Care and Feeding

My Son Wants to Know Why My Wife and I Divorced. The Reason Is Too Terrible to Tell Him.

I really don’t think the “truth will set him free.”

A father and son fight about divorce.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by digitalskillet/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding, 

I’m the father of three wonderful boys. My two oldest are in their teens (15 and 17) and with that comes all the usual challenges. Unfortunately, we’re also dealing with the added challenge of the fact that two months ago, their mother and I finalized a divorce. I tried to keep things as smooth and civil as possible, but our relationship has been understandably tense.

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I have primary custody (she gets them every other weekend) and my oldest isn’t taking it well—he’s always been closer with his mother than with me. I’m struggling with my feelings about the behavior he’s exhibiting post-divorce. I know it’s totally normal for kids to lash out or be impulsive or even cruel when dealing with something like this, but there’s only so much I can take. I’ve tried giving him space. I’ve tried asking if he wants to chat. I’ve asked if he would be interested in therapy—as a family or just the two of us. Each time, I get the good ol’ door-slam or he goes out for a drive. The only clue he’s given me as to something that might be able to help him process this is a repeated demand to know why his mother and I got divorced.

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I’m really not sure if that’s appropriate information for him to have. Like most divorces, it was complicated and a long time coming, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was realizing my ex-wife had sexually assaulted me. It took me months to accept that that’s what really happened, and even then, it was a lot of me going back and forth on justifying her actions, then being angry at her, then blaming myself. Only my therapist and one very close friend know what transpired.

My friend thinks I should be honest and upfront with my oldest son. My therapist has said that it’s “my call” as to whether that conversation is appropriate, and that if I choose to move forward with telling him, I should proceed with caution. But he’s so close with his mom, and I have no desire to bad-mouth her to our kids or tarnish their relationship. I know he’s on the cusp of legal adulthood, but I don’t think that automatically makes this conversation an acceptable one. Am I crazy for thinking he just doesn’t need to know any of this? If I do grant him the information he keeps asking for, what do I say? And if I shouldn’t, how can I convey to him that I love him and I’m just trying to do right by him without exacerbating his frustration?

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—Dad Out of His Depth

Dear Dad Out of His Depth,

First, I’m so sorry that you had that experience. It’s very common to blame yourself and to have trouble naming an assault for what it is initially, and I’m glad you’re getting help to process what happened to you. I’m assuming you’ve considered whether your ex is a safe person for your children to be around, given this history. If you have any doubt about that, please reconsider allowing her access to them in a shared custody agreement.

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It sounds, however, like you feel confident that your children are safe in their mother’s care and hope to maintain their relationship with her. In general, experts discourage going into too much detail as to the why behind a divorce as it can be confusing and cause children to feel forced to choose sides. Instead, when I want to share information with my son but am unsure whether it’s inappropriate or a boundary-cross, I focus on checking my motives. What do I hope my son will gain by having this information? Will it be helpful to him? Or would I be treating him as an emotional confidante when it would be more appropriate to speak to a peer or mental health professional? In your case, ask yourself if some part of you would be sharing this information to curry favor, get your son “on your side,” or simply because he keeps pressuring you to tell. Is it for you, or for him?

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If it’s for you, or if you’re unsure, stick to a simple explanation like “We weren’t happy together.” If he persists, ask him what it is he’s hoping to find out by asking about the reasons behind your divorce. Since children often blame themselves when parents split up, perhaps he simply needs to be reassured that the reasons had nothing to do with him, and the separation wasn’t his fault.

Parents aren’t made of stone, and I know it’s hard to cope when your teen is lashing out at you day after day. But stay focused on creating a safe space for your son to express himself and being available to listen, validating his feelings, and reminding him that you love him no matter what. Despite being on the cusp of legal adulthood, he’s ultimately still a kid, and divorce can be traumatic. He needs the caring adults in his life to help guide him through.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Emily Each Week

From this week’s letter: My Brother Wants to Babysit Our Kids. I Think His Past Might Disqualify Him. “I don’t want the same terrible thing that happened to him to happen to our children.”

