Til Death Do Us Part

When you have a partner who is narcissistic or emotionally abusive and you make the choice to leave them, the advice that’s always given is to go “no contact” and cut them out of your life completely.

That would work beautifully as a solution to healing from the emotional trauma of being in a relationship with a narcissistic emotional abuser. Except…

What about when you can’t go “no contact”?

What about those of us who created beautiful children with terrible people? What about the women and men who have left an abusive partner but can’t fully escape them because of the children they share?

What about the people like me?


The single, most difficult thing about my life now is managing the co-parenting relationship I have with my daughters’ father. It feels like I continue to hold the vast majority of the parenting responsibility, as I always did, but am required to engage in a relationship with my children’s’ father, regardless of my history with him.

My struggle in this relationship is so bad that I’ve idealized the lives of other parents whose former partners have completely abandoned them and their children. I recognize (and empathize so much with) how incredibly difficult it must be for these parents, financially and otherwise. But I envy the freedom they have when it comes to making decisions for, and being caregivers of, their children.

I also envy my friends who got divorced BEFORE they had kids. In my mind, that type of divorce is akin to ending a middle-school relationship; you both move on and it never has to matter in your life again EVER. Again, I’m not saying it’s easy, just that it’s easier than divorcing when you have kids.

I don’t actually think of what my ex and I do as co-parenting. In fact, there’s a different term for the type of parenting we do: it’s called “parallel parenting.” “Parallel parenting” looks more like a business relationship than a typical parenting relationship. You detach from the other parent and operate separately, aside from making major decisions together. This article explains it much better than I can, but hopefully I’ve given you the gist.

Thinking about all this stuff makes me wonder, how do other parents manage when their partner is abusive? Whether that person is narcissistic, emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or just a shitty person…how do the non-abusive parents cope with an ongoing parenting relationship? Because it’s hard. It’s really, really, fucking hard. And it takes time to figure out ways of coping.

If you also need to continue engaging in a difficult relationship, I do have a few ways you can help minimize the effect it has on your day to day life. You can do things like…

  • Setting a specific ring- and text-tone for your former partner. This way, when calls or messages come in you know right away who it is and you can pause to prepare yourself before answering.
  • Bathing your children when they return home (or having them shower if they’re old enough) and washing the clothes they came home in. I find that scent is a HUGE trigger for me. If it’s a problem for you too, you can eliminate or reduce triggering smells by literally washing them away and the kids never have to be the wiser. All you need to say is “it’s bath night!” and that’s enough.
  • Doing all pick-ups and drop-offs outside your house or in a neutral location. Two choices here: either arrange to meet your ex and the kids somewhere close to home, but not AT your home, or move the pick-ups/drop-offs to your driveway. Again, this is about putting boundaries in your life (and your children’s lives) to keep you feeling safe and secure. Your home should be your sanctuary and if you feel threatened by your ex, inviting them in—or even just having them stand in your doorway—may be too much to ask of yourself. On top of that, and I may have some personal experience with this, opening the door to your ex may enable them to invade your space without permission. So do the drop-offs elsewhere and keep your space sacred (or at least douche-bag free).
  • A similar solution, if it’s possible with your kids, would be to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs around the school schedule so you don’t even need to face your ex at all. Yay!
  • Calling in the recruits! When you have to face your ex, having back-up in the form of another trusted person (a parent, new partner, or friend, for example) can help immensely. Not only is there strength in numbers (or at least that’s how it will look if there are two or more of you), having another person there holds both you and, more importantly, your ex accountable for what is said and done. (Soooo what I’m saying, really, is to make sure there are witnesses, because if your life starts to look more like a crime drama than an actual life, you may need them.)
  • Hiring a professional. If you have the funds, hire a parenting coach or counsellor and attend sessions separately (parallel parenting, remember?). Let the coach do the work of managing your ex’s outbursts, irrational behaviour, out-of-whack expectations, and all other forms of bullshit. If you do end up meeting as a group, you’ll have the counsellor or coach there to keep things on track and keep everyone feeling safe.

