Yesterday, I had a really tough conversation with my daughter. She told me “Daddy hates my stepdad so much. He makes mean comments to me and expects me to agree with him. I don’t agree, and I know how much my stepdad has helped me and my sister. It hurts me, and I can’t tell him because he will be mad.”
I am so angry and sad. I can’t have a conversation with her dad about this trash talk because he and I do not have a good relationship; he does in fact hate my husband. I wish there were a way to make him understand that he should love his kids more than he hates my husband or me.
Your question was difficult for me to answer.
In the first draft of my answer, I focused on reminding you that you are not alone. I told you stories of blended families facing similar trash talk drama.
I talked about the stepmom who had her sweet stepson snuggle up to her and shyly ask if she minded staying home from his school play because “mom told me that when she sees you she thinks about how happy she would be if you died, and I get so sad I almost cry.”
I told you about the father whose ex was so vindictive she crossed soccer fields and cocktail parties, seeking out people he had professional connections with and telling them false stories about the end of their marriage in an attempt to derail his career.
I wrote about a man who after his divorce spent the next 20 years as the villain in his ex-wife’s story. His children grew up in the cross-hairs of fights about money and time and his new wife.
But then I looked closely at that draft. I read it again and deleted it. Because the truth is, you know you’re not alone. Trash talk is everywhere. We are surrounded by vindictive exes, gossip at cocktail parties and soccer fields, arguments where little ones suffer.
The simple answer to your question is there is no way to make your ex understand he should love his children more than he hates you and your new husband. I wish there were.
I can tell you how to help your daughters, though. Continue to be the hero in their story.
What your daughter confided is a window into how she feels. She trusts you enough to tell you an unflattering truth about another person she loves deeply. She trusts you to hold space for that feeling for her, to not get tangled up in your own stuff, and to keep her safe. She trusts you not to do what her dad is doing.
She just handed you a superhero’s cape.
Being your daughter’s hero isn’t a call to immediate action. She doesn’t need you to swoop in and save the day like the hero in the summer blockbuster movie. She doesn’t need loud arguments with your ex or tense mediation sessions. She doesn’t need lawyers and courtrooms and agreement rewrites. She doesn’t need you to fix this for her. Remember what happens in big action hero save-the-day sequences? There is almost always collateral damage.
Your daughter needs you to be the quiet hero we see develop over time in Oscar contending-movies. The ones who face adversity, are again and again put in difficult situations, and still choose the high road. These heroes keep focused on the end goal, even if that end is years away. Even if no one sees their work. Even if their work is criticized or attacked.
Your daughter needs you to make space for her tough feelings about her dad. She needs to know that you will keep that information safe: not sharing it with him and creating more drama, not using it to drive her further from him, not making this story about you, but keeping the focus on her.
Focus on the end of the story you want for your daughters: healthy, whole women who understand that they are not responsible for other adults’ feelings. Women who know what it looks like to continually turn away from conflict and gossip and negativity and turn toward joy and love.
In the near term, remind your girls that Daddy, like everyone, has a right to his feelings, but that does not mean they must also carry that burden. Give them the support of other neutral adults; a counselor can help. Continue to make space for their feelings; give them a soft place to land.
Being this kind of hero is incredibly difficult, Ann. That’s why they make movies about it.
Make sure you’re up for the task. Take care of yourself. Acknowledge your pain privately, with your husband and within your own small support system. Don’t add to the talk around town. Continue to keep your home free of any negativity about your ex. Be an example of joy and love in action.
What I’ve just outlined to you is what the man in my last example did. His daughter is my good friend.
His ex spent years attacking and criticizing him to anyone who would listen, including his now-adult children. He was forced to move his business because of the lies she spread. He was nearly bankrupted by the constant court battles. He and his new wife sold their home and rented an apartment to send his children to college. He is still working in his 70’s because he can’t afford to retire.
My friend knows the details of this story because her mother told her everything.
She now sees her childhood clearly. Her mother viewed love for her father as betrayal. She railed and raged against him regularly. My friend soon stopped talking about her life at dad’s with mom. It wasn’t safe.
Her father encouraged her love for her mother, listened when she struggled with loyalty binds, and kept her safe, even as her mother was doing everything in her power to ruin his life. He stayed quiet and kept the focus on his children.
Today, she limits interaction with her mom. Her dad and stepmom (not at all wicked, as it turns out) are the grandparents to her children. They are at the table for every birthday and holiday. They are invited to the beach and asked first to babysit.
My friend’s father was and is her hero. He kept her safe from the storm, even when he himself bore the brunt of it.
So, what do you do when your ex is trash talking you all over town? Remember heroes don’t wrestle pigs.
You’ve got this, Ann. You’re not alone.
Sending you all the love and strength I have,