Up until now I’ve tackled general interest subjects. Moving forward, it’s time to get a little more personal. This blog is an outlet for voicing my thoughts on parenting, sure, but the big idea is to connect with others by bringing to light issues that would normally be avoided or sugar-coated…the sneaky little doings that happen behind the holiday wreath-decorated front doors of many homes in suburbia. I don’t see the point of maintaining a blog so I can gloss over controversial or potentially embarrassing subjects. I’m giving you a peek into my life in hopes that you can relate or at least get a chuckle at my expense. It’s also gratifying (in a weird way) to imagine lots of you thanking the stars above that you’re not me. I’m glad to help you feel better about your own situation, if that’s the response my experiences elicit. It’s equally gratifying if I’ve brought up some emotion inside of you – even if it’s anger or outrage.
So for that reason I’ve decided to start talking about my adventures as a step-parent and the presence of a bitter ex in my life (gender neutral – you can guess!).
Step One – Verbalizing a Position
I’ve added a new link to my blogroll – http://www.thepsychoexwife.com (I couldn’t find a psycho ex-husband site so let me know if you know of one). This site was on the news recently when it was forced to shut down due to a court order stemming from the objections of the original subject – an unnamed psycho ex-wife. First, I commend the authors for their bravery. To write about such personal and painful experiences is not easy (as I’m about to discover). Now that the site is locked down and password protected due to this judge’s erroneous order (hello, can you say free speech violation??), the authors are looking for support during the very expensive appeals process (visit http://www.savethepsychoexwife.com to learn how you can help). It is so easy to give up in these situations, when the cards are stacked against you and there is no financial upside. The fact that these guys are continuing their fight – well, my hat’s off to ya! We have a constitutional right to communicate our feelings and experiences. No ifs, ands or buts. We just do. You may all exercise yours if you so choose. Feel free to post a comment here and I will publish it.
Anyway, you can probably do the math and assume that this subject has some meaning and connection for me considering I added this site to my blogroll.
Position officially verbalized. Step One Complete.
Step Two – Associating said Position with My Life
There is indeed a bitter ex roaming around the perimeter of my life. I would not go so far as to use a rote label like ‘psycho’ because it oversimplifies. Suffice it to say that my husband and I do not have the luxury of interacting with this ex’s ‘good side’. Human beings are complicated. When someone feels slighted, betrayed or threatened, the common response is to construct a defensive wall. In relationships this is usually realized through hurtful discourse and destructive behavior. It takes a very big and magnanimous person to overcome this pattern, because boy-oh-boy does it feel good to attack. It quenches the hurt (temporarily) and feeds that primal revenge instinct. Unfortunately, it also erodes the sanity, not to mention what it does to your insides. Vengeful, angry people emanate ugliness. Eventually that ugliness physically manifests itself. It penetrates a life and begins to seep into the foundation of core values, like a virus. Lying becomes OK (means to an end); manipulation is elevated to an art form (fueled by justification); cruelty is mischaracterized as protecting oneself (delusions of self-righteousness)…it’s a never-ending cycle. Bitter ex – if only you could see yourself through the eyes of someone that knows what you are and what you’ve become. It would stop you dead in your tracks.
Step Three – The Fallout and Victims
Unfortunately when kids are involved, a bitter ex creates more than the basic financial and mental turmoil that is to be expected in these situations. The kids become a medium for revenge. Oftentimes the bitter ex is determined that the kids should love them best. Any small gains in this ongoing tug-of-war are trumpeted through the constant battle cry of “you’re bad, I’m good”. When the kids are young, it’s not uncommon for the bitter ex to train them as little investigative reporters so that every minute of every day with the other parent is clearly logged and communicated in detail to the bitter ex at the end of the other parent’s custody period. The bitter ex then uses this information to solidify their position as “the better parent” and/or for content in an endless stream of hostile emails and text messages. Eventually the kids learn that in order to receive praise they should continue to report in – and the more salacious and denigrating to the other parent, the better.