Telling abuse survivors who are parents to go no contact with our abusers is actually shitty advice We don’t get to go no contact—it turns out that when you have children with your abuser, “til death do us part” is a life sentence whether you stay married or not. Instead, we should be given tools and language that enable us to set up and, here’s the key part, maintain strong, healthy boundaries that protect us when we feel (or are literally) threatened. Life’s not as simple as just turning away from our problems and when you have kids, you always have to stare those issues straight in the face.  

xxJ


My home is my sanctuary. I feel safe here and my daughters feel at home. We can be secure in these walls no matter what else is going on.

Damn, I Wish It Was Easier.

Grief is a tricky, messy feeling. It manifests in many different ways and goes at a pace that is unique to each person who struggles with it. I’ve personally experienced the death of loved ones and I know what that grief feels like.

I still carry with me a sense of loss for those people I no longer have in my life, but I’ve learned that grief can also be a response to things other than literal death. In the counselling I’ve done these last few years, I’ve come to realize that I am living in a cycle of grief. Not because someone I loved has died, but because the life I thought I would live ended.

Just as it does when we grieve the death of another person, my grief ebbs and flows; it changes, but it still persists. Some days are easier than others, but last week, when I wrote about struggling at Christmas time, my grief was very present. The holidays bring out all the symptoms of my grief because this time of year highlights many of the difficult and lonely situations I have to face in my post-divorce/post-abuse life.

I’m not sure how many people consider the experience of a break-up, or divorce, or another significant life change, as something to grieve, but I now believe that part of what makes these break-ups so difficult is that in these situations, we have to learn to accept life without the person or things we thought we were going to have. The plans we made, the future we envisioned, the expectations we created; these are all things that may contribute to our sense of grief at the end of a relationship or during a big change in our circumstances.

The grief I am living with now is for losing the life I envisioned as a mother and the life I thought I would have as a wife. It’s also because of a deep sense of injustice that I haven’t been able to get over yet.

Imagine being away from your kids every other weekend and committing to this schedule until your children have grown. Consider for a moment what it would feel like to wake up on Christmas morning and not see your own kids. Imagine how it feels to answer phone calls when your child is with their other parent and tell them, as they beg you to let them come home, that you can’t come and get them (because a court order says they have to be with your former partner). Pretend for a minute that your baby is sick and you can’t hold them because you can’t be with them during their other parent’s access. Imagine that you have to explain to your kids over and over again why you and your partner have separated, but at the same time, you can’t say to them that the reason for this is a long-standing history of domestic abuse. 

This is how I experience life in a family of divorce and I will readily admit that it has been a devastating change for me to try to accept.

I once had someone tell me that giving up Christmas mornings and living through those teary phone calls are “necessary sacrifices” in order to save ourselves from an abusive or unhealthy partnership. It’s become a small comfort to tell myself that and I’ve looked for other ways to help assuage my grief. For example, soon after my separation from my husband, I wrote a little sentence that has become somewhat of a mantra to me, and I keep it in mind whenever my grief bubbles up and I feel guilty, sad, or angry about my circumstances.

I tell myself,

“I would always rather explain why I left, than why I didn’t.”

These words offer a little assurance when I start feeling triggered, but my grief is a constant in my life. It is present all the time and every day that I miss with my girls, every Christmas I don’t wake up to their happy faces, every birthday when we’re not together, every time they call and ask to come home, every time I am surrounded by friends and family in loving, intact relationships, I am reminded of my loss and reminded that this is how it will always be from now on.

Always, in the corner of my heart, I hold my grief.

Always, I feel it in my gut.

It is always there.

Much like how we need to acknowledge and accept that mental health can be just as debilitating as any other disease, we also need to see that grief is a reasonable response to loss and not just to death. As I said before, I used to think of grief as something we only experience when a person we care about dies. Now I see that grief really means experiencing profound loss of any kind and trying to come to terms with it.

So I allow myself to acknowledge my grief and I know that’s the best way to deal with it. I also know that I need to give myself permission to feel shitty sometimes; grief has no timeline, no schedule, no checklist and I need to make space for it on the difficult days. The only way to move through grief is to live through it.

Damn, I wish it was easier.

xxJ

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“Some pain is simply the normal grief of human existence. That is pain that I try to make room for. I honor my grief.” – Marianne Williamson