One single mom said:
“He badmouths me to the kids. I just can’t take it anymore!”
When we set out on this single mom path, I would bet the vast majority of us do so with all intentions of being respectful of our ex for our children’s sake. Maybe we make a promise to ourselves not to disparage him. Maybe we decide that we aren’t going to let the things he does make us retaliate. Maybe we plan from day one to take the high road.
But we soon find that the high road can be a lonely place.
No matter how we plan to handle things, we can’t predict or control how our ex will handle his side. But there’s nothing quite as sinister as an ex who tries to undermine a mother’s relationship with her children by badmouthing her to them. In fact, some forms of this (such as making threats against you, or a malicious attempt to brainwash) is considered child abuse by the court system. It’s that serious.
In my experience, however, the courts cast a wide net on what is acceptable here, leaving us tangled up in the edges and grasping at ways to contradict the manipulation without making matters worse.
But remember, sweet friends, we aren’t in this battle alone.
When this situation reared its ugly head in the midst of my even uglier divorce, I panicked at the thought of my ex being able to ruin the single thing that was keeping me going—my relationship with my children. I was already in court monthly, fighting against the harassment that wouldn’t end. As if that wasn’t exhausting enough, I began to understand that the small amount of time he was spending with our children was focused on tracking what I was doing, lying about my actions to gain their sympathy, and making efforts to destroy their view of me and my relationship with them in any way that he could.
Nearly four years into this, with three-and-a-half of those years spent in court, I need you to hear this:
You have to stand up for yourself. No one else on this earth is going to.
Not the courts. Not your lawyer. Not your family. Not your friends. But the battle isn’t wholly yours. God is ever-present in it.
“But their insults cannot hurt me because the Sovereign Lord gives me help. I brace myself to endure them. I know that I will not be disgraced.” Isaiah 50:7
That’s a huge advantage, isn’t it? We may not be privy to everything that our ex is doing in the presence of our children, but God is. We may not know how what he says is affecting them, but God does. We may not hear the lies he tells in order to persuade them toward himself, but God will.
He is there.
While we are working on our side of things, God is working on His side of things. He can and will impart clarity and wisdom to our children. He can and will protect their hearts. He can and will be there with them every moment that we aren’t.
But, what can we do on our side that works?
Stop the Tit for Tat
If you have fallen into a pattern of coming at your ex with fists raised, you have to stop it immediately. A man who will work to turn your children against you loves nothing more than watching you crumble to his level because of it. When we fight tit-for-tat, and disparage him as well, we are showing our children that we aren’t who they thought we were. And worse yet, that they have no one they can turn to and trust in this new version of their family. They will feel abandoned in it. And both parents will risk losing a relationship with them down the road.
You not only have every right to defend yourself against what your ex is saying, you should. For me, I made it clear to my ex from the very beginning that I would not disparage him to the children in any way. However, if he put me in a position to defend myself, I would explain to them whatever I needed to about him (including things he would never want them to know about why our marriage fell apart) in order to defend myself. I tried to take the high road. But, when he got down and dirty and made the choice to manipulate my children against me, I nipped it in the bud every single time. Unfortunately, that required me telling them things I would rather they didn’t know. But, that was his choice. I won’t sacrifice my relationship with my children to spare my ex embarrassment. Neither should you.
Live a Godly Life
Continue to teach your kids about living an honest and godly life and show them what that looks like by your words and actions. You don’t allow lying. You don’t talk about other people. You don’t manipulate others to get your way. Simply teaching them how to walk with God teaches them how to behave as upstanding men and women in society. Kids know right from wrong. When this is reinforced through what they learn about their faith, they will begin to question things around them and weigh them as right or wrong. When they see you being disrespected, they will know that it’s wrong and will be more likely to realize that it’s not true.
Allow them a Voice
Have the uncomfortable conversations. Tell them you know you are being talked about, it’s not true, and that you expect them to look at the situation beyond what is being said and find the truth. Teach them to ask God to reveal the truth and help them to understand. Tell them your life is an open book and they are welcome to question you about anything they see or hear that they don’t understand. Teach them to trust their gut. It’s unfortunate that they will learn these skills at a much younger age than most people. But, you don’t have control over that. It’s your job to prepare them. And it will serve them well for years to come.
Don’t Expect them to Stand Up for You
This is not their battle to fight. Make that clear to them. Set them free from the guilt by telling them that you don’t expect them to fight for you, that you and God have this covered. Help them to manage the uncomfortable situations with phrases they can use to try to stop or divert any conversation about you, such as “I don’t want to talk about that” or “that’s between you and mom.” Make sure they know that they have every right to stand up to you or your ex whenever they think either of you is crossing the line in talking about the other parent. That they have rights to protect their hearts, and this is one of them.
The battle of divorce is a long and hard one for many moms. But, we are not victims now even if we were at some point in the marriage. We have moved past toxic situations in order to build a better future. Laying the ground work is the beginning. Defending our territory in a way that includes and honors God is the next step.