Kids also learn to squelch – or even outright deny – their love and affection for the other parent and step-parent within earshot of the bitter ex. Worst of all, they learn that it is their job and responsibility to protect the fragile ego of the bitter ex. After all, the bitter ex does not hide the sadness or adult feelings associated with their bitterness – these are displayed regularly to the kids through such insidious actions as prayer, explanation (“Noooooo, you can’t go on vacation with them – I’d miss you too much”), and consensus (“Mrs. So-and-So told me that she will not allow Janie to go to play dates at [other parent’s] house – she just isn’t comfortable with the environment over there”). The child is at a disadvantage, without equal life experience to filter the bitter ex’s behavior. Therefore, the child gets a full, hearty helping of the bitter ex’s iniquity and accepts it as absolute truth. Confusion sets in when the kids do not see the reality of the bitter ex’s positions in the other parent’s house. Kids notice that moms and dads sit by the other parent and step-parent at games and school events; negativity about the bitter ex never enters the conversation at the other parent’s house (intentionally – and this is hard, maybe the hardest part). It feels, well, normal. This is tough to reconcile with what the bitter ex is preaching. Thus, the constant tug-of-war with the kids at the center, the division and inequality of loyalty and the need to act as a shield for the damaged bitter ex. That’s a big responsibility for a kid…but the bitter ex doesn’t care.
Step Four – The Nightmare of Duplicity (Borderline Personality Disorder)
In the best case scenario, the bitter ex’s emotions are on their sleeve and apparent to all in the social and physical environment that makes up the kids’ lives. There is open hostility and maybe even a verbal exchange or two in public. Sure there is pity and empathy for the bitter ex, but generally speaking most acknowledge that it’s time for the bitter ex to move on and that the behavior is without justification or merit. In the worst case scenario, the bitter ex has learned to hide those most raw of places in their damaged psyche (anger, vengeful spirit, bitterness, duplicitousness), instead choosing to adopt a victim facade (heavy-hearted, forgiving, easy on the drama!). This facade allows them to appear as though they have bravely and with great poise and equanimity accepted this turn of events. They regularly lean on the community for support and are mindful to weave key words and phrases into their carefully crafted rhetoric in order to enforce the fairy tale-esque concept of bitter ex=good, other parent=evil, while never actually saying so. Leading the audience to their own conclusion via these vignettes of wrongdoing is the ultimate goal.
All of this is going on under the noses of the other parent and the step-parent, because (at least in our case), the other parent isn’t engaged in the process because they’re not particularly interested in winning a popularity contest. Public opinion is of great import to the bitter ex, however, and negative, inflammatory (but subtle) PR is their main vehicle for swaying it in their favor. They empty their bitter tanks drop-by-drop, seeding messages that they hope will spread like weeds and validate their state-of-mind.
Step Five – The Cure / The Outcome
Studies show that contentious divorce/custody situations are terribly difficult on the children. When ex-spouses make an effort to get along, the kids benefit tremendously. Naturally any divorce is going to harm the kids – this is not in dispute – but the manner in which these parents choose to control their own behavior is of critical importance to the long-term psychological health of the kids. What the bitter ex doesn’t realize is that the short-term balm of their punitive little victories (which come in the form of the aforementioned public opinion swayed in their direction – albeit from kids, parents, teachers, coaches…the Starbucks Barista – it doesn’t matter as long as THEY LOOK GOOD) is covering up the long-term damage it’s doing to the kids. It is not cool to vilify one of your kids’ parents, for any reason. The underlying truth here is that the bitter ex picked this person, married this person and chose to have children with this person. Their responsibility, therefore, is to always treat this person with respect as the co-parent of their children. Respect entails having to suppress the urge to act on the knee-jerk impulsive urges for retribution. That is a core pillar of parenting. Hate them all you want, just never let the kids know. Bitter ex’s are weak, selfish and petty. They are detrimental to the emotional well-being of their kids. They need help. They need to act out in the privacy of their therapist’s offices, and not out in the environments where their kids live, work and play. Perhaps your behavior, bitter ex, might have something to do with why you ended up divorced in the first place. Give that some thought.
Much more on this subject coming up in future posts…