The Thing Divorced Parents Fear Most

Comments 23

lost child
After divorce, you’re not always there to hold their hand. (Image/The Coverage)
When people experience divorce, several life changes happen at once, often compounding an already-excruciating time for those involved.

First, your partner is gone. Maybe you feel rejected. Maybe you feel guilt.

The entire ebb and flow of your life turns upside down. Everything feels different. You either live in the place you shared with them which now feels lifeless and empty, or you live in a brand-new place which can be a difficult adjustment under the best circumstances.

Some percentage of life tasks once performed by your partner aren’t getting done. You—literally—have more to do every day, even if you were the one doing most of the heavy lifting. Since I wasn’t, everything from vacuuming, dusting, laundry and bathroom cleaning to kitchen cleaning, opening mail, bill paying and keeping track of Life things on the calendar were added to the These Things Need Done pile. Life got harder.

You often lose in-law family members and friends overnight. Maybe they miss you. Maybe they don’t. Maybe you’ll never know.

Your money situation can be affected. Sometimes majorly. Sometimes it scares you.

Sometimes single adulthood produces life and social challenges in the dating and partnership arenas.

If you’re a parent, the situation with your children tends to emerge as the most-difficult component. It’s hard to lose your time with them. Kids grow so fast anyway. My son was in preschool when my time with him reduced by half.

It didn’t take me long to realize: if he’s a kid for another 14 years, that means I just lost SEVEN years with my son.

What would you trade for seven more years with ANYONE you love? Maybe everything.

There’s a long list of things negatively affected by divorce. But what I perceive to be the worst thing is something I rarely see discussed: The loss of any and all control of what happens to your children—the very people for which you live and breathe—when they’re not with you.

When Life Beats You Into Submission

When James Bond gets captured, we always know he’s going to pull off some rad-007 super-spy escape to get out of whatever situation he’s in.

In more tragic fiction stories, the bad guys sometimes catch up to and overpower our heroes. In some stories, those heroes may die or suffer enormous loss.

It’s often hard to watch or read. When the hero gets taken down from a fight he or she couldn’t have possibly won. Somewhere along the way, the characters realize, as we do: there’s no escape.

I like to say I don’t believe in unsolvable problems. That there’s ALWAYS a solution, or at least a way to make something or a situation substantially better.

But with kids after divorce? [*massive exhale noise*]

It can feel like there’s no escape. Not that you want to. But the reality of divorce and custody law and, I imagine, most of our moral compasses, gives us no obvious solutions.

That’s what makes it hard.

Some people are crappy spouses, but amazing parents. They “deserve” to be divorced because of their substandard efforts or behavior in marriage. And without going too far down the semantics and “Yeah, but” rabbit hole, it can be argued that amazing parents NEVER “deserve” to lose their children, even just sometimes. Certainly, children don’t deserve to lose parents.

As an advocate of personal responsibility, I think married parents should be intellectually capable of understanding that what’s best for their children is to always love the other parent in mind, heart, word and action, but I also know how murky the waters get and how gray the areas get when emotionally damaged humans start doing what emotionally damaged humans do.

Under the very best of divorced circumstances—where two adults communicate frequently, never undermine one another or use their children as pawns to inflict pain, and who truly demonstrate a commitment to putting children first—(which I’m insanely blessed to experience in my life) it’s STILL super-hard.

And there are so many levels to that. You worry about their physical health and safety. You worry about whatever undeserved emotional and psychological baggage they’re taking on from your past or present failings.

Mothers’ hearts break while driving away from screaming, outstretched-armed infants too young to verbally communicate or understand why mommy is leaving them. Mothers who stress over their children eating unhealthy meals, not brushing their teeth before bed, or being left unattended for long periods of time by partying, video-game-playing, or otherwise inattentive, fathers.

Fathers’ hearts break while looking at vacation photos of their children posted on social media while a bunch of people who used to be inner-circle friends and family Like and Favorite and Comment on Facebook and Instagram: “Everyone looks so happy! Love this!” Fathers who stress over their children’s unknown neighbors, or trying to match the level of domestic care their kids might experience at mom’s, or seeing another man experience father-child moments with their kids while attending baseball games or riding bikes and probably other things we’ll never hear about.

That’s when things are optimal.

When they’re not?

The other parent’s girlfriend or boyfriend might present some kind of threat to your child’s wellbeing. Perhaps in some obvious and specifically terrifying ways, or perhaps in more subtle mind- and heart-damaging ways you can only imagine.

