Divorce and the guilty parent


When parents run out of strategies to resolve their differences and their relationship ends in divorce, the children can often become pawns. Unless the parents share responsibilities for the children equally, a polarity can ensue where the parents have completely different roles, and one parent is managing the children and the other one supporting them financially. In this case, especially if there is no quality communication and no resolution of tension, the parents can use guilt trips as manipulative strategies.

Let’s give a classic case: Usually the man is making most of the money, while the woman is taking care of the children. She wants more for the kids, so she will use guilt trips. “You don’t see the kids, you’re not there for the kids,” she’ll say. “I’m the one who takes care of them. All you do is work and make money. That’s so simple compared to what I have to do.”

“If you helped us out more, if you gave us more money, then we would be better off.”

So if there is any way, any feelings of guilt or shame on the part of the parent who is being manipulated, the guilt-based manipulation strategy will accomplish its aim. The parent, in this case the mother, will use the guilt trip and the father will give in. To mitigate this pawn-based guilt strategy, there is a useful series of questions that can be asked.

Let’s use the context that the wife is taking care of the family most of time and the husband takes the children occasionally, say every two weeks. He’s paying child support and paying most of the bills while she’s raising the family. And because she’s disempowered economically, the only way to get extra money is by using guilt trips and threats.

So there are two things the father can do: The first step is to ask the question “What do I think they are missing?”

In the above scenario, the father asks the question: “When I’m not able to be there for my children, what do I think they are missing? And who is substituting, surrogating or taking my place as the father?” Is it friends, uncles, teachers, coaches, best friends’ fathers, male heroes, or is the mother taking on masculine roles? Or is the child emerging with accelerated maturity to take on those roles himself?

Once you have asked that question, you have begun to identify what was or is perceived to be missing from the children’s lives, and what it has been substituted with, and who is now providing the father’s roles. Then you need to identify what the many benefits of this substitution are for the child and the ex-wife, as well as what the many drawbacks would be if the father was doing exactly what the mother assumed would be ideal and projected instead of remaining a provider and only a part time participate in a fatherly role.

The most important factor is that the child is not losing out in any way. It’s important to make sure you discover how the child’s needs are being met despite your not being there all the time. As long as you discover the various substitutes that have emerged that are giving the child what it needs, or what you thought is missing because you, the father, are not always there to provide it. Once you can see the benefits to your child in his new circumstances, the guilt and the shame will then dissolve.

Nothing is ever missing – it’s just changing form. Teaching the child this strategy allows the child to be more adaptable to an ever-changing primary and extended family dynamic. Children are amazingly resilient.  Feeding a fantasy and an unrealistic expectation based on some social idealism of how it’s supposed to be, instead of teaching children how to embrace what is, adds stress. Children need to learn to become masters of their destiny, not victims of their history.

The moment the former husband dissolves his own internal conflict and guilt and puts things into perspective, the wife’s guilt strategy will lose power. This will then enhance the child and the parent’s ability to communicate more maturely instead of holding onto fantasies or unrealistic expectations.

Dr. John Demartini is a human behaviour specialist, educator, author and the founder of the Demartini Institute.

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