By Esther Mann, LCSW
About five years ago, my husband, Ron, came home and told me he wanted a divorce. I was completely shocked and devastated. I can’t honestly say that we had a good marriage. We didn’t; we fought and treated each other badly. But still, with three young children, I really didn’t imagine that this was something he would do. I tried finding people who could attempt talking some sense into him, but his mind was made up and he wouldn’t listen to anyone. I was a frightened and broken woman. It took me a while to get out of bed and kind of get on with my life.
Less than a year later, Ron married someone he had known previously. Take from that what you want. The point is that Ron is happily married and I am still single. This doesn’t help my level of anger and hatred toward him at all. I have terrible thoughts about him and hope to never see him again. Of course, that’s not really possible, since we don’t live far from each other and, more significantly, we have three children together. Which brings me to my question.
Our children are now 10, 12, and 15. Ron and I have shared custody and we’ve both been very involved in raising our children. I guess the only good news here is that our children are doing well and they are close to each of us. But here’s the catch. It seems as though our children would like to see us get along. They know how much I hate their father, and though I try not to bad-mouth him, inevitably something negative slips out from me when they mention him. I just can’t help it. My anger toward him today is every bit as strong as it was the day he told me he wanted a divorce. I refuse to forgive him and allow him to believe that what he did to me was acceptable. It wasn’t, and it never will be.
It seems to me that our kids are living in some kind of la-la land. For instance, they are all away at sleepaway camp for the summer. In the past, we’ve split up visiting day, so that Ron and I each made our plans to spend half the visiting day with our children, and didn’t even arrive at camp until it was our “designated time.” The past few months, our children have been begging me to let them have a “normal” visiting day, asking that the six of us—Ron, his wife, me, and the three children—spend the day together. They all seem to think this would be a perfectly fine idea and told me that their father would be happy to spend visiting day that way. Are they all crazy or am I the crazy one? This is never going to happen!
Over the past few years, there have been holidays when my children asked if it would be OK for me to join Ron and his wife at their house, or vice versa, so that we could all be together for Thanksgiving, Purim, and other holidays. Again, I thought everyone had lost their minds. There is no way that I’m going to be sitting at a table together with Ron and his wife.
Two years ago, Ron lost his mother. I actually liked his mother, but there was no way I was going to pay a shivah call to Ron and his family. My children were surprised and disappointed in me for not doing the “right thing.”
It’s becoming very clear to me that my children are not going to give up their fantasy of seeing Ron and me together, in certain circumstances, getting along, somehow, some way. How can I ever do what they want of me if my feelings toward Ron are so ugly? I’m not much of an actress and can’t pretend that he isn’t the cause of all of my misery. He’s destroyed my life. I would want to never see him again, if that were possible.
My question to you is: Are my children being unreasonable, asking so much of me? Or am I being unreasonable by always saying no to every request that involves Ron?
So much of your experience is commonplace and understandable. You feel like the scorned wife, and as a result you are filled with an enormous amount of hatred toward your ex-husband. You have no desire to ever forgive or forget. Your emotional reaction to what Ron did to you is typical. What is not necessarily typical, however, is how you are holding on to those reactions, feeling justified in living out your life as the scorned woman who is broken and can never be happy or whole again. So who are you really punishing by feeding these feelings? Ron—or yourself? More about this dilemma later.
But first some reactions to your children’s “fantasy.” It’s typical for children of divorced parents to fantasize about their parents getting back together. There is nothing logical about these thoughts. Even when one or both parents remarry and are clearly living happy lives, it’s still hard for children to stop harboring thoughts, consciously or subconsciously, of how wonderful it would be for both their parents to join together once again and create a harmonious, happy family structure.
It’s often quite far-fetched, especially when the children never even experienced such a thing between their parents while they were married. They may have grown up in a war zone, with parents battling one another nonstop. And yet quite often the fantasy remains, sometimes even through adulthood. It’s not logical, it makes no sense, but clearly there is a primal desire that children have to belong to an intact family.
Furthermore, one of the most important rules for parents who are getting divorced is that despite whatever went on, they should never talk negatively about their soon-to-be or actual ex. This person, despite what he/she did, is still the parent of their children, and these children need to view him/her in the best light possible, for their own mental well-being.
It seems like besides what might be magical thinking on the part of your children, they would like to see you finally move on from your intense hatred toward their father, because they are having a very hard time with it and, in their own way, are urging you to heal. Obviously, you don’t seem willing or able to do this for your children, but the question is whether you can do this for yourself.
While you carry around all of this anger and hatred toward Ron, Ron is going about his life, most likely doing just fine, while you are left holding the bag of negativity. Trust me—it hasn’t been hurting him much. You, on the other hand, are the one experiencing all the pain and suffering. And quite possibly, it is keeping you stuck in a terrible place and not allowing you to truly pull your life together. As long as you are filled with hatred, you will never be healthy enough to meet someone new and find your own happiness. Even if you aren’t interested in remarrying, you’ll never experience true happiness as long as you choose to continue to stew in all those feelings of self-pity, rage, and vengeance.
My suggestion is to find a good therapist and work through all of these emotions that you should have worked through years ago, when Ron left you high and dry. Don’t do it for your children, and certainly don’t do it for Ron—do it for yourself. By freeing yourself up once and for all and, yes, even forgiving (though that doesn’t mean you have to forget), you will allow happiness back into your life. And as a result, those who love you most will share in your happiness.
G‑d willing, when you get to your “happy place,” you’ll then decide whether you can actually sit around a table with Ron and still be able to breathe. And perhaps there will be other opportunities during which you can actually enjoy your children, even if Ron is present. You have time to figure this out. For now, you need to heal.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.