I know of one 10-year-old girl and 7-year-old brother who text their dad (a guy I believe to be a decent man and fiercely loving father) every time a strange man emerges from mommy’s bedroom. The last number I heard was 6.

Maybe those new boyfriends or girlfriends are criminals. Abusers. Addicts. Maybe they’re psychotic. Moronic. Cruel.

Maybe they’ll teach your kids that what they’ve been taught about faith, or politics, or personal interests are “wrong” or “stupid” or not as good as some other thing.

Maybe they’ll tell your kids about things you do and spin them in ugly ways in an effort to make them think less of you.

Maybe they’ll make up lies to make them afraid of you or not want to see you at all.

In the United States, we have a legal system that mostly—but not always—helps people navigate these situations, but even then, they’re brutally expensive, emotionally exhausting, and even when things go your way, you STILL end up facing the tragic reality of your child’s other parent being someone you (and maybe even your children) can’t trust to take care of them in ways you perceive to be best for them.

Right or wrong, if your heart’s in the right place, it’s all a bit more than human beings are equipped to handle.

The Thing About Control

Maybe there’s a really wise approach to feeling out of control. Maybe there are obvious choices to make, and when we do, everything gets to be okay afterward.

Even though I feel truly blessed to share parenting with someone who I perceive to do virtually everything “right,” and who loves our son with the same passion and fierce loyalty any parent could want, I STILL experience this loss of control we’d all ideally like to have over the things that mean most to us, and affect us most deeply.

One of my friends texted me about a month ago: “May I request a future post about HOW TO COPE WITH A DOUCHEBAG dating your ex-wife and constantly hanging with your kid?”

My friend is solid people. But while I’m inclined to trust his judgment that his ex-wife’s boyfriend demonstrates legitimate douchebaggery, I can’t be 100-percent sure his feelings aren’t comprised the same as most of us are when we talk and think about our exes.

Regardless, this is an important thing.

It’s profoundly important when children are truly at risk.

It’s pretty damn important when children are being damaged in some ways, even if only accidentally.

And as part of the Macro Divorce Conversation, this needs acknowledgement and its day in the sun.

It’s hard to lose control of anything that impacts our lives.

It’s CRUSHING to lose control of things that directly impact our children’s wellbeing.

Maybe We’re Never Actually In Control

I wish I had an answer for how to cope, JBD.

But I don’t. I just…don’t.

I might die on my drive home today.

We can’t control whether our hearts will beat five seconds from now.

And I think that means we can’t control most things. Some people accept the lack of control as fundamental to the human experience. Others have faith that God’s in control, which helps eliminate fear.

Maybe the best we can do is influence.

We can use brute force and later pay the legal and human consequences.

We can use the legal system and maybe after spending a bunch of money, something gets better somehow.

We can fight back, trying to do things that might affect our exes as much as we feel affected.

Maybe some of that serves the purpose of helping our kids. Probably not.


Maybe we can accept responsibility for the role we played in creating the situation. Maybe we can accept responsibility for choosing life partnership and/or procreation with someone capable of not putting our child’s welfare above other things.


Maybe we can work on being the kind of people who make this spinning rock a better place to be. Maybe we can work on being people who light up the darkness.


Maybe we can WANT and actively work for good things to happen to our exes, if for no other reason than to give our children the best lives possible.

Maybe we can pray for their hearts and minds. Maybe we can wish good things for them. Maybe we can say nice things to and about them. Maybe we can support them. Maybe we can help them. Maybe we can work on redeeming ourselves in our shared-parenting relationships by walking a higher path than we did on our marches toward divorce.

And just maybe, when we love that hard, walls come down and connections form.

Just maybe, our children thrive even under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Because life feels extra-difficult when we try to control everything only to discover we’re never really in control.

Maybe when we love hard enough, we won’t feel like we have to.

23 thoughts on “The Thing Divorced Parents Fear Most”

