Child Custody and Boundary Problems with Abusive Ex

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Reader’s Question

My ex was very abusive to me both physically and emotionally. I have two kids with him, and even though I left him, the games he plays are still going on.

My daughter is 14 and my son is 11. My daughter makes it clear she wants to live with him. He also wants her to live with him but not my son because he is “too young”. He does things to hurt them emotionally, then he apologizes and justifies. He had my son for a few months after I left him, and he wouldn’t let me take him (we were never married) when I came back for him. When I did manage to get him back, he had injuries that my ex tried to hide from me and for which he did not take him to the hospital.

Just when I think everything is going to be okay and I have bent over backwards to help him maintain a relationship, he yanks the rug out from under me. My daughter says she knows what he did was wrong but then justifies it. She really believes that being apart from her dad is my fault because I’m the one who left. He told her that he hurt me because I did this or that and if I had not done certain things, he would not have hit me. She believes everything he says. She made it clear she did not want her brother to come if she went to live with him. I can’t allow that. They secretly have these talks behind my back about how they will get it to where he can come live with him. I overheard a conversion where he had her uncle on the phone and he told her one way or another, whether I like it, or not she will come to stay. He told her to “buck” and “buck the system” whatever that means. I have never told her to hate her dad, and I encourage her to call him. There is so much more to it than this. I went to see a lawyer, and he said to cut off all visitation and make him bring the fight to me. When her dad was here, my daughter would cling to him like a young child, straddle his lap, etc. She speaks of him as if he is a God, even though she saw the abuse he inflicted on me.

I don’t know what to do.

Psychologist’s Reply

Expecting a child to wisely differentiate the natural love and affection they have for a parent from rational apprehension about their behavior is unreasonable. Kids need adults to make rational, wise decisions. And when one of the adults is behaviorally unstable, their need is only amplified.

From what you say, your ex’s abuse has extended far beyond his treatment of you. This makes it imperative that you take a stand. You have hired an attorney who appears to have given you good advice. Yet you still seem ambivalent. This is not uncommon for abuse victims, but it is still quite unhealthy. If you are to be healthy yourself and to effectively parent your children, you must acquire the strength and conviction to set and enforce appropriate limits and boundaries. Perhaps you will need the support and counsel of a therapist experienced in abuse survivor issues. But in the end, you must quit questioning yourself, stop wallowing in the fruitless turmoil of trying to understand your ex’s behavior, and take a stand. Accept your lack of self-confidence as just another part of a really unhealthy syndrome and deal with it. And be accepting of the fact that your children are not likely to fully appreciate your attempts to keep them safe until they mature more fully and become capable of greater understanding.

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