How Can I Prevent a Psychopathic Dad from Harming My Son?

Reader’s Question

I have divorced my husband after 25 years of marriage. My ex-husband fits all the criteria of a psychopath. My son (20) is very attached to the country house we lived in and decided to stay there with his father. From brief conversations with my ex-husband I sense that emotional abuse continues.
My son tries to keep away from him, and they rarely talk. As a result my ex-husband often calls me to ask what is happening, and blames me for this situation. I have a very open and supportive relationship with my son, however he never wants to talk about his father. I would like to warn him about his father’s condition, or prevent damage to this wonderful young man, but I don’t know how to do it. Any suggestions?

Psychologist’s Reply

From your description, your son is protecting himself in the situation. At the age of 20, your son has made an adult decision to live with his father, a decision that probably has personal benefits for him such as the home, financial support, etc. I doubt that you need to warn your son about his father — he’s painfully aware of his father’s behavior and has developed a strategy to avoid the abuse. Let’s look at the strategy here:

  • Your son elects to live with his father, recognizing that Dad is abusive. In the house, your son keeps his father at a social and emotional distance. They rarely talk and your son probably has a schedule to be home when his father isn’t home. By simply not talking, your son is a nontarget, not confrontational, and is able to keep the abusive comments at a minimum.
  • Your son doesn’t want to discuss the situation with you — another smart move on his point. Why? Not what you’d expect. Your son has an effective, working strategy going here. If he discusses anything with you, as a parent you are likely to feel obligated to bring issues to the attention of his father — a move that will make you and your son the target for hostility, confrontation, etc. If nobody knows anything — there’s nothing to discuss when your husband calls you.
  • His strategy also protects you, at least as much as possible. While his father is puzzled by the situation, his only response is to call you. You haven’t been given any information so all his father can do is blame you — then hang up. As you know from 25 years, if you try to discuss any issue with your husband, the result will be verbal abuse in your direction.

The strategy used by your son is an effective approach to his situation. Many teenagers and adults use a similar strategy when living in a hostile or abusive environment. What can you do to help?

  • Allow your son to use his strategy without interruption. It’s working so far. Don’t discuss how he’s getting along with his Father or if he’s being abused. Purposefully keep yourself in the dark.
  • In contacts with your son, asked about issues mothers ask about. Eating well, health/medical concerns, social activities, etc. Monitor him for any indicators that might suggest he is becoming mentally exhausted from the ordeal. Let him know you are always available.
  • In those contacts with your husband, suggest that your son’s behavior may be related to his age, his current stressful activities (school, work, friends, etc.), and other “phases” he might be going through. Recognize that each contact from your ex-husband, questioning your son’s behavior, is clear evidence that your son is psychologically surviving and his strategy is still working. If your ex’s abusive behavior were active — you wouldn’t be getting these calls! Just smile to yourself, seem worried over the phone, and remind him that your son doesn’t talk to you as well. Must be one of those phases.

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Your son knows you’re concerned and available, like a guardian angel always overhead. If he needs to tell you something — he will. Give him credit for being a competent and intelligent adult. In your conversations with him, if he’s still the wonderful young man you know, there’s no problem. In these situations, your son will obtain what he needs — perhaps college or financial support — then quietly leave that home to become an independent adult.

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