  1. I can’t even… he chose his emotionally distance and abuse all those years. He chose the abuse of ripping their stability and family in half. He’s choosing the ongoing utter failure of communication and cooperation. I can’t even go there. People make their choices according to what they want and what matters to them. I wish his kids stability and emotional and mental health had mattered to him. But I’ll never again support the lies that flow forth about suddenly the stuff he’s been set on destroying and is attacking on an ongoing basis matters So much. Even over the last 24 hours putting in a pisspoor 5 minutes or less study and reflection on trying to fix yet another nightmare he created that I’ve just spent the last two weeks fixing for my poor girl…it’s just beyond the pale. No. it’s one thing to not give enough of a shit to show up daily and be a part of things and have a clue how much your wife does to make life work and to be bonded to the children and to really KNOW thir needs. It’s another to be so outside of reality and goodness and light yo a year later still be harming them and still be pretending that she isn’t good enough and still be pretending that you can come in with your minute of paying attention and point out how flawed real life looks to you and trying to pretend to fix it but actually just being totally wrong since your moment of attention was nothing to what the real needs were. I’m sorry for the rant. But I just can’t even play this modern political correct game that any of this harm being done is OK or justifiable or doesn’t speak to who someone is as a parent when they choose to be bad for their whole family, I may have to deal with the courts and their decrees that even with the children alleging abuse the abuser is still good for the kids but I can’t lie to myself or my kids or condone the fallacy. Our society need some to stop telling kids to be good little victims and accept that their parents are good for them no matter how they treat them after the kids put up the healthy boundaries to say “no, I’m not OK with that treatment.

    1. You don’t have to be sorry for any rants.

      You’re allowed, and encouraged, to be passionate about the welfare of your children and other people’s.

      There aren’t solutions. I trust people who love their kids to do the very best they can.

      I’m sure that’s what you’re doing. And I’m very sorry, for you and your kids, that you don’t feel that’s being reciprocated by their father.

      Children, and the adults they grow up to be, and the kids they go on to raise, rank #1 on the People I Think About list when I’m writing or discussing all of this macro-divorce and relationship stuff.

      It matters.

      So no. If your children are being adversely affected, then I encourage you to rant away.

      This can’t get better until enough people are having the conversation.

      1. Thank-you, Matt. Truly my youngest is an outstanding young woman and has voluntarily decided to go into counseling, has held my hand and prayed with me and been brace enough to walk in faith into what she sees as really bad situations. She didn’t stay in the visit as long as the GAL wanted me to make her but she went in and did it. And I’m so proud of her in a million different ways.

  2. When I walked away from my toxic and celibate marriage 35 years ago, I was a month away from deploying with my squadron. By the time I got back 6 months later, my children hated me. We did the customary occasional weekends with me, and a couple of weeks in the summer, but it was tense and uncomfortable. I was transferred overseas at couple of years later, and shortly thereafter, the letters stopped coming, and about 6 months after that, my letters were returned as “No forwarding address”. My ex had moved away, and never bothered to tell me where. I finally got in touch with them a few years after that, and spent a final – and very tense – weekend with them, but it was clear that they didn’t want any part in my life – nor I in theirs.

    The divorce is painful enough, but the real tragedy is that the children get used as weapons against the other parent.

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  4. Once again you have nailed it. Everyone should have to read this before becoming parents. Some relationships that once were good fade over time but could have remained vibrant if the couple had both skills and commitment. Others needed to end before there were children because one or both people are incapable of considering anyone but themselves.

    As you said, everyone is impacted when a couple splits–friends, family, and especially the kids. But because most never seek help, even after deciding to divorce, the raw, negative emotions are left to poison the kids. Not exposing them to your “dates” unless and until there is a real relationship, and taking supreme care even then, is a course not often taken and that hurts children even more.

    Thanks for your writing!

  5. Matt I hear you – I do. But I am struggling right now – like literally this minute with tirades being directed at me because I offered to let my ex – who does not have any visitation time for Halloween this year – come over and trick or treat with my son. Since I did not extend the invitation to his girlfriend of not quite 2 months as well – I am a horrible person who uses his child against him.

    I took his son to him on 4th of July for some time – even though it was my holiday this year. I let him have his son for both his and his son’s birthday – also in addition to his regularly scheduled visitation. Sometimes no matter how much you do its never enough. And sometimes you just get tired of shoveling the shit you get dumped on you.

    From now on we’ll be sticking to scheduled visitation – period. I do not have to deal with this any more. He left me – I don’t still have to take the verbal abuse and bullying.

    1. That sucks. A saying I had to tape to the wall said “Givers need to set limits. Because takers never do.” I wish you well – you were doing what was best, and now also need to do what is needed. Hugs!!!

    2. It is the way of the toxicity of our divorce culture. Many men do not value women and many women do not value men but they all pretend that they are awesome for their kids in their brokenness and that the other person is hurting the kids by using them as a weapon. No one wants to own their own faults and actually do what they need to do for their kids only holler about how much some other person is 100% responsible for hurting their kids and them in the divorce process. 🙁

  6. Thankfully, I can trust my ex-wife to provide a safe home for my kids. She has brought multiple guys into their lives since our separation and eventual divorce. But, it hasn’t been crazy and the kids have never really mentioned feeling unsafe.

