackstone-Ford, Ph.D., and her husband’s ex-wife, Sharyl Jupe, authors of “Exetiquette for Parents,” are the founders of Bonus Families (www.bonusfamilies.com).