Divorce can turn even the kindest men and women into people their friends hardly recognise. We’ve all seen it happen—the bitter feuding, endless name-calling and relentless pettiness of two adults caught in a whirling pit of anger, hurt and resentment. It can leave parents raging in front of their children, bad-mouthing one another to their children and spitting fire about one another to the world.
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” goes a popular saying, though I think it’s applies equally to men as well. Few things get to a person’s soul more than the hurt, betrayal or ending of an intimate relationship. And few things are more damaging than the subsequent spin out and fury done in front of, or to, the children of the men and women scorned.
How bad-mouthing your spouse affects your kids
- Karen is 43 years old and still talks about the pain she went through when her parents divorced. Her father left her mother for another woman. For decades afterwards, Karen’s mother repeatedly told Karen what a cheater her father was. She made visitations a constant fight and she spent many years trying to turn Karen against her father. To say that Karen was put into a loyalty bind would be a gross understatement. She was not allowed to have any positive feelings for her father without her mother taking it as a personal affront to her. The divorce altered Karen’s life; the constant fighting between her parents damaged Karen’s wellbeing.
- Sally and Ken are divorced. During the marriage, Ken was emotionally abusive to Sally and their two children. After the divorce, Ken continues to be emotionally abusive. He tells the children how incompetent their mother is, he makes fun of her, he bullies his way into her home and dismisses Sally’s attempts to set limits. Sally’s children are growing to hate their father and learning to dismiss their mother.
- Mary struggled for years to save her marriage. When she was finally done and filed for divorce, Frank was shocked. He alternated between crying, saying he couldn’t live without her, and getting angry, making threats about how hard he would make this divorce. The entire divorce was rife with conflict. Frank would cry to the kids then angrily tell them that their mother “did this”. “She’s the one responsible for breaking up our family!” Their two kids wanted to love their mom and dad, but found it more and more difficult to be around dad. They cried when they had to see him. They begged to not go to his house, and over time, they just refused to go.
The consequences of trash-talking
Disrespecting your ex-partner hurts not only your children and your family, but also yourself. Listed below are just a few of the many repercussions of bad-mouthing your spouse—regardless of how bad a person you think s/he is.
- Carbon copies: Your children are made up of 50 per cent of your genes and 50 per cent of your ex’s genes. When you tell your children what a loser or cheat their mother/father is, they take that in. If you tell them that their parent is that terrible, then they think they must be too. Don’t put that on them.
- Loyalty bind: When you constantly bad-mouth the other parent, you put your children into a loyalty bind. They will feel as though they can’t love both of you without one of you being hurt. Not being able to love one parent because the other parent would be upset is a huge stressor for them.
- Boomerang effect: It is not your job to ‘show’ your children how awful their mother or father is—that’s unhealthy thinking. And it often has an uncanny way of backfiring. Children can get tired of constantly hearing how terrible their father or mother is and begin to hate the parent who’s doing the bad-mouthing—even if the other parent caused the original hurt to the family. Children are keenly insightful; they will see the true colours of both of you. Be sure you’re showing them the colours you want to be known for.
- Creating a template: Children live what they know, they know what they live. When they see two parents attacking one another verbally, emotionally and physically, they take that in as a template of the way to fight. They will internalise the idea that if they’re hurt, upset or mad at someone, they have the right to annihilate that person just as they see you doing to your ex-spouse. This behaviour will wreak havoc in their lives and relationships for years to come. Don’t set them up to internalise this dysfunctional template.
- From difficult to damaging: Divorce is difficult for children under the best of circumstances. However, when done with integrity they will be okay. When you go through divorce in a toxic and bitter way, you make a difficult situation a damaging one. Your children deserve much more from both parents.
The heartbreak and sadness of losing someone you thought you were going to spend the rest of your life with can be intense, to say the least. Many, if not most, people who experience divorce go through moments of feeling these intense emotions and, of course, no one goes through the process of divorce perfectly. However, one of the roles of being a parent is to always keep the best interest of your children at the forefront of your mind and at the heart of your choices. As a parent, you don’t have the luxury of letting your anger get the best of you—even in the most difficult of times—and certainly not over and over again for years.
Rise to the occasion. If your ex will not allow that to happen, then have your home be a safe haven from the strife of a bitter, vengeful parent. It will be the greatest gift you could give yourself and your child. Take the high road. Be the parent you would like to have if you were a child in this situation. The biggest gift you can give your children is the gift of an amicable divorce.
This was first published in the January 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.