Q: I was [with an abusive partner] for seven years and left just under two years ago. He still tries to control me and make me feel bad for my parenting choices. We have a 4-year-old daughter together. He sees her for an overnight stay every two weeks. It has always been a struggle to get him to spend time with her. If for some reason he can't take her, I go out of my way to arrange another day so he can see our daughter. However, he refuses to have her if she is ill because he doesn't want to get sick. I work full-time and he doesn't, so even if she is off sick from school, he won't help me out. He is very rude and gives me little money toward her. Yet he acts like he gives me the world. My family and friends think I should end [his] contact with my daughter because he shows very little effort. Despite everything he has done to me I feel bad for even thinking about stopping contact. I am looking for some outside advice. I don't think I am confident enough to know what to do.
Kind regards, F.
First and foremost, congrats on leaving and beginning a safer and healthier life for you and your daughter. I know that couldn’t have been easy and starting over as a single mom is undoubtedly challenging. But kudos to you for knowing you both deserve better.
I understand that you want your daughter to have a good relationship with her father, but her father is an abusive person who probably doesn’t have that same goal in mind. If he’s still controlling you and trying to tear you down emotionally, then his abuse is still in full effect. Many survivors find themselves in this tough spot—they’ve left their abusive partner, but the abuse hasn’t stopped.
I get it that this lack of a solid relationship between your daughter and her father can cause you some guilt. Perhaps you didn’t have a great relationship with your dad and want something better for your daughter. Or maybe you did have a great relationship with your dad and wish the same for your child. Looking at our own childhoods can help us uncover where our guilt might be stemming from. But this relationship—your daughter and her father—is different. Even if your ex wasn’t directly physically or verbally abusive toward her, your daughter being present for his abuse of you is, in fact, a type of child abuse. And even if you believe you did your best to shield her, as many protective parents do, undoubtedly, your daughter saw, heard or experienced more of her father’s abuse than you can tell, resulting in residual trauma. Trauma in young children can manifest as:
- Behavior problems
- Frequent bed wetting
- Isolating themselves from others
- Feeling unsafe or exhibiting separation anxiety
- Bad dreams
- Lower verbal skills
Later on in life, unresolved trauma can have serious effects on a person’s mental and physical health. You may think that a bond with her father is the most important thing right now but consider that you’re encouraging your daughter to continue a relationship with an abuser.
Author and long-time advocate Lundy Bancroft wrote a great book that I’d recommend you pick up called When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse. In it, he advises, post-separation, a protective parent doesn’t push the children to be close to their father.
“Your ex-partner’s relationship with your children is his responsibility. You may feel tempted, or even obligated, to press them to spend more time together, especially if you see your children getting hurt by their father’s lack of interest,” writes Bancroft. “If an abusive man has to be pushed into having a relationship with his children, that demonstrates how selfish he is and how little he values them as people—characteristics in him that are almost guaranteed to create serious problems in his parenting down the road.” Bancroft says that children who have a close bond with an abusive father may start to blame themselves for their father’s cruel behavior.
Instead, Bancroft encourages mothers to make their own relationship with their children a priority. “Studies have found that the closer children feel to their abused mothers, the better they do.”
Behavioral Specialist Alphonso Nathan, LPC, seconds that a relationship with an abusive father can do more harm than no relationship at all.
“I speak with a lot of individuals whose majority of self-esteem comes from trying to please a parent or prove they are good enough for a parent. Abandonment can have people searching for love and belonging in other areas.”
It is up to your ex-partner to maintain a relationship with your daughter if he wants one. Leave it up to him to plan for and schedule a visitation time—one that works for you, of course. Avoid rearranging your life to accommodate an abuser or he may use this as a way to control you.
I would recommend not going out of your way to push this visitation and have a back-up plan for you and your daughter in case her father cancels. Perhaps plan something fun for the two of you to do like going to a museum or a movie. And start an open and honest line of dialogue with her. Make sure she knows her father’s choices are not her fault. She did nothing wrong. She is wanted by you.
While you may be concerned that if her relationship with her father dissipates, she’ll no longer have a male role model to look up to, there are several things to consider here: First, you’re a strong role model. Forget gender for a second, you’re modeling to her that she doesn’t need to give her time, energy or love to someone who doesn’t appreciate or value her, and most of all, that she deserves safe and healthy relationships.
Secondly, if you feel safe doing so, as your child makes friends and you meet up with different families for events like picnics or trips to the zoo, ask the friends’ fathers to come along as well. Or sign your child up for a sport with a male coach—again, if your child feels comfortable. There are healthy, male role models you can introduce your child to when she’s ready that don’t include her abusive father.
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It’s also important to remember, F., that you’re a victim of trauma yourself. And as we covered in our article “Trauma-Related Guilt is a Liar,” your emotions won’t always make sense. Your family will find it easier to disconnect from this abuser than you will because they weren’t in the same cycle of control, manipulation, brainwashing and love-bombing that you might have experienced. You may be experiencing depression, low self-esteem, shame, social anxiety or thoughts of self-harm. Consider reaching out to a trained domestic violence advocate to find support.
“When I work with survivors of domestic violence, I teach them how to practice self-compassion,” says Beverly Engel, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of It Wasn’t Your Fault. “If they can turn their attention from the abuser to themselves and emotionally connect with their own suffering, they soon discover that their trauma-related guilt subsides.”
If you do decide to forgo visitation with your ex, be prepared just in case there is a legal battle. You may want to ask your local domestic violence shelter for lay legal resources in your area (free or low-cost legal assistance from a paralegal or advocate). Some abusive exes will simply detach from their children while others will want to continue that relationship, or use that child as a pawn to continue traumatizing or controlling the other parent. You may need legal help to halt visitation.
The best-case scenario is that you and your daughter can continue to heal in a safe way. For more on how to support her, check out “Explaining Violence to Kids.”
Best of luck to you and your daughter.
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