Relationship Workshop: Saying Nice Things about Your Ex Important for Your Child
In a forgiveness group I was recently conducting for parents who harbor excessive anger and bitterness toward their co-parent, Lynne told the group a story about an incident with her 9-year-old daughter.
“A woman at my church told me that when my daughter Rachel and I say our bedtime prayers every night,” Lynne told the other parents, “I should pray aloud for my ex-husband.
“I thought this made sense, so I began doing this. The first night I ended my prayer with something like this: ‘And please, God, help Rachel’s father continue to be a good and loving father to her.’ Then I quickly said amen, opened my eyes and looked at Rachel. Her eyes were open and very big. She said to me, ‘You prayed for my daddy. I didn’t think you liked him.’”
That, explained Lynne, was an eye-opening experience for her.
“I suddenly realized that my daughter needed me to say and do things that showed positive feelings and respect for him,” Lynne explained to the group. “I always thought that the best thing, given my depth of resentment toward him, was to say nothing.”
Lynne admittedly had spent the last few years feeling very angry and bitter toward this man whom she described as an emotionally-abusive bully. They had argued for years about child support and parenting time and Lynne usually perceived him as an unreasonable person.
“I know I need to be at this group,” she went on as she began to tear up, “because I feel so angry toward him. But what I didn’t realize until that prayer was how much I was probably displaying my anger and resentment that I always carry around with me. I always thought I hid it pretty well. Now I realize more than ever how destructive this could be to a girl who loves her father – even if I don’t.”
Lynne not only had a flash of insight, but she also was handed one of those golden opportunities with her daughter that night. “I got to explain to Rachel that how I felt about her father and the disagreements we had, were about me and him and not about her. Also, my dislike for him was about how I thought he treated me. I also got to say that even though I didn’t always like him that he was a good man in many ways and I apologized for saying mean things about him in front of her. I told her I thought he has many very positive qualities – things I usually tend to overlook or forget about when I get caught up in my anger toward him.”
I found that Lynne’s story was a great opportunity for me to reinforce a lesson with the other parents in the group. The lesson, I told them, was that it was important that they forgive their co-parent. Despite the hurt their co-parents may have caused them -- or may continue to cause them – as a result they are likely to act in a less-than-objective manner toward their ex. And that will never be helpful or beneficial to their child.
Children cannot grow up with a healthy attitude toward themselves or toward their parents if those parents not only have bitter and acrimonious feelings toward one another, but never have anything nice to say about each other. No matter how you try to hide your feelings, you can’t hide them from your child. And for a child, expressing negative emotions and opinions about their other parent will always be upsetting and painful.
Furthermore, as Lynne discovered, even if you try to be neutral and avoid saying anything too terribly bad about your co-parent, this is not going to adequately disguise how you really feel. Children need to hear positive things about both of their parents to help them validate their own love for each.