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Q: My husband is a survivor of childhood domestic violence. Father’s Day is a tough holiday for him because of the trauma from his childhood, so I’m never sure what we should do for him. We have two kids together and we want to celebrate him for being a good dad, but I can tell he’s uncomfortable with the whole thing. Do you think we should just skip this holiday?
A: When holidays are connected to a traumatic past, they can be triggers, no matter how much time has passed. This is normal, but also, like you said, tough. Especially when you have kids who don’t understand why dad doesn’t want cards, gifts or any kind of celebration in his honor.
The obvious answer here is yes, if your husband doesn’t want to “do” Father’s Day, there’s no reason to force it on him. After all, there are 364 other days of the year to tell him he’s a good dad. Be honest with your kids and reassure them it has nothing to do with them. A possible conversation starter might be: This is a tough day for dad because he has some bad memories from when he was younger. It has nothing to do with you. We’re just going to support him however he needs today.
If your husband is open to the idea of talking to a counselor or therapist, a professional might be helpful while he processes those triggers and memories, and eventually works through them. EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, has been shown to be an effective therapy technique for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, something many victims of domestic violence can experience. As I’m sure he knows, ignoring trauma unfortunately doesn’t make it go away. And witnessing domestic violence can put him at risk for passing some of those patterns down to his kids.
Self-compassion is important on this day, says registered psychotherapist Shirley Porter, who encourages survivors to honor their resilience, strength and courage and celebrate their freedom from abuse. If there is a way to reframe this day in his mind, he can see it as a day that no longer has the constraints it did as a child, but a day where he can be celebrated for being what his own abusive parent wasn’t.
It might be helpful to reflect on happy memories this day—share stories that remind your partner how he’s been a good dad, the qualities about him that the kids love and the way he’s positively shaped their lives. A “making memories” jar might make a thoughtful gift idea. It’s a DIY gift where your kids can write down their favorite things to do with your husband on slips of paper (or blocks, like in this example) and place them in a box or jar and he can choose one each time there’s some free time in his schedule.
By focusing on the positive aspects of the present day, your partner might be less likely to let his mind slip into the memories of the past.
I also want to mention one more group here that might be reading this—the new partners to protective mom survivors of domestic violence whose abusive ex-partners ruined past Father’s Days. These partners may be walking into a tricky area where the children in the relationship are unsure how to tread during Father’s Day. It’s likely the ex-abuser went out of his way to ruin this day in the past for everyone in the family, or used this day as a manipulation tool to emotionally damage his children or wife. This day could also be difficult when the abusive father is still sharing custody with the kids. The hurdles can be many.
As a new partner, the most important thing to remember is you can model healthy masculinity by being a positive role model.
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“Men who are compassionate, respectful, loving, responsible, honorable, and kind—and are active in parenting their children—are excellent models of healthy masculinity,” says Porter. “For these men, it is not only who they are on Father's Day, but the kind of person they choose to be 365 days a year that has such positive impacts on their children.”
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