Dear Care and Feeding, 

I’m about to be a new parent in July (I’m nonbinary and use they/them pronouns). My husband and I are incredibly excited to meet our son, but I also have an opportunity to go on a guided tour next March in Vietnam, a place I’ve always wanted to travel. Am I crazy for considering this? Our baby will be 8 months old. I’m planning on weaning before then, and he’ll have my husband and our daycare providers to look after him, so his routine won’t be disrupted too much. But I can’t help worrying that I’ll feel anxious or guilty being away from him, or that I’m going to scar him emotionally by being gone for a week.

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For the record, my husband is very supportive of the trip—he did a similar solo adventure just before we got pregnant, and he wants me to have a chance to do something I’ll enjoy, too. He’s also a very enthusiastic and involved father—he’ll definitely know how to take care of the baby without me, and he keeps reassuring me it will be fine. But neither of us has had a baby before! I don’t know if I’m asking too much of my husband or if I will feel differently after the baby’s here. Is a week-long international trip away from my 8-month-old a terrible idea?

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—Worried About Wanderlust

Dear Worried About Wanderlust,

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Becoming a parent is a life-changing experience and you can’t know exactly how you will feel on the other side of it. I know a fiercely independent woman who once de-boarded a loading airplane after realizing she wasn’t ready to be away from her 3-year-old. I know another who was back to regularly scheduled business travel within six months.

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But when it comes to parenting, I try to live by one adage (and although you’re nonbinary, I think this still applies): “WWDD?” or “What Would a Dad Do?” That’s because cis straight men have traditionally been more allowed to hold onto their non-parent identities in the world even when they have children. So if you can imagine your average dad doing something without having to feel guilty about it, then I think parents of any other gender identity should be granted the same privilege. And I can’t imagine anyone looking askance at a Dad for leaving his 8-month-old baby with its other parent for a week.

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Hanging on to your sense of personhood in a world that wants you to subsume yourself in your new role takes intention. Taking this trip might be a great opportunity to remind yourself of that pre-baby person who wasn’t regularly covered in milky dribbles of puke and who hadn’t yet made the shocking discovery that babies sometimes poop in the tub. (Seriously, why doesn’t anyone warn you about this?) By whatever power is vested in me as a freelance parenting advice columnist with no specific credentials, I grant you full permission to take a week off to reconnect with that self.

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If, however, the thought of this trip just isn’t sitting right with you, could you consider bringing your husband and child along? Traveling internationally with a baby certainly requires planning, but some would say it’s easier than traveling with a toddler or preschool-aged child, and the compromise might be worth it if it assuages your anxiety. There are many resources online you can consult on taking a baby on an overseas trip if you decide to go that route.
Whatever you choose, when the time does come, remember to give yourself grace—there’s no right or wrong choice here, only the right choice for you and your family.

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Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding, 

I discovered that my husband showed our kids the most recent Evil Dead movie. I learned this because the kids “Tom” and “Chloe,” both 4, and “Sofia,” 6, have been acting clingy and having nightmares, and Sofia wet the bed for the first time in over a year. She later confessed to me that Dad had rented a movie last week while I was out and swore them to secrecy about it.
The next day after the kids were in bed, I asked my husband about it and he lied, which shocked me. I told him I knew the truth and not to show the kids R-rated material again. He has lots of nerdy hobbies he can share with the kids, like gaming or Legos, even metal music. Horror can wait! He lashed out, criticizing my “liberal hug-it-out parenting” and saying that I’m “turning our only son into a crybaby.”

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I begged him to keep his voice down but the yelling woke up the kids who came out and the twins started crying. He yelled at them to quit crying and angrily went for a drive, leaving me to put the kids back to bed. I slept on the couch that night. I talked to a friend about the gist of the argument, but she seemed to think seeing horror movies as a kid isn’t so bad. Am I overreacting?

—Softie Mom

Dear Softie Mom,

I have my own opinions about kids that young watching a violent horror movie, probably influenced by my early (and terrifying) experience of being shown Sleepaway Camp III by a less-than-first-rate babysitter. But honestly, the movie is sort of the least concerning thing in your letter. Here are some things that worry me even more: 1) your husband instructing your kids to keep a secret from you, 2) your husband’s attempt to lie to you about having shown the kids the movie, and 3) your husband’s decision to yell and fight in front of your kids.

