My husband and I split up a year ago. We were married for more than a decade and have two young children. We had a decent marriage, but the final years we struggled to communicate and connect, and I was very lonely and unhappy. I had planned to leave when my children were older. Then, I met and fell in love with another man. We decided to leave our spouses and make a life together. When I told my husband that I wanted to end our marriage, his reaction was intense. He raged and lashed out for weeks, and completely stopped speaking to me. His anger was understandable, and I moved to a rental house nearby, hoping that with time and distance we could settle into a cordial, polite co-parenting arrangement. We have been living separately for nine months, and our children go back and forth between our homes.
He is fixated on a model called parallel parenting, in which we don’t communicate at all except to arrange drop-offs and collections for our kids. I know I hurt him terribly and don’t want to minimise his feelings, but I can’t seem to make him understand that not speaking to me or acknowledging my existence is making an already confusing situation for our children even worse. They want to know if we are still a family, and why we can’t spend any time together doing things we used to, and I keep telling them that some day their father and I will be friends again. I am shocked at how he seems unable to put his own feelings aside for the sake of the children and go for the occasional walk or meal, but he is adamant he will never speak to me or be in the same room again. Is it unfair of me to expect that we can raise our children together as co-parents because of how I wronged him? I feel he is punishing me, but the ones who bear the burden are our kids.
The love, care and worry you feel for your children is evident, and obviously your separation from and agreements with your ex will be an ongoing process with a lot of navigating and negotiating in terms of both practicalities and emotional matters. I presume you have legal assistance, and I hope you are utilising family mediation services that will help you explore your options. I also think that therapy for your children would be a good idea so they have help understanding this experience, expressing themselves, and feeling supported. I hope you have support too, as you’re dealing with a lot of worry on top of going through a big life change.
I strongly suggest that you utilise family mediation services that will help you explore your options. Family mediation can be incredibly helpful for families navigating separation. It’s not couples counselling or aimed at reconciliation, but focused on how a separating couples can come to mutually acceptable arrangements regarding parenting, education and childcare, family holidays and special occasions, financial issues, and other issues related to the separation. Mediators are trained to not take sides but to help create a climate where both individuals feel heard and respected and to create an atmosphere of co-operation and responsibility to help reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Mediation is usually three to six hour-long sessions, and will often end with a written document setting out details of the couple’s agreement. This is not a legal document, but a statement of intent to help both parties feel clear and secure. There are also options for review sessions over time so that the changing needs of the separating couple or children can be addressed. The Family Mediation Service provided by the Legal Aid Board is free, or private mediation services are available from The Mediations’ Institute of Ireland.
Availing of these services will be incredibly helpful to you and your ex moving forward, and hopefully he will be comfortable engaging with them as the aim is not to reconcile but to come to agreements around care of your children. Engaging in mediation will require that your ex agree to it, however, and getting him to do so may involve changing your approach to him.
There is so much to navigate that cannot possibly be addressed within an advice column, and will require help over time from the professionals suggested above. What I will try to offer you is simply a way of reframing your thinking about the situation right now that may help you focus your energies.
Your letter asks whether his reaction is “fair” and how you can change his thinking. These are not productive questions to ask right now
Your letter asks whether his reaction is “fair” and how you can change his thinking. These are not productive questions to ask right now. Ideas of “fairness” can often be too simplistic and subjective to be helpful when addressing deeply emotive issues. Focusing on this feels like a way of trying to control the narrative around what has happened, instead of accepting where you are right now.
You feel it is fair to expect that you and your husband can co-parent in the way you believe is best for your children – but I’m guessing your husband would argue that given the pain and betrayal he feels, it’s fair for him to not want to engage with you. He may even believe it’s fairer for the children to be protected from any potential conflict or tension rather than be around you both when he doesn’t feel willing or able to interact with you without anger. You may disagree, but that’s the point – what’s “fair” is not always an objective, universally shared idea. Neither is the idea of “punishment”. You believe your husband is punishing you by not engaging with you, but he may also feel that being betrayed and then forced to interact with you before he is ready – all while being told that his parenting decisions are wrong and his behaviour is unreasonable – also feels punishing. There are two very different perspectives here. Assuming your perspective is not just correct but the only way forward may actually be holding you back - not because I think your desire is wrong, but because your approach isn’t working .
Life is long, marriage is complicated and affairs happen, so I’m not trying to judge you for leaving your marriage. But there is a thread in your letter of trying to anticipate and control your ex-husband’s emotions while centring your comfort, and dismantling this way of thinking may help you view this situation differently – and hopefully, in time, reach a more respectful place of communication for both of you. The choice to have an affair instead of leaving your husband first and then pursuing a connection with someone implies a certain desire to control a situation, whether that means easing deep discontent, fulfilling an unmet emotional need, avoiding the possibility of being alone or being a single parent or something else. Your surprise around his reaction to the affair and your decision to leave also indicates a desire for control, as you believed you would be able to predict his response and act accordingly.
Now, you are frustrated because you can’t make your husband feel, act and parent the way you think he should, and in turn, you cannot protect and parent your children in the way you think is best. Again, your desire to care for your children and model a healthy form of connected co-parenting is completely understandable – but I do not think that trying to force or guilt your ex-husband into doing what you want will help right now. He is hurting, and his life has been upended, and he may very well be trying to wrestle back some sense of control by refusing to do what you want – or he may be making choices he genuinely believes are the best for him and the children. Either way, you cannot control him or force him to do what you want – and trying to may escalate or prolong this fraught time.
The break-up of your marriage is still new and raw. It is very possible that over time there will be much healing, renegotiating and rebuilding of relationships
If you accepted that you couldn’t control his behaviour, how would that impact your actions, knowing that choices made now don’t have to be permanent? It may involve meeting with a family mediator to discuss options. It may involve agreeing to parallel parent for a set period of time before revisiting and renegotiating the arrangement in the future when everyone feels calmer and more centred. It may mean seeking out support and guidance from professionals, and ensuring that your children have as much clarity and support as they need. It may involve helping your ex be the best parent he can be to your children, rather than trying to make him be the best ex-husband or co-parent he can be to you.
The break-up of your marriage is still new and raw. It is very possible that over time there will be much healing, renegotiating, and rebuilding of relationships. But that may only be possible if you stop focusing on your ex, who you cannot control, and instead focus on what is in your control. I sincerely hope life gets easier for all of you.