How To Reconnect with Your Kid After a Nasty Divorce

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S1: He wasn’t allowed to mention my name and his house, even at five, it was considered not a topic of conversation and he wasn’t allowed to mention it.

S2: Welcome to How To. I’m a science writer, David Epstein. Last year, we released an episode called How to Walk Away from an Impossible Parent. It was one of our most popular ever. It got over a million clicks and we got dozens of emails from people venting about their own stormy relationships with their parents. But we also got messages from parents and some of those were admitting deep regrets for how things had gone with their kids. A lot of those parents, they were anguished about it and they were dying to reconnect with their children.

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S1: Oh, I’m struggling with the remnants of the War of the Roses divorce in 1982, which is a completely screwed up family.

S2: Our listener this week as a woman, we’re going to call Barbara. She’s in her late 70s and she’s a retired psychotherapist and nurse. She’s also a grandmother.

S1: But the main issue for me, the one that I’m dealing with here, is my difficulty in maintaining contact with my beloved grandsons because my son is so, so estranged and on again, off again. And I’m always walking on eggshells and I’m always thinking about it.

S2: Barbara actually has three grown children, two daughters and one son. Her youngest, who will call Ethan, is in his 40s and lives nearby. She’s desperate to have a relationship with Ethan 10 and 12 year old boys, her grandsons. But at the moment, she only sees them every couple of months, at best,

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S1: only at his invitation. Like he’ll say, all right, would you like to see the boys from two to four o’clock on such and such a day? And usually it’s one day’s notice if that I drop everything and go.

S2: So how did things get so bad? Barbara says her relationship with Ethan it’s been rocky for decades.

S1: My feeling is that may be too late. Too much time has gone by. I hope I’m wrong, but that nags at me that this should have been done years and years ago and that now he has moved on. He has a good life, a good marriage. He has kids. He doesn’t want to go there and he doesn’t think he needs to.

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S2: On today’s episode, we go there with the help of Amy Baker, a developmental psychologist who specializes in broken parent child relationships. Amy has worked with hundreds of divorced parents who think that their ex turned the kids against them. She’ll help Barbara unpack what went wrong so many years ago and see if perhaps there’s an opening to reconnect with Ethan in the future.

S3: All right. So, Barbara, welcome to coaching with me.

S1: Thank you.

S2: Now, it’s really rare that you get to peer into someone else’s heartfelt apology letter, never mind the events that led up to it. So we’re going to dedicate two episodes to Barbara’s situation today. We’re going to start by giving background on the ruptured relationship. And then next week you’ll get to listen. All Amy actually guides Barbara step by step through the letter writing process itself.

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S3: I have a way of doing this. It’s pretty unique and not necessarily intuitive and often works, but certainly not always.

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S2: So will it work for Barbara and her son, Ethan? Stay with us. Back in 1962, Barbara was in her 20s, she was in college and fresh out of a serious relationship.

S1: I had just been pinned. I was pinned to a fraternity man and I was in the throes of all that and my roommate introduced me to William. As you have to get out there, you have to stop moping, you know, that kind of thing. And from there, I never dated anyone else again, mainly because he insisted on it. I went along with it and it was nice and he was very good to me at that time.

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S2: William joined the Navy and they ended up getting married.

S1: He was deployed to Italy right after that. Mm hmm. And I was pregnant sized immediately.

S2: William and Barbara had a girl. And then a few years later, they had another girl. But after that, they had a stillborn baby. And that was a devastating experience.

S1: That was the beginning of the end of my marriage, because my ex-husband had seen to it that she was just taken away and buried in an unmarked plot somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And not one word was said about that loss. So it’s it’s a mess. It’s a complicated mess. My family. And that was the beginning.

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S3: Yeah. Well, it sounds like the two of you really had very different ways of coping and thinking about that experience.

S2: Eventually, in 1976, her son Ethan came along.

S3: And was there anything significantly atypical about the pregnancy or birth?

S1: Well, I was determined to have natural childbirth and I did. And because I had lost the baby before, he had a bunch of electrodes and all kinds of extra precautions. But he was born very, very healthy. I breastfed that sucker for five and a half years. So much for attachment theory.

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S2: By the time Ethan was born, Barbara says her husband was out of the Navy and working in finance while she was a stay at home mom for three kids. And then one day.

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S1: Williams said, I think while we have all our cards on the table, I should tell you that I’m in love with another woman that was that.