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Asking kids to keep secrets puts them in an emotionally uncomfortable position where they’re forced to choose between parents, and it also sets a dangerous precedent that can be manipulated by predators who use similar messages to keep kids silent about abuse. And while kids are bound to witness arguments between parents sometimes, yelling and storming out models unhealthy conflict styles as well as potentially having long-term emotional impacts. Lying is a red flag in any relationship, but as parents, it also pits you against each other when you’re supposed to be on the same team. You may not always agree on everything, but parenting together means working through your differences to present a united front for your kids, not sneaking around behind each other’s backs.

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If your husband really wants to share his love of scary movies, there’s plenty of family-friendly fare that can serve as an age-appropriate introduction to the genre without giving your kids night terrors, like The Muppets Haunted Mansion, Frankenweenie, or The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Here’s a longer list, and a quick Google search will turn up more.

But lying and secret-keeping are unacceptable in a healthy relationship. Couples counseling could be a good option to help set and enforce those boundaries, as well as to learn healthier ways to deal with conflict, so your kids don’t witness another yelling match.

Dear Care and Feeding, 

My husband and I have lived in the same town for 13 years. We met here, married here, and have been raising our children here. Our nearest family is a three-hour drive away and across an international border, in Canada.

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At face value, it seems as if we have a wonderful community in the area we’ve called home for over a decade. We’ve attended the same church regularly since moving here, I homeschool our children, and am involved in several homeschool groups to ensure our children have plenty of opportunities to make friends and socialize. We’re on friendly terms with all of our neighbors.
In practice, though, I feel almost totally unsupported as a parent. My husband travels very, very frequently for work, and it’s not uncommon for him to be out of state, across the country, or somewhere international for a week at a time. He’s a fantastic spouse and father and I never worry when he’s home, but the truth is that if I or one of the children were to have an emergency while he’s gone, I would have no one nearby to call for help. Our church, which prides itself on being the sort of place that supports its members through any sort of life event or crisis, has never been a place that offers that sort of network for me, though I’ve seen it do so many times for other people. I genuinely want to find those deeper, “I’ve got your back” kind of connections.

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I know that building this sort of community is difficult, and complex, and takes time, but for over a decade I’ve been attempting it with no results. I’ve been the person others lean on—watching friends’ kids when other children needed sudden trips to the doctor, bringing meals to families or older couples dealing with an illness, giving rides to appointments or playdates, and providing emotional support through divorce or loss. This is something I’m always happy to do, and while I absolutely do not expect any sort of compensation, it’s never become a reciprocal relationship with anyone. Other people enjoy visiting us, and are always happy to accept when I put in the work of hosting them or making plans or am available during a time of need, but they don’t return the gesture of connection and good faith, no matter how often I reach out.

I’m at a loss. I feel like I’ve been doing everything right when it comes to building a loving, supportive community in a new place away from family, but my efforts in this regard are perpetually unreturned. Is there something I’m missing?

—Unsupported

Dear Unsupported,

To me, it sounds like you’re doing almost everything right when it comes to building the supportive community you long for. The one thing I don’t read that you’re doing is directly communicating your needs.

It sounds like you’re very comfortable helping others, but for a lot of us, asking for help can be much more difficult. As a single mom, I’ve had to overcome that discomfort because I’d never be able to manage it all without help. That has meant swallowing my pride and just asking another neighborhood mom if she can watch my kid for a few hours while I attend a 12-step recovery meeting, or if she has room to give me and kiddo a ride to Saturday’s soccer game, since we don’t own a car. I had to get vulnerable in order to build my support system.
Rather than doing a good deed and quietly waiting for it to come back to you, try stepping out of your comfort zone and telling people what you need. If you want to build a deeper relationship with a specific person, call them up or take them to dinner and let them know. If you’re struggling and need help, tell someone. Humans are happiest in community, and in my experience, most people are happy to be able to help. You also might find that sharing in this more authentic way helps grow the intimacy on which deeper connections are built.

You’ve already put in the work to get involved with and contribute to your local communities. All that’s left to do is speak up.

—Emily

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