    The big challenge for my wife and I is just to block out the relatively minor ways we parent differently when the kids aren’t with us. I think I annoy my wife with how easy it is for me to not care what happens at their other home. She hears stuff and it will drive her nuts.

    But, it’s the old adage about letting your sphere of concern be as close to the same size as your sphere of influence. We can’t really influence choices that are made outside of our house, so I try not to be concerned about it.

    The biggest challenge in our co-parenting relationship is the fact that my ex-wife is really bad at communicating and she is big on double standards.

    But, things have been relatively good since the divorce finalized two years after the separation began. And since I’ve re-married, things have only gotten more stable in my life as I was the one that was forced to leave the home.

    Sometimes, I wish my ex-wife would realize how much worse things could be and remember that I am very accommodating, but that I prefer she asks nicely, as opposed to being demanding and trying to guilt trip me into doing things her way.

    1. As someone teetering on the edge of divorce, this makes me want to stay for the kids.

      I won’t get into all the reasons I want a divorce, but after 2 years of counseling and still feeling resentment that feels insurmountable, this post leaves me leaning towards staying another 12 years “for the kids’ sake.” *sigh*

      Everything you’ve ever written applies to my marriage…and then some. The “some” being abuse such as shoving me, throwing things in my direction (but not “at” me, he says), screaming in my face, aggressive intimidation, etc.

      Why is it so hard to walk away?

      1. Because we want to be stable and loving. It is so hard to accept not being able to have enough influence to help the broken person and at the same time not being good enough for them to give a hoot to want that much to be good for us and the children being hurt by all of the brokenness.

        It is a very new thing for me after a year after he walked out to go seek his bliss away from his commitments and responsibilities to really know it to my bones that I do not have to understand how much of his brokenness is intentional evil, versus alcoholism, versus baggage from his childhood, versus who knows what crazy I may never have a clue about. It just doesn’t matter. All I have to know is that he is a big ol’ pile of wrong and that I can’t own any of his mistake for him and I can’t influence any of them…not ever. So when he wrote me a bunch of crazy a week and a half ago thoroughly contradicting what he had been fighting for in court for months and had finally won and was now suddenly apparently trying to trap me into being in contempt of court if I went along with his bizarre new plans to defy the judges order to do exactly what he’d been fighting for, I just forwarded it to my lawyer and didn’t even both having a big thought process over what on earth he could be planning or why he could be so utterly…bizarre? terrible? evil? I don’t know. And I don’t care. I gave it a minute or two here and there to shrug my shoulders and acknowledge the maybe he has narcissistic personality disorder and thinks he’s a master manipulator for all I can figure out or give credit for any semblance of goodness in him. I know I have to protect myself and my daughter. But giving up caring about him has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the absolute worst experience of my life to accept that he is that far gone from anything good and worthwhile for me to invest the slightest energy in. I’m not sure I’ll ever be to the point that the processing of that mountain of stuff will be completely finished.

        It is that hard to give up because we know how hard that is on the kids AND probably because you had real love and real commitment to begin with, something sadly in short supply in our culture. And when it is real it is HARD to banish it. Real love and commitment doesn’t just evaporate. Only eros is that flimsy. But agape love is real and solid and means to do for that other person even when they are unlovable. I want to say don’t beat yourself up. But you will anyway. It is traumatic stuff. But I will pray for you that you can process it and that you may even see the improvements and the healing that so few in this culture ever get to enjoy.

        1. Now that word is getting out about our divorce, I’ve been enlightened by a few people(I actually considered them friends) that they knew about my husband’s affairs, but didn’t want to become involved by telling me. One of his affairs actually told people she was screwing my husband & she knew he was married & didn’t care. If it was just one source telling me this, I might be inclined to blow it off, but several different people telling me the same thing about the same woman? And he continues to deny everything. And he continues to deny any involvement with another woman whom I found out about & confronted him on. My insecurities & trust issues are why he’s unhappy & he’s not going to try anymore. REALLY?? My insecurities & trust issues are a direct result of his lying & cheating. But I still didn’t want to give up because I still loved him & wanted to work through things. Kinda sick, actually.

          Last year, when he told our 15 year old daughter that he was unhappy & wanted to divorce me (again), she called him out on his bullshit. She told him she didn’t believe that he was just unhappy, and she point blank asked him if he was involved with another woman. She asked this not because of anything that I had allowed to her in the beginning because believe me, I was extremely tight-lipped about the affairs, but because he’s said & done this before. He told her that it was none of her business & that this was between him & me.

          She moved out with me in May. She doesn’t want to go to Dad’s house now & hang out. She doesn’t want to spend the upcoming holidays with him. She really doesn’t want anything to do with him right now, period. She wants answers to her questions that only he can answer and he’s not talking. She’s angry because this IS her business…this is her family being torn apart. And while I realize she doesn’t need the explicit details of his sexual encounters with these women, she’s old enough to know what an affair is, and when she’s asked me if I think he cheated on me, I tell her that’s exactly what I believe. What else am I supposed to say?? He’s accusing me of being the bad guy & turning her against him. No, that’s not it. Just this past week, she’s fallen asleep in my arms 3 times after sobbing her eyes out because he still refuses to talk to her and answer the hard questions she’s asking. She just wants him to be truthful with her. I think deep down she know that his silence or refusal to talk to her is the only answers from him she’s going to get. She’s heartbroken.

          He’s not around to pick up the pieces and that’s what pisses me off the most. I’m a big girl & in time will be fine. But my daughter? What kind of trust issues is she going to have down the road? She & her dad used to have a very close relationship. The one man she always thought she could trust has proven to be untrustworthy. How do you fix that?? I know one, thing…I’m not going to try & fix it for him. If he wants to repair his relationship with his daughter, he’s going to have to step up & do it himself. All I know to do is hold her when she cries, not dwell on anything, and start making a new life for the two of us.

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  8. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, I have come to realize my ex was not a really good husband but was (and mostly is) a good father. He loves our son and calls several times a week to talk to him. Where he falls down — and this was consistent throughout our marriage — is that he mostly thinks about himself and what he wants, not what others around him might want or be interested in. My son loves his dad, but this is the one common thread I hear when they gets off the phone or he comes home from his weekends away. I’m not sure what my ex thought would happen when he left our marriage, but I’m pretty he was thinking mostly of himself, not what he would miss by not being around.

  9. “Maybe we can accept responsibility for choosing life partnership and/or procreation with someone capable of not putting our child’s welfare above other things.”

    I come from a nasty divorce, custody battle, parental kidnapping. As a kid I was a complete pawn in the worst possible scenario.One of the best things you can do for your kids is to accept responsibility for the other parent, even if they are really awful. That’s counterintuitive, hard on the pride, but if you don’t accept responsibility for marrying them, kids will, they will pick up the blame.

    Before my dad passed away he told me it was entirely his fault, that he had chosen to marry my mom,that he was responsible for the bad blood between them, that he had caused my suffering, too. That was a huge gift, it relieved me of burdens I had been carrying that didn’t even belong to me. It really wasn’t entirely my dads fault, but his willingness to pick it all up for my sake was profound and healing.

  10. What no one tells you about divorce is that you don’t truly get “free” of your ex if you have kids. You HAVE TO figure out a way to co-parent. You have zero choice in this unless your ex vanishes. ZERO. You are required to put the hurt, anger, bitterness, jealousy, etc. aside – no matter what, the kids’ needs MUST come first.

    It was a tough realization. Fortunately, my kids are freaking amazing. I’m blessed that he’s a great dad, even if he wasn’t the right spouse for me. I know so many who are not so lucky.

  11. I divorced a narcissist. I try so hard to coparent with him but its impossible sometimes. It has been two years, we have both moved on yet there is a new issue/ new aruguement each week over the kids. No im not innocent but i try so hard to work with him. I can’t have any privacy as to what I say to him because I know that my children will be thrown in the center of it all. (Example: he reads all of my texts outloud to the children they are made to listen to them and he always puts me on speaker phone.) I am always portrayed to be a terrible parent no matter how hard I try. (Example: He called me 30 minutes before my sons choir concert to ask if I was going to make it even though he had not told me anything about it prior. I was 10 minutes late but I still made it. At the end I found my son sitting alone and upset. When I approached him I got the biggest hug and a “Mom! Dad told me that you wouldn’t be here because you forgot about it. I’m so happy your here.”) Its things likely that that I am constantly battling and are hurting my children. I try so hard to still love and show compassion to my ex for my children’s sakes but How? How do you do that when all you want to do is hate them for still trying to destroy you even after the divorce?

  12. Michelle Lankins

    Without a question that will be one of my all time favorites! I am at the point of letting go of control which affects us all in such variety. I am finding that I actually need and yes want to be less emotional. In my reactions, my thoughts, desires, needs this is the reality. In all areas of my life. Hell, even in humor, pain, challenge emotions can be a detriment. I want to be healthy in controlling emotions. Wow, I don’t quite understand how letting go of control and controlling emotions have connected here. Maybe the aspect of becoming healthy.

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Matt Fray

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