S3: And was that a shock or did you sort of suspected

S1: I was so dumb and so naive that it never occurred to me. And I have been going on a long time.

S3: And so was it William who moved out or you?

S1: Yes, he moved in with his mom, used to call her his covid Parramore. I’m sorry. I just had to say it. It’s just it was killer. Yeah.

S3: Oh, my God, what a shock.

S2: Since Barbara had been a stay at home mom, all of a sudden she was left without a husband and without a stable income.

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S3: Was there some kind of plan like, you know, the kids are with him every other weekend kind of thing? Or some families had 50/50.

S1: There was no there was no plan. They were with me at first and then. He had a real sharp lawyer, told him that if he wanted me out of that house, this was a big house worth a lot of money that the children would have to be out of the house, because as long as I had children in school in that house, a judge would likely say she can keep the house for now. So he bought them basically with a trip to Disney World, which they had always wanted to go. He had always said no. And then one by one, they moved in with him, except for Ethan.

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S2: At the time, Barbara’s daughters were 14 and 16, and as she describes it, they were glad to move in with their father because rules about chores and responsibilities were a lot more lax at their dads.

S1: They didn’t come back to visit me, they were angry, they, you know, it was just the whole thing was so hostile and so awful.

S2: Meanwhile, Ethan was just five years old and still living with Barbara, but occasionally visiting his father.

S1: When he started visiting his father at his place, he became severely asthmatic because they had a cat and then he would come back to me just sick as a dog, and I’d have to keep him home from school. And I had letters from the children’s hospital saying that, you know, if they didn’t if he was exposed to animals, he could die, basically couldn’t get rid of the cat. Eventually, he almost did die and the cat went and then they got a dog, which was just as bad. So I think this is important because my son was always in fear, you know, and he was so conflicted, tried to get him into family therapy so we would stop destroying our children, as it were. But William refused. So there it is. That what, you know, just making me sick, talking about it.

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S3: I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

S2: And then when Ethan was 10, something changed.

S1: He went to his father’s for the weekend and never came home. And I was out of money. I was doing night shifts. As for nursing school, I was a basket case with stress. And I actually told myself I made myself believe that he made his choice, that he needed his father and I had to accept it. And in fact, though, in those days, I actually thought maybe he didn’t love me so much. I realize now how much that is not true. It is not true. And it was how I coped. And I also thought that whether if I made a big fuss and I went to court, I thought of I really thought a lot about this and I was in therapy that I would lose anyway. You know, many tears later. I just threw myself into my studies and my very best friend told me, she said, and I wanted so much to believe her. He’ll grow up. He’ll get it when he’s older. Don’t worry about it. You have to do this. You have to support yourself. When he’s older, he’ll understand. Well, guess what? He didn’t.

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S2: Now, decades later, can Amy help Barbara find a way back to her son? And we’ll be right back. Since Ethan was 10, he lived with his father and Barbara saw him really little all through high school and college. The relationship was at such a low point that when Ethan eventually got married, Barbara said she was simply happy to have even been invited to the wedding.

S3: Did you dance with him? Did you have the typical mother?

S1: I didn’t I didn’t dance with him, but I sure did dance.

S3: So he was married 15 years ago. How old are his kids?

S1: 10 and 12.

S3: How involved have you been with them? I understand you’re mad about them. Have you had lots of contact

S1: in the beginning? Although it was never normal and it was always stress and always completely under his control. I saw them regularly, like once a week, once every two weeks, whatever. And I would come over and I would get to rock and sing them to sleep kind of thing. And then a number of incidents happened. I hadn’t seen them in a long time, and I was in those days still thinking I had some rights as a grandparent and I had sent a little note to his wife saying, I really would like to see my grandsons. And he he lost that completely. He said he called me up so you can be home. I said home came over and basically told me that was it. You know, I was the most negative influences, life and blah, blah, blah, blah. And it was if I behaved myself, he said if I followed his rule, I say something to that effect, I might get to see my grandchildren again. That was the the blow. And then we had one meeting with a shrink. They agreed to come. And it was apparent early and I knew what was coming, that he wasn’t there to make things better or to work things out with me, but basically to let it be known that he was done and he wanted me to have psychiatric support. And so he was being nice.

