When an ex walks away, it’s hard on us because we were married. We trusted our hearts to them and the betrayal of the vows ’till death do us part’ hurts. But when a divorced parent distances himself (or herself) from the children, that’s another story.
I can’t imagine walking away from my kids, but maybe that’s just me and how I’m innately made. I have full custody of our kids because the ex moved away so it’s easier and harder for me because I traverse their emotional roller coaster with them. Maybe you can find some help here from my experiences and hopefully add yours in the comments.
In the beginning, when the ex and I were still communicating, I tried to keep the lines open and kind. I let him know that the kids missed him. I tried to foster that communication between them by texting when something good happened so that he would have something to say to them because at first I thought it was because he couldn’t find something to talk about, but that wasn’t it. I tried to co-parent with him, but his cold refusal to communicate repeatedly stopped me. I never blamed him for leaving, nor did I ever ask him to return. That’s not me and he knew it. I was asking for him to talk with our kids, but he couldn’t/didn’t want to, so that was that. I gave up trying to help the ex and focused solely on supporting our sons.
Here are some things we’ve experienced:
- Kids take it personally that the distant parent isn’t making an effort. They feel like the divorce and betrayal and subsequent added distance is because of them. Your job is to reassure them that the divorce was between the parents and that their distant parent still loves them. If you can say that. And if you can’t, stay quiet.
- It takes effort for the distant parent to communicate regularly with the kids. In my case, he left and went on to make a new life, leaving our kids in his old life with his past ex-wife (me). I used to think I was protecting my kids by defending him and saying he was busy at work, but that backfired. While they knew he put work ahead of all of us while we were married, it didn’t make them feel better that he was still not responding to their texts or calls. One of my kids once said, “he chose freedom over family,” which I didn’t know how to answer.
- The kids’ relationship with the distant parent is theirs alone. You can be supportive to them. You can listen to them when they need to talk about it and process how they feel, but bad-mouthing the ex is not a good thing to do. While it may feel good in the moment for both you and the kids, it isn’t a good choice. You can understand how they feel (because you probably feel similarly from time to time), but it’s not helping them for you to bash your ex.
- I tried to be both Mom and Dad to my kids when their dad was unresponsive. I felt incredible guilt that my kids were now from a ‘broken home’ even though it was their dad who left. So, my first instinct was to be the most amazing parent ever to make up for the losses they had experienced. But I’m more Mom than Dad. I searched for a good male role model therapist for my sons to help them and that’s been working for us.
- My kids wanted to connect with that childhood dad that they remembered fondly and bring him to the present. We talked about what they wanted to say and how to say it so that he would hear how they missed him and not take offense to what they were saying. In our case, while their dad talked with them about it, his response was “Then you need to reach out to me more.” But they had been reaching out and he’d been non-responsive. In the end, the kids were disappointed, but they felt good about trying because it allowed them to know that they did the best they could.
- Accepting the distance is the key for kids to begin to heal, but when a parent has gone off to live a new life without the kids, it hurts them tremendously. Therapy has helped my kids to talk about their feelings in a safe environment. While they still talk with me, it’s easier to talk with someone else who’s not involved. We can’t make it all right for them no matter what because it’s not our relationship. It’s theirs and while we can help when we can, it’s frustrating as a parent who cares to watch our kids suffer.
- Put yourself in your kids’ place and feel the disappointment, the confusion and the hurt. However, remember that our feelings on the subject may be different because we’re coming from a parental place and ex-spouse viewpoint.
- At some point, hopefully, the kids resign themselves to an occasional text or phone call and stop expecting more from their distant parent. Or the distant parent fades into the distance. While it’s not what we would have wanted for our kids, it becomes easier for them (and maybe even for us) when they stop yearning for the relationship to be closer and accept it as it is.
It’s been a few years since the ex moved away and started his new life. An occasional text or phone call has become the new normal. If the kids need anything, they call me. They don’t ask him anymore. He’s still dad, but they say his name like they were referring to a distant old aunt whom they barely know and not their parent.
I used to wonder why the ex distanced himself from our kids. Maybe it was too hard for him. Maybe the new life was too much fun to be burdened by being a dad. Maybe he felt guilty for what he did. Maybe kids didn’t fit in the new chapter. Maybe he just didn’t care. I’ll probably never know for sure and I long ago stopped trying to figure it out.
Feel free to share your experiences below because I’d love to read them.