Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Lost Weekend

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 or 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.


JanetDavies said...

Having to deal with a narcissist is no joke and it can happen to anyone. Most people think that narcissism is about being self centered or egotistical and don't understand the devastation caused by this serious personality disorder. They are sociopaths, basically, unable to feel genuine love, empathy or compassion. Their antics to deliberately sabotage their victims (anyone near them) are endless and malicious and all the while, they appear to be 'such a nice guy/gal!'. You try to expose them and you look like the crazy one...until they get older like my mother and their minds have been worn down by the lifetime of lies they have told themselves. The dementia sets in and the false, friendly mask falls away, exposing their true ugly nature.
Another good book to help when dealing with divorcing a narcissist is 'Splitting', by Bill Eddy and Randy Kreger:
It also helps people in the legal system to understand what they are dealing with. How they can whip up such emotion..tears and sobbing and the drama that can even sway your own attorney. You MUST protect yourself and have the courage to be safe.

A said...

To JanetDavies,

Isn't the "limit setting" of the "anti-'narcissist'" exactly what Liza's ex-husband accomplished by denying her a visit? One way for the so-called "sane" spouse to countermanipulate the "narcissistic" spouse is to force their designated patient to rigidly obey the "limits" they "set" for them. All Liza's ex-husband did was give her a taste of her own medicine. He was wrong to do this because, as Liza pointed out, the kids weren't in "danger" from their mother's "drama". This dude really did just want payback.

It would be much better for everybody if both of the "adults" in this family quit manipulating and countermanipulating each other and their children. Why can't the members of this family just treat each other with respect?

JanetDavies said...

To A
I really wanted to take the opportunity to speak about divorcing a narcissist and how to protect yourself when you do. It can be a serious, serious situation depending on how bad the narcissist is. I think that narcissism is misunderstood by a lot of people and I wanted to speak about some of those misunderstandings. Being the victim of a true narcissist can be devastating, even deadly it is so serious. The more that people can understand about it, the better in my opinion.
I am unclear on what you mean by "anti- 'narcissist". I've read a lot on narcissism and spoken with many professionals about it and have never heard it mentioned before. It almost seems as if you are using it to deny that there is such a thing as a "narcissist". I feel Liza's willingness to speak out on these issues is just what we need now and I hope more of us will continue to do so in spite of ignorance, denial and shame.

A said...

To JanetDavies,

An “anti-‘narcissist’” is a person who sounds very much like you did in your first post. Anti-narcissists

(1) “diagnose” psychopathology in anybody they disagree with

(2) deny every prosocial character trait possessed by the “narcissist”

(3) refuse to acknowledge the fact that most “narcissists” are made and not born

(4) induce and accentuate antisocial behavior patterns in the people they label as “narcissistic”

(5) believe that anyone who becomes a “narcissist” will never reform

(6) use countermanipulative tactics to control their designated “narcissist” instead of trying to understand them and negotiate a set of mutually beneficial boundaries for the relationship

I am no mental health professional and the term “anti-‘narcissist’” is my off-the cuff description of the people, both lay and professional, who hoist themselves on the altar of “better-than-thou”. It has no more clinical validity than the term “narcissist” has. Most psychopathological explanations for human behavior are malleable enough to be exploited by anybody with a grudge, an ideology, a fantasy, or a phobia. The unavoidably self-serving processes of and agendas for these pseudoscientific theories essentially preclude anyone from successfully “diagnosing” psychopathological amorality or immorality in any human being.

When people disregard the consequences of judging books by their covers, mayhem ensues. It’s just common sense that all of us sometimes misinterpret the actions and motivations of our family members, friends, coworkers, etc. When we aren’t able or willing to distinguish between events as we perceive them and events as they have actually occured, it’s only a matter of time before we find ourselves on the losing side of pseudoscience.

JanetDavies said...

Narcissists make very sure they look like an upstanding citizen, an excellent father, mother, wife, husband, friend..etc (until they can no longer maintain it) so the 'not judging a book by it's cover' thing doesn't even fly with them. A narcissist will make sure they look good and they do their best to make sure the people involved with them agree to keep up the false appearances.
Then there's always the point where the narcissist, when accused (or suspecting they might be accused) of any sociopathic or bad behavior accuses the victim of all kinds of worse behavior and might even accuse the accuser of being a narcissist.
I too have seen people diagnose others that they don't agree with with a convenient psychopathology but it is a very dangerous thing to not believe someone who says that they are a victim of abuse. Already, so much abuse goes unreported because the victims are afraid they won't be believed or they will be blamed. Enough already.
I won't be back to engage with you any further, A.

I still have great concern for people who might be the victim of a narcissist. To them I say, hang in there! If you're here reading this, you're already stronger than you know, you are deserving of love and respect, you belong here and you have the right to take steps to take care of yourself.
Please seek out a good therapist. I recommend you find someone with extensive experience in marriage and family counseling or else they may try to convince you that you are the abuser and the narcissist the victim of your bad behavior and that won't be hard since you've been accused of that every time you even dared to think about standing up for yourself anyway. An experienced professional will recognize the classic symptoms of a victim of a narcissist. Panic attacks, low self esteem, depression, anxiety, fear, confusion and possibly thoughts of suicide and chronic illness (especially digestive disorders) are some of the hallmarks of someone abused by a narcissist.
If you suspect you have a parent who is a narcissist, take this test to see. You might be very surprised to discover that these behaviors are not normal. I promise you are not alone:

Search for blogs and forums that offer support to ACONs (adult children of narcissists) There you will find people who can offer support and information. Narcissists and people who are unsupportive are not allowed in the forums so it is a safe environment to post your experiences and to find help. Again, you might be surprised and then assured to see that we all have many things in common.
Hopefully my comments and Liza's post will help someone who is feeling lost. My heart goes out to you.
Liza, keep writing and keep telling the truth, your courage will inspire others.

Anarchist Mom said...

Janet, thank you so much for your comments! A, while I appreciate what you wrote, I'm afraid you really don't understand. The police were actually happy to help me enforce my custody agreement. But what would that have done to my children? Their needs always come first, even when it's hard. I didn't mention that my ex refuses to be involved at all with our older two children, one of whom has a serious mental illness.