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S3: First of all, I want to say I’m really sorry for everything you’ve been through, it sounds like a lot of unpleasant things from William leaving you suddenly to the loss of your kids and now the grandkids. So what I want to do is shift and talk to you a little bit about the letter. The first thing that I want to say is it is my belief that I’m trying to think about how to say this without sounding judgmental. I don’t think it’s going to work if you treat Ethan like a gatekeeper. And in other words, I need to get through the Ethan problem so I can get the thing I really want, which is access to these grandkids, because he’ll feel that he’s a means to an end and not an end unto himself. So your heart has to want to repair the relationship with your son for its own purpose to have a better relationship with him.

S1: I totally agree.

S2: Here’s our first insight from making amends with your child after so many years, know why you want to repair the relationship, if it’s for any reason other than wanting to connect with the person themself, it’s going to be less likely to work.

S3: I want you to maybe take a deep breath and imagine that you’re standing on the side of a riverbank. And you’re on one side and Ethan is on the other, and between you lies a river, and the river represents all the history, everything that’s come between you. So what I can do is help you write a letter that metaphorically involves building a bridge, walking across it, standing on the other side of the river bank. Shoulder to shoulder with your adult son. Looking back and reflecting on his childhood. From his point of view, that doesn’t mean you agree. I would never recommend apologizing for something you know you did not do. It would never be authentic. It wouldn’t make sense, and you’d be reaffirming something that was false. But there’s something between arguing and apologizing and that involves perspective taking, simply saying. I shouldn’t say simply because it’s really hard. I think you’re upset about this. I think your experience has been that I’d like to know more about it. Here’s how I wish I could have done things differently so that you wouldn’t have had this thought. So it’s you building the bridge, you going across it and looking with your son. With him. Back at his childhood,

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S2: Amy says she often thinks back to one specific parent she worked with.

S3: So I had a client who was a mom and she told me the story that when her son was seven, she asked the dad, can I take a little Jimmy? Three states away. I think we could have a better life there. And supposedly the dad said yes. So she sold her house and quit her job, got a new house, new job several hundred miles away. And the day before, she said to leave the dad files them an ex parte motion that’s like an emergency motion and prevent her from taking the kid. And so she goes anyway because she doesn’t want to lose her house and job. And she thinks she’ll win at the big hearing, but she doesn’t. And she’s never the primary caregiver again. And according to her, she eventually, you know, became alienated or he became alienated from her. And when she came to me, she had already written him letters saying, you know, you shouldn’t be mad at me. You know, you may think I abandoned you, but I didn’t. Your father tricked me, etc., basically sharing her perspective. And that didn’t work. But nor would it make sense for her to say, well, if you think I abandoned you, you’re right, I’m a terrible person. What she did with my help was write a letter and there’s like 10 elements in the letter. And what that sounded like was something like this. I wonder what it was like for you when I moved away. You were just a little boy of seven. You were used to seeing your mommy and daddy every week. You were going back and forth between our homes and all of a sudden mommy moved an airplane right away and we didn’t see each other, you know, other than summer. What was that like for you? And then she asked questions. Did kids tease you because you didn’t live with your mom? And they did. Did you need me to be there for you? And I wasn’t were there times when you missed me or felt hurt and angry and I wasn’t there to comfort you? Then there’s questions and then there’s a wish. I wish I hadn’t moved away. I wish that I had found a way to be more involved.

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S2: So here’s our next insight, instead of explaining and justifying your past actions to your child and try to imagine what they must have felt, a letter of amends or really any attempt at outreach should be grounded in trying to understand what the other person went through and offering your wish of what you could have done differently. Remember, you’re not trying to redress past grievances. The goal is to start a better path forward.

S3: The questions are not designed to make him be accountable. It’s an showing, a deeper interest. And so maybe we wouldn’t phrase it as a question. Like, I wonder if there were times when blah, blah, blah. I wonder if there was a particular time that comes to your mind when this was an issue for you. So we don’t have to frame it as a question. And certainly there’s never an implication that he owes you an answer.

S1: I understand that.

S3: So I do have my own formula approach. You know, of course, at the end of the day, you can make whatever changes you want is your letter. It’s coming from you, but you’ll just do sort of my process and then we’ll see if that fits the bill for you.

S1: I’m I’m open to it. I, I’m interested. Good.

S3: So I want to give you the homework.

S2: The first homework exercise before writing the letter, Amy says, is to imagine that your child is explaining to a new friend or to a therapist or even to a diary why they don’t have a good relationship with you and then put those reasons in a list.

