|Where were my children? Photo by Jonathan Malm,|
In high conflict divorces, it’s best to stick to the agreement, even when it hurts
I don’t talk much about my ex-husband or our extremely high conflict divorce. But I recently discovered Tina Swithin’s epic One Mom’s Battle blog, in which she details in blow-by-blow, excruciating detail, what it was like to divorce a narcissist. I couldn’t have found it at a better time.
Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to understand. In the spirit of solidarity with Tina and so many other mothers, here’s a little glimpse of my life.
On Wednesday at 3:45, I left work early, like I always do on Wednesdays, to drive to my younger two children’s schools and pick them up. It had been an incredibly stressful week, with last minute projects and deadlines, so I was eager to leave work behind and enjoy my time with my family. I hummed as I thought about the weekend ahead: the forecast was sunny and warm. Maybe we could go for a family hike on Saturday.
When I pulled up at my son’s school at 4:00, I knew something was wrong. There were only a few cars in the parking lot, and no children were waiting outside or walking home. I went inside. “Maybe he’s in the library,” I thought. Worried, I sent my son a quick email. “I'm wandering all over campus looking for you--can you check in with me if you are by a computer? Or did you walk to your sister’s school?”
It was close to the time I needed to pick up my daughter. Unsure of what to do, I decided to go to her school, then return to look for my son. Her school’s parking lot was also almost empty. I went to the gymnasium where she usually participates in after school jump rope club. “There’s no school today,” a teacher told me.
I was suddenly sick to my stomach. No school. On a Wednesday. Then where were my children? I did something I haven’t done in five years: I called their father. Of course, he didn’t answer, so I left a message. “Hey, there’s no school, apparently. Are the kids with you? Where would you like to meet so I can pick them up?” I also emailed him, “I'm at the school to pick up X from jump rope club and was just informed there is no school today. Where are X and X? Where should I pick them up? Or do you plan to drop them at the clubhouse? Please let me know as soon as possible.”
I had now tried to contact my kids and my ex five times in the course of 15 minutes. I put my head on the steering wheel and started to sob.
It was 4:31. My ex emailed me this: “we waited but you never showed up.”
My mind was racing. What did my current custody agreement say about days when there was no school? There have been so many changes to our agreement over the seven years we have been divorced.
So I emailed back, asking where we could meet to exchange the children.
My ex’s 542-word response had quite obviously been prepared ahead of time. I’ll just share the last bit: “You were not on time for the ordered exchange. You made us and the children wait and wait. That’s not good for the children. The court order says if you don’t make the exchange, you forfeit your visitation period. That language was per the recommendation of (court ordered psychologist) because of your past pattern of actions like today's--creating crises and causing drama and involving the police etc. We are done with your drama. The order says show up on time or miss your visitation period.”
Yep, the reality was this: my ex-husband bet (correctly) that I would forget about the Wednesday in-service day. My other children are in a different school district and had school as usual. So my children’s father drove all the way across town with my son and daughter. He did not answer my phone call. He did not respond to my email. He just waited, like a spider in the center of a web, for me to not show up—because I was on the other side of town at the kids’ schools.
You may be scratching your head at this point. Most divorced parents manage this kind of mix-up easily. For example, one parent might politely remind the other parent that there is no school and confirm the drop off location. Or a parent might text, hey, I’m at the kids school, but they aren’t here! And the other parent could respond, no school. We went to drop off location—headed home now since you weren’t there. Want to meet in the middle? And the first parent would respond, sure, so sorry for mix-up.
That’s not how it works in my world. In my world, we stick to the agreement. We only communicate through email and non-emergency police dispatch. In my world, it’s not about what’s best for the children. It’s about payback.
The thing is, my ex is right on some levels. I should have known the kids didn’t have school on Wednesday. And we need to follow the agreement. Honestly, making exceptions to the agreement is bad for both of us; I am still resentful about the concessions I have made to him in the past, and it’s my own fault for making those concessions. I understand that my ex feels that the agreement should always apply to me and never to him. I need the protections of this agreement in many ways. While I’m sad I don’t get to spend my weekend with my children, I’ve also learned some valuable lessons. Most of all, I’m relieved that they are safe. There’s no worse feeling, as any mother knows, than not knowing where your children are.
I stopped by my children’s schools at lunchtime the next day, to apologize for my mistake. I gave them each a “date with mom” coupon so we could plan our next adventures together. At the end of the day, I’m fortunate to have smart, fun, capable children who love me—and I love them.
It’s been harder for me to forgive myself. My time with my children is precious. Also, because I was so flustered and worried, my ex was able to get me to engage at first. For example, I threatened to call his LDS bishop and report this. I also said I would file a police report. I’m not going to do either. I refuse to engage emotionally for even a single minute more. Instead, I’m going to enjoy that weekend hike, with my husband.
And next time I see my younger children, we’re going to have so much fun!
P.S. If you have a high conflict divorce, here are a few great resources for you:
Divorcing a Narcissist by Tina Swithin. Reading this agonizing tale made me realize that I actually have it pretty good. I don’t think my ex is a full blown narcissist. But he is very controlling and always has to be right. His favorite phrase is "The court order says." Apparently, this phrase only applies to me. Smiley face.
Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss and James Masterson, M.D. This book really helped me to understand my marriage and why I started to disappear. It has also helped me to make better choices in my subsequent relationships.
The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, by Robert I Sutton. Narcissism in the workplace can be toxic. Sometimes the only solution is to leave.
You might also want to check out www.wevorce.com or www.ourfamilywizard.com. I'll be sharing more about wevorce in a subsequent blog.
One final note: if you are divorcing a narcissist, you should be emotionally prepared to spend quite a bit of time in court. We have changed our custody agreement five times in seven years. But you should also know that as you heal and find yourself, you'll find the life you (and your children) deserve.