I am a divorced mom of sons who are now living with their dad. He was a horrible husband to me and never was home to care or help with his sons -- that was woman's work, he said. He has now turned a new leaf in the area of fatherhood (at least with our children, he still ignores his out-of-wedlock kids). He now goes out of his way financially and emotionally to make sure his sons have as many opportunities for a successful and happy life (as possible). I appreciate everything that he and his new wife do for them, but here is my anguish.
It is very hard to communicate with the man who was physically and emotionally abusive to me on a regular basis. I continue to pray for strength to forgive him and try to concentrate on how blessed and happy my sons are. But sometimes his voice makes me physically sick and I am forced to live through the torment I endured over and over. How do I get past the man that threw me to hell and back and focus on the man that is a father? I have turned the other cheek until my neck hurts. -- E.D., Las Vegas
I love redemption stories. They move me. Give me hope. They remind me of the times when The Scoundrel in me has been grateful for the chances to redeem my own inexcusable behavior to others.
Still, rejoicing in the redemption stories of people who have done me grave injustice? That's another matter. It's hard. Sometimes impossible for me. To put it crudely: Don't you just hate it when your despicable enemy walks away from the fight and decides to live well, responsibly and happily? Especially when the "redemption" does not include even a lame attempt at accounting for his/her behavior toward you!
Yeah. Great. Glad that all worked out for you.
It sounds like your ex-husband has found in the occasion of divorce an inspiration to show up as a quality father. This is indeed a redemptive move for him. And it's not uncommon. A ton of men who were uninvolved, not-very-present fathers and husbands find divorce to be a wake-up call. Divorce is a high price to pay for this fatherly evolution, but a redemptive blessing it is, nonetheless.
Here's some uncommon advice: Stop pounding on yourself to forgive your ex-husband. You are rightfully happy for your sons' thriving with a healthier father. Fine. A good mother should want her children to thrive with their father. But keep that celebration radically separate from your beliefs, values and hopes regarding forgiveness. Two distinct issues.
Forgiveness? Forgiveness is less a decision than a miracle. Some evils are beyond the individual human will to reconcile. Instead of clamoring at yourself to forgive him, I would urge you to consider strategies to take your power back. That's the more pressing issue. This man still has power over you, power that you gave to him, unwittingly, in the marriage.
Your goal for now should not be first and foremost to forgive him; rather, to render him irrelevant. There is a way to be a faithful, divorced co-parent, to be happy for your sons, and to maintain a radical distance between you and your tormentor, simultaneously.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Decide right now to never discuss anything with him except the logistics, nurture and strategies for co-parenting. Don't "make nice." Don't make small talk. When kids' events force you into proximity, minimize eye contact. Don't initiate anything. When addressed, your tone and demeanor should be ultrasmooth, professional, so polite that he will wonder if he's talking to a hologram.
Absolutely minimize "doing things together with the kids." Don't open Christmas presents together. If possible, divide the kids' birthdays by the half-day. Start now making sure that your children's relationships with you and with their dad are very, very separate things.
Make yourself, when possible, strategically unavailable for voice-to-voice communications, and maximize voice mail and e-mail.
He deserves your distance. It is, for now, an important witness, both to his misdeeds and to your self-respect. But he's not worth the energy of your disdain.
Originally published in View News, April 13, 2010.