S3: And I want it to be in his voice. So you can’t say, well, Ethan would say that he doesn’t talk to me because he thinks it’s I don’t have a good relationship with my mom because she. And then you’re going to write that list. So it could be you know, she favored my sister. She abandoned me. She never listened to me. She didn’t love me. All right. And so maybe she didn’t fight for me. I told her I wanted to live with that. And she said, fine, go ahead. I don’t care.

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S1: That would work. That resonates with me.

S3: So you’re going to start your list with that. So you should have six to ten things on the list. Each one is like a sentence. You’re not telling a story. You’re just boiling down a complaint that he has. And there could be no truth. A little truth, a lot of truth. We’re not going to get bogged down in that. It’s what he thinks are the reasons your relationship isn’t going well. And remember, it’s not the latter. It’s not the Ethan. You’re making a list for me.

S1: Yes.

S2: The next exercise is to think back to a good memory you have with the person. But the memory has to have very specific attributes.

S3: I want you to think about something fun, pleasant, nice that you did with Ethan when he was a little boy. Some activity that you guys did together that has a very nice smell attached to the memory. So as an example, baking chocolate chip cookies, kids love baking and it has a good smell. You’re just going to think of something very pleasant you did with Ethan. The other kids could be there. But it’s really, you know for sure he was there and he really enjoyed it. And it has a nice smell.

S2: And Amy’s final homework assignment is to find a photograph from when your child was five,

S3: not the two of you together. It’s not see, you loved me. Look, you’re hugging me. It’s a picture of him where he looks like his true self.

S1: I don’t think I have one of that age. I don’t I have one a little younger.

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S3: OK, do the best you can, OK?

S1: Have you ever done this with anyone where it’s been such a long time ago that it happened?

S3: Well, the initial upset for you guys happened quite a while ago, but you’ve had ongoing contact. And so, you know, what I can say is every situation is so in some ways, so general, so common. There’s a breach in the relationship. Feelings are hurt, and then the details are very, very specific. Mm hmm. I guess I want to say one more thought, which is. The letter is a leap of faith. Right, because we don’t know whether he’s going to be receptive to it at this moment when it shows up in his inbox and part of what the work that you can do between writing the letter and sending it is managing your own expectations so that when you send the letter, you’re able to say, I feel good about this letter. This was a helpful process. I hope I’m planting seeds in my son that will take root and create a receptivity in him to reconnect with me. I don’t know when that will happen. Does that make sense?

S1: Yeah, sure. OK.

S2: Just to recap, Barbara needs to make a list of what she thinks her son’s grievances are from his perspective, not hers. She has to come up with a pleasant memory, one that involves a distinct smell. And finally, Barbara has to find a photo of Ethan when he was around the age of five.

S1: You realize how far this goes back. It’s going to be tough to remember those, really. And plus, I blocked out a lot of it. It will be very hard to actually get sensory memories like that. I can think of one or two.

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S3: Maybe you only need one. So that’s that’s OK. You just need to come up with one. I think if you, you know, close your eyes and you reflect and you open your mind in your heart and you just let your mind drift, you’ll you’ll come to something.

S1: I hope so. I’ll give it a go.

S3: All right.

S2: Just curious how you’re feeling right now after this first this first conversation.

S1: I’ve got a lump in my throat. I need a good cry. If I only could. I’m feeling overwhelmed. I think it’s a good idea, but I’m also very apprehensive.

S2: What’s sort of the best case scenario for you with Ethan going forward? You know, if you do this exercise,

S1: the ideal would be he would say. Thank you for your letter. I’m thinking about it and I would be tickled to death to get that.

S2: So what happens next, will Barbara be able to capture her love for Ethan on the page and start to mend their long, broken relationship?

S1: I got to tell you, this was one of the hardest things I ever did. And I almost just threw in the towel. It was brutal.

S2: We’re really glad Barbara didn’t throw in the towel, and you’re not going to want to miss this next episode, you’ll get to listen to Amy help Barbara write the actual letter. And if you’re interested in Amy’s work, check out Amy Amy Baker Baker Dotcom. If you like this episode, you’ll want to check out the one that started it all, how to walk away from an impossible parent. And do you have something you’re not sure how to talk to your kids about, we might be able to help send us a note at how to at Slate Dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. How TOS executive producers Derek, John, Rachael, Alan and Rosemary Belson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director, Charles Duhigg is host emeritus. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.