When my parents divorced about two years ago I was prepared for it. My parents were always fighting and I was actually quite relieved to hear they were separating, but with the knowledge came a lot of information about my mother that I didn’t want to know. My father has told me about my mother cheating on him (which she denies), financial issues, and other bits of information inappropriate to share with your child.
Since the divorce my mother has been dating the man my father accuses her of cheating on him with. This man has been nothing but nice to my sister and I, but my father doesn’t approve of us getting along. When I went to a concert with this man, my mother, and my friend, my father freaked out. He was upset that I “would go to a concert with (insert boyfriend’s name)”.
Meanwhile, at my father’s house, I have found condoms, thongs, and porn in his internet history. My father says he’s “trusting” me to be mature enough to handle the stuff he has to say about my mother, but he won’t even tell me what’s been going on with him. I leave in a year for college, so to be perfectly honest I don’t care about what they do, but I do care how it’s going to affect my younger sister. What can I do to protect my sister from being hurt by my parents feuding?
We’ll get there, Sparkler. But before we talk about that, we need to talk about this:
Whether or not your mom cheated with her boyfriend, broke your father’s heart, and made off with all his money is irrelevant—as is your father’s sex life or the evidence that he’s got one. Your parents’ private lives aren’t your concern, and the dissolution of their marriage isn’t yours to dissect; it, and the details thereof, should remain between them.
Which makes your dad’s behavior pretty freakin’ awful.
And while I think you’re already onto this, I just want to make it clear: your dad isn’t telling you these things because he trusts you. Because a person who trusts you will trust your judgment, give you space to draw your own conclusions, and not try to manipulate you into taking sides. But this isn’t about trust; it’s about your dad valuing his grudge against his ex-wife more than a civil relationship with the mother of his kids, more than his responsibilities as a parent, and even more than maintaining appropriate boundaries with his daughter. There’s a reason why divorcing couples are instructed to never, ever, ever badmouth the other parent in front of their kids: it’s a dirty tactic, it’s damaging to the already-shell-shocked child, and, most importantly, it’s completely unnecessary. If one parent is truly a terrible, uncaring person, the kid will figure that out on their own.
And the fact that your dad is not only not trusting you to do that, but is also treating you less like a person than a trophy to be won, suggests that you should take whatever he has to say about your mother with several million grains of salt.
That is, if you take it at all—which I hope you won’t. You’re absolutely right that his behavior is inappropriate, and telling him so is your only hope of getting it to stop. So the next time he starts to tell you awful things about your mother with the justification that you’re “mature enough to handle it,” give him an in-your-own words version of the following response:
“I might be mature enough to handle this, but I’m also mature enough to understand that your marriage is none of my business, and that it’s not appropriate for you to be trying to sabotage my relationship with Mom and her boyfriend. I love you both, I’m not choosing sides, and it’s wrong of you to try to make me. And if you won’t stop for my sake, or Sister’s sake, then do it for your own sake—because no matter how badly your marriage ended, badmouthing the mother of your children makes you look truly terrible.”
And once you’ve said that, you’ll have set all the precedent you need to meet any future comments with a change of subject (“How about this weather?”), followed by a curt reminder (“Dad, I’ve told you this isn’t okay, and I’m really disappointed that you’re doing it again”), followed, if necessary, by an exit from the room (and a suggestion that he get in touch when he has something more appropriate to talk about).
Does this mean that the feuding will stop? Alas, no: there is no guarantee—and if he doesn’t stop, then you’ll have to hope for (and encourage) your sister’s ability to be as sanguine about the situation as you are. But showing your dad that his plan has backfired utterly, earning him your disapproval rather than your adoration, is your best bet for getting him to realize his mistake. And, if you’re lucky, to keep him from repeating it.
Do your divorced parents try to make you choose sides? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.