Cheryl and Steve are no longer dishing out new advice, but we're listening back to episodes we love every week. This episode was originally released October 14th, 2016.
Divorce is always a painful process, but it's especially so when there are children in the middle. This week, the Sugars discuss situations of parental alienation caused by divorce. They answer letters from a mother and a father whose daughters have cut off all communication with them after taking the other parent's side.
The Sugars discuss with Dr. Richard Warshak, psychologist and author of Divorce Poison and co-author of Welcome Back, Pluto: Understanding, Preventing and Overcoming Parental Alienation.
I’m a middle-aged father of one teenage girl. Within the last year, I ended my 20-year marriage after slowly coming to the realization that it was a codependent relationship. It had been an unhappy union for the last decade, and in the last few years, it had turned emotionally abusive. I knew it needed to end as far back as 10 years ago, but as so many do, I hung on.
I’d like to say I did it solely for the benefit of my daughter, who was young at the time, but if I’m being honest, I stayed because the price of leaving seemed too dear. When a serious health scare shook me to my core, I knew I could no longer go on. As you once pointed out in an earlier podcast, I had to save myself.
I ended my marriage, but in so doing, I paid a terrible price — worse than I’d imagined all those years ago. Sugars, it has been nearly half a year since I’ve heard from my teenage daughter. She’s angry and blames me entirely for the discord between her mother and me. She has that right. I resolved early on that it is wrong for a parent — either of us — to involve our child in the terrible game of he-said/she-said. I kept my side of the story to myself.
My daughter has blocked me from all communication since leaving her mother. Emails remain unanswered. I cannot call. She’s blocked me from her phone. I love my daughter dearly. I’m trying to give her the space she needs, but the silence kills me slowly, day by day.
Sugars, how do I recover from this? How do I move past the immense guilt I bear for staying longer than I should have in a marriage that turned so sour and vicious? How do I repair a relationship with the daughter who refuses to even talk to me? I played an equal part in a failed marriage, but I was a good and loving father, and yet, I’m left with nothing.
Cheryl Strayed: Wow, that is a sad, hard letter. Can you imagine your kids not speaking to you?
Steve Almond: I’m devastated when they won’t talk to me for 30 seconds! This is every parent’s nightmare.
Cheryl: Here’s another letter — a variation on that theme.
I’m a 55-year-old recently divorced mom of four wonderful children. I married way too young, making all the Freudian mistakes possible. I finally managed to get out from under the thumb of a strange and hate-filled man, for whom I could never measure up. The ex has filled our eldest child’s head with lies and revised history that would be funny if it weren’t being taken as gospel. She and I were formerly so close; now her only words to me are yelling that I’m a bully and a cheater and a liar.
I’ve done none of the things of which I’ve been accused. It’s just her father’s way of saving face. I adhere to Ma Ingalls’ philosophy, “Least said, soonest mended,” so I did not respond to the allegations as they were lobbed at me — just shook my head and said, “You know that’s not true.” How do I help her pull herself out of this hate hole so she can gracefully reenter my giant, loving extended family for whom she has extracted herself with great drama because they were “on my side”?
Missing My Child
Cheryl: In the first letter, Broken Dad says that his daughter’s a teenager. In the second letter, Missing My Child doesn’t say, but it sounds like a teenager to me. Both these families are at a time of great turmoil, and teenagers, as we know — I love them, they’re beautiful, they’re powerful, they’re creative and interesting — are going through so many hormonal changes. They’re volatile, even in families that are not coming apart. So I do wonder how much age plays a contributing factor.
Steve: I’m absolutely sure it does, but I’m equally sure that any kid who is existing in an ecosystem where one parent has left, he/she is suddenly — consciously and unconsciously — under a certain kind of pressure to decide who was right, who was wrong and why it happened. And the fundamental condition of childhood, whether you’re a teenage or younger, is helplessness. You are the charge of your parents, and as much as you want to feel you have power, you do not. You don’t have the power to keep your parents from separating, but you do have the power to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. And sometimes, there is one parent who is pushing for that to be a matter of conflict and for the other parent to be punished for leaving in the worst possible way — by taking the kids psychically.
Dr. Richard Warshak: I think your letter writers have both made the same, most common mistake that parents do in this situation: they’re hoping that time will heal the wound. They think that taking the high road means to say nothing about what they see going on, and when they see the child succumbing to one side of the story, they leave the child in that situation. Missing My Child quoted Ma Ingalls, “Least said, soonest mended,” but Ma Ingalls’ daughter Laura says, “Still best to be honest and truthful.” That’s the problem here — if children hear only one side of the story, then they’re left to cope on their own with the incomplete information that’s resulting in the destruction of such an important relationship. So rather than take a passive approach to try to maintain some harmony, I think it’s important that parents in this situation step up and find some way to communicate to their children, “I simply cannot accept being marginalized.” I suggest a more active approach in which you’re careful not to put down the other parent, but to find a way to communicate, “Look, there’s another side of the story.” You don’t have to tell your side of the story, but you do need to introduce the idea that there is another side to the story, and if you had all the facts, you would think differently.
Cheryl: It sounds like both of these kids are pretty volatile and angry. How might you specifically reach out to the children in these two cases?
Dr. Warshak: In the case of the Broken Dad, his emails aren’t being answered and his number is blocked from communication. So one approach would be to try to use an intermediary — perhaps someone in the family who recognizes the terrible price that this girl is paying for her parents’ divorce and will intervene to help the child realize that she doesn’t have to take sides in this, and that it’d be better for her not to. Otherwise, the father may need to use opportunities where his daughter does need something from him — a permission slip signed, auto insurance paid, etc. — where he can say, “It’s my responsibility as a father to make sure you have what you need, so we need to meet.” She may come to the meeting with a chip on her shoulder, but it’s a beginning.
My concern is that, just as Broken Dad says that the silence is killing him slowly day by day, the relationship is dying as well. The absence of contact is not allowing his daughter to see her dad and to be confronted with his love for her. She’s only seeing him through the eyes of her mother, who’s angry and who did not want the breakup. The dad’s taking all the heat for this when, in reality, we know that in most relationships that fail, each partner has some responsibility for the end of the relationship.
Cheryl: Let’s say the husband had an affair and a secret life was revealed, and then the marriage comes to an end. What happens in those cases — when the kids take a side because it’s reasonable to defend one of the parents?
Dr. Warshak: Even then — when a marriage ends as a result of an affair — we wouldn't want children to identify the unfaithful parent only with the worst mistake they’ve made. It should not wipe out in a child’s mind all the investment that the parent has in that child and all of the things they’ve done throughout the entire history of the relationship. Parents aren't perfect, and we all learn to accept our parents and continue to love them, despite things we might learn about them that are not what we would have liked to hear. It’s a matter of balancing the benefits versus the drawbacks of the relationship.
Sometimes, it helps to educate children about this problem to help them see it with a little bit of distance. I created a video to help younger children and teenagers learn more about this problem and to encourage them to keep an open mind.
Cheryl: And certainly, Broken Dad and Missing My Child, maybe one way to reach out to your children is to send them a link to this episode. Listening to this conversation with Dr. Warshak might open up some avenues of conversation to begin to mend this bond that’s been temporarily severed.
Steve: It’s so important in this moment for Missing My Child and Broken Dad to get the message across to their children — by email, through an intermediary, directly — that, “My love for you is sacred, it’s permanent, and I am eagerly awaiting with an open heart the moment when you are ready to enact that love with me.”