I work in a beautiful suburb north of Manhattan, and in this child friendly place of great schools and involved parents, we have just witnessed a horrifying tragedy. According to news reports, an upper middle class neighborhood family was in the midst of a difficult divorce. Like many in their position, they lived in the same house, she an Ivy graduate, and he, a respected local attorney. Now this couple and their two children are gone, apparently at the hand of their father. This husband and father allegedly bludgeoned his wife, shot his children and then committed suicide.
Horror is a word that fails to describe the nature of this event. Murder-Suicide fails as well. Familcide seems like an awkward word that has little to do with so much darkness. And, while I am in no position to talk about this family and that terrible day, I am nevertheless confounded and compelled to write about malignant divorces—because I have seen too many. These are cases in which love turns into a hate so deep that human beings do terrible things that seem inconceivable. Thank goodness that murder is uncommon, but corrupted malignant behavior is not. Malignant divorces are more common than we would all like to think and they take many forms.
Like a cancer, malignant divorces have a variety of outcomes. Some can be successfully dealt with; some can be managed and some are truly dangerous. In our town of Cross River, New York, four lives ended in the context of such a divorce. Of course, our community is not unique; such horrors can (and do) happen anywhere.
This is the first of a number of Psychology Today posts that will be devoted to the problems of being embroiled in a malignant divorce. In due time, this material will be developed in the last book of The Intelligent Divorce series, Dealing With Your (Impossible) Ex. What do I mean by impossible? Some people respond to the stress of divorce by undermining everyone around them. Some do it consciously, knowing full well that they just want to win at all costs. Think of the father who hides income and creates "evidence" that his ex wife is incompetent, all so he can pay less support and short change her.
Some malignant behaviors are unconscious, like the mother who takes on the victim role so completely that she "needs" to convince her children to reject their dad. Sometimes these cases can be truly frightening, because if your ex is out of touch with reality, he or she may have decided that you are dangerous when you're not (it doesn't take much to imagine the possible consequences).
So, if you are involved in a case like this, whether you fear for your safety or you sense that you are being set up, you must get professional help. In a malignant situation, your ex spouse will want to win at all costs and your sense of fair play will be used against you. Maintaining good limits, staying safe and not becoming manipulative yourself, is no small task. Your children will need you as a strong, centered parent with what they are going through.
So, what can be done?
Here is a brief overview. In future posts, we will develop these points more fully.
1. You are dealing with an ex spouse who just wants to win. If you are the healthier spouse, then you are trapped in a surreal life, largely not of your own making. It may not be fair, but it's time that you deal with it. Laying back and hoping it will all go away is probably a poor strategy.
2. What you do have control over is your sanity, and the innocent ears of your children. Therapy is really a must. You will have to grieve the loss of your marriage and much of what you hold dear, including that the world is fair. You can't short circuit grief, but you cannot let it disable you from acting intelligently. Also, all your outrage and fear must be mobilized productively, in the best interests of you and your children.
3. Keep safety at the forefront of your mind. If living in the same house with her is too dangerous, then something will have to change. If you feel threatened when he drops off the children, then meet him in a public place — and in broad daylight. Just know that anticipating violence is not a perfect science; so if you think you got it wrong and need to move out, seriously consider it.
4. Domestic violence rarely happens out of the blue. Usually there is some warning. Perhaps she was verbally abusive in the past. Or maybe he drank and had moments of violence. The problem here is that many victims of abuse are habituated to this dehumanizing behavior and don't sufficiently recognize the risks. If you have questions, consult a therapist or call one of many hotlines available for this purpose. Get some answers so you can be better prepared.
5. Remember that your actions have consequences. The pressure in these situations is intense, so think twice before acting out if your negative behavior is serving as a model for your kids at school. For instance, some kids can become bullies if they witness aggressiveness at home. Also, learn how to deal with your ex when he or she triggers you. If you get triggered and then badly lose control, you are the one who will be in trouble, no matter how provocative he or she may be.
6. In dealing with a very difficult ex you will need to set limits and sometimes even continue to co-parent. Not easy. You will have to decide when to hang up the phone on her as things heat up, when to walk away from a toxic situation, and when it is time to call your lawyer or the police. You are not always going to get it right and under all this pressure, you're not always going to be a saint. So, when done well, a good relationship with your therapist can help you come back to center. No matter how angry or hurt you may be, your children will always come first. This will be your gift to them.
7. In malignant situations, therapy is important for your children as well. They need to have a safe place to deal with what they are going through with an adult ally. In addition, your child's therapist can help you understand how to be a better parent. On occasion, a talented therapist can counsel the self-serving ex spouse and may make some headway. And, if things get dangerous, some therapists find the wherewithal to hold an out of control parent accountable. It is not a perfect solution, but sometimes the cancer of divorce can only be managed, and not really treated. It is better than nothing.
Ultimately, the children will grow up and come to terms with the trauma they experienced. Some will be hurt forever while others will emerge stronger because of the experience. Here is where a stable, healthy parent can make all the difference. They will ultimately cling to your strength, your stability and your confidence.
Some divorces can truly be like malignant cancer. Do your best to stay safe and keep focused on the big picture. A malignant divorce is going to be rough, and may take years. But if you can give your kids the best of what you have, you are giving them a lot.
It's the best medicine that we have.
© Mark R Banschick, MD
For more from Dr. Banschick:
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)
The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon)
Course - Raising Healthy Kids Despite Divorce